Q&A: Michael Burlingame '60
The following Q&A with author and historian Michael Burlingame was conducted by Chris Jones, instructor of history and social science. The subject was Burlingame's most recent work, Abraham Lincoln: A Life. An excerpt of this Q&A appeared in the Spring 2009 Andover Bulletin.
CHRIS JONES: Abraham Lincoln is the most written about American, now more than ever because 2009 is the bicentennial of his birth. What is it that you wanted your book to contribute to such a vast body of scholarship on Lincoln?
MICHAEL BURLINGAME: I discovered to my surprise an enormous amount of fresh information about Lincoln in newspaper and manuscripts and public records, and I thought that that information, along with the findings of other scholars of both Lincoln and the Civil War era, ought to be incorporated into a new version of what Carl Sandburg did. Sandburg published in 1939 the last volumes of his biography of Lincoln and an awful lot of information has come to light since then, which I’ve uncovered and a lot of other people have uncovered, and I thought somebody ought to do another cradle-to-grave multi-volume biography of Lincoln. I looked around to see if anyone else was willing to do it; nobody else seemed to be, so eleven years ago I decided to undertake it.
JONES: Did you plan on finishing the project for the bicentennial?
BURLINGAME: Yes, I signed a contract in 1997 and the promise was that I would get it done before 2009. So, for eleven years the sword of Damocles was hanging over my head.
JONES: You mention Carl Sandberg and working in the shadow of Sandberg’s two-volume biography. You also mention in the Author’s Note in your book David Herbert Donald, another Lincoln scholar, being a mentor to you. How did their works influence your study of Lincoln? Were you trying to react to them or go in a different direction?
BURLINGAME: Well Sandberg, as I say, didn’t have access to such important, basic sources of information about Lincoln as the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. They weren’t opened until 1947. Sandberg published his War Years in 1939. David Herbert Donald, my mentor at Princeton, decided to write a one-volume biography and there’s always room for a new, fresh one-volume biography. In fact, I’m trying to write one myself right now, condensing my big book. But it seemed to me that a more detailed study would allow for a clearer picture of Lincoln and his times, and that’s what I decided to undertake.
JONES: What first drew you to Lincoln? Do you remember learning about him at Andover?
BURLINGAME: I grew up in Washington D. C., so I used to see Ford’s Theater, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the Capitol, Manassas battlefield, and all that pretty regularly. And then my great grandfather’s cousin was Lincoln’s ambassador to China, Anson Burlingame, who was an antislavery Congressman from Boston. I think that predisposed me to be a Lincoln scholar. But primarily it was David Herbert Donald’s mesmerizing lectures and discussion leadership at Princeton and he took me under his wing, made me his research assistant, and was a very nurturing and supportive mentor. If he had been a medievalist, I might be writing about the Middle Ages today.
JONES: Did you attend college knowing history was the path you were going to take?
BURLINGAME: I was certainly predisposed in that direction. I had enjoyed very much the history teachers I had at Andover, particularly Scotty Royce, Charlie Dye, Lenny James, Bob Menard—these names probably mean nothing to you, but they were very powerful teachers who predisposed me to look upon historians favorably.
JONES: In your book, you’ve focused a great deal on Lincoln’s private life, on his personal relationships. How do these insights into Lincoln’s interior world affect our understanding of Lincoln as a politician and leader, which is more often how we encounter him?
BURLINGAME: Right, right... the book I published was designed to do two things: One was to tell the story in more detail and take advantage of more information than had been previously used by biographers and scholars, so a portrait that was sharper, ten mega-pixels rather than four. The second overarching interpretive framework I tried to use was penning his inner life and his outer life, particularly how he came to hate and loath and despise slavery so early, and how his hatred of slavery then affected his political career, both pre-presidential and presidential. And I also wanted to take a look at his depression, at what were the origins of his depression and how they may have affected his character, to help explain how a hack politician, as Lincoln was in his twenties and thirties, became a great statesman in his forties and fifties; how he was almost two different people, how that came about; and how his woe-filled marriage affected his pre-presidential and presidential life. Those were questions I thought were insufficiently explored by previous biographers and needed further elaboration.
JONES: Do you feel that the weight of the difficulties in his marriage and especially the deaths of his sons deepened his understanding of the country’s crisis, or were they in fact distractions of burdens on him that hurt his ability to govern?
BURLINGAME: I think the loss of his sons, particularly Willy during the White House years in the first period of his presidency was a tremendous blow, because Willy was a kind of clone, and Lincoln had a special satisfaction in having a child who was just like him and thought like him and had his sense of humor and his values and all that. To lose Willy was a terrible blow. I think it gave him greater compassion for other people who had lost sons during the war. As for his marital troubles, I think one of the things people do in modern scholarship is to whitewash the marriage and, if you do that, you lose a lot of the poignancy of Lincoln’s presidency, because on top of having to deal with difficult generals, difficult congressmen, difficult cabinet members, difficult newspaper editors, and the like, he had to deal with a difficult wife. He told a good friend of his that he was constantly afraid she would do something to embarrass and humiliate him publicly. If you can’t imagine that aspect of his daily life on top of his official duties, you can’t understand how he truly was a man of sorrows.
