Harold Holzer

The Great Emancipator

VTR Date: August 24, 2012

Historian/author Harold Holzer discusses his book on President Lincoln.


GUEST: Harold Holzer
AIR DATE: 08/25/2012
VTR: 06/14/2012

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And if my count is anywhere near right, of the more than 40 books he has authored, co-authored and edited over the years – plus his nearly 500 articles for magazines and journals – and his chapters and forewords for 40 or so other books…most of them related somehow to Abraham Lincoln…today’s Open Mind guest has even managed to publish a number of them since he first joined me here just seven years ago…with his latest, Emancipating Lincoln – The Emancipation Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory being in its way perhaps the most fascinating.

Astonishingly enough, historian/author Harold Holzer has always had a day job, too…with many related occupations over the years: journalist, political speech writer and press secretary, government official…he’s even worked in public television. And a decade ago my guest joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York as its Chief Communications Officer. Now he is the Metropolitan’s Senior Vice President for External Affairs.

Indeed, what perhaps I find most intriguing about Harold Holzer’s new book on Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation are the judgments it seems to me to pass on Lincoln in life – rather than when he finally belonged to the ages – as an image maker, a manipulator, if you will, of public perceptions, public opinion, rather than first and foremost as a bold leader. And I would ask my friend Harold if that slant – to the degree that it really exists – might not reflect his own work experiences. Now that’s a mean question, Harold.

HOLZER: That’s a tough one. Thank you for that great introduction. It’s really … not to correct you … but it’s two decades at the Met, it only seems like one decade, but that’s …


HOLZER: Twenty years.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re older than I thought …

HOLZER: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … Harold Holzer.

HOLZER: You can tell that from my appearance. I’m not dodging the question. Ahem …

HEFFNER: You’re thinking about it, though, I can tell.

HOLZER: A little bit. (Laugh) A little bit. His previous work was as a, a grass roots politician, attorney for hire, manipulator of the press from his earliest days as an un-attributed free-lance political polemic writer. He knew that it was crucial to move public opinion with him.

And to actually not seem like he was pushing it too hard. He once said during the Lincoln, Douglass debates, “Public sentiment is everything”. And he who molds public sentiment is more important than he who makes statutes.

With the Emancipation, it wasn’t even a statute, it was an Executive Order and Lincoln operated in the run-up to this momentous act, an act he’s breathed a sigh of relief at on January 1st, 1863, when it was finally promulgated … and act that he thought was the most historic of the 19th century.

But he acted as if the world was going to come tumbling down when he first announced it. And he moved with unusual caution, even for him, and he was a naturally cautious politician.

HEFFNER: It’s funny to hear you say that, “politician”. I know you’ve indicated that in the programs we done and in much of your writing, but it’s so hard to hear. Lincoln the hero, Lincoln the great Emancipator …

HOLZER: And I do argue that he, he in retrospect, thinking of all that he endured to get this act done, to get it accepted by the public, he does deserve the mantle of great Emancipator. He was sure that he would be rejected at the polls in the off year elections that followed the announcement of the preliminary proclamation … and he was.

He, he suffered every bit as stunning and staggering a Congressional defeat and at the gubernatorial levels and state legislative levels as President Obama did when his party ran in the Congressional elections in 2010.

And he was a politician. He wanted to make change through politics. And it was not a nobler profession in those days. It was every bit as rough and tumble and aggravating and polarizing … whenever people say to me … you know, Lincoln’s age was so much more gentlemanly in terms of politics … I say, “Are you kidding? Remember it actually led to civil war”. And Blue states and Red states may be difficult to endure, but Blue states and Gray states were much more deadly.

So he … he came out of an era of tumult in the political world and he loved every bit of it. He loved the factions, he loved the argumentation, he loved the newspaper harangues and he was a master at it. And he had to be when it came time to announce this proclamation.

