Outlook: Five myths about Abraham Lincoln

Feb 21, 2011

Abraham Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer will be online Monday, Feb. 21, at 11 a.m. ET, to chat about Abraham Lincoln and his latest Outlook piece, "Five Myths about Abraham Lincoln." In it he writes, "On Presidents' Day, it's well worth dispelling some perennial misconceptions about the man on the $5 bill."

For more on the Civil War, please check out the Post's full coverage. Please also visit the A House Divided blog, where Holzer writes as one of our experts.

This is Harold Holzer, chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.  i'm the author, co-author, or editor of 37 books on Lincoln and the Civil War--most timely being "Lincoln President-Elect" (2008) covering the great secession winter of 150 years ago.  An added note: on Saturday March 5, I'll be introducing Sam Waterston at the US Capitol Visitor Center auditorium (10 AM) where he will recreate Lincoln's first inaigural address on its 150th anniversary (10 AM).  check local listings in case of a government shutdown!

This may be more of a comment than a question, but I would be interested in your response. To claim that Lincoln did not have chronic depression because he did not descend into madness or commit suicide strikes me as being an overly simplistic view of chronic depression. As with most illnesses, there are degrees of severity, and many people with mild depression can function reasonably well even without medication or other therapy. It is entirely possible (if not necessarily likely) that Lincoln could have had a mild case of depression and still been able to function, even in as difficult a position as he was in during his Presidency. Of course, it is also completely possible that he did not suffer from depression at all, but did react appropriately to the tragedies and difficulties of his life. Without much more information about his moods and thoughts day-to-day, I think that it is impossible to know one way or the other.

Yes, any of these scenarios are possible; there are of course degrees of depression, melancholy, sadness, etc., and we know only (for sure, that is) that Lincoln struck contemporaries as very sad--yet he was capable of both great energy and great humor.  I do know that my friend Josh Shenk has already expressed his dismay at my conclusion as published in the Post--so maybe he'll weigh in today.

I was wondering what is the truth behind di Lorenzo's charge that Lincoln manipulated the town of origin of the transcontinental railroad in order to realize a profit on property he owned on the banks of the Missouri River? Also, what do the the stable of scholars think of diLorenzo's Lincoln scholarship and his relentless attacks on the rest of them?

Like most Northern politicians, Lincoln hoped the transcontinental railroad would follow a northerly route--because it would bring economic development to free, not slave, territory.  but the idea that he so argued because he might profit from his own investment is absurd--yet no more so than the fantastical, loony, extreme right-wing junk that comes from Di Lorenzo, now a Tea Party favorite who blames Lincoln for runaway federal power, international adventurism, etc.--and no serious scholar takes him seriously, i promise.

Some particularly tasteless bankruptcy lawyers contend on their websites that bankruptcy isn't so bad, for even the revered Abraham Lincoln did it! Any truth to that?

he lost his shirt and his store, but he paid back everyh penny; didn't take today's bankruptcy easy out.  he called it his "national debt."

I recently read speculation that Lincoln might have been gay. Do you have any information that would support or refute that?

asked and answered

I understand that in his younger days, Lincoln fought in an Indian war against Chief Blackhawk in the midwest. Is it known whether he killed anyone?

as Lincoln later recalled his adventure, he saw a great deal of bloody action--against the mosquitoes.  he never saw a battle, but was often hungry.  he added that being elected captain by his regiment gave him more satisfaction than any of his political triumphs through 1860

There is a lot of myths and legends surrounding Abraham Lincoln's mother, right? She was illiterate or she read the Bible daily. She was illegitimate and her father was either known or unknown to her. So what is the truth about Nancy Lincoln and what are myths in the many blurry areas? What is you own best guest?

We may never know everything about Nancy Hanks Lincoln.  She very likely was illeigitimate, and certainly could not sign her name on her marriage license--she used an X--so we assume she was illiterate.  My own guess is that she died so young that Lincoln forever remembered her as his "angel mother" and her image will remain as blurred and rosy ion our own minds as it did in her son's.

