History Unfiltered

Entrepreneur and onetime gubernatorial candidate Lewis Lehrman talks to NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about Abraham Lincoln’s pivotal speech in 1854.

HUMANITIES, July/August 2008, Volume 29, Number 4

Arriving by train in Washington, D.C., Lewis Lehrman wore a soft old brown hat and carried one piece of luggage, a canvas duffel bag that he’s owned for so long that several times his wife has sent it back to the manufacturer to have the handles replaced. For lunch he wanted to go somewhere simple, for a sandwich, though several of the District’s finest restaurants were but a few steps away. He does not talk much about Rite Aid, Morgan Stanley, or his current investment business, but lights up at the mention of Abraham Lincoln, about whom he has just written a book, Lincoln at Peoria. “You can tell a patriot by how he refers to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Washington preferred to be called General Washington and Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln. Even Mrs. Lincoln called him that, but also sometimes simply Lincoln. But never, ever Abe.”

NEH Chairman Bruce Cole: You’ve led a varied and exciting life as a successful businessman, a noted political candidate, and as one-half of the team of collectors and education advocates behind the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Now we learn you are also a historian. Why don't you start by telling me about some of the people who influenced you growing up?

Lewis Lehrman: My grandfather Louis was a primary influence. He was a hardworking Central Pennsylvania grocer who’d pulled himself up by the bootstraps. And my mother thought I should be an educated man. My father insisted upon excellence. Neither my mother nor my father had gone to college, so some of their aspirations for a full education were handed down to me.


COLE: And where was this?

LEHRMAN: In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where I was born and raised, not far from the school to which I went. And, in addition to Mrs. Diven, there was another great teacher, by the name of Duncan Campbell, who was a military historian. For our level, he was an extremely sophisticated teacher.

He took us to the Gettysburg battlefield, which is near the farm where Louise, my wife, and I started with our marriage. We are still building the farm. And I got to know Gettysburg as an 11- and 12-year-old, at a time when you could still find Indian arrowheads and bullets from the battle. If you were lucky, you could find some kind of military tool, such as a bayonet.

There Duncan Campbell regaled us with stories about the Blue and the Gray, and about the heroic aspects of American wartime statesmanship. For a young man, that kind of exercise can make a big impression. You imagine coming down the rocks, at full speed, with Colonel Chamberlain, in his great charge at Little Round Top.

At that time Lincoln’s birthday was still a national holiday. Much attention at school was paid to great moments of American history: the Emancipation Proclamation; the Thirteenth Amendment; the Declaration of Independence; and, of course, General Washington’s birthday was also a holiday.

There was a natural, unselfconscious, unapologetic patriotism inculcated in young men and women, characteristic, I think, of the nation as a whole.

black and white illustration of man talking at a podium, surrounded by crowd of people
Photo caption

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debate the slavery question in 1858/

Art Resource, New York

COLE: Then you went off to college, at Yale?

LEHRMAN: I did, and there I ran into a group of marvelous teachers. I majored in history, since I wanted to be a history teacher. And I won the Carnegie Teaching Fellowship and an immediate appointment to the Yale faculty as an assistant instructor.

So I began teaching, and then I tried for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to Harvard, won that, and went to Harvard. But that was the second, and last, year of my teaching. I went into the army, and then I went to work, but I never left the study of American history behind.

Everywhere I traveled, I would take recent works of scholarship on American history with me, because I spent a lot of days and evenings on the road, in hotels. My continued study of history ultimately led to the decision to do this book on Lincoln at Peoria.

Like so many other people, I was fascinated by this man who was, I think, a unique literary genius, as well as a unique statesman. So the book has been in the oven, so to speak, for more than twenty years.

COLE: But the idea was seeded while you were in elementary school, right?

LEHRMAN: In a way, yes.

COLE: What were some other key moments in the making of your book?

LEHRMAN: Well, in 1953, Roy Basler published The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. There were, at first, eight volumes and an index, and then two supplements.

I read these volumes all the way through in my twenties, which is, I think, the best way to read—in his own hand—the autobiography of Mr. Lincoln. And there was, in Volume II, this speech of October 16th, 1854, that he gave at Peoria, when he comes out of a near political retirement. The speech at Peoria suffused my consciousness. Completely.

COLE: Even then?

LEHRMAN: At that exact moment. And, in a sense, my book, Lincoln at Peoria, is a transferal of that moment of concentration, which stayed with me.

COLE: That’s fantastic.

