David Von Drehle: "Rise to Greatness"

MS. DIANE REHM

10:06:55
Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Publishers estimate some 16,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln. Historian David Von Drehle has just added one more. His new book titled "Rise to Greatness" focuses on one perilous year for Lincoln and the nation. David Von Drehle joins me in the studio. You are welcome to be part of this program. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, David. Thank you for being here.

MR. DAVID VON DREHLE

10:07:39
Thank you for having me, Diane.

REHM

10:07:41
David, you write that whoever is selected president next week could learn a great deal from Abraham Lincoln. Tell us about that.

DREHLE

10:07:54
Well, as -- I guess it's a commonplace to observe that we're a very polarized country today, and certainly the polls suggest that we're going to see that again on Election Day next week. There's never been more polarization than Abraham Lincoln found. And so I find it instructive to look at the way that he worked his way up from actually being elected with the smallest plurality in American history. You know, he looms so large in our national life now. It's easy to forget that he did only 37 percent of the vote in 1860.

DREHLE

10:08:37
What he understood, and what I think our next president, whoever it is, would do well to remember, is that politics is a game of addition. I feel like this campaign has been very much about driving base supporters, trying to motivate the 45 percent that really strongly feel one way or the other rather than appealing to that last 5, 6, 7 percent in the middle. Lincoln was a master politician.

DREHLE

10:09:15
He got through this war by keeping himself in the middle of the Union coalition as always uppermost in his mind, taking patient steps, explaining himself, being very disciplined about his message. He had the skin of a rhinoceros. You could not offend him. His favorite saying, according to his secretary, John Hay, was he believed in a short statute of limitations in politics, which meant that if somebody who had been a critic stopped attacking him, he was happy to forget that it ever happened.

DREHLE

10:09:51
He brought not just his friends into government, but also his enemies and his rivals, as Doris Kearns Goodwin has observed with her great book "Team of Rivals." And he compared himself to a man crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope, taking each careful step and urging his supporters who wanted him to move faster to keep their observations, you know, to a minimum. He says, would you yell at a man on a tightrope over Niagara, take a step to the right or take a step to the left?

DREHLE

10:10:29
No. You'd hold your breath, and you'd pray for him. And the last thing that I think is worth remembering is that while he was crossing that tightrope, he never lost sight, nor did he let Americans lose sight of why they were crossing the tightrope. Abraham Lincoln had such a strong feeling for the magic, the importance of the American experiment because he himself lived it. This was a man who literally was wrapped in animal skins on the morning he was born and laid on a mud floor in a one-room hovel and, from that beginning, rose to the highest office in the land.

DREHLE

10:11:13
And he knew that that could not have happened anywhere else in any other time. And this was what he was fighting for. So it wasn't just that he was in the middle. He had a purpose. He had a -- and that was a goal that he could get people to rally around even if they didn't agree on how the war should be prosecuted or what should be done about slavery or some of these other divisive issues.

REHM

10:11:38
Historian David Von Drehle, his new book is titled "Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year." Tell us what was actually going on in the year 1862 as it began.

DREHLE

10:12:02
I start the book with New Year's Day of 1862, and at that point, the banks across the north had just closed their exchange windows. They were no longer exchanging American money for gold or silver because they had lost faith in the national fiscal system. The country was broke. The leading European observers felt there was absolutely no chance that the North could bring the South back into the country. Lord Palmerston, the prime minister of Britain, told his foreign ministry it is exceedingly doubtful that the North will be successful.

REHM

10:12:49
And how did they communicate that to Abraham Lincoln and the people of the United States?

DREHLE

10:12:57
Well, it would be in their newspapers, in the official columns. But more importantly, they were saying it flat-out to the national ambassadors, Charles Francis Adams in London, William Dayton in France. They would go in and try to make the case to keep the Europeans from intervening in this war, and these experienced statesmen would look at them like they were crazy. They'd say, look at the immense, just physical real estate of the Confederacy. This is a larger country than all the European territory conquered by Napoleon.

DREHLE

10:13:41
They said there's no way you can go down there and force these people back into the country. And the other thing that was going on at that time, which had only become manifest the night before on New Year's Eve, was that George McClellan, who was the general and chief of the Union army, was not communicating anything about his plans to the president of the United States. The Constitution said he was commander-in-chief, but no one really knew what that meant at the time.

