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Lincoln's Virtues: An Interview with William Lee Miller

By Jayson Whitehead
October 14, 2002

On the one-year anniversary of September 11, New York Governor George Pataki broke the moment of silence at Ground Zero by reciting the Gettysburg Address. First delivered on November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s brief speech (three paragraphs in length) is one of America’s greatest historical documents, generally considered, as the Library of Congress states, "one of the gems of the English language, placed somewhere alongside Shakespeare’s soliloquys and the Magna Carta." William Lee Miller, a scholar at Charlottesville, Virginia’s Miller Center, concurs. "Lincoln had a particular talent to give strong short expression to powerful underlying emotions," he says. "He struck for lasting abstractions expressed in emotion-laden language, without current details that would date it."

The inclusion of the Gettysburg Address at the World Trade Center memoriam also speaks to a dearth in American political leadership. Lincoln, unwilling to merely recite a past historical document, instead penned a response to a scene of horrific violence and great loss of life that not only spoke to a specific event but was of enough emotional portent to be used almost 140 years later. "Of course, if we had leaders/thinkers who could do it, it would be good to have something that reflected the world struggle today, but we don’t," Miller says. "Our current president is unusually inarticulate, given to simplicisms and moral melodrama. Lincoln, for all his powerful clarity, was not–moral clarity did not require simplicism. Lincoln at Gettysburg and even more in the second inaugural avoided making ideal statements and nothing but endorsements of his own side."

He’s a great figure, perhaps the greatest figure in American political history.

In his recent book Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography (Knopf), Miller narrows his gaze on the first two acts of Abraham Lincoln’s life, from childhood through his first presidential inauguration on the eve of the Civil War. Collecting stories of Lincoln’s youth, following his professional career as an attorney and congressman, and most importantly, analyzing his speeches (including his debates over slavery with Senator Stephen Douglas), Miller argues that Lincoln was that rarest of birds, a political figure that adhered to a code of ethics, even in the face of stiff public opposition.

When I comment that a moral politician seems like a contradiction in terms today, Miller agrees. "Part of the book's focus is to examine and poke at that, set something against it," he says. "And I am fully aware, believe me, of all the cliches about politicians and their conduct. That’s part of the reason I wrote the book."

OldSpeak: You’ve received a very good response to this book. Does it surprise you that people are still so interested in Abraham Lincoln?

WLM: Actually, no. As I explain in the beginning [of the book], I tried to make an advantage of that, in that I want to talk about ethics, particularly political [ethics] or the life of a politician. And here’s this huge politician, someone whom everybody knows about (not necessarily know all that much but do know well). He’s a great figure, perhaps the greatest figure in American political history. So it’s ready made for my purpose.

As far as the political process, Lincoln seemed to have an amazing ability to see his personal interests as smaller than a larger interest.

That’s well put. And that’s right. And I think more so as the years went by. I say that it is almost the reverse of the well-worn statement of Lord Acton about power corrupting. The higher Lincoln went, the more disciplined he became. One of the statements I particularly like is, "I shall do nothing in malice, what I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing." In other words, the main thing in your mind is all the people, all the institutions, all the future events, all the things that your decisions can affect. Given that vastness, you are not going to make decisions on the basis of the fact that your feelings have been hurt or some personal bias. And Lincoln is quite explicit. I can quote to you quite a few times when he formulates this thought. That’s a good quotation I just gave you, but there would be others. There’s the letter that he writes after he’s president to Senator Douglas’s stepson. He gives him a little advice and says don’t quarrel, on small things don’t vent your interest, and even on big things lean over backwards to avoid quarreling. As I say, it’s not what you usually hear from lawyers. Or politicians either for that matter. That doesn’t mean he didn’t really engage in argument–he certainly did that. He was a partisan and had a position and argued the position.

It seems that more than having strict political ambition, Lincoln was fascinated by the political process.

Yes, I think he was fascinated by the political process itself. He was very good at it. You think, "What does it take to be good at it?" You have to possess a good instinct to understand how people will think of something, how they will understand and respond—people in large numbers and different groups of people. He was good at all that. And he was a good political organizer and speaker.

But it isn’t only the process. There are two other things, I think. One is that he got this romantic idea when he was a boy reading those books – he didn’t have many books – in the backwoods of Indiana. And the things he read would have these somewhat idealized pictures of the Founding Fathers. He read Parson Weems on George Washington, another biographer on George Washington, a history of the United States, which presents it all in the most glowing terms, and he read and had that throughout his life. Although he becomes more disciplined at expressing himself, some of his more youthful speeches are pure prose. Then he disciplines his expression of [this idea] to great speeches like the Gettysburg Address that we all know. So that’s one thing–that it’s not just the political process or his own ambition, although he is ambitious. It is that he has a high opinion of the American political social system.