HEFFNER: So Harold, what you’re saying is that “Heffner you read the book the wrong way”. Yes, I thought of him as a manipulator, all cheers to the manipulation … it was successful. Is that what you would say.

HOLZER: Well, I suppose I’m saying that the ends justify the means. But the means were noble. I mean he did some things …

HEFFNER: … the ends were noble.

HOLZER: … the ends were noble. Right … I beg your pardon. Some of the means were actually noble, but they were also tricky. And he was tricky.

When, when, when Horace Greeley wrote an editorial in the New York Tribune in the summer of 1862 called “The Prayer of 20 Millions” charging that Lincoln had been, as he put it, strangely and disastrously remiss in not issuing a proclamation … where is it already, it’s been rumored.

Lincoln wrote an extraordinary letter that’s quite famous but was completely disingenuous. Because he had already written the proclamation and was waiting only for a Union battlefield victory so it would not seem like it was an act of desperation.

And he wrote, “My paramount object is to save the Union and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. What I do about slavery I do to save the Union.”

Well, he’s setting up the editor of the Tribune, the readers of the most important anti-slavery paper in the country … has a national edition … it’s almost like the World Wide Web in 1862.

And Greeley concludes, you know, Lincoln is too smart for me. He, he can’t keep up with the manipulation.

And then he meets a delegation of free African American leaders at the White House … a first, by the way … never had that ever happened in the history of the country. But if these folks were feeling, you know, flattered or historic in, in terms of this invitation … Lincoln had a journalist there … the Associated Press, even then, and proceeded to lecture them about how they had caused the war … Black people had caused the war and maybe it’s best that you leave the country and go where … as he put it … the “ban is not upon you”. It’s better for us both to be separated.

And they, you know, were, were insulted, embarrassed, left the White House, gathered their forces, wrote a very polite reply … more polite than Lincoln deserved … well again … Lincoln was batting around the idea of colonization as a way to assuage what he thought would be “White resistance” to emancipation.

That it would stir deeply racist feelings among White voters and he was afraid of it. So he was willing to embarrass Black people and to tell people that he wasn’t interested in equal rights … to make it clear that what, whatever happened was going to be an act to, to save … to reverse Union military misfortunes and save the democracy. Tough, tough politicking.

And in retrospect, when you look at these things you think that Lincoln in a way forsook some of his … the latter reputation he deserves for the courage it took to, to issue the Proclamation by these acts of calculation and maybe subtle dishonesty even by “Honest Abe”.

HEFFNER: But you don’t feel that way, do you? Or do you?

HOLZER: I … you know, was someone who is … as you put it … in my other life or my main life … worked in political public relations and, and other public relations for so many years … I admire what he did.

I think it was hurtful. But I think it’s a reminder that African Americans did not have full citizenship rights, did not have full equal rights and were not taken particularly seriously as an aggrieved class by anyone but the very enlightened abolitionists of that generation.

Lincoln cared more about riding American of slavery, making labor free everywhere than he did about the horrors of slavery. I mean he, he thought they were horrible, but he didn’t care about Black people as much as he cared about White people at this moment. That he grew into. So it’s a very, very complicated story.

HEFFNER: Harold, how do you ultimately evaluate the Black community’s picture of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” and then not so great and not so much an emancipator?

HOLZER: Well, I think it was given … it’s been given to extreme interpretation. Ahh, and his martyrdom certainly elevated him as someone who had … whether … whatever religion you followed … he died at Easter time and Passover time so he was the Christ-like figure who died for his country’s sins and also the Moses who led people to the Promised Land, but didn’t live to enter it.

That kind of religious symbolism and, and … was enough in a deeply religious country to elevate him to sainthood. Unfortunately, when Reconstruction was sort of overturned in 1876, when the Wilson Administration re-segregated the Federal bureaucracy after Teddy Roosevelt and Taft … African Americans understandably said “Enough, already. We haven’t had the … what Lincoln called the unfinished work” has not only not been completed, it hasn’t been very nobly advanced for very long.