REHM

10:14:17
Ah.

DREHLE

10:14:19
Lincoln was seen as feckless. The attorney general wrote in his diary on New Year's Eve, he seems like an honest man, a good man, wise even, but he lacks the power to command. And so all throughout Washington, D.C., the topic A of conversation was whether there needed to be a military dictator. This is something that we really forget in our history, but this was talked about throughout the year. Never had a republic survived a crisis as extreme as the American Civil War, and many people believed that it was not possible for a government of elected leaders to get through something like this.

REHM

10:15:03
David, why did they -- those who did, why did they believe that Lincoln was feckless, that he did not have the power to command?

DREHLE

10:15:17
Well, in many ways, he didn't yet. You know, we see him, looking back, as the finished product. But when he arrived in Washington, he had two years experience as a congressman. He had no executive experience. The biggest thing he'd ever run was his two-man law firm, and he didn't really run that. His partner did all the paperwork. There was no government, really, to command, in the sense that we think of it. The entire executive staff of the president was one employee when Lincoln took office.

DREHLE

10:15:57
He was -- he had the budget to hire one secretary. And yet, overnight, he was having to create the bureaucratic apparatus that could run this enormous enterprise. The entire U.S. Army at the start of the war was 16,000 men. By the beginning of 1862, they had close to half a million troops. They had to find the generals to command this army. And so all of it had to be stood up, and then Lincoln had to figure out how to run it while it was happening. It was an extraordinary feat.

REHM

10:16:36
And what was the size and nature of the Congress at that time?

DREHLE

10:16:42
The Congress -- well, that's an excellent question because the Congress was overwhelmingly Republican. And, remember, the Republicans were a six-year-old party at that time.

REHM

10:16:53
And Lincoln was a Republican.

DREHLE

10:16:55
Lincoln was the standard bearer of the Republican Party, a party that had not existed seven years earlier. They had never run anything. This was the first time the Republican Party had ever governed. So they were inventing their own mission. And, interestingly, they did have a dynamic agenda while all the war stuff was going on.

DREHLE

10:17:20
1862 in the Congress was probably the most productive, transformative single session of Congress in our history. They passed the Transcontinental Railroad Act. They passed the Homestead Act. They created the Department of Agriculture, my favorite bill. They created the Morrill Land-Grant college and university system.

REHM

10:17:44
So there must have been leadership coming from somewhere.

DREHLE

10:17:49
Yes. While there were very strong leaders in Congress, many of them thought that they would make better presidents than Lincoln.

REHM

10:17:55
Than Lincoln.

DREHLE

10:17:56
One of his big tasks in that year was taming his own party and his own cabinet, and it took him all year, really, to get them in line. But I talked about how he could use even his enemies. Throughout this entire year, his secretary of Treasury was Salmon Chase, who was openly campaigning for the 1864 nomination. And people would come to Lincoln. They'd say, do you have any idea what Chase is up to? And Lincoln would say, sure. Every time I make a decision, he goes beyond my back and says he'd do it differently. But he makes a good secretary, so I'll keep him.

REHM

10:18:36
David Von Drehle, his new book about Abraham Lincoln in America's most perilous year is titled "Rise to Greatness."

REHM

10:20:04
And if you've just joined us, historian David Von Drehle is here. He was previously on this program talking about his book "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America." He has a new one. It's titled "Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year." We're talking about the year 1862, and David's book opens on New Year's Day of that year. David, would you read for us from the start of that?

DREHLE

10:20:43
I'd be honored. "Abraham Lincoln stood that morning in sunlight slanting through the tall windows of the Blue Room, taking his place at the head of a receiving line with his wife, Mary. For most Washingtonians, this open house was their first chance to see the new president up close. He cut such a strange figure, all angles and joints and imperfect proportions, giant feet, impossibly long limbs, enormous forehead, pendulous lip. His huge hands were stuffed into white kid gloves like twin hams, he was liable to joke.

DREHLE

10:21:22
"Some tall men slouch self-consciously, but not Lincoln. He'd always been proud of his physique and enjoyed challenging other men to contests of strength, which he inevitably won. He used his size subtly to intimidate, even as he used his humor to put people off guard. At 52, Lincoln was 180 pounds of muscle on a 6-foot-3 3/4 inch frame, and he wore his black suit narrowly tailored to fit his sinewy shoulders and thin waist. He would soon be wasting away, losing as much as 30 pounds in three years.