The other is the same thing, but a little different. He thinks there are important issues, the moral issues when you get to slavery and the expansion of slavery and the proposition that [Stephen] Douglas is putting forth that has the effect of making slavery an equally valid choice alongside freedom. It does stir his juices back from a semi-retirement. He wasn’t really retired but had diminished his activity. Bringing him back, he takes the initiative.

Part of what you do when you write an ethical biography is you ask where or what are the decisions that he took, the big initiative decisions? That is certainly one. The summer following 1854 he is going to take on Douglas, he is going to argue with Douglas, he is going to write a speech. And he went to a lot of trouble. Those speeches didn’t just write themselves. He isn’t just standing up and winging it out of memory as some people did. Douglas was good at that. A lot of politicians are. Bill Clinton was good at it. But Lincoln was not like that, he…

Even though he was basically a self-taught lawyer, his speeches were presented like arguments in a court of law.

That’s right. Being a lawyer is quite important. Clarity of argument, putting things in order so you can understand them in an audience, sorting them out, there is more of that. If what you know of Lincoln is when he becomes President and you know the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, those are not typical of what he is before. In the earlier stage, he is as you say, a lawyer, a man who deliberately as an adult read Euclid in order to train his mind to logic and clarity. And he was a researcher. As you said, he digs up this stuff. In the summer of 1854, his enemies said he was mousing around the library. It wasn’t easy in those days, you didn’t have the computer or an easy way to gather this stuff. He is factual and he puts it together, and a lot of his major speeches have a clear summary of the facts of the situation. That is true of the State Fair of Peoria speech in the fall of 1854, and it is very much true of the Cooper’s Union one if you get the full text of that. Sometimes people chop off the first part, which is the piling on of these facts about the Founding Fathers. After he is president those are carefully worked out. One of the things he is good at is summarizing what has happened and clearing it away. So it is not just eloquence. It is also research, hard work, and clarity of mind.

Did Lincoln have a natural inclination for defending the outsider or the underdog?

Why, yes, I think so. I think he had a natural sympathy. He had a sympathy first of all for animals, but unlike some people whose sympathy for animals does not extend to the members of their own species, human beings, Lincoln was also sympathetic with human beings, which is part of his always being opposed to slavery. But there are lots of stories that go back to animals. I collect some of those, but there were lots of stories about a couple of cats, a little dog, a hog that was mired down, and so forth. He was sympathetic to animals.

And he seemed to relish the role of the underdog himself, right?

Yes, that’s right, although he is a mainstream politician if you make that distinction. He is not like the abolitionist who is proudly standing with the slave and being run out of town for it. Lincoln is not going to be run out of town. He wants to win, he wants to be senator of Illinois. And you aren’t going to be the senator of Illinois if you are so far outside the opinion of the citizens, which means white citizens of course, white males only. Think of what an elective that would be even today. Then, Illinois is probably the most or one of the most racially, racist as we say today, or racially prejudiced states in the North. And Lincoln had to work his sympathy on the one hand, which he certainly had, with his political objectives and personal ambition on the other.

That's a very good question. And I have a hard time when people ask me where [his moral sense] came from. I sort of said to somebody when I was starting on this, "I’m not going to explain the genesis." And it is partly mysterious. He wasn’t an outsider like some people who have a chip on their shoulder because they have never been accepted. He had a little sense of being from a rustic area, and he was certainly self-conscious about his lack of education. Here is a congressman who is asked to give his summary of his life, and on the topic of education he answers with one word: "defective." And there are quite a few instances of that. As a child, Lincoln already had a generous nature, and he identified with people that were hurt or old. His stepmother said that he was cheeky and annoying from when he was 9 through his teens, but he was always sympathetic and conscientious.

[For Lincoln] there isn’t any other human being who is a mentor. Most people who go on to some kind of greatness, including moral greatness, have somebody or some group or usually some individuals in their youth, some teacher often, or a parent or a preacher or someone. Really you can’t find that in Lincoln’s case. He is sitting there with his books, and he takes the books seriously. And I infer that it is mostly the printing press that is his mentor.

Do you think that the rivalry with Senator Douglas spurred Lincoln on to greater things?

