Looking for Lincoln

Journalist Andrew Ferguson and NEH Chairman Bruce Cole discuss America's love-hate relationship with our sixteenth president.

HUMANITIES, November/December 2007, Volume 28, Number 6

Journalist Andrew Ferguson is widely admired as a writer's writer. Over the years, in magazines from The Weekly Standard to Reader's Digest to Time and beyond, he has proven himself to be one of the few genuine stylists in American journalism and one of the wisest, funniest writers around. No less an authority on humor and good prose than Christopher Buckley said Ferguson “just may be the best writer of his generation.” Ferguson's recent book, Land of Lincoln, “a hilarious, offbeat tour of Lincoln shrines, statues, cabins, and museums,” according to the New York Times, explores America's love-hate relationship with our sixteenth president.

He recently sat for an interview discussion with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole.


How to Become a Journalist

ANDREW FERGUSON: Well, my official title is senior editor at the Weekly Standard magazine. “Senior editor” is one of those terms of art in the magazine business that means I have no seniority and I don't edit anything. It's actually one of the great jobs in all journalism. I get to write at the length I want to write, usually, and journalism is an entrée into any kind of world that you can stick your big foot into.

Cole: Sounds like a great job. How did you end up in journalism?

Ferguson: The turning point came when I graduated from college, Occidental College in Los Angeles, in 1978. We'd just come out of a recession and were starting another one. And I took a battery of tests for job day. They brought in all these corporate people to interview the graduates and, afterwards, I went in to see the employment counselor. She slowly looked over my results. Finally, she looked up at me and said, “You understand that you have no marketable skills whatsoever.”

A light went off in my head: I think I'll try journalism. But first I became a professional musician.

Cole: Really? What instrument?

Ferguson: Guitar and piano or keyboard. I thought I could be the next Paul McCartney—or at least David Cassidy. I had a house in East L.A. that I was renting for $35 a month. And I quit the music business when I couldn't make the rent. It was a sad state of affairs.

After that, I enrolled in graduate school at the Graduate Theological Union of the University of California at Berkeley, in philosophy, which had been my major, philosophy and religion. I went from playing these clubs on the Sunset Strip to living in monkish squalor in the Berkeley Hills, trying to get a graduate degree in philosophy of religion. That didn't last very long. Then one thing led to another, and I found journalism, pretty much by a process of elimination.

Cole: Where did you work before the Standard?

Ferguson: Eventually I went to graduate school for journalism, which I wouldn't recommend to anybody, in Bloomington, Indiana, at Indiana University. And there, I was asked to do a profile of R. Emmett Tyrrell, who was the editor of the American Spectator.

Cole: Was he there?

Ferguson: Yes, the magazine was in Bloomington. But the faculty had real problems with the American Spectator. When I got hired to do an internship there, they wouldn't give me any credit for it, although they would give credit for working at these freebie newspapers given away in record stores and head shops.

They really had a thing about the Spectator. I figured I had to choose sides between the school of journalism and the Spectator, and I threw in with the Spectator.

Cole: They didn't like it because it was a publication of the right?

Ferguson: Back then, it was a conservative New York Review of Books. It was very highbrow. And it was just a wonderful magazine, tremendously diverse. It covered a whole range of subjects with a wonderful sense of humor. It was really quite a different magazine from the one that emerged, I think, during the Clinton years, which was devoted much more to investigative journalism. So I got hired at the magazine full time. In '85, the magazine moved out here. I followed the magazine, and stayed with it for another couple of years.

Then I went to Scripps Howard News Service, where I was an editorial features writer. I did that for a couple of years, and then got asked to write speeches for the first President Bush. I went to work for him in January of '92 when his approval rating was about 48. By March, I'd gotten it down to 33.

It was all downhill from there. That was a very rough year. His candidacy was doomed. He was not going to be reelected, and everybody in the country knew it except for those of us who lived and worked in that walled compound.

