Interview with Ronald C. White Jr. about Lincoln's faith

Historians in the News

Ronald C. White Jr., a Huntington Library fellow and a visiting professor of history at UCLA, is the author of the bestselling books Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year) and The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words. His latest book A. Lincoln: A Biography (2009) has been a New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times bestseller and a History Book Club selection. He is in high demand as a speaker, especially as the Lincoln Bicentennial and Barack Obama's use of the Lincoln Bible for his inauguration have sparked a new wave of interest in the 16th president (see White's article "Linked by a Bible" in the Los Angeles Times).

February 12, 2009, was the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, and the country is celebrating with numerous bicentennial books and events this year. Why does Lincoln still fascinate us?

Think of the Lincoln story—the humble beginnings, the minimal education. Washington and Jefferson are notable figures in our history, but they're patricians. But Lincoln shows that anybody (in Lincoln's own words) "has the right to rise"—that by character, by hard work, by education, one can rise in this society. Lincoln personifies that American dream.

As you were doing the research for your book, did anything surprise you or change your understanding of Lincoln?

In the Collected Works of Lincoln, which is nine volumes, there are over 125 texts which the editors in the 1950s labeled "fragments." All of these are separated from each other, but I realized that if you brought them together, they almost form an intellectual diary. They are often not dated, but they always begin with a problem: for example, the problem of slavery or the Dred Scott decision, or the formation of the Republican Party. For me, one of the most important one is the so-called "Meditation on the Divine Will," in which Lincoln is asking himself the question, "Where is God in the midst of the Civil War?"

These fragments were found only after Lincoln's death, and because they've remained separated from each other, we have not quite seen that this is the way Lincoln defined himself. He would take these little scraps of paper, sometimes the back of a flap of an envelope, and he would start with a problem. He would brood about it and reflect on it and sometimes do a syllogism. For example, slavery: Why is it that one person can hold another person in slavery? Is it because the first person is more intellectual than the second, or is it because the first person has a greater economic standard than the second, or is it because … ? And he asks all these questions. At the end of this little scrap of paper he writes, "I cannot think of a single reason why one person could hold another person in slavery."

Some of them are very self-revealing—words that Lincoln would never say out loud. In 1856, he's really down on himself. He had run in 1855 for the Illinois Senate and been defeated. So he's writing this note in which he elaborates all the great accomplishments of Stephen Douglas, his erstwhile opponent, and he goes on and on and lists all the things Douglas is, and at the end of the note he says, "My life is nothing but a flat failure." This is the sort of thing you say to yourself but that you don't say to your friends. But it tells us what Lincoln is thinking in 1856. This is a very low point in his life.

I suggest in my biography that this is the way Lincoln defines himself, defines ideas, and ultimately it will be the way he will define and redefine America. Often these ideas become the basis of some later address or public letter. For example, the "Meditation on the Divine Will" is really the intellectual foundation of the Second Inaugural Address. So I argue that Lincoln was not a spontaneous genius who could sit down and with a stroke of the pen write out the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural; rather, he was a person who was taking notes through the years, and when he was ready, these notes became the grist or the foundation for a more public, polished document. Even then, he would go through two, three, four, even five drafts before he was satisfied that he was ready to present it to the public. So I find Lincoln a man of great intellectual curiosity, a person of ideas; but I wanted to know how did these ideas germinate, how did they move from private to public?...
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Randll Reese Besch - 5/14/2009

Publish selected parts like those fragments with any commentary by the compiler.