JONES: Our current president, Barack Obama has openly expressed his deep admiration for Lincoln and he’s tried to draw parallels, whether real or symbolic, between their paths to the White House. Do you see parallels between Lincoln and Obama?
BURLINGAME: Yes, yes. There are definite, obvious parallels. Both served four terms in the Illinois legislature; they served briefly in Congress, Lincoln in the House and Obama in the Senate, before they became president; they’re the only Illinois politicians who were ever elected president; they’re both tall, skinny lawyers. Yet, there’s a major difference, at least so far. Lincoln was a war president primarily and Obama of course has two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, on his plate, but his principal focus perforce has to be on the economy, so the parallel between his presidency, at least at this stage, and Franklin Roosevelt’s is much closer than his parallel with Lincoln and his presidency. Now it’s conceivable that eventually the war against the jihadists may come to dominate the administration if there’s another 9/11 say, in which case the parallels would be much more striking. If there ever is such a case, the current president might profit from Lincoln’s very steely, iron determination to win that war. We sometimes tend to de-emphasize the fact that Lincoln had a very strong will—he was not willful, but he had a strong will and he was determined to win the war and vindicate the idea of democracy. My favorite quote that illustrates that is a telegram he sent to Grant in 1864 in which he said, “Hold on with a bulldog grip and chew and choke as much as possible.”
And also I might just say parenthetically about my Andover experience, one of the reasons I became a Civil War historian was because I was able to take David Donald’s course on the Civil War & Reconstruction when I was a freshman at Princeton. I was the only freshman in that course, and the reason I was able to take that course was that I had such good training, even as a Lower. I had a European history survey course as a Lower and then managed to do very well on the AP test in my senior year, and that allowed me, then, to waive the freshman history requirement of a general European history survey and to enter upper-level courses right away. So I was able as a freshman to enter David Donald’s course and then, as a sophomore, to be David Donald’s research assistant, and he was only there two years. If I hadn’t had that excellent training in European history at Andover, which even two years after the course enabled me to do well on the AP, I would never have evolved the way I have in my career.
JONES: America tends to love its heroes and Lincoln perhaps more than any other. Do you think that he was overly mythologized, perhaps because of the circumstances of his death?
BURLINGAME: Oh, yes. There was a tendency upon assassination, particularly the fact that he was shot on Good Friday, to equate him with a kind of Christ-like figure—to make him a kind of Christ-like figure, to de-humanize him. One of the things I’ve tried to do in my books is to show that he was a really full-blooded, three-dimensional human being with flaws and with characteristics we can all relate to, and in a way he’s much more accessible as a hero than somebody like George Washington. Admirable though he was, he was a little remote. And Thomas Jefferson... it’s hard to warm up to a guy or identify with a guy who practiced the violin for three hours before breakfast. Lincoln, with his folksiness, with his magnanimity, with his humor, with his self-deprecating qualities is a much more vulnerable and accessible character for all his flaws. And I’m not hesitant to point those flaws out, particularly in his early political career when he was something of a hack politician.
JONES: He had a suspicion he would not live a life after the war, that the war was his work and then he would die.
BURLINGAME: Yes, he expressed this to several folks. The thing I try to emphasize most heavily in the book, particularly the final paragraph, is that Lincoln has traditionally been held up as a source of inspiration for people born into abject poverty, that they can overcome that economic hardship. While that’s true, Lincoln was certainly born into abject poverty—the tendency to suggest that Thomas Lincoln was a member of the respectable frontier bourgeoisie is just misguided. Everyone on the frontier was poor, but they were really poor. Lincoln does emerge from that, and he should be an inspiration for people born into poverty. But in addition to that, I try to emphasize that Lincoln suffered from emotional poverty too, and that’s true of a lot more people today, at least in this country. Lincoln, despite the fact that he had an unsympathetic, indeed almost hostile father, despite the fact that his mother dies when he’s nine, despite the fact that his baby brother dies in infancy, despite the fact that his only sister dies in childbirth, despite the fact that his sweetheart dies, despite the fact that he was prone to depression, despite the fact that he had a terrible marriage, despite the fact that he had a hard mid-life crisis, despite the fact that he had several career setbacks, he became not just famous and powerful, but he became psychologically whole and rooted and balanced. People responded to that and admired that and were inspired by his presence, and I think his life story can inspire people for generations to come.