Cole: This was going along with the fact that you had no marketable skills, right?

Ferguson: Yes. After being removed from the White House I went to work as a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine, and stayed there until we founded the Standard in 1995.

Black and white photograph of buildings in downtown city block, 1869
Photo caption

Just visible in this 1869 image of downtown Springfield, IL, are Lincoln's law offices (second building from the end of the block).

Copyright Corbis


The Big Abe Lincoln

Cole: Let me just say that Land of Lincoln is a fabulous book. It's entertaining. It's instructive. I think it makes several important points, not only about Lincoln, but about our memory and about our heroes. And it's a very personal book.

Ferguson: Well, I grew up a Lincoln buff. Every time John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln came on TV, I cleared my schedule to watch it, which is not hard to do when you're ten. I had pictures of Lincoln on my wall. I had souvenirs from the many trips my parents had taken us on along the Lincoln Heritage Trail.

Cole: And you grew up in Chicago, right?

Ferguson: Yes, right outside Chicago. My father worked for Isham, Lincoln, & Beale, which is a law firm founded by Robert Todd Lincoln, Lincoln's only surviving son. Of course, he was long gone by the time my father worked there. Right down the street from us was a house that loomed large in my mind, because Lincoln had apparently spent the night there once on his way to Chicago from Springfield. As a boy, I couldn't go by this house without somehow conjuring up this figure walking up the steps to the front.

Cole: So this was something you caught?

Ferguson: Yes, like a virus. What differentiates that time, the early to mid-'60s from our own, is that there seemed to be more opportunities to catch the Lincoln bug. For one thing, the culture wasn't quite as cluttered as it is now.

Cole: What in particular started you on this book?

Ferguson: I picked up the newspaper one day, in 2003 or 2004, and there was a headline in the Post, or maybe it was the Washington Times, that said, “Lincoln Statue Stirs Outrage in Richmond.” And to find the words outrage and Lincoln in the same sentence—it's kind of oxymoronic. The city fathers in Richmond, Virginia—the capital of the Confederacy—decided to put in a statue of Lincoln, and it touched off a firestorm. There were protests in the streets and letter-writing campaigns and ads in the newspaper.

This was so beyond my understanding of Lincoln and so alien to my intuition about Americans and our past. I mean, we're supposedly so indifferent to history. It's not supposed to stir our blood at all. We're supposedly so very present-oriented and future-oriented and commercial-minded and so on. And here in Richmond was a standing rebuke to this idea.

So I went down there. Two things happened. The anti-Lincoln people held a big anti-Lincoln conference. They brought in these scholars to sort of have a big hate against Lincoln.

I was expecting a bunch of crackers and hillbillies. But they were actually, you know, just regular ole American guys. They could've been airlifted off any suburban golf course in America and transplanted to this hotel in downtown Richmond. They were wearing the Izod shirts, the khakis, the brown loafers, you know, the native dress of my people.

Cole: Right.

Ferguson: They weren't stupid. They weren't even really hateful. And they knew a hell of a lot more about Lincoln than I did. And this was extremely unnerving. But the second thing was even more unnerving. To rebut these anti-Lincoln people, the Virginia Historical Society and the city fathers in Richmond put on a pro-Lincoln conference. They brought down their own Lincoln scholars to explain why Lincoln was great, and why it was such a good idea to build a statue to him. And they were terrible.

I sat there in the audience, hoping to hear what it was that Lincoln had done that was so essential to the country's greatness. And instead they would say things like, “He was very tolerant of ambiguity.” “Lincoln was very non-judgmental.” My favorite was, “He eschewed nationalistic triumphalism.” And sure enough, the Lincoln statue that they were bringing in was, in fact, quite a small life-sized affair, very humble, placed at ground level. They loved the fact that it was so small and diminutive, because it showed us a sensitive Lincoln.