I think it probably did. I think it was one element. I think more important is his concept of the moral issue involved in slavery and the definition of the morals of his country is involved in that. But it wasn’t all at that level. He disagrees strongly with Douglas on [slavery] but it was also that Douglas had been in the same line of work and had passed him by. And he had had arguments with him [Douglas], and even in that little fragment that I built one chapter on he writes it down. You wouldn’t write something like that down either. If you felt it, you wouldn’t say "Oh, gosh, you know, he’s gone on to great things. We started out even, he’s gone on to great things, and I am a flat failure." Well, Lincoln wasn’t a flat failure. So, yes, I don’t think that there is any question about a certain rivalry.

In addition to the issue of slavery, Lincoln was almost equally appalled by Douglas’s defiance of the Constitution and of the Declaration of Independence.

Yes, and the abrogation of the Missouri Compromise. But with the things that Douglas would say about the Declaration, you are quite right. The Declaration of Independence as a kind of scripture you might say for this country had emerged in Lincoln's lifetime. As Lincoln would say to people, "Five years, ten years ago, did any of you think that 'All men are created equal' did not include black persons?'" And people would think, "Gosh, no, I didn’t think that." And Lincoln would reply, "But now, if you think so, that’s because of all the Democrats and particularly Douglas." He’s in the lead, snarling–God, the stuff I quote from Douglas. He had a deliberately insulting kind of racism which includes the interpretation of the Declaration of Independence as not having any such larger universalism in it at all. It’s just the British colonies in America–it is a reduction. Lincoln has a satirical ability sometimes verging on sarcasm, and he makes fun of that shrinkage of the Declaration of Independence.

With his debates with Douglas, that dealt almost exclusively with race…

…Slavery, which is not the same thing. To deal with race as it relates to slavery. Lincoln wants it to be about slavery because he’s got a racist audience. And if it’s on race Douglas just beats him over the head.

Which he tries to do.

Not just tries, he does do. Technically, Douglas won. He didn’t win the debates, but he got the seat back. Excuse me for interrupting you, but in the time that was an important distinction for Lincoln. [It’s as if he was saying,] "What I am focusing on is the institution of slavery and race only as it bears on that which it does in a big way. But on the other hand I want to hold off your questions about all your racist fears about a black man marrying your daughter and so forth. I don’t want to talk about that if I can help it."

We see Lincoln falter somewhat and make concessions that he probably would have liked not to have made, which is probably where most of the criticism of Lincoln on race comes from, right?

You are correct on both counts.

But in that context, it’s hard to imagine being in Lincoln’s shoes and not shrinking in the face of Douglas's attacks.

Good for you. I agree with that. Sure, it’s embarrassing to us 150 years later, and Lincoln admirers defend some of the stuff that he says. It’s always put into the context of an attack and almost always by Douglas. And he gets a little better in ’59 when he is no longer running [for office] and speaking out to the Republicans.

One of the long, important reviews of my book said, "Well, you can’t write about Lincoln’s virtues if you don’t go on to his presidency." I agree with that, in fact I have written all that out, but I chopped it off one chapter of this book because it took us too far out of chronology. After I got into Lincoln's Virtues, I designed it the way you see it, with the climaxes when he is president-elect and secession leader and he makes those decisions. But I agree that if you want to tell the story of Lincoln and race and whatever you say about his virtue or lack of it, you need to go on into the presidency, because he changed. I don’t think he changed what he believed, he was never himself a racist. But you can get a big argument on that. Quite a few authors are going around pounding on that, but I don’t think it’s true. I would have to go into great length to try and explain why I don’t think it’s true, but when he gets to be president, first of all he is very welcoming to individual black persons. That doesn’t seem like anything today, but in that setting that was important. And [there are] the things that Frederick Douglass said and the other black persons that came to see him. And he changes on the colonization business.

But the white people that he knows who have all this racial prejudice, all this culture of racial distinction, are they ever going to live in harmony and justice with black persons? Until he is well into his presidency I don’t think he thinks it will happen. Then things change when there are large numbers of black persons in the Union army and they are performing well. Not only that, they have a tremendous claim on the nation then. That is another one of his real moral testimonies. He says once they have fought and many have been killed and wounded and been important to us in the victories, 180,000 black soldiers in the Union army, you aren’t going to say that you can’t be citizens and you aren’t good enough to die. If you want somebody to do that, you get somebody else, not me. "The promise being made must be kept" is a quotation from his presidential years. So it is a longer story.