I think I remember reading that while the British government was a bit more supportive of the Southern rebels, Prince Albert was more supportive of Abraham Lincoln. Am I remembering this incorrectly?

redmember, albert died in 1861, the first year of the war, and the Confcederacy continued pressing the British for diplomatic recognition.  later that year, Lincoln almost lost the Union edge in the struggle because of the "Trent Affair," a crisis with England precipitated by the Union's seizure of comnfederate envoys from a British ship bound for England.  no, the battle continued--and it was not until emancipation and a few more Union victories (plus good work by secretary of state seward and ambassador adams) that the Confederates were denied

With all the Reagan worship going on right now (I don't even remember Ronald Reagan ever being so beloved during his time in office), did something like Grover Norquist's "Reagan Legacy Project" happen to Abraham Lincoln? Was there an organized project to boast the legacy of Abraham Lincoln or was Lincoln's "beloved" legacy more genuine?

Remember, Lincoln was an extremely controversial president during his administration--as reviled as he was beloved, and quite a lightning rod for the haters.  unlike Reagan, he was murdered at the moment of his vindication and triumph--just days after Lee's surrender at Appomattox--and on Good Friday besides, making him suddenly seem to many grieving Americans like a modern Christ figure--and to Jews, then celebrating Passover concurrently, the Great Emancipator seemed a modern Moses, letting the people go but not living to see the promised land.  those powerful emotions conspired to turn Lincoln into a national saint, not that he didn't deserve it.

Greetings from th Ocean State. Just curious if Abraham Lincoln ever visited Rhode Island or any connections he had with Rhode Island?

He gave an importsant speech in Providence in 1860, right after his cooper union speech--another soon after in Woonsocket--all important in establishing his claim to the republican presidential nomination.  his current connection to RI is your chief justice emeritus, frank j. williams, one of the best lincoln scholars in the country and chairman of the lincoln forum, which meets annually in gettysburg.  check www.thelincolnforum.org and become a member.

If it is "best to throw up our hands" on the question whether Lincoln was gay, then why did you put the matter on a list of "myths," and why belittle the credentials of those making the assertion while ignoring the manifestly biased, homophobic reactions among some longtime Lincoln experts when Tripp first made the claim? How is this different from the sneering, dismissive attitude that Sally Hemmings' descendants encountered?

I raised the issue because of the frequency with which the question is raised wherever I appear or speak, and I certainly don't excuse the homophoboa attached to some of the initial responses to the Kramer/Tripp "revelations."  I actually find the response this question invariably engenders to be more interesting than the question itself, which is in the end uanswerable and maybe irrelevant.  Too many people react to the possibility of Lincoln's gayness as an assault on the American flag, when it should be regarded as just another factor that has been introduced over the years to exlain his unique personality: at various times he has been called Jewish, African American, etc., all offered as rather embracing not assaultive.  You may be right in the end that I have merely extended the conversation without adding much to the argument.  But I might add that one if my e-mail pals told me yesterday that I shoud certainly have pointed out that most Illinois lawyers shared beds on the judicial circuit in the 1850s--indicative more of the scarcity of beds than the affectional preferences of the legal community.

Is there a story about a little girl from somewhere in Upstate New York (I forget her name, Grace?, and which town) as the reason that Lincoln grew a beard?

150 years ago this week, lincoln's inaugural journey took him through westfield, ny, in chautaqua county, where the president-elect asked if the little girl who suggested he grow whiskers was present amidst the crowd at the depot.l  there he met grace bedell, kissed her, and acknowledged that he had actedd "partly" on her suggestion.  she had written in october n1860 saying his face looked too thin and that women would tease their husbands and fathers to vote for him if he improved his appearance.  lincoln's famous reply asked whether it might be viewed as a "silly piece of affect[at]ion" if he began sporting whiskers so late in life.  it's a great story--and a true one--and little grace lived into her 80s and spoke about her meeting with lincoln for the rest of her life.

Have recent residents of the White House recently seen Lincoln's ghost?

well, i asked Presidents Clinton and Bush and while both said they felt his "presence," neither acknowledged any paranormal sightings.