Now, I may not know, and certainly at the time did not know, that much about Lincoln, but I did know that he waged one of the most savage wars in our history. And non-judgmentalism is generally not high on the list of priorities for guys who wage wars like that.

I realized in Richmond that we'd lost the capacity, we'd lost the language even to describe his greatness. These pro-Lincoln scholars were his friends, and they couldn't tell you why he was great. I realized I was at the beginning of a story, not its end. There was a book to be written here about how we think of Lincoln, why we love him or hate him, what he means to the country at large.

Cole: You have a fascinating chapter on the Chicago Historical Society. I thought that was a case study in how we sometimes pursue subjects in ways that wind up diminishing or trivializing them.

Ferguson: Even if that's not the intent. The Chicago Historical Society was very important to my childhood. It wasn't far from my father's office, so if he had to work on a Saturday, I could go spend a day there.

Maybe I was a weird kid, but I loved going to the Chicago Historical Society. It presented history as this dramatic phenomenon that was still with us, still present. You walked in through the doors, and there was a huge bronze statue representing a terrible murderous moment in the Fort Dearborn massacre. It was terrifying to a kid—and deeply impressive.

But the whole museum was built around this idea of history as a living, pulsing thing, filled with drama and greatness and heroism and, of course, evil and darkness as well.

Lincoln was a major focus of the Chicago Historical Society, partly because he had been important to the city, partly because they had inherited, early on, a huge collection of wonderful Lincoln stuff, collected by a candymaker named Charles Gunther, who also collected the skin of the serpent of the Garden of Eden, the mummy of the woman who fished Moses out of the bulrushes. He was a gullible fellow. But he was also very rich, and he truly loved Lincoln. He bequeathed all this stuff to the Historical Society.

Cole: When did he die?

Ferguson: He died in 1924 or 1925. By then, the museum already had a Lincoln emphasis. Lincoln himself had donated his handwritten copy of the Emancipation Proclamation to someone who then donated it to the Historical Society. So to house this invaluable document they built a majestic, state-of-the-art, fireproof building, which, of course, went up in flames three years later, taking the Emancipation Proclamation with it. An unbelievable loss.

But they also had dioramas there when I was a kid. You'd enter these long dark rooms and peer into little windows of light and see miniature renderings of events in Lincoln's life. There was no question about what the narrative meant. It was about a boy born in poverty, who struggled against harsh winters and a pitiless environment, and so on. But through hard work and the general application of sound principles, he became a great man.

Cole: And the right to rise. He had the right to rise.

Ferguson: Yes. That's essential to the story.

Cole: I have to tell you my own experience with this. When I was a kid-I grew up in Cleveland-I used to go down to the Western Reserve Historical Society. And I loved that place. It was in an old house that was built for John Hay, who was one of the most fascinating figures around Lincoln. He never lived in it. He was married to the daughter of a big Cleveland industrialist, Amasa Stone.

They had Civil War uniforms. They had a lock of Napoleon's hair, which probably wasn't Napoleon's. And they had these little dioramas of life on the Western Reserve and historical scenes. Now, I went back there, I don't know, three years ago, because the Endowment gave them a grant to catalog the archives of what was at LTV Steel, which went out of business. And when I was there, I asked if they still had their dioramas. And they said, “Yeah, they're down in the basement.”

So we went down there, and it was sort of all jumbled up. And I looked at them, and, you know, it all came back. It was terrific.

Ferguson: The dioramas from the Chicago Historical Society are now stored underground in a former bomb shelter in Libertyville, Illinois. It was explained to me that they probably will never be brought out again.

Cole: So what's changed?

Ferguson: Well, the phrase I keep coming back to, and you see it vividly in the story of the Chicago Historical Society is C. Vann Woodward's wonderful phrase “the fall of the American Adam.” In the late '60s, early '70s, we saw the rise of cynicism disguised as sophistication. Any traditional reverence for the country's goodness, for the men and women who, through their individual efforts, made such an inspiring and instructive story in the larger story of mankind, was somehow a misapprehension—evidence of naïveté.