DREHLE

10:21:58
"But for now, Lincoln was still the virile figure of his campaign propaganda, the rail splitter, whose blend of brain and brawn reflected America's favorite image of itself: strong, bright and independent. His friend and occasional bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon stood close to Lincoln that day. Lamon, too, was a strong and solid man. But in the eyes of the artist Alfred Waud sketching the scene from the corner of the room, he looked ordinary beside the looming, dominant president.

DREHLE

10:22:31
"Lincoln had a shambling animal force about him which some found appealing and others found unsettling. Women were constantly flirting with him. At the same time, some of Washington's leading Democrats referred to him as the gorilla. Countering this force was his gentle, sorrowful expression, which was, according to a painter who studied him for a portrait, remarkably pensive and tender, often inexpressibly sad, as if the reservoir of tears lay very near the surface.

DREHLE

10:23:05
"Magnetic, keenly sensitive, often able to understand others better than they understood themselves, Lincoln was nevertheless profoundly isolated. And this was a source of his sadness. He 'never had a confidant.' His law partner and biographer, William Herndon, wrote, he was the most reticent and mostly secretive man that ever existed. Lincoln usually masked this isolation behind jokes and anecdotes and apparent bursts of candor. But even his brief descriptions of his youth strike a note of profound loneliness.

DREHLE

10:23:41
"He was, he once wrote, a strange, friendless, uneducated, penniless boy. His mother died when he was 9. Soon afterward, Lincoln's father abandoned him and his sister in the wilderness to be cared for only by a slightly older cousin. The father returned months later to find the Lincoln children filthy, poorly fed and in rags. Now, four decades later, Abraham Lincoln was no longer a lonely genius on a raw frontier. But he bore the internal scars of a boy who learned not to let others too close."

REHM

10:24:18
David Von Drehle reading from his new book titled "Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year." You write that on Jan. 1, 1862, Lincoln faced these crises from the fiscal to the global to the military but that they actually began at home. What about Mary Todd Lincoln and the challenges she presented in that year?

DREHLE

10:24:53
Mary Lincoln was proof of the adage that opposites attract. She was as mercurial and tempestuous, unpredictable as Lincoln was disciplined and systematic. They shared tremendous political ambition and political savvy. Mary grew up in a very politically active home in Lexington, Ky. And the legends are that she could've been married to any of the three major candidates for president in 1860. She chose Lincoln.

DREHLE

10:25:32
She got to Washington and was tremendously insecure about how the ladies of Washington society were going to look on this Westerner, and she overcompensated by overspending. It was right at this time and around the turn of year that Congress had come back into session, and they'd immediately figured out that she had grossly overspent the White House domestic budget.

DREHLE

10:26:06
She was trying to hide this by what would now be, you know, embezzlement, digging into various other funds, having employees put on the payroll and kicking their salaries back to her, and this scandal was about to break. And so Lincoln had that hovering over him while he was also trying to get a grip on the military, get a grip on the finances of the country and figure out how they were going to scale up for this war.

REHM

10:26:36
And then in February, Willie Lincoln comes down with typhoid fever.

DREHLE

10:26:43
Willie was 11 years old. A friend said, of Lincoln, that he was fonder of that boy than of anything else in the world. They were two peas in a pod. He's probably the person certainly most like Lincoln but probably closest to Lincoln as well. Lincoln would look at Willie as he was thinking through a problem, and he'd say, I know exactly what's going on in that boy's head because he works out problems the same way I do.

DREHLE

10:27:10
They had the same fondness for poetry, the same sort of charismatic ability to draw people to them. And all of a sudden, Willie, overnight, goes from this absolutely vital, exciting, you know, lively boy to desk door. It took most of the month of February for him to die, and Mary immediately lost her mind. She had a nervous breakdown, went into her room, didn't come out of bed for over a month, screaming.

DREHLE

10:27:45
She wouldn't see Tad, their youngest son, who was also sick. She banished Tad's friends from the house because the sound of laughter made her too sorrowful. So here was Tad completely abandoned, and Lincoln had to become Tad's friend -- only friend. So this grief-saturated house and this emotionally needy son, all these burdens were on Lincoln as well.