What about Lincoln's honesty? Did he deserve the reputation of "Honest Abe" or was it a campaign exaggeration?

i'm really glad you asked this  question because it's the one i most regretted omitting from the "big 5."  and this one is gratifying because Lincoln truly deserved the sobriquet "Honest Abe."  He DID work to pay for a book he borrowed that had been damaged by water.  He DID pay off the debt accumulated by his failed New Salem store.  His wife DID say he was almost monomaniacal on the subject.  Even as a young man, he was the guy most noften recruited to judge horse races and wrestling matches.  impeccable, peerless, gratifying honesty...all his life.  Remarkable.

Apparently as a young boy, Thomas Creekmore McCurry (1850 - 1939) shook hands with Abraham Lincoln. Thomas Creekmore McCurry is the third-great grandfather of Barack Obama. The McCurrys were also known for having big ears, so I guess Obama's love of Lincoln and big ears can be traced to Thomas Creekmore McCurry.

love to know more about this one!  so many presidents are related to each other it wouldn't surprise me.

Another thing that historians seem pretty divided on is Mary Todd Lincoln, in particular when her only surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, had her committed. Either she was actually crazy or her son simply wanted her out of the way and control his late father's estate totally. So are you more pro-Robert Todd or more pro-Mary Todd?

i've always been more sympathetic to Mary, though her son was so much a Todd and so little a Lincoln in looks, personality, and chilliness, that she almost got what she deserved...but not really.  robert was perenially "embarrassed" by his mother's eccentricities and excesses, to the point, as you say, that he had her tried for insanity with no time to prepare a defense in a kangaroo court--and before the public.  if not to control her spending of the Lincoln estate, then what?  she of course got herself re-tried with better counsel and was released, living out her tragic life in loneliness.  i can't imagine a worse way for a son to treat a mother, juch less a historical figure...and i can't forgive robert for it.  he was not the man his father was.

I read that both Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd lost their mothers when they were children. Mary tried to get her father's attention by being accomplished. Abraham's father struck him and made him work on the farm until age 21. Maybe having lost their mothers and not good relationships with their fathers gave Mary and Lincoln that lifelong sadness and a common bond.

up to a point.  they certainly shared the experience of losing mothers, and doubtless talked about it and bonded over it as you say.  but mary's father remarried, they had another big family, and mary never liked her step mother.  abraham was blessed with a sympathetic and influential stepmother who encouraged him to read and sensed he was exceptional, favoring him over her own flesh and blood.  yet mary never wanted to meet Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln, and never arranged for her sons to meet their grandmother, either.  very strange

Like many other presidents, Barack Obama talks a lot about reading biographies of Abraham Lincoln as well as Abraham Lincoln's own writings. But I figured it's also important to read and research the bad presidents, Herbert Hoover, John Tyler, Frankin Pierce, etc... What they did wrong seems pretty important to learn from as well as Mount Rushmore presidents.

and if you read many of these biohgraphies, as i have, you manage to find the "something" that propelled them to high office, whatever their future failures.  Hoover, for one, was superbly qualified for the presiedency.  and we know what happened.  Lincoln remembered being indelibly influenced by Weems' iconic but mythical life of Washington--which introduced the cherry tree myth.  he later said it convinced him that the Union the founders created was worth saving, no matter what the cost

Why do you think people have such fondness for Lincoln? What made him so likable?

He was a great story-teller, he was humble (but not modest), he was more brilliant than anyone else.  He wasn't particularly popular with women--shyness, homeliness, and awkwardness conspired to make him less than a ladies' man to be sure--but men gravitated to him, and once they entered his political orbit, for the most part, they were mesmerized and remained loyal for life.

What is something many people DON'T know about Lincoln?

After 16,000 books we know so much, and few stones have been left unturned: but here's one I would have made myth #6 had there been room.  Lincoln was NOT a modest man.  Humble yes, but not modest.  Though he denigrated his homeliness, joked about his looks in public, for example, he managed to sit for painters, sculptors, and photographers more than almost any of his contemporaries.  He had an air of intellectual superiority that college educated peers like Senator Charles Sumner remarked upon more than once.  In the end, Lincoln was remarkably self-assured and confident.  Any one who didn't take him seriously, one of his legal colleagues once remarked, would wind up with his back in a ditch.