And although Dr. King was a huge fan of the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln, revisionist scholars from the African American community and the White Community began lionizing Frederick Douglass above all and the abolitionists secondarily.

But I still say, through the power of communication, however …

HEFFNER: Manipulations

HOLZER: … tricky they were … manipulative they were … through his astonishing gift for language and his calmness and his resolve … he does deserve the mantle Great Emancipator.

Whether he gets it back or not … or whether we all agree in, in good spirit and the, the ethos of sharing that it was Lincoln, it was Congress, it was the abolitionist movement, it was the free Black community, it was slaves generally walking off the plantation and it was certainly African American soldiers fighting to make good on the promise of emancipation.

And certainly the 13th Amendment which, again, Lincoln showed his political skill in getting passed … forcing Congress, really to come up with those extra votes whether he had to promise Postmaster-ships or Ambassadorships or … ministers, we didn’t have Ambassadors … anything it took to get Congress to pass that amendment … he did. Because the cause was just.

HEFFNER: Harold, the last time you were here we spoke about what President-elect Barack Obama might learn for his interregnum … the period before he was inaugurated from Abraham Lincoln’s interregnum … having brought the subject up, what else do you think you could legitimately say about a) Lincoln and b) Obama today?

HOLZER: I’m, I’m startled by the fact that it’s been four years since we sat at this table, but … well, he did everything according to the Lincoln book. If you look back.

He, he read Lincoln, is famously seen carrying another author’s book during the …

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

HOLZER: … interregnum … a very painful experience for me, but he, he replicated Lincoln’s Inaugural journey. He dedicated his Inauguration to Lincoln.

And a great historical irony, which nobody has realized and I’m thrilled to be able to say it to you and one the air. We all remember that he took the oath of office on the Bible Lincoln used. Brought out of the Library of Congress … for Michele Obama to hold and for him to put his hand on and swear the oath.

The truth is it wasn’t Lincoln’s Bible. Lincoln’s Bible was not unpacked at the time. And when they realized on the portico of the Capitol that there was no Bible for the ceremony, they raced to the Supreme Court downstairs.

They said, “We need the Bible … your Bible … which they read from every morning before that august body began its deliberations … brought it up to the portico and that’s what Lincoln used … so Barack Obama took his oath on the Bible that Roger Taney used …

HEFFNER: Oh my goodness …

HOLZER: … in the Dred Scott decision to declare that African Americans could never be citizens of this country. It’s a great, much more powerful story.

But anyway … both faced crises, both came in with a lack of confidence, lack of experience held against them. What President Obama can take comfort from, I think, although he certainly, if he wants to be re-elected has to slug it out and not just wait for history to … for lightening to strike twice … is that … people do think that in a crisis, as Lincoln put it in his homey way … it’s better not to change horses in midstream. But that it’s a slug fest and it’s usually not decided until the end.

Lincoln was certain that he was going to be defeated and he thought the emancipation would be held against him by White voters. Ah, as an act to change the focus of the war that they had signed up … reluctantly in many cases … to fight.

We’re going to fight to, to ensure that this Republic endures, but we’re not fighting for Black rights, we have enough trouble with out own jobs and our own place in society. And it was an amazing thing that he got the, the rationale for the war changed in mid-war … convincingly … again a part of his accomplishment as an emancipator, that’s often forgotten.

HEFFNER: Didn’t he feel he had to?

HOLZER: Yes, he felt he had to and he was making preparations for losing … which means he was … he had enlisted Frederick Douglass to create another Black army, an army that would go into the South and announce to as many enslaved people as possible that they were free then, thence forward and forever under the terms of the proclamation … so to get out of town, really fast … because the President’s going to lose and when George B. McClellan an anti-emancipation democrat takes office, he can just cancel the whole thing … it’s only a Presidential order. It’s not a law.