In the early school years, I had a terrific set of teachers. In fifth and sixth grade, Elsie B. Diven was my key teacher. She had gone to Columbia, and she trained me rigorously, teaching me a disciplined attention to the details of the English language.

COLE: She was an English teacher?

LEHRMAN: But I started making notes, writing, and speaking on certain parts of it, in the early 1980s.

COLE: Tell me about your background.

LEHRMAN: My grandfather and my father were grocers in Central Pennsylvania. And they had a small wholesale grocery business. It emerged from one retail grocery store that my grandfather had.

Rite Aid, of which I was president from 1968 to 1977, became a public company in 1968. By then I had undergone a total immersion in Main Street America, visiting the first group of hundreds of towns in my little Plymouth Valiant. Great car. No push buttons.

COLE: With your books, right?

LEHRMAN: Yes, with my American history books in the back seat. I had to stay overnight in hotels like the Mark Twain Motor Inn in Elmira, New York. And, in the evenings, I would spend one hour having dinner, and then had hours in which to read, then off to work again in the morning.

In the meantime, I had gotten married. Louise and I had, ultimately, five children. Without Louise, I cannot imagine my life. And I moved to New York City, because my business took me to New York; also, Louise was from New York City and wanted to live there. My next business exercise was at Morgan Stanley, where I was involved in investment management. In 1990, I set up my own investment business and have been at that ever since.

COLE: And soon after that you established the Gilder Lehrman Collection, right?


COLE: And that’s been an important development in the study of American history. But why did you take up that work?

LEHRMAN: It was an outgrowth of my ideas about what kind of institutions we need to teach both public policy as well as the traditional subjects of the humanities and social sciences.

In 1972, I set up the Lehrman Institute, to study economic and foreign policy from an historical perspective. Very close to that time, I also joined the American Enterprise Institute, when it was a tiny, little place, and The Heritage Foundation, when it was nothing but a very small hope and a prayer to revive a certain way of thinking about public policy.

It was my view that the universities were no longer sufficient to serve as the kind of open-ended, liberal vehicle for the teaching of the social sciences and the humanities. So, one needed independent, innovative institutions.

COLE: These associations were precursors, right?

LEHRMAN: Yes. The Lehrman Institute came in 1972, before I began to focus with Dick Gilder on the teaching and study of American history in the Gilder Lehrman Collection and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

When I left Morgan Stanley, I set up my own investment business. Around the same time, my good friend Dick Gilder, whom I had known since the late sixties, and I formed a partnership to build a collection of American historical manuscripts and documents for the purpose of gathering them out of the private places in which they’d been assembled and getting them into public hands, where scholars and teachers and students could use them.

COLE: These documents-primary, historical documents—are necessary for the study and dissemination of history.

LEHRMAN: Yes, that’s right. My own study and teaching had been centered on the documents, which is how I was taught at Yale and at Harvard. And my total immersion in Lincoln’s writings showed me how completely one can be absorbed by the original documents themselves, as opposed to the customary textbook treatments or even the finer monographs on American history.

COLE: In such books, you see history through somebody else’s filter.

LEHRMAN: Yes. You get a short quotation here and a short quotation there. So, I determined that whenever I wrote my book on Lincoln, I was going to allow the principals, and especially Lincoln and his contemporaries, even later historians, to tell the story in their own words, with not quite as much paraphrase as is customary in American histories.

COLE: We have kind of a parallel to the Gilder Lehrman Institute, our We the People initiative, which is designed to improve the teaching and understanding of American history, and I think that's been very successful because teachers are glad to have the opportunity to get closer to their subjects. And it’s important that this be encouraged. In a democracy, we really need to know who we are and where we've come from, and how the past informs the present, so we can have some bearings for the future.

LEHRMAN: Yes, We the People and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History are embarked on the very same mission. At GLI, we have strong leadership in James Basker and Lesley Herrmann. Our goal is to enable people from all walks of life, or at least that part of the American public still interested in history, to see the original documents themselves. To study them, and also to make available curricula for the study of American history, whether one is in high school, or college . . .

COLE: . . . or one is a lifelong student?

LEHRMAN: Yes, or just carrying on, taking an interest in history as a collateral activity of one’s vocation.

COLE: COLE: Your goal is to reach not only the academy, but outside of the academy, right? Because, really, history is way too important to just be studied within the academy.

