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Interview with Richard J. Carwardine: About Lincoln

The following interview with Mr. Carwardine, winner of the prestigious Lincoln Prize for Lincoln (Longman Publishing Group), was conducted by email. Mr. Carwardine is Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford University.

    You recently became the first British scholar to be awarded the Lincoln Prize, the largest award in America for American history, for your book Lincoln. Why did you choose to focus on Abraham Lincoln?

Lincoln stated, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that have events have controlled me." (The statement is not the full truth, but that is another matter, as I will explain later on.) In a similar vein, I could say that I took up the project not on my own initiative, but at the suggestion of others – the history editors at Longman, back in the late 1980s. They wanted a compact political profile of Lincoln, and they knew that I had a strong teaching interest in the early Republican party and the politics of antislavery. Without that spur, I doubt if I would have had the boldness to venture into the field of Lincoln studies; until then my scholarly work had been largely in religious history. But those editors had a point: although there were several large-scale biographies in print, the only authoritative shorter study was Richard N. Current’s brilliant collection of essays, The Lincoln Nobody Knows. In the event, when I eventually got around to starting on my own book, during the mid-1990s, the renaissance in Lincoln scholarship was well underway. But rather than deterring me, the cascade of new work, scholarly editions, and reprinted memoirs acted as a further stimulus.

    What created, and eventually sustained, your interest in American history?

My early interest in history had a lot to do with my father, who was a schoolmaster, and with my high school history teachers – to whom I have dedicated Lincoln. I felt the tug of American history later, in my final year as an undergraduate at Oxford University in the 1960s. Don Fehrenbacher was the visiting Harmsworth Professor at the time, and he lectured on the course – "Slavery and Secession" – which Allan Nevins had designed some years earlier. That introduced me to some of the great books in American history, including Fehrenbacher’s Prelude to Greatness, Kenneth Stampp’s Peculiar Institution, David Potter’s Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, and James Randall’s multi-volume life of Lincoln. I was hooked. Perhaps surprisingly, America was likely to fascinate anyone growing up, as I did, in the Welsh mining valleys, which had a number of transatlantic ties. My own family is connected to that of the Welsh-American miners’ leader, John L. Lewis.

    When was your first visit to America and what impressions did it make on you?

I arrived at Berkeley in the summer of 1969 to take up a graduate scholarship at the University of California. The next twelve months proved tumultuous, especially following the invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State shootings. Inevitably it was the drama outside the classroom, on and off campus, that made the sharpest impression, and gave a me sense of living through truly historic events. In the longer term, however, I realize that that experience proved no more important than the academic impress of Charles Sellers, Leon Litwack, Lawrence Levine and Robert Middlekauff; and the experience of studying alongside and enjoying the friendship of Bill Gienapp and Steve Maizlish.

    Have you been happy with the reviews Lincoln has received? Did any reviews state anything that struck you as strange?

I have been pleased, naturally, by the positive reviews of Lincoln, and by the remarks of the Lincoln Prize academic jury. Above all, I’m delighted that the reviewers have found something fresh and original in the book. I can’t recall anything particularly strange in the reviews to date. There are always going to be differences of emphasis and opinion – Eric Foner, for instance, in a generous review, thought that in my discussion of colonization I do not pay sufficient heed to Lincoln’s use of the word "deportation": If I have a regret, it is that there have been as yet very few reviews in the United States. The book probably suffered from being published in a paperback only, which may have encouraged the view that it was simply a routine work of synthesis, rather than an analytical biography.

    What is the most interesting, perhaps most surprising, trait you discovered about Lincoln during your research?

It is sometimes said that Lincoln’s statement to Albert Hodges about his being "controlled by events," which I quoted earlier, is an indication of Lincoln’s essential "passivity." My own reading of Lincoln’s words and deeds is quite different. I see him as an energetic, active political figure. The pre-war Lincoln who was adept at political management and who brilliantly positioned himself for the Republican nomination in 1860, and the wartime president who strove to sustain patriotism and mobilize it through his party, the army, and the religious-humanitarian agencies, does not easily square with the picture of a president passively controlled by events. The Lincoln I recognize is in important strategic respects a decisive figure, one able to see the bigger picture, and wise enough to know how far to bow to larger forces, without losing all room for maneuver. He was ambitious, enterprising, and determined. Even those who made much of his fatalistic trait denied that this meant a blind belief in destiny. It did not encourage inertia in a man for whom – as he advised a law student – "work, work, work" was "the main thing." Rather, it meant identifying and using the means by which the larger forces at play could be advanced. He understood what was meant by seizing an historic opportunity.

    Religion plays a large role in your interpretation of Lincoln – your previous book of course was Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America – did that aspect of Lincoln manifest itself to you as you did your research or did you consciously include that in your interpretation?

This is an interesting question, which goes to the heart of any historian’s method: do we bring distorting preconceptions to bear on the subjects we study? To the extent that I was concerned with Lincoln’s political milieu, the political culture in which he operated, and the public opinion on which his political course depended, then it is certainly true that I came with some prior understandings. Having argued in Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America that it is impossible wholly to fathom the politics of the era without giving serious attention to religious ideas and constituencies, I was bound to think in the same way about public sentiment in Illinois, and in the wartime Union. What I was not necessarily expecting to discover was a president so clearly alert to the political authority of the various religious bodies, and so ready to harness that power for the benefit of the Union and his administration.

