Gabor S. Boritt
National Humanities Medal
With the approach of the 2009 Lincoln bicentennial, Americans’ interest in Abraham Lincoln has surged, with dozens of new books appearing on the president. But it wasn’t always that way, recalls Gabor Boritt, director and founder of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College and the Robert Fluhrer Professor of Civil War Studies. Lincoln and the Civil War were far less popular in the 1970s than they are today. People “were sick of war, tired of war,” Boritt believes. For a while, he says, Lincoln “seemed to disappear.” Boritt’s first book, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream, which appeared in 1978, was one of only a handful of Lincoln books published that decade.A tireless advocate for the study of Lincoln and the Civil War, Boritt brings a passion for the subject that began during his early years as a Hungarian immigrant to the United States. Born in Budapest in 1940, he endured harsh conditions during the war, only to encounter new hardships under the Soviet regime that followed. His mother died, his father and brother went to prison, and he was sent to an orphanage. After joining the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, he fled the country in the wake of its failure.
As a teenage refugee with little or no English, “I came to New York. But it was a huge place, difficult for me,” he says. Someone advised him to “go west,” and he did—moving all the way to South Dakota. Somewhere along the way, he picked up a booklet of Abraham Lincoln’s writings to practice reading English. “I was just amazed by all these things he was saying,” Boritt recalls. “There was something about him that pulled you deeply, meaningfully.” A lifelong fascination had begun.
“I didn’t quite know what to do with myself,” he remembers, but he had always liked history, and he decided to pursue his education. In 1962, he graduated from Yankton College with a degree in history. A master’s degree, also earned in South Dakota, was followed by a doctorate at Boston University. Boritt soon went to Vietnam to teach history (including Civil War history) to U.S. troops.
Boritt’s first book pushed the field of Lincoln studies in a new direction. Instead of focusing on military or political affairs, he looked at economics. Tracing Lincoln’s economic beliefs from the Illinois state legislature, where he championed waterway and railroad improvements, to the White House, Boritt found that Lincoln emphasized the individual’s “right to rise,” to use Boritt’s own phrase. Lincoln, he said, saw the freedom of upward economic mobility (at first, primarily for whites) as an American ideal, as well as a force that could propel economic growth. Boritt has since written, cowritten, or edited sixteen books on the Civil War and Lincoln, including The Lincoln Enigma: The Changing Faces of an American Icon, The Gettysburg Nobody Knows, and Jefferson Davis’s Generals.
After teaching at several universities, Boritt joined the faculty at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. In 1983, he founded the college’s Civil War Institute. Among its other activities, the institute may be best known for its annual summer conference, which brings scholars and participants from the United States and around the world together for a one-week immersion in the Civil War. The 2009 topic is “The Assassination” and will include notable authors such as Catherine Clinton and Edward Steers Jr.
Boritt is also chairman of the board of the annual $50,000 Lincoln Prize, first awarded in 1991, for the best nonfiction historical book on Lincoln or the Civil War era; there is now a $10,000 Lincoln Prize for electronic works. He is a member of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and a member of the board of the Gettysburg Foundation. His life has also been the subject of a new documentary, Budapest to Gettysburg, by his son, filmmaker Jake Boritt. “At first I hated” the idea, admits the elder Boritt, who prefers not to dwell on his difficult years in Europe. But pride in his son’s accomplishment has outweighed his reluctance, and he is now quick to note the recognition the film has received.
Boritt’s most recent book, The Gettysburg Gospel, looks at the circumstances and history of the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln began to write the speech just two days ahead of delivering it, Boritt says, incorporating ideas and phrases that he had used before, but “in a new way, one of a kind.” The speech and its stirring call for “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” received little attention at the time, he notes. Lincoln was not the main speaker at Gettysburg, and in that era, great speeches were expected to be much longer. “It took years, about a generation, before it became a central moment,” says Boritt. “It is an idea that keeps growing and growing.”
By Esther Ferington