LEHRMAN: Yes, we want history to be a public thing. Which is why Dick and I, working with Gabor Boritt, established the Lincoln Prize for the very best work on the era of Mr. Lincoln and the Civil War and, with David Davis, the Frederick Douglass Book Prize for the very best work on abolition, resistance, and slavery. We want to help attract the interest of the general public. And scholars and teachers should be honored for the immense effort they make to write and to study and to teach American history.

We also established the George Washington Book Prize, with Mount Vernon and Washington College, to attract attention to the study of the American founding and the Constitution, especially, in my opinion, the Constitution as amended by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.

image of a poster advertising a meeting
Photo caption

A broadside from 1854 advertises a mass meeting of anti-slavery settlers to discuss the impact of Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Granger Collection/New York

COLE: All this I see leading to your book, the seeds of which were planted way, way back.

LEHRMAN: The idea of writing this book was hatched around 1983. Still, I didn’t much talk about it for the next 15 years, because I was never sure I would complete it. And I did not want to be that man you know who’s working on the great American novel, or working on a book, that never gets published.

COLE: Have you been able to work on the book full time?

LEHRMAN: No, just weekends and evenings. In the past few years, every holiday I would take, even when I went to India with Louise, my devoted and forbearing wife, I would take the manuscript with me, and work on it while we were on the bus or on the plane or on the train.

There was also a lot of reading and research to do. Over the years innumerable books have been written on Mr. Lincoln, his presidency, and there are even excellent books on speeches.

COLE: First Inaugural, Second Inaugural, Cooper Union . . .

LEHRMAN: Gettysburg Address.

COLE: So why Peoria? Why is it so important?

LEHRMAN: Mr. Lincoln had served only four terms as a state legislator, and a single term in Congress.

In 1849, he returned to Springfield, Illinois, from Washington. It was not a successful two-year term in Congress. And he then goes very hard to the practice of law.

COLE: He gives up politics.

LEHRMAN: Yes, but he kept his eye on the ball. But he concentrated on building his law practice, becoming a successful lawyer and more or less financially independent. Then, in 1854, Congress passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act, I'd say the most incendiary piece of Congressional legislation ever.

COLE: And the person responsible is his rival, right?

LEHRMAN: Yes, Stephen Douglas, the senior senator from Illinois, who led and managed the bill through the Senate and the House.

Lincoln emerges from the privacy of his law practice in 1854 and inaugurates his antislavery campaign to reverse the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the primary monument of which is his speech at Peoria.

The speech at Peoria was about three hours and ten minutes long in its delivery. It was 17,300 words, approximately.

poster for Union Pacific Railroad
Photo caption

A Union Pacific Railroad poster from 1869 advertises the Omaha to San Francisco route. 

Private Collection, Peter Newark American Pictures/The Bridgeman Art Library

COLE: Where exactly was it delivered?

LEHRMAN: From the portico of the Peoria Courthouse, the Old Peoria Courthouse. Actually it was the second one built. Thousands of people assembled for this speech, and it followed upon a speech by Senator Stephen Douglas on popular sovereignty, Kansas-Nebraska, and the repeal of the prohibition against slavery north of the 36th degree, 30 minute parallel of the Louisiana Purchase. The prohibition had become law as part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

Then for the next six years following the speech at Peoria, Lincoln, as a private citizen, with two failed tries at the U.S. Senate, maintained his antislavery campaign. Much of the argument, the themes, most of the rhetoric, which comes later in the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 and other important speeches, can be traced from the Peoria speech, which Lincoln himself, as editor, saw to the printing of.

COLE: Oh, really? So, we have an authorized version?

LEHRMAN: Yes, Lincoln edited and published the speech in the Illinois State Journal. The Peoria speech and its themes are followed up by Lincoln for the next six years before he becomes president. He did adapt to certain new facts and circumstances, for example, in 1857, the proslavery Dred Scott decision, by the Supreme Court; and, in 1858, he adapted to “Bleeding Kansas” in the House Divided speech; and, of course, in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, for which the Douglas-Lincoln debate of 1854 was a major rehearsal.

In my book, I try to trace not only the actual historical facts and circumstances of the Kansas-Nebraska Act which led Mr. Lincoln to give the speech at Peoria, but I try to trace, in his letters, speeches, and papers, throughout the next eleven years, from 1854 until 1865, the influence of his mature thoughts as codified in the speech he gave at Peoria in 1854.

COLE: So, this speech marks Lincoln’s reentry into politics, right?