As for Lincoln’s personal religious convictions, I came to the subject with a genuinely open mind. I do not claim that my conclusions here are definitive – how could they be when the evidence itself is so uncertain? – but I am convinced that we cannot begin to understand Lincoln without appreciating his moral relationship to power. Lincoln’s understanding of the uses and burdens of power was not founded on a conventional Christian faith. The young Lincoln, while no atheist, was influenced by the works of Tom Paine and other deists; as a husband, father and well-established lawyer during the 1840s and 1850s he drew closer to the orbit of conventional Protestant Christianity, evincing a faith which owed something to Universalism and Unitarianism, but which didn’t shake off the Calvinistic fatalism under whose influence he had been raised as a boy. His wartime experience encouraged an increasing profundity of faith. Not only did he feel a sense of personal responsibility for a war of unimagined savagery, but the conflict brought him trials closer to home: the death of friends and close colleagues, and above all the loss through typhoid of his son, Willie. Before the war, Lincoln regarded superintending providence as a remote and mechanistic power, but under the pressure of events he seems to have exchanged that providence for an intrusively judgmental God, one less predictable than the ruling force it superseded. We have, I believe, to take his religion more seriously than he himself took the frontier revivalists whose over-exuberant stump sermons he mocked as a young man.

    You wrote in an April 14, 2004 Wall Street Journal op. ed. piece that the way Lincoln derived strength from his political relationship with evangelical Protestantism has been a neglected theme in Lincoln studies. Some would argue that Lincoln has been examined and interpreted to the point of needless repetition. Do you feel there are still new and original facts to learn and interpretations to be made about Lincoln?

It is certain that there are important new insights to be gleaned. Most obviously, the National Archive holds tens of thousands of military records from Lincoln’s presidency which have never been systematically examined, and which would tell us much about his manner of working. As for new interpretations, these are inevitable and welcome, since each generation with its own distinctive concerns and perspectives, is keen to find new ways of interrogating the past.

    Why are you the first British biographer of Lincoln recognized as having made a major contribution to Lincoln scholarship since Lord Charnwood in 1916?

That’s a tricky one, which requires a long disquisition on the evolving interests of British-based historians of the United States to answer it properly, but I’ll spare you that! In summary, Charnwood’s biography rightly remained influential and admired for many years, until well after the Second World War. Some distinguished British Americanists (notably Denis Brogan and J. R. Pole) wrote brief assessments of Lincoln in the 1960s, but during the 1970s and 1980s in Britain (as in the United States) the rise of social history, the marginalizing of traditional political history, and the academic historian’s disdain for biography created a context in which the study of "great men" was rarely attempted. That’s no longer true, I’m pleased to say.

    Do you see a possible resurgence of Lincoln interest in Britain and by British historians, not only because such interest is often cyclical, but because of your biography and its accolades?

That’s difficult to predict, but I hope so, naturally. Certainly at Oxford, there is considerable undergraduate interest in Lincoln and his era. Over time I expect that to work through into an expansion at graduate level.

I should add that there are a number of top-flight political historians of the Civil War era working in British universities, all of them authors of books published in the United States; they include John Ashworth, Robert Cook (my colleague over many years at Sheffield University), Martin Crawford, Susan-Mary Grant, Robert Harrison and Brian Holden Reid. Two younger scholars, Adam I.P. Smith and Jay Sexton, are going to make an impact with their first books, which are due next year. Several of us have been influenced in our work by the admirable Peter J. Parish, who died a couple of years ago, and whose book The American Civil War (1974) remains one of the best single-volume works on the conflict.

    How would you characterize the state of American historical study in Britain – is it being influenced by current events (such as the war on terror or the war in Iraq) or by current scholarship?

The study of American history in Britain has never been healthier. There are more American historians teaching in British universities than ever before, and more students taking their courses. My own university, Oxford, is expanding its provision of undergraduate and graduate courses, and making new appointments to teaching posts. Student interest is stimulated in part by current developments, the state of the world post 9/11, and the roots of contemporary American culture. Professional historians, on the other hand, are less likely to be driven by immediate events in choosing their areas of study. Rather, our interests are shaped by belonging to a transatlantic community of Americanists: we contribute to scholarly debates in which the protagonists are not easily identified as belonging to one side of the ocean or another.

    What is your most memorable moment as an historian? Why?

Receiving the Lincoln Prize at the Union League Club in New York City on 14 April 2004. I regard the Prize as the greatest of the honors to which an American Civil War historian could aspire. It was especially gratifying that the judges thought that a non-American had something fresh to say about one of the most written-about presidents of the United States. I took great pleasure (and, in equal measure, disbelief) in winning an award whose previous recipients include the giants of an earlier generation of Civil War historiography: Don Fehrenbacher, Kenneth Stampp and David Donald.

    What is your next project? Do you feel compelled – by your research experience or the praise of your book – to continue researching and writing about Lincoln?

I don’t feel compelled to continue writing on Lincoln. But there is no historical figure in whose company an historian can take any greater pleasure, so I do expect to continue spending some of my scholarly time working on him. I have just lectured on "Lincoln, God, and the American Civil War" (my Inaugural Lecture at Oxford) and I have other public lectures to give, including one later this year on "Lincoln and the Fourth Estate."

However, my next major project is a book on American nation-building between the Revolution and the Civil War, which aims to show how religion played an essential part in the nation’s evolution from the fragile Republic of 1776 to the indissoluble Union of 1865. The United States’s unique institutional separation of church and state, and the remarkable grip of evangelical Protestantism, actively helped to construct a national community remarkable for its self-conscious pursuit of the righteous path.