Last summer, Abraham Lincoln was slaying vampires at multiplexes, and he’s currently entering his third month in movie theaters nationwide in Stephen Spielberg’s Oscar contender “Lincoln.” Since the beginning of 2012, at least a dozen books have been written about Lincoln, including a best-seller from Bill O’Reilly.
Honest Abe is, as they say, trending on Twitter these days, but you can argue that interest in the 16th president has never really waned. According to Clemson University professor Vernon Burton, who has written his own tome, “The Age of Lincoln,” he is the most written-about American in our history, behind only William Shakespeare and Jesus Christ worldwide.
For two days next week, on Feb. 20 and 21, Florida Atlantic University will devote the two days of its annual Larkin Symposium on the American Presidency to Abraham Lincoln and his legacy, in honor of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary. Seven experts from national and international universities will address an audience hungry for history and politics, headlined by keynote speaker and Pulitzer Prize winner Mark E. Neely at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 20.
I spoke with Burton, who will speak about Lincoln at 9 a.m. Feb. 21, and briefly with Neely, who shared some of their insights prior to next week’s big event.
What will be the subject of your address next week?
Neely: The writ of habeas corpus is “The Great Writ of Liberty” to most of us. It insures that judges can look into the reasons for the arrests of persons held in prisons by the government. But was that really the use of this vaunted legal bulwark during the Civil War? I am going to show the surprising result of looking at the use of the writ in 50 cases in the North during the war and, I trust, arrive at a better understanding of President Lincoln’s famous suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.
The discussion will take us to the lowest saloons in New York City and into the homes of bigamists. We will see a magician on tour. Most important, we will deal with the problem of “infant soldiers”—a special problem in Lincoln’s day.
With so much having been published about Abraham Lincoln, are there still gaps in his biography – mysteries to be explored?
Burton: Yes. One of thing things that’s very important to understand is that history is an interpretation. We work from the evidence we have. Lincoln is a larger-than-life, almost mythical figure in American history who has, by being shot on Good Friday, taken on a savior-like atmosphere. And he did save the nation. I believe scholars and the general public write into Lincoln either how we want to be or sometimes the projections of our fears. He takes on a special meaning of what it means to be a better American, and there are debates that will continue for a long time as we become more sensitive to issues.
There’s a group that argues that Lincoln was gay, or that was a depressive. I argue that he was the greatest theologian in the 19h century. That’s the kind of figure Lincoln has become; we read into him to justify ourselves.
How have the Republican and Democratic parties shifted in their ideologies since the time of Lincoln’s presidency?
Burton: The party of Lincoln had been a great party. It was formed as a coalition in a lot of ways. He was a Republican who came out of the John Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Alexander Hamilton wing. He was invited to speak to the Jeffersonian Club, and he wrote this wonderful letter that said, “This reminds me of these two fellows in Springfield who got in a fight.” They had been drunk and had on these huge long coats. He says, “Thank goodness they were drunk, so nobody got hurt, but they exchanged coats in the middle of their fight.” In terms of what’s happened more recently, it’s exactly true today in the American south. The parties have reversed completely on issues of racial progress and justice. It has done so deliberately, going back to the 1948 Dixiecrat movement, and then picked up with Goldwater and his appeal to the South, and the Civil Rights Act.
If today’s media apparatus had been around during Lincoln’s time, would things have been any different?
Burton: I think we would have gotten rid of slavery earlier. I asked my students about what’s called the First and Second Reconstructions. The Second Reconstruction is typically a term historians have used for the civil rights movement. Because of the media even then, when suddenly pictures appeared on TV of water hoses on children, and the beatings and the brutality, it brought home the civil rights movement to the north.
Similarly, after the Civil War, hardly anybody in the north wanted to end slavery. It was a “southern problem,” they called it. When they got into the south and saw the conditions, a lot of them became abolitionists. With all the problems of the 24-hour cycle of media service, by bringing it home, it could have made a great difference.
What do you think of Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln in the current movie?
Neely: I am a political and constitutional historian. Any film that makes debates in Congress over a constitutional amendment appear entertaining and interesting is definitely all right by me. Of course, I have been telling my students they are interesting and entertaining for years and years.
As an expert on this especially fractious period in American history, how do you react when today’s pundits and politicians say things like, “We’ve never been this divided in our history”?
Burton: This kind of division today is almost nothing. Lincoln was called the Illinois Gorilla, the black president. Today you have Joe Wilson yelling “you lie” during a presidential address, but in the 1800s you had congressman Brooks beating Charles Sumner almost to death on the Senate floor. We’ve made some progress.
Tickets for the two-day symposium are $35. Call the box office at 800/564-9539 or visit fauevents.com.