And Lincoln was so devoted to the cause by this time that he wanted the word spread to as many people as possible. Another indication that he deserves some moral credit here.

HEFFNER: Other parallels that you see between the last four years, the Obama Administration and Lincoln’s first years?

HOLZER: You know, aside from the fact that one is engaged in a great civil war, as he put it, and there is a loss of life that would be something like eight million by 21st century standards … we’ve recalibrated the number now.


HOLZER: Most historians agree that it’s about 750,000 …and that may not be the whole story either. Aside from that difference, thank goodness we don’t have that kind of fratricidal warfare on our hands, I think there, there are similarities and in a way, aside from the shooting war, President Obama has a tougher job.

Because the reason that Lincoln was able to get … to raise troops …to get suspension of habeas corpus approved by Congress and to get the 13th Amendment passed is that the Southern part of the Congress …

HEFFNER: Wasn’t there.

HOLZER: … it’s not so now. And, and, and we also didn’t have this endless filibuster rule that for everything from the appointment of a clerk to a treaty and the national debt and the debt ceiling … it’s a tremendous burden now. And the other similarity, as President Obama himself pointed out at the National Press Club is that the Presidency really does take its toll.

President Obama was in his forties when he was elected and he showed a couple of slide of himself and said, “This is what I look like now” and if the people in their good graces see fit to re-elect me, this is what I think I’ll look like in four years …” and he put up a picture of Morgan Freeman (laugh). So, he’s, he’s feeling it. It’s difficult, it’s painful.

HEFFNER: Do you see lessons that he might have learned, that perhaps he didn’t?

HOLZER: That … that … who didn’t?

HEFFNER: That, that President Obama did not take advantage of learning from Lincoln?

HOLZER: I think he has his inherent caution in his DNA. But I also …

HEFFNER: Lincoln’s inherent caution …

HOLZER: … Obama has Lincoln’s inherent political caution. Lincoln liked to lead from behind. As he said, he, he hasn’t controlled events … events have controlled him.

But again, slightly over-modest in that calculation. He liked that appearance because he was sort of Whig-ish in his, in his, in his beliefs on how the Presidency should function.

I don’t think that works anymore. I mean I think in the, in the age of not only television, but the worldwide Web and 24 hour coverage of everything that’s going on … the Presidency requires boldness almost all the time. And I’m afraid that President Obama has this inherent caution that, that marks all of his calculations about how to, how to lead. And, he may be closer to the Roosevelt age right now, where we need someone to tell us that we have nothing to fear.

HEFFNER: Do you have any sense, in your studies of Lincoln and you’ve studied Lincoln for so long now … that Lincoln would have understood contemporary needs better.

HOLZER: Well, it reminds me of the story that the late David Donald liked to tell … people love to bring modern political discourse into his Lincoln classroom and one of them angrily said, “What would Lincoln say about school busing?”.

And David Donald said “That’s easy. He would say ‘What is a bus?’.”

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

HOLZER: (Laugh) So … but …

HEFFNER: You are going to answer the question …

HOLZER: I am going to answer …

HEFFNER: … I can tell.

HOLZER: … because … I can only guess … it’s counter factual, obviously. But Lincoln was enormously adaptable. Things were changing from the time he entered politics in 1832 to his … to the time he issued the preliminary proclamation in 1862.

The country had become much less isolated, the telegraph had been introduced … instant communications were possible in terms of what 19th century expectations were … a story could get out the next morning. It was possible to take a dispatch from Washington to New York or use the Associated Press, a new concept and get the word out.

So I … and he took advantage of that. As I say, he had an AP reporter in the White House to record his disobliging comments to the free Black leaders. So I have no doubt that he would be every bit as masterful at this, at the new techniques … as David Axelrod and all of them put together.