LEHRMAN: Yes, but don’t forget that he stands for the U.S. Senate twice. In 1854, he opposes the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the Kansas-Nebraska territory to slavery. Then, upon the success of the anti-Nebraska coalition, not a little due to his leadership, he decides to stand for the U.S. Senate in February 1855, and, of course, U.S. senators were then elected by state legislatures. But he loses by a slim margin.

The more famous senatorial election is when Lincoln debates Stephen Douglas for Senator Douglas’s own seat in 1858. In 1854, Lincoln challenged Senator James Shields, who was a colleague of Senator Douglas and a Democrat like Senator Douglas.

COLE: Is the speech presaged in any of Lincoln's earlier thought? Or is it new thinking created by new circumstances and his deep opposition to slavery?

LEHRMAN: It’s a new departure in Lincoln’s rhetoric, but it does have very strong antecedents in his previous political history. He had, with only one other state legislator, proposed a resolution in the state legislature of Illinois calling slavery an injustice, as well as bad policy.

He was a free-soil Whig. He had voted for the Wilmot Proviso, which was a proposal by a Pennsylvania representative to prohibit the extension of slavery into the new territories of the United States. The Wilmot Proviso came after the Mexican War, when we acquired this enormous territory from Mexico, and Lincoln was in Congress.

But, from 1854 on, after the repeal of the 1820 restriction on slavery, he focused on his antislavery campaign, through the very day of his election to the presidency, and through to the day of his assassination.

When you look at Basler’s Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, you find that he was preoccupied by economic policy. His political involvement really began in 1832—his first campaign for election to the state legislature, where he’s unsuccessful—when he’s a mere 23 years of age. He then focused on economic policy right up until his first term in Congress, which ends in 1949: issues such as the national banking question, the tariff question, the public lands question.

Then there’s this big switch—though scholars have debated it—from economics to slavery. And the hinge of this change is the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, under the leadership of Senator Douglas, who was really the preeminent national Democrat. But there is a tight link between free labor economics and opposition to slavery.

Black and white photograph of railroad workers standing on top of and in front of trains
Photo caption

The joining of the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroads on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah. 

Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France, Archives Charmet/The Bridgeman Art Library

COLE: But why the shift?

LEHRMAN: The Kansas-Nebraska Act shifts the political ground, because, Lincoln argues, it breaks with the established tradition of the Founders, from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 all the way through the Missouri Compromise of 1820, both of which prohibited the extension of slavery into certain U.S. territories.

COLE: The Founders meant to contain slavery.

LEHRMAN: Yes. And Lincoln takes the position, as his research had proved to him, that most of the Founders had accepted slavery at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, in order to get the Union. They did not have the power to eliminate slavery at that time. But the Founders had the intention, Lincoln argued, to put slavery on a course to ultimate extinction.

They demonstrated this intention by passing the Northwest Ordinance, which prohibited slavery in the old Northwest Territory, and with the Compromise of 1820, prohibiting the extension of slavery into the northern portion of the Louisiana Purchase. They abolished the external slave trade in 1808—the first opportunity they could under the Constitution.

Lincoln revives the idea of slavery’s ultimate extinction just as the attitudes of Americans in the South had changed toward making slavery a permanent part of the republic. Lincoln believed such a backward shift would be a revolutionary, a radical departure.

COLE: Lincoln was incredibly ambitious, wasn’t he?

LEHRMAN: William Herndon, his law partner, said his ambition was a little engine that knew no rest. But in Lincoln we find it constantly linked to principles: principles of economics, for example, free labor; or to the idea that America was meant to be a free republic; and that the anchor of the American Republic, as he called it, was the equality principle of the Declaration of Independence.

COLE: He is taking a certain view of history. But he’s right.

LEHRMAN: General Washington, when answering criticisms about Alexander Hamilton, said something like, “His was a laudable ambition, aimed at excellence.” That’s a paraphrase. Of Lincoln, much the same thing can be said: His was a laudable ambition, aimed at excellence, but also at the fulfillment of the promise of the Declaration of Independence. And that, of course, is the theme of the book: Lincoln himself getting right with the Declaration of Independence, and through persuasion, and an 11-year campaign, as a private citizen and then as president, getting the American people right with the Declaration of Independence.

COLE: What was the reaction to this speech? Did people realize this was sort of a hinge speech?

LEHRMAN: Yes, many did. But many disagreed. The people of Central Illinois had a considerable period of time, months even, to hear and read Lincoln’s arguments of 1854, his rendition of American history, and his logic in repudiating Senator Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act and the more general doctrine of popular sovereignty, which could open all of the territories of the United States to slavery.

