An Interview with The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln: The Story of the Most Reviled American President Author Larry Tagg

Larry Tagg’s The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln is the first study of its kind to concentrate on what Lincoln’s contemporaries actually thought of him during his lifetime. Sarah Keeney of Savas Beatie LLC recently discussed this new book with its author.

: You were born in Lincoln, Illinois. Did that spark your interest in Lincoln?

LT: Not consciously, but perhaps something happens to a person growing up in the heart of Lincoln country, as I did until I was eight years old. My hometown was the only town in America named for Abraham Lincoln before he became president—in 1853, after he worked as counsel for the new railroad that led to the town’s founding. And from Lincoln, Illinois, my family moved to Decatur, where we lived on the Sangamon River, a few miles from the Lincoln family’s first Illinois home. People there still talked about Lincoln in a neighborly way, and I picked it up, even as a young kid.

: How did you come up with the idea to write this book?

LT: I initially began to gather material for a history of the Army of the Potomac. But early on in that project, I bumped into an amazing amount of anti-Lincoln references by its generals. The intensity and personal nature of their animosity was remarkable. I thought, “Now here’s a story!” I had only glimpsed a tiny part of the story, as it turned out.

: I know you used a wide variety of primary source material. Tell our readers what some of those sources were and how you conducted your research.

LT: For a couple of years, I read everything I could get my hands on about Lincoln, focusing on his contemporaries’ comments on his presidency. I spent lots and lots of time at the California State University at Sacramento library, which has an excellent Civil War section. Then I started sending away for complete archives of Democratic newspapers of the Civil War, especially the Chicago Times, the New York World, and The (Columbus, OH) Crisis. I read every Civil War issue of those papers on microfilm. (Laughing.) My eyeballs were rolling around like searchlights after a few hours of that, but it was worth it to have done the original research.

Whenever I spotted a book I had to have that wasn’t at Sac State, I bought it online. I bought so many of the important primary sources that it finally got so that most of the time, if I saw an important reference that I had to check, I already had the book in my bookcase. In the latter stages of my research, I was helped tremendously by the fact that Civil War references and primary sources were coming online due to the Googlebooks digitization project. Increasingly, if I found a promising reference, no matter how obscure, I could read it online.

: What surprised you the most during your research?

LT: I was astonished at what a hole Lincoln was in even as he took up the presidency. So much of that was due to the low prestige of the presidency itself, as a result of the eccentricities of the Jacksonian Period: the weak central government, the weak president, the disrepute of government itself in the wake of years of rigged nominating conventions and the spoils system, the power of the partisan press, and, of course, the torsions of the slavery argument. For this reason, the context of Lincoln’s appearance in 1860 dominates the first part of my book, and I think that it is crucial to understanding Lincoln’s lack of popularity during his term.

Also, the level of animosity toward Lincoln is astounding. It appears to have been a country with a no-holds-barred brawler, a Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann, at the editorial desk of every newspaper in the country. I found so many over-the-top disparagements of Lincoln—even out-and-out threats!—that I only needed include the most outrageous of them to fill up a book.

: Why do you think that Lincoln was so hated during his presidency?

LT: Americans were suspicious that they had been robbed of the government that the Founding Fathers intended, especially when Lincoln, an anonymous rustic, was produced as a candidate by a sectional party, and was assured of election by the suicide of the only national party, the Democrats. That he was dedicated to re-defining property to exclude slaves was the most explosive issue in American history—to get something of the fury Lincoln’s candidacy produced, it is necessary to imagine a modern-day candidate who would make one-third of the country fear losing the entire value of their homes. Then, once the war started, he presided over a centralization of power that was terrifying in a country so dedicated to the decentralization of power that a civil war had just broken out over it. Finally, he was a centrist in a country whose citizens had been driven to extremes in the heat of the national convulsion over slavery—whatever he did, citizens thought he had either gone too far, or failed to go far enough.

: Walk us through some of the high and low points of Lincoln’s presidency.

LT: Lincoln’s presidency started at a low point—his election by less than 40% of the voters, which was an electoral mandate against him—and proceeded to an even lower point—his secret entry by night train, which produced derision and laughter across the nation—even before he was sworn in. The whole while he appeared to be indecisive and drifting during the Secession Winter. His first “high point” in the North was produced by his Proclamation calling for 75,000 men to put down the rebellion after Fort Sumter, but at the same time it produced a disastrous “low point” in the Border States, four of which promptly seceded and doubled the size of the Confederacy, and made it a credible nation for the first time.
During the first eighteen months of the war, the success of his presidency sank with the misfortunes of the Union armies. There was failure after failure in the East: First Bull Run, Ball’s Bluff, the Peninsula Campaign, and Second Bull Run. (He did, however, have one period, from February to May of 1862, where there was swift success in the West and the Northern mood was briefly buoyant.)

: How did the Northern victory at Antietam change things?

LT: It allowed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which immediately prompted a strong Northern rebuke at the polls in the mid-term elections in the fall of 1862. That was certainly a low point, and things got worse and worse, with the Northwest threatening to secede and Copperheadism everywhere ascendant, until the double victory of Gettysburg and Vicksburg turned the tide at the beginning of July 1863.

That gave Lincoln another respite until the bloodbath of Grant’s Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864. All that summer, Northern war-weariness almost sank Lincoln’s reelection hopes, and only at the last minute did Sherman and Sheridan win victories that lifted Lincoln into another term. He was still not popular, however, and controversy plagued every month of his presidency until his assassination in April 1865. It was only after his death that he became “popular.”

: Do you think readers will be surprised by what they discover in your book? If so, what do you think will surprise them the most?

LT: If they’re anything like the few people who have read it so far, they will be very surprised. Lincoln is not a figure you associate with loathing. Perhaps most surprising, to me at least, was the intensity of racism in the North and the Northern hostility toward the Emancipation Proclamation, which almost led to the secession of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, caused a large part of the army to desert, and culminated in the New York Draft Riots, which were the second-largest insurgency in American history, after the Civil War itself.

: There are hundreds of Lincoln books out there. What makes yours different?

LT: I continue to be amazed that nobody has written this book before. Every book about Lincoln makes occasional mention of opposition to this or that policy, but there has never been a full treatment of the length and breadth of that opposition, which was so vehement, so relentless, and so ubiquitous—coming from all sides, Republican as well as Democrat. My book goes directly against the grain of mainstream Lincoln literature, which almost invariably takes a reverential tone, and leaves out the rabid ravings of the opinion-makers of the time. This conventional treatment has left the false impression that Lincoln governed from strength, when the more interesting truth is that he accomplished so much in the teeth of violent dissent. To me, this adversity is a large part of what makes Lincoln great.

: That dovetails nicely to my final question: What do you think of Lincoln?

LT: I am in awe of the man. He is one of the few true originals. As a writer, I notice especially his writing. Every time he wrote anything, even the merest note to a clerk, he put a stamp on it that is recognizably his. There is an agile strength and a love of logic and clarity in his writing, wedded to the rhythms of the King James Bible, that is beautiful. There is greatness in it.

But even more importantly, his political acumen—so at odds with his awkward appearance, as many men testified—was a thing to wonder at. That a man who called himself “an accidental instrument,” with very little prestige or popularity, could overmaster the centripetal force of an entire nation of thirty million people and pull it back together again, and at the same time achieve emancipation, which most of the nation, even the North, was against, is a miracle of politics, politics in its very best sense.

: Thank you for your time, Mr. Tagg.

LT: You are welcome, thank you.


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