If we were to speak of American history or heroes—always with ironic air-quotes—it was only for the purpose of deprecation, to drag them down from the pedestal.

Woodward thinks of this development as a loss of innocence. But I'm not sure the traditional view was so innocent or unsophisticated. If you go back and look at, for example, the Historical Society's reverence for Lincoln, it was always mixed in with a perfectly realistic understanding. The traditionalists acknowledged he was a very ambitious man, a wealthy man by the end of his life, not a poor plebian. He had a taste for finer things, and so on.

Anyway, somehow the cynical reaction against the traditional view got mixed up with a class snobbery.

I remember talking to a college friend in 1976 or '77. We had both read the same Lincoln books as boys, had both been buffs. I mentioned the climactic scene in one of these beautiful picture books I had when young Lincoln goes down to New Orleans and witnesses a slave auction. He says, “If I ever have a chance to hit that, I'm going to hit it hard.” It's Lincoln's epiphany.

And my friend said, “Yeah, isn't that a bunch of crap?” And I said, “It is?” He said, “Oh, yeah. Everyone knows Lincoln was as much a racist as Jefferson Davis. All he really wanted to do was ship the slaves back to Africa. He didn't want to free them at all. The Emancipation Proclamation didn't free any slaves.” And so on.

I had this sort of class-based reaction. I thought: My friend's much more sophisticated than I am; he knows Lincoln was a fraud or at best a dope; I must be an idiot.

Cole: You had this naïve view of Lincoln. Very unsophisticated, you know.

Ferguson: Reverence was naïve. Cynicism was ipso facto worldly and sophisticated. I see this operating still today. Call it political correctness or whatever, but it's always mixed up with this pseudosophistication. People with college educations are especially susceptible to it.

Cole: It goes beyond Lincoln. When we look at our former heroes, we often hold the magnifying glass to their feet of clay. And Lincoln wasn't a perfect individual. David McCullough says if the Founders had been demigods, then what they did would've been unexceptional. They had all the human frailties, all the foibles, all the prejudices that make them like we are. But, in spite of all that, they were great figures.

Ferguson: Yes.

Cole: Lincoln is a great example. I always think of Lincoln, you know, as someone who was absolutely determined to make his way in the world. He was a very smart corporate lawyer. He wanted to get away from his past. One of the most interesting things is that he sent his son Robert to Phillips Exeter and to Harvard. I find that really, really interesting. But he also used his past to make him a regular American.

Ferguson: Right.

Cole: So do we have any heroes? I mean, aside from Lincoln?

Ferguson: Who can be a hero? Who can pass the extremely scrupulous tests we subject our heroes to? We've gotten ourselves in a difficult situation, at the moment. I'm willing to concede that the Lincoln that I envisioned as a little boy was, in real life, a more complicated figure.

But the pendulum has swung so far the other way. Think of his ideas about race, for example. In the early '60s, I got the idea that Lincoln was a modern racial liberal. As you point out, that wasn't the case at all.

So what happens when one discovers that, uh-oh, he made racist jokes, he wasn't for full citizenship rights for blacks? Then the pendulum swings and we conclude he must be a white supremacist, a devil.

Of course, now the pendulum is starting to swing back a little bit. We're at a point where Lincoln appears to be neither one thing nor another, neither the devil nor the icon. But the icon may be the thing that we need to recover.

Cole: And why do we need it?

Ferguson: Icons teach us things. I think Washington, in his willingness to forsake power, teaches us something essential about how to be a democratic leader, and I think Lincoln also returns us to something essential in our national creed. The iconic Lincoln reminds us of the idea that the Union, by itself, is not enough. The Union has to be dedicated to a proposition: that all men are created equal.

Without that icon, without the personification of this principle, of this understanding of our very being as a country, we risk losing the principle. If we don't have this man and this story to present it to us, we'll lose it.