Lincoln gave a speech similar to Peoria at Winchester, and another at Bloomington, both mentioned briefly in press reports. On October 4, 1854, he gives almost the same full speech in Springfield, in the state capitol, again, directly in response to Senator Douglas's speech the previous day in defense of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. But this Springfield speech is not printed in full—only brief excerpts appeared in the press.

COLE: So, one could see Lincoln’s new cause taking shape?

LEHRMAN: Yes. In the full span of history, it was the blink of an eye, but for those who were living at the moment, there was time to see Mr. Lincoln trade in his litigator hat for that of the antislavery campaigner.

COLE: Did the Peoria speech get much national coverage?

LEHRMAN: It got some national coverage. Colleagues and friends write to him, saying the political elites have taken notice of this obscure lawyer and his Peoria speech.

COLE: What about the abolitionists?

LEHRMAN: The abolitionists notice him too. Lincoln becomes a second-tier member of the national antislavery coalition in 1854. He emerges only as a major national figure in the second series of slavery debates with Senator Douglas in 1858. And then, of course, he becomes more prominent as a dark-horse candidate for the presidency, and then he breaks through at the Wigwam in Chicago in 1860.

COLE: Did Douglas have a rejoinder to this speech?

LEHRMAN: Yes, Lincoln and Douglas were answering each other, or provoking one another, with their different points of view in major speeches.

COLE: All across the state, right?

LEHRMAN: From 1854 through 1860, they reacted to one another. The rivalry between them begins in the 1830s. Douglas moves to Jacksonville, Illinois, as a young man, in 1833. He was about four years younger than Lincoln.

They meet in 1834, in Vandalia, which was the first capital—before Springfield—of Illinois. Douglas is a Jacksonian Democrat, mostly indifferent to slavery, though some scholars argue that he was, sort of, quietly proslavery. His Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 was certainly considered by many to be proslavery, and, of course, Lincoln himself is a free-soil Whig. The Whig, Lincoln, and the Jacksonian Democrat, Douglas, compete from their earliest years for a central position in the politics of Illinois.

COLE: Was Douglas’s sponsorship of the Kansas-Nebraska Act aimed at a presidential run?

LEHRMAN: Yes, Senator Douglas aspired to be president. He was a dark-horse candidate in 1852. He was 39 years old at the time, very young, extremely capable, and every bit as, or even more ambitious than, Lincoln—in the naked sense, that is, less discrete.

There was also the issue of a transcontinental railroad. In order to get a northern route, you had to go through the Kansas-Nebraska Territory. The territory had to be organized, which requires Congressional approval. That is what Senator Douglas wanted to do. He wanted to organize the Kansas-Nebraska Territory, in part to run the transcontinental railroad on the northern route, instead of through a southern route as Jefferson Davis and others of the slaveholding South wanted.

black and white cartoon drawing of a tall man leaning down to speak to a shorter man with a feathered hat
Photo caption

An 1860 cartoon lampoons the presidential race between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. The axe Lincoln holds symbolizes his youthful occupation as a fence-rail splitter, while a feather in Douglas's cap displays his affinity for Kansas. 

The Granger Collection/New York

COLE: I see.

LEHRMAN: Douglas, the senior senator from Illinois, had a profound local interest in winning the northern route.

Organizing the Kansas-Nebraska Territory also aided his presidential ambition. With the success of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, repealing the 1820 restriction on slavery, Douglas would be patronizing the slaveholders, who wanted to add slaveholding territory in order to maintain the balance of power in the Senate and hopefully the House, where it was more difficult.

Basically, slave power tended to dominate the federal government from the beginning of the republic all the way until the election of President Lincoln in 1860.

So, Douglas had many motives, some of them reasonable, and some self-interested and morally indifferent, for organizing the Kansas-Nebraska Territory on the basis of popular sovereignty.

Mr. Lincoln having opposed the extension of slavery into the territories as a congressman, voting—as he did—for the Wilmot Proviso, sees, suddenly, the specter of slavery being raised over all the territories of the United States, and perhaps the institution being extended into free states, where it had been prohibited after the Revolution. After the Founding era, every state north of the Ohio River and north of the Mason-Dixon Line had prohibited slavery.

So, there’s Lincoln, confronted by the slavery extension issue, and he puts aside all of his great campaigning for economic growth and economic prosperity, and he becomes a single-issue antislavery campaigner, confounding all of the conventional wisdom of American politics, that Americans will not focus on single-issue politics.

COLE: What do you think would have happened had Douglas won?