HEFFNER: Back in my Hollywood days … if I may put it that way …

HOLZER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I used to argue with my friend Jack Valenti about what we should do about this, that or the other thing. And he’d always quote Lyndon Johnson and … a quote he got from Sam Rayburn … “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

And I would say, you know, my favorite President was … political leader … was Abraham Lincoln and I remember his point about “When new views proved to be true views, I shall adopt them”. And that’s why I wondered if you felt that Lincoln was the one who was most likely, or more likely to adopt new views ands make use of new techniques and respond better to the demands of his times.

HOLZER: Absolutely. And it’s extraordinary that fate found him, of all people, the dark horse, unexpected nominee and that, that, that fascination for advancement and mobility that characterized his personality and his politics … was evident even, even in his role as Commander-in-Chief.

He was absolutely fascinated with new technologies …for war. Whether it was land and sea mines, “nighter” which was sort of a 19th century version of napalm … the deadlier the better. He said the war cannot be prosecuted with elder squirts filled with rosewater.

If it was a new technology … rifle, cannon, iron clad warships built right here in Greenpoint, Brooklyn … he was there. He loved new science and he loved the application of new ideas. So he was always prepared … but he had this maddening habit of saying that he’s not interested in any thing unless it’s proven. Meanwhile he was the biggest innovator that’s … who has ever served as Commander-in-Chief.

HEFFNER: You like him?


HEFFNER: After all these years and, you know, it’s, it’s so funny because I thought, “Gee ..”, as I read the book, “Harold’s turning coat …

HOLZER: Oh, that’s, that’s harsh (laugh).

HEFFNER: … yeah, well it was worse than harsh because then I realized that you had to admire him … he was the person you have been in politics … and in your business life … you are a molder of opinion.

HOLZER: And, and like most leaders today, you don’t admit that you’re doing that. I mean every leader that we’ve known over the years … pretends that he or she is … you know, absorbing the adulation, fending off the criticism and not strategizing it. I think the strategy … the, the mechanics of it, the gears show now more than ever because the scrutiny is so darn intense.

But, again, it was intense in Lincoln’s time and I don’t mean to demean him so much as to happily expose things that maybe have been overlooked in terms of his ability to manipulate “the media” … wasn’t called that then, but we call it now … his ability to move public opinion. I have nothing but admiration for it. I just think it’s a part of the puzzle … a part of the personality and, and acumen that we’ve ignored. And I think there’s nothing wrong with showing it and putting it out there in the full light of history.

HEFFNER: Where do you go next with Lincoln? Where do YOU go next?

HOLZER: I know just where I’m going. I’m .. I’m doing a book about the press in the age of Lincoln and boy are you going to be shocked. (Laugh) Because … if you think I’ve gone from acolyte to doubter … there are some parts of the story that are going to be difficult for us to bear … I think … because he was … you know … all for a free press … until he was President. And there were lots of First Amendment issues that came under a different kind of scrutiny once he assumed office and once the country dissolved.

Again, do the, do the ends justify the means? That’s the, the constant question with Lincoln. But he was so deeply involved with the press I don’t think the story has ever been, has ever been told before. I’m eager to tell it.

HEFFNER: In a minute … what do you mean involved with the press?

HOLZER: I mean …

HEFFNER: At the mercy of it?

HOLZER: Never … I mean the press was, was entirely partisan and openly so … when President Clinton asked me the question what am I doing next … I told him about this … and he said, “Well, that’s just the way Fox and MSNBC are now. It’s just that in those days, they admitted it. They should admit it again”. Well, they don’t. They did then, Lincoln aligned himself with newspapers, he, he wrote for them, he editorialized for them, he strategized with them … they were an arm of politics in the 19th century and I don’t think that story’s ever really been told. And he certainly used the press for the emancipation … he used it to get the word out.

HEFFNER: Harold, hurry up and write it, finish it, so we can do a program about it.

HOLZER: It’s a deal.

HEFFNER: Okay. Thanks for joining me today on The Open Mind.

HOLZER: Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.