Cole: We have to have these, I don't know, myth is the wrong word, that help unify us and point the way. They are heroes but they are also flawed.

Ferguson: Look at the Lincoln Memorial. Everywhere I went, talking to museum designers and scholars and Lincoln buffs of all kinds, I kept hearing this phrase, “We've got to get beyond this icon. We're going to get down to the real man, we're going to strip away the icon. We're not doing what earlier generations did, which is just uncritically worship this flawed human being as a god.”

Well, there are a couple of things to be said about that. One is, the real man is probably beyond our reach. Any man who's been dead for 140 years is in his deepest self unknowable. That shouldn't be a shock to us.

Cole: And especially Lincoln, I think.

Ferguson: Yes. Secondly, when you look at the icon in the Lincoln Memorial, they were, in fact, depicting a man. He's not a god. His hair is mussed; his tie is askew; his eyes are uneven; his hands are fidgety; he's wearing street clothes. He's not draped in the robes of a god or a demigod. He's a human being.

But he's really, really big. And, so, the question is, Why is he so big? You're not supposed to think of him as divine. You're supposed to think of him as a man who enlarged himself by dedicating himself to a very large principle.

That was the understanding of the people who built that memorial. It wasn't uncritical iconography.

Cole: One of the other things that I really liked about your book too was your discussion of Ida Tarbell. Now when was the last time Ida Tarbell's name appeared in print? I mean she was an enormously important figure. Talk a little bit about Ida Tarbell.

Ferguson: Well, I came to her through Lincoln first. I knew of her Lincoln biography when I was a little boy. Later, as a journalist, I looked for journalists to emulate.

Her great book was the exposé, The History of the Standard Oil Company.

Cole: She was a muckraker.

Ferguson: Yes. And she was herself a great debunker and absolutely fearless. She hated the abuse of capitalism represented by combines like Standard Oil. But she never took the easy way out by turning the malefactors of great wealth into cardboard villains, as other muckrakers did. She even made John D. Rockefeller seem almost human.

She had an enormously large heart for someone who had the zeal of a reformer. She refused to demonize. She was too magnanimous. And it made her writing timeless.

Not surprisingly, she was always drawn to Lincoln. When she wrote what was for her time the definitive two-volume biography of Lincoln in the 1890s, she did it the way a great journalist would. She left New York and went reporting through Lincoln country, through central Illinois and southern Indiana, and central Kentucky. She talked to as many people as she could who were still alive who had known Lincoln. She collected irreplaceable material, which is just now being looked at again by some historians.

It was her industriousness and her capacity for sympathy that drew me to her.

Political cartoon depicting a man in a tree and a woman fanning flames
Photo caption

A contemporary cartoon depicts muckraker Ida Tarbell, dubbed "Miss Tarbarrel" by John D. Rockefeller, fanning the flames with her incendiary standard oil expose. 

The Drake Well Museum

Cole: Is there a biography of her? Do you know?

Ferguson: One came out a few years ago. She's a problem for contemporary academic biographers. She was obviously a great feminist, but not a feminist in the late twentieth-century mold. She had serious doubts about women's suffrage, for example. But she lived her life with total independence, socially and ideologically.


Tracking Lincoln

Cole: Is there a Lincoln biography that you could recommend?

Ferguson: I think the greatest one-volume biography is by Benjamin Thomas.

Cole: Terrific book.

Ferguson: Yes. It came out in the early '50s. And I guess in some ways it has been overtaken by scholarly advances, but not enough to lessen its brilliance. It's beautifully written and perfectly balanced.But if I really wanted someone to give someone a quick Lincoln bath, I would give them three books. One is a photography book, Lincoln in Photographs: An Album of Every Known Pose. I think just looking at his face and seeing his face change, especially during the Civil War years, is a window into his greatness.