REHM

10:28:15
So how close did General McClellan come to become the commander-in-chief?

DREHLE

10:28:23
He wanted to be. He believed he should be. He had people whispering in his ear throughout the year that he should take his army into the White House instead of to Richmond. I think ultimately, as troubling a figure historically as George McClellan is, we owe him a debt, Americans today, that he didn't do that because that was the model, you know. Napoleon was the model of how you deal with this kind of a crisis.

DREHLE

10:28:55
And the press dubbed him the young Napoleon, and he had portraits made with his hand and his tunic like Napoleon. And those comparisons were constantly being made. But when the chips were finally down and Lincoln did relieve McClellan from command, he obeyed his commander-in-chief. He went home. He did run for president against Lincoln in 1864, but that's our system. He ultimately was a patriot.

REHM

10:29:21
So Lincoln finally does begin to take control, and he begins to define the role of commander-in-chief with his general order -- War Order No. 1.

DREHLE

10:29:39
It was a very, very crude order that he issued late in January. In one of these little quirks of history, McClellan also had come down with typhoid. There was an epidemic of it in Washington, and McClellan almost died. But what that did when he was incapacitated is it allowed Lincoln room to open up communications with the next layer of command below McClellan. And that was the way he was able to begin to assert his authority.

REHM

10:30:11
And, of course, that's through the telegraph.

DREHLE

10:30:14
Through the telegraph, yes. This wouldn't have been possible 10 years earlier, back in the days of the War of 1812 or the Mexican-American War. They would send their generals off, and they vanished from communication. The general made all the decisions after this, but Lincoln could be in what is virtually instantaneous communication with these generals. Initially, they weren't too happy to hear from him.

DREHLE

10:30:41
But he had a way of being persistent. And one general down in Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers come together, brigadier general down the chain of command, saw these orders coming from Lincoln and took them as a green light to take his own initiative. That young man's name was Ulysses Grant.

DREHLE

10:31:04
He took a little army of 17,000 men in February of 1862 on really the first important campaign of the war and, in two weeks, achieved more than any general with that number of troops would achieve throughout the year. He basically pushed the Confederacy south from Kentucky, all the way down into northern Mississippi, with really only one major battle. It was a strategic master stroke.

REHM

10:31:34
And does he stay in communication with Lincoln during this period?

DREHLE

10:31:40
He actually vanished from communication at one point, and his superior, Henry Halleck, in St. Louis got so angry that at one point he was talking about having Grant arrested. The -- Grant's -- was -- he was learning his job as well all through the year, and he -- at several points, especially after the horrible Battle of Shiloh, which transformed everyone's understanding of what this war was going to be.

DREHLE

10:32:13
More people killed in two days at that battle than in all the wars up to that point in American history. Grant was blamed for that, and people came to Lincoln, demanding that Grant be fired. And Lincoln says almost plaintively, I can't spare that man. He fights, you know? But he had to stick up for him.

REHM

10:32:34
David Von Drehle, and his new book is titled "Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." David, what about ordinary people? How were they reacting not only to Lincoln's presidency, but what they were hearing about what Europe was doing, what they were seeing as cartoons of their president? How were they reacting?

DREHLE

10:33:14
It was a time, Diane, of constant panic. The wild mood swings in Washington and across the North are -- it's tiring just to imagine what it must have been like to live through that, the transformation of American society to go from peace, essentially, in April 1861, to unimagined carnage a year later, April 1862, at Shiloh, to, by the end of the year, these unbelievably bloody battles were happening one a month, two a month.

DREHLE

10:34:00
The Battle of Fredericksburg and the Battle of Stones River, two of the worst battles of the war, were both fought in December of 1862. Antietam, in September, was the bloodiest day in American history -- still is. That transformation was stunning. People were really in a daze. And one of the things that Lincoln had to do was learn to calibrate his own emotions. You see him become more and more steady through these panics as he has more and more experience with them. He learns not to trust the initial reports from a battlefield and to wait and to see what really happened.

REHM

10:34:43
Patience.

DREHLE

10:34:43
Patience is the -- one of the virtues that shows through as he works step by step by step and doesn't let himself get pushed one way or the other by people who were susceptible to panic. There's one moment in -- when McClellan is down on the peninsula close to Richmond and he's been pushed back by a counterattack by Robert E. Lee, and there is -- no one can tell really what's going on.