LEHRMAN: Given the scale and power of the Democratic party—it was, in many ways, a national party—I do think it plausible that today we could be living in a slaveholding republic, not least because of Chief Justice Taney’s opinion in Dred Scott, with the majority of the Supreme Court, ruling that the Fifth Amendment, the property clause, protected the institution of slavery in the territories.

It would have been but a simple step—controversial perhaps, not justified, but simple—for the Supreme Court to have ruled subsequently that no state could prohibit slavery, it being a protected species of property under the Fifth Amendment, which provides for no deprivation of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

I take the view that Lincoln’s intervention was, if not providential, indispensable to the reforms of the 1960s. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments prepared the way for the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, the remarkable success of both. Neither can be imagined without the election of President Lincoln.

COLE: And this all starts on the steps of the Peoria Courthouse?

LEHRMAN: In my opinion, for Mr. Lincoln, it does.

COLE: Is yours the first book to focus on this speech?

LEHRMAN: There are other books which consider the Peoria speech and Lincoln-Douglas in 1854. To the best of my knowledge, mine is the first book to be completely devoted to an analytical narrative of the history in which the Peoria speech takes place and then traces the themes of the speech through 1865. I was trying to avoid only a rhetorical and philosophical analysis of the speech itself or of 1854 alone. I try to spell out an underlying narrative and the consequences of the speech until the assassination.

COLE: Your book, I notice, marks a shifting consensus about the importance of the rivalry between Lincoln and Douglas and the later debates. Before Harry Jaffa wrote his book on the debates in the fifties, the episode was commonly ignored by American scholars. And this year alone we have your book and Allen Guelzo’s, both about the contest between Lincoln and Douglas over slavery.

What has changed?

LEHRMAN: The Lincoln bicentennial may have something to do with the quickening of interest in the antebellum period, in general, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates themselves. Actually the 1858 debates were the third series of Lincoln-Douglas debates, the second in 1854, the first in 1839-1840 on economic policy.

The seriousness of Douglas and Lincoln has a lot to do with it, and the slowly dawning realization that these politicians were not exclusively reflecting their own self-interests. Instead, conscious reflection and rationally motivated convictions helped lead to these debates.

Another reason is the principle of the Declaration of Independence—that all men are created equal, and that America should be a color-blind society: This idea has become ever more poignant since, well, I should say the success of Martin Luther King.

COLE: You, of course, ran for governor of the State of New York in 1982, and lost to Mario Cuomo, in a surprisingly close race. What did that experience teach you about Lincoln the campaigner?

LEHRMAN: Day-to-day work in the marketplace of business or the day-to-day work in retail politics—that is to say, campaigning for a public office or trying to build a business—encourages you to focus on the day-to-day causes for a man or a woman’s decisions. In saying one thing, arguing one thing, persuading another of something else, that’s not simply an intellectual exercise carried out as a matter of euclidean logic.

Bottom-up experience makes one, in studying history, very sensitive to the changing facts and circumstances that Mr. Lincoln faced in his uphill battle against the most prominent Democrat in America, Senator Douglas. And how hard it was for Mr. Lincoln to carry an antislavery campaign in Illinois. Scholars have long considered Illinois to have been one of the most racist of the free states in the north. Lincoln navigated his antislavery campaign in the central and the southern part of Illinois, areas populated by men and women who had come from the South and were sympathetic to slavery.

Illinois prohibited free negroes from entering the state in the 1850s. When Mr. Lincoln entered upon his campaign in 1854, Illinois posed a very formidable challenge as to how an antislavery candidate could win political office there.

First of all, only white men voted. The white people of Illinois were, often, antiblack, even when they were antislavery. So, those who say that Mr. Lincoln compromised himself by not being abolitionist are not very sensitive to the fact that Lincoln’s goal as a statesman, was to do as much good as he possibly could do, and get elected in the process. If Lincoln had not been elected, the issue of slavery might have been resolved differently. Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist, insisted that Lincoln, as a statesman, was bound to consider the racial sentiments of his country.

I find it an extraordinary achievement that he had the prudence and the practical wisdom to prevail in Illinois, and, ultimately to be elected president of the United States.

Even in a state as large as New York, mine were really minor challenges in a political campaign, but the experience made me very sensitive to the day-to-day achievements of Lincoln. Just think of the fact that he was able, in a slaveholding republic, to prevail with a policy embracing the Declaration of Independence. This was an amazing feat of persuasion, courage, and leadership.

COLE: Well, this has been excellent. Thanks very much.