The second is Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln Reconsidered, edited by Don Fehrenbacher. It's a mountain of reminiscence from people who knew Lincoln. Fehrenbacher weighs their reliability. But the anecdotal material gives you Lincoln's humor, his sense of fun, playfulness, his seriousness and moodiness all combined with a vividness that even the best biography doesn't give you.

And the third is Herndon's Informants. These are the notes and transcripts that his former law partner William Herndon collected immediately after Lincoln's death.

Cole: Was this for his biography?

Ferguson: Yes. It was really one of the great reportorial projects in American history. I have a lot about Herndon in the book. He doesn't deserve to be forgotten. I think he's a heroic figure, tragic too.

As soon as Lincoln was dead, he went on a mission to collect interviews with everyone who knew or had seen Lincoln. He interviewed Lincoln's stepmother, for example, four months after Lincoln died, and the transcript is tremendously moving.

I'd say eighty percent of what we know about Lincoln's pre-presidential life we owe to Herndon's interviews. And now you can get them in the raw. They're well worth reading.

Anybody who leafs through those books, you know, for a week, will end up with a remarkably full picture of this endlessly fascinating man.

Cole: And do you recommend that they go to Springfield and Lincoln's boyhood home?

Ferguson: Yes.

Cole: Which brings me to another thing I want to talk to you about, the Lincoln Heritage Trail—a route you traveled with your parents.

Ferguson: Right.

Cole: You retraced it. With Tarbell in hand?

Ferguson: Yes, yes. Years after she published her biography, Tarbell tried to retrace the migration of Lincoln's ancestors through America, and then Lincoln's own journey from boyhood to manhood. She did it in the Teens and the Twenties, when the country still resembled what Lincoln had known.

My own idea was to reconstruct the Lincoln Heritage Trail, which was an artifact that had been debunked and had fallen into disuse over the last generation. You still see signs for it, lost among the weeds, in various places in the Midwest.

I decided I would try and piece together this Lincoln Heritage Trail that my parents had taken me on when I was a kid. I tried to find a map. I looked on the Internet, asked everyone I could. Couldn't find anything about the Lincoln Heritage Trail.

Finally, I got a call from the director of tourism in Illinois. She said, “I've got your guy—the man who invented the Lincoln Heritage Trail in1961. He's still alive.” I called the guy up. Waxing eloquent, I said, “It's such an honor to speak with you, because the trail is really from a time when people cared enough about Lincoln and our history to try to honor the places he'd been, to touch the places he'd touched. . . .”

And there was a long pause. He finally said, “Uh, thanks. But, you know, don't you, this whole thing was cooked up by the marketing guys at the American Petroleum Institute? They wanted to get people in their cars buying gasoline.”

The thing had been a marketing scam. They had done it out here in the East, a George Washington Heritage Trail. There was a Hiawatha Heritage Trail. And the Petroleum Institute had put together this one for Lincoln. All to sell gasoline. When you scratch anything in America, there's a profit motive not too far underneath.

Still I ended up going to these places and dragging my poor kids along.

Black and white photograph of a woman in a hat
Photo caption

Ida Tarbell

Copyright Bettmann/Corbis

Cole: Well, I'm not going to give it away. But that's one of the most charming parts of your book, where you take your kids on this road trip. Now, had you visited any of those places since you went with your parents?

Ferguson: A few. But I hadn't been to a lot of the places since I was a little boy.

Cole: I want to go to Hodgenville, maybe this year, to see Lincoln's birthplace. It's where the cabin is, right?

Ferguson: Yes.

Cole: In this magnificent John Russell Pope Building. I'm a big fan of John Russell Pope. It's a wonderful contrast, isn't it?

Ferguson: Ida Tarbell wrote beautifully about this. Ida was one of the ones who tried to raise money to buy back the Lincoln Cabin and buy the old farm where Lincoln had been born. She and Mark Twain and a number of luminaries at the time raised money.