DREHLE

10:35:19
And one of Lincoln's best generals, the Quartermaster Montgomery Meigs, gets up in the middle of the night, rides out to the cottage at the Soldiers' Home where Lincoln spent summer and bangs on the door at 3:00 in the morning, wakes up Lincoln. He comes to the door bleary-eyed, and Meigs says, they've got to burn all their supplies, ordered McClellan to burn his supplies and get his troops off the peninsula. We're about to lose our army. And Lincoln sort of pats him on the shoulder and sends him home.

REHM

10:35:50
Wow.

DREHLE

10:35:51
This -- he said to John Hay a couple of years later, looking back on this period, he says, I can't believe how many times I had to be the one to calm down these men who were trained and spent their lives in uniform. And me, inexperienced, not knowing anything about the military, I had to be the one to say, let's calm down. Take a deep breath.

REHM

10:36:15
So it's not only patience, but it's a sense of moderation. And one wonders where that came from, considering that passage you read about his early boyhood.

DREHLE

10:36:33
I -- he is -- I think he started off with 16,000 books, and people asked why this fascination. And you put your finger on such an important thing about Lincoln: He is endlessly complex as an individual. There's something magnetic about him that draws him to us. But then we get right up close and a sort of veil comes down, a point at which you just can't go past it, and there's depth beyond that.

REHM

10:37:04
And you think the 16,000 books attest to that very issue.

DREHLE

10:37:09
That's right. I do. I do because people -- once they get up to that point, then it's speculation, then it's us guessing, projecting, trying to fathom him.

REHM

10:37:24
David Von Drehle. His new book is titled "Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year." The phones are open, and when we come back, we'll take your calls and read your email. Stay with us.

REHM

10:40:07
And here's our first email from Sam, who says, "In reading Lincoln's collected papers years ago, I was struck by a check for $5 he made out in 1863 to a 'colored man with one leg.' Must be a great story behind it. Could David Von Drehle use that example to talk about Lincoln's personal, as opposed to political, views of black people and how they evolved?"

DREHLE

10:40:44
Well, when you started that with the check for $5, I immediately thought he was going to refer to one that was written in 1862. One day, Lincoln was in his office. Tad was still recovering from his own bout of typhoid fever, and suddenly, there was ruckus down the hall and a nurse came in, Rebecca Pomeroy, saying that Tad was refusing to take his medicine.

DREHLE

10:41:11
And Lincoln got up, excused himself from the meeting, went down the hall, closed the door, came out a little bit later saying, it's all fixed, and went to his desk and wrote a check to Tad for $5 in exchange for taking his medicine. Lincoln, when he left Springfield to become president, it was illegal in Illinois for free black people to settle there. That's what the racial situation was in his home state.

DREHLE

10:41:46
And while he did have some experience with African-Americans before he got to Washington, it was limited. Washington was the first place where he encountered a substantial community of educated, free black individuals. Many of them worked at the White House. They worked as messengers for Congress. So he was running into them every day and gradually getting to know African-Americans as human beings, as a population rather than just as a problem.

DREHLE

10:42:20
And I think that was transformative to him. He became the kind of person that Frederick Douglass ultimately said, of all the white men that Frederick Douglass had ever met -- and this includes some of the most progressive abolitionists of the time -- Lincoln was the only one who never made him feel conscious of his race. Lincoln saw past the color of skin into essential humanity of people. And that was another way in which he grew as a president.

REHM

10:42:54
All right. Let's open the phones first to Tampa, Fla. Will, thanks for waiting. You're on the air.

WILL

10:43:03
Yes. Good morning, Diane. I love your show.

REHM

10:43:05
Thank you.

WILL

10:43:06
I wanted to make a comment. Early on, the -- your guest gave the analogy of an individual walking a tightrope across Niagara Falls and, you know, the idea that if a man was doing that, no one would make a sound. They would hope that he would cross, pray that he cross and hold their breath. I think the dynamic difference in culture during Lincoln's time and now is an interesting one because if that man were -- was Lincoln recognizing that he is president of the United States, the culture would, I believe, hold its breath, and it would pray for safe passage.