Then when they decided to get John Russell Pope-who was just then beginning his career as America's greatest neoclassical architect-to build a temple around the Lincoln Cabin, Tarbell dropped out. A temple offended her small "r" republican sensibilities. She said this is not the way to pay tribute to this man of the people. It's too grandiose.

Later, though, when she went back to see these sights, she repudiated her earlier view. She said it far surpassed what she could've hoped, the beauty of it, in this little jewel building in this sylvan setting. She was quite moved by it, as anybody would be.

A funny thing though: it tells you a lot about neoclassicism. They very reverently reconstructed this Lincoln birth cabin. They had the exact dimensions. And then John Russell Pope built this marble temple around it.

But when Pope discovered that the cabin was a little too big for the chamber he had designed, he didn't make the chamber bigger. He trimmed the logs of the cabin.

The cabin may have been sacred enough to build a marble temple around it, but not so sacred that the architect couldn't lop off a couple of feet on each side to improve its neoclassical perfection.

Cole: Yes.

Ferguson: You'd also mentioned the land. This is one thing I wanted my kids to see. The best Lincoln historians evoke this—the prairie, the endlessness of it, the desolation in winter. To some of us, it's unspeakably dull. To other people, it speaks of a lonesomeness that Lincoln always carried with him.

Cole: Was that because they were so realistic?

Ferguson: Yes.

Cole: The hardscrabble existence.

Ferguson: Just making it through daily life was an act of heroism.

Cole: Springfield is wonderful to visit, for all the changes it has undergone. I haven't been there maybe in ten years. But I remember going to the law office. I hope that hasn't changed too much.

Ferguson: No. It hasn't.

Cole: Just getting a real sense of Lincoln there, you know, and the house.

Ferguson: Yes.

Cole: And then going to the tomb. Anybody who really wants to understand Lincoln has to start off in Kentucky, go through Indiana, and—

Ferguson: All the Lincoln sites are in close quarters in Springfield. You can see him walking to work, five or six blocks, and going to his law offices or back to his house. You can trace the path. The street grid is essentially the same. And you can look out the window of his law office onto the old State Capitol, which is exactly the view he would've had—it can be a haunting place.

Cole: In your book, you also talk about the collectors and buffs and the movers and shakers in the Lincoln world. It's not just about Lincoln.

Ferguson: Lincoln collecting literally began the weekend of his death. There were vendors selling square-inch patches from the sheets he bled on. The Victorians had these earthy obsessions—blood, hair.

Cole: The relics.

Photograph of steps leading up to a small temple with columns
Photo caption

John Russell Pope's temple is built around Lincoln's reconstructed cabin birthplace, which Pope had trimmed to accommodate the neoclassical design. 

Ferguson: The demand for Lincoln's stuff is always expanding, even now. But the supply of really good Lincoln stuff—letters in his own hand, signatures, clothes that he wore, kitchen utensils from his house, and so on—is finite. So the definition of good Lincoln stuff expands.

The best example is the market for Lincoln forgeries. Since you need $4,000 to $5,000 to get a real Lincoln signature now, there has been—incredibly—a robust market in Lincoln forgeries. In the 1920s and '30s, there were some very good Lincoln forgeries, by a guy named Cosey, another guy named Weisberg, a couple of others.

So now you can spend a few hundred bucks to get a Cosey or a Weisberg forgery of Lincoln's handwriting. To one of these Lincoln collectors, I said, “I can't believe people are trading in this stuff.” And he said, “Well, you've got to be careful, because there's a lot of fakes out there.”

Cole: Fake fakes.

Ferguson: Fake forgeries. People faking Weisberg faking Lincoln.

Cole: Do you collect any Lincoln?

Ferguson: No, it's beyond my price range. I have lots of books. That's about as far as I go. But, through a series of mistakes, I did actually get to hold a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address. And for somebody like me, who grew up a buff, this should've been just short of touching the garment of God or something.