WILL

10:43:48
The difference now is that, unfortunately, there is a great part about culture that, regardless of how the country would fare in the loss of an individual walking that tightrope, they would hope that the president would fall off that tightrope. And I find it very disturbing. I think that there is a change in the kindness, maybe even in the decency and honor of society, especially when it comes to the presidency, I mean, because of this president. I think many people have thrown out the window the need to respect the office...

REHM

10:44:27
All right, Will, thanks for your call. David.

DREHLE

10:44:30
I think -- I take the point, but I'm not sure it's true. Everybody was not cheering for Lincoln to succeed in 1862. I mean, 11 states as a country were trying to leave, and people were fighting terribly bloody battles all across the country. It causes failure. The Democratic Party was strongly opposed to him and strongly critical of him.

DREHLE

10:45:02
The point that he was trying to make when he told that story about the tightrope walker was that he did have the fate of the country in his hands as he crossed that tightrope and that people needed to have more respect for what he was trying to accomplish, and he needed a little bit less criticism and a little more support.

REHM

10:45:29
You know, it's fascinating because you talked about how much he was able to accomplish. You talked about the transcontinental railroad, the homesteading movement, the nation's land grant universities. How did he manage to get those things through Congress despite this anger and even hatred toward him?

DREHLE

10:45:56
Well, this was his vision that -- we think of the Republican Party as standing only for abolition or against slavery, but they had a -- an entire vision of which free labor and freedom was a part. But really, the reason that Civil War arrived in 1860, 1861 was because the West was being opened. And the compromises that had been made about where slavery was going to be legal, where it wasn't going to be legal, they really only worked up to the Mississippi River.

DREHLE

10:46:34
And that great open treasure land of the West, that had not been resolved, what was going to happen out there, so there was -- the idea of freedom in the West was part of a larger vision of what the West was going to be, how that land was going to be used, who it was going to be for. And the Republican vision was that that land was going to be small ordinary people, free working people working their way up in the world. This vision of the American dream in many ways is the -- is, in a sense, Lincoln's creation or certainly his animating principle.

REHM

10:47:15
All right. To Grand Rapids, Mich. Arman (sp?), you're on the air.

ARMAN

10:47:20
Hi. Thank you for taking my call. Love the show.

REHM

10:47:22
Surely.

ARMAN

10:47:23
I have a question for your speaker. Lincoln spoke of a vast plan by international banking families to impose a central bank in the U.S. And he spoke with this as a very, very great enemy towards our freedom and our Constitution. And now that I look back now, I see that that's something that has come to pass with the Federal Reserve and shareholders of that system. You know, previous presidents as well, like JFK, warned us about the same thing. Can you speak to that as to what exactly Lincoln said and what he was so afraid of and why?

DREHLE

10:48:06
Lincoln was very jealous of American sovereignty, but he was, at the same time, was a supporter of a modern national banking system and a modern monetary system. He had -- he and Salmon Chase essential had to invent the modern financial system in order to finance the war. So it's a complicated issue. I don't think we can sort it all out here. But Lincoln wanted, you know, American banking to be American, I guess, would be the way to put that.

REHM

10:48:48
And here's an email from Luke, who says, "I've never really liked Lincoln because I believe he and Andrew Jackson set the precedents for the dictatorial powers of the president. Sure, in Lincoln's case, I believe his use of his power was largely executed in a positive way, but we never know what some nefarious character could do with this. If you look at the presidents before Jackson and Lincoln, their executive power was practiced much like the diminished role of English monarchs after the 1660 revolution." So how do you react to that?

DREHLE

10:49:39
Well, yeah, very well-educated and intelligent listeners. There's no question about that. This is Lincoln's use of executive power. It's one of the important debates that still goes on about him. One -- two points in the war, including in 1862, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, which was extremely unpopular among many people in the North. And, of course, among Southerners, you know, the entire war is considered unconstitutional and unjust. They feel that there was a right to secede.

DREHLE

10:50:24
Where I come down on that is that we've seen what dictators look like. Dictators kill people by the tens of thousands, by the millions. Abraham Lincoln spent countless hours in 1862 trying to find ways not to hang people who had been tried and convicted in military courts. He would pardon them on the flimsiest of reasons. He was not a dictatorial man.