But it wasn't quite as thrilling as I would have thought. It was still, of course, a thrill, but I realized that, for somebody like me who's interested in politics and who loves Lincoln the writer, Lincoln the thinker, Lincoln the theorist of democracy and the constitution, what thrills me most about the Gettysburg Address are the words and the poetry and the ideas.

Reading the Gettysburg Address sends chills up my spine, even more than holding the piece of paper that he held in his hand and seeing the ink that he had pressed upon the paper.

Cole: The ideas rather than the artifact.

Ferguson: Yes. But I fully understand how someone else could hold this thing and have it change their lives.

Cole: Now, some of the collectors you talk about in your book are apparently unhappy with you.

Ferguson: I'm at a loss actually to explain why they're mad at me. The first is Louise Taper—a genuinely great collector—who, since the book came out, has decided to give her collections to the State of Illinois, which is a perfectly admirable thing and in keeping with the person that I tried to present in the book. Anyway, I'm told she's mad about the book. The other collector is Judge Frank Williams, chief justice of Rhode Island Supreme Court. He thinks he's portrayed unfavorably, apparently.

Cole: You are an admirer of amateur historians and what they have done for Lincoln, right?

Ferguson: Amateurs have always had an essential role in our understanding of Lincoln. Academic historians just haven't devoted themselves to him for one reason or another.

When the era of political correctness began, and the professional historians turned to social history—“history from the bottom up”—the amateurs were there to write about Lincoln, and write about him in traditional forms: compelling narratives with good guys and bad guys, and so on. It's helped keep Lincoln alive and vibrant. It's been hugely important.

But the amateur tradition goes all the way back. Ida Tarbell was not a trained historian. Neither was Herndon, of course.

Cole: And if you look at the source of the word amateur, it is love.

Ferguson: Yes. Right. Exactly.

Cole: How has writing this book changed your ideas of Lincoln? Or not?

Ferguson: I was always learning something new about him. So your view of him gets complicated or expanded, in one direction or another in unexpected ways.

But not decisively. I mentioned going to Richmond and getting kind of shook up, talking to the Lincoln haters. I would always come home and I would sit down, if I had my faith in Lincoln shaken, and I'd take down a volume from his collected works. And I'd just start reading. The power of his words, their clarity, the emphatic moral content of what he wrote was cleansing. It was like a bath. I would become reacquainted with him all over again when I returned to one source of his greatness—the words themselves.

I keep getting asked, Why can't we forget him? Why do we keep coming back to Lincoln?

People say it's because he freed the slaves and saved the Union.

Yes, but that's just part of it. A lot of people were “union savers.” Garibaldi created a union in Italy—Bismarck in Germany. The nineteenth century was an era of consolidators, statesmen essentially bolting together their fractious countries. You can see Lincoln as part of that trend, I suppose.

But what Lincoln did was much greater than what Garibaldi did, or what Bismarck did. Lincoln wanted to save the Union, but he wanted to save a particular kind of Union. He wanted it to be a Union that was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

He thought that if the union wasn't saved, then that proposition was in danger, and it may have slipped into darkness altogether.

Cole: I think he was right.

Ferguson: Yes, I do too. This country was the vessel of that principle. That's the Union he wanted to save. And he succeeded. And the fact that he succeeded is one of the greatest achievements in human history.

Cole: And it was a close run thing. I mean, with history, it's always close run. What Lincoln's attitudes on race were, what Lincoln's motives were, at the end of the day, they fall away. And what he did and his ideas, you know, endure.

Ferguson: That's why, as weird or comical as some of these things were that I found in researching my book, my view is essentially optimistic. The more we think about Lincoln—when we grapple with him, even when we fight about him—we're on the right track. As Americans, we're giving our attention to the most important things.

Cole: And we need him.

Ferguson: Yes. We do.

Cole: Well, this has been great. Thank you very much.