REHM

10:50:57
To Birmingham, Ala. Good morning, James.

JAMES

10:51:01
Good morning.

REHM

10:51:03
Hi there.

JAMES

10:51:04
Hi. I would like to ask how Lincoln handled the potential scandal if it became public of Mary's -- of Mary Lincoln's embezzlement of funds.

DREHLE

10:51:22
He basically wrote a check out of his own pocket to cover the money that was immediately identified.

REHM

10:51:32
How much are we talking about?

DREHLE

10:51:35
Thousands.

REHM

10:51:36
Thousands.

DREHLE

10:51:38
And then he went to the head of House Ways and Means Committee, Thaddeus Stevens, and asked him to suppress the investigation that was starting. He said this: I'll deal with this. And we can't have this scandal come out now. And it was basically hushed up and largely, you know, very successfully. I mean, it's only in -- a lot of the stuff was rumored and whispered about. But it's really the work of the great current Lincoln historian and biographer, Michael Burlingame, that we have a really complete picture of what Mary was up to in the White House.

REHM

10:52:18
Hmm. All right. And to Jefferson, N.C. Steven, you're on the air.

STEVEN

10:52:25
Yes, good morning.

REHM

10:52:26
Hi.

STEVEN

10:52:27
How are you today?

REHM

10:52:28
Good. Thanks.

STEVEN

10:52:29
My comment and question is this: It's always struck me about Lincoln that he was a megalomaniac tyrant because the Southern states had voluntarily joined the Union but were now militarily barred from what you would think would be a voluntary separation. And, by the way, I live in the South now. I'm a Yankee. I was born and bred a Yankee. And I have never, for the life of me, understood why the South was prevented from voluntary secession.

REHM

10:53:03
Interesting question. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." David.

DREHLE

10:53:11
I think what Lincoln understood is that geography is destiny and that there was no way for the South and the North to peaceably separate. There was a reason why the South wanted to leave. It's because their slaves were being encouraged by Northern abolitionists to run away, if not to rise up and kill their masters. And the Southerners were afraid of this. Efforts to, you know, solve this tension between the two regions had failed. The Fugitive Slave Act had failed.

DREHLE

10:53:52
The Dred Scott ruling by the Supreme Court had failed. And if you had had two countries separated just by the Ohio River, for example, that conflict would not have gone away. If it couldn't be solved by one country under one constitution, why would we think it would be solved by two countries under two competing constitutions? And so the war would have come between North and South whether or not it was fought as a rebellion or a war between two countries.

DREHLE

10:54:22
Lincoln also understood that if you start with secession, there was no obvious place for it to end. The Midwestern states really didn't like the New England states. New York wanted to be with the South not with the North because they had commercial ties. What was to keep California in the Union? What was to keep Texas in the Confederacy?

DREHLE

10:54:43
And so the fear was that here was this opportunity to have the richest, most powerful country in the world. Lincoln saw that. He wrote about it. In 1862, he tried to explain how successful the United States could be. But to have it broken up and turned into another Europe of constant war and tiny kingdoms would destroy all of that.

REHM

10:55:08
So, David, as an historian and as one of who clearly sees what's happening today, how do you compare or contrast the polarization, the difficulties you see and the whole country sees at work here in Washington today?

DREHLE

10:55:31
Well, so many things are similar. People look at the rise of our polarized ideological communications today -- the Internet, the blogosphere -- and think it's all brand new. It really reminds me a lot of the newspaper business of the 1860s when, you know, there were five, 10, 15, 20 newspapers in a city. And they would have their own political bent. And they would all frame every issue in terms of their political views. And people -- and they were able to drive tremendous strife, obviously.

DREHLE

10:56:13
But what we see in Lincoln is that it is possible to add rather than just divide. And it is -- and that the way to do that is by painting a picture that people buy into of the future. And that is something that I see. I haven't -- when I cover politics for Time magazine, I haven't seen a candidate who persuasively paints a vivid, detailed picture of where he or she is taking us. That speaks not just to their base supporters but speaks to everyone. That's what we're looking for, and I think Americans will respond to it.

REHM

10:57:06
And on that note, we leave historian David Von Drehle. His new book is titled "Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year." It's a wonderful book, David. Thank you.

DREHLE

10:57:23
Thank you.

REHM

10:57:24
And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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