I've read that Maryland slave holders sold their slaves into the deep south at the begining of the war. Was there really commerce between the North and the South during the way that would have allowed this? I always assumed there was no commerce during the war - but I don't know that this makes sense when I think about living in an agrarian time.

Commerce ceased--officially--but Maryland was a particular sieve, with many roads and waterways leading to Confederate territory and large swaths of land dominated by slaveholders and Confederate sympathizers like the infamous Dr. Mudd, who later treated John Wilkes Booth's broken leg when he fled through southern maryland after shooting Lincoln.  i've no doubt that human beings, like medicines and other "property," was smuggled south from Maryland during the war.

Interview with Thomas Creekmore McCurry's granddaughter and a first cousin of Madelyn "Toot" Dunham, Obama's grandmother. Chicago Sun-Times did a pretty good profie of Harbin Wilburn McCurry, Thomas's father and his anti-slavery stance (apparently the family had a black man hide with them for a time and he later took "McCurry" as his surname in their honor). Barack Obama wrote about a photograph of Thomas Creekmore McCurry and his second wife in his first memoir "Dreams from My Father" when he mentions a photograph of Toot's grandparens on the bookshelf. It's on page 15.

assume today's paper? thanks.

Why wasn't Lincoln's plan to return the freed slaves to Africa in 1866 not acted on?

Lincoln's interest in coloniozation wasn't timed to 1866, but you're correct that he did drop an idea he had poreviously advocated--to Congress, and even to a delegation of free african-americans visiting the white house in 1862.  i think lincoln really did believe for a time that the races would be unable to co-exist in the re-united country, and he did believe it was best, as he put it, "to be separated."  in the end, however, he did not spend down a Congressional appropriation allocated to fund colonization, and by 1864 Lincoln had largely abandoned the idea.  why?  once african americans began fighting for their own freedom in the ranks of the military, Lincoln understood that they had irrevocably established their citizenship.  that is why, in his final speech on april 11, 1865, he introduced the idea of black voting rights--the first time any american president ever mentioned this possibility.  john wilkes booth was in the audience that day and whispered angrily, "that means n___r citizenship; thats the last speech he"ll ever make."  A few days later, Booth murdered him.

Concerning the question about the bad presidencies, Aren't all presidents victims of their times? Don't they all have positives and negatives and it is in how history plays out the importance of their individual decisions. I think of the debate raging today about Roosevelt: War-time president hero or nasty expander of federal programs?

President Clinton would certainly agree that circumstances play a major part in forging top-tier presidential reputations.

I cannot find a link to your Outlook article, so please forgive me if this was already answered there. I have heard that Lincoln was not against slavery because of any morality but because it was politically expediant to be against slavery. Is that true? Thank you...

In fact, Lincoln was always against slavery--for moral grounds above all other.  "If slavery is not wrong," as he put it, "nothing is wrong."  Where politics intervened with morality is that the Constiution protected slavery and made it difficult to eradicate it.  Lincoln's "expedient" answer was to favor limiting its extension ands hoping keeping it where it existed would lead to its "ultimate extinction."  But morally, and i can't stress this enough, Lincoln believed every human being should be allowed to eat the bread he made with his own hands.

A recent book "The Last Lincolns" makes the claim that Thomas Lincoln Beckwith's chauffer was skyjacker D.B. Cooper. What do you think? Are there in fact any Lincoln descendants still living?

First, his name was Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith--named for Lincoln's first born and only living son.  I have no idea if the chauffeur was a skyjacker, but "The Last Lincolns" is a very good book...no reason to doubt it.  No, Beckwith and his sister Peggy were the very last of the Lincoln line--they were childless, even if my friend, writer Michael Beschloss, has speculated in the New Yorker that there may be some illegitimate descendant roaming around in Sweden, the son of a maid.  Any blond, 6'4" Lincoln lookalikes in Stockholm, anyone?

What are some of myths of John Wilkes Booth? Wasn't he engaged to the unattractive daughter of U.S. Senate from Dover, New Hampshire?

if i was to begin discussing Booth's love life, we'd be online until Memorial Day.  the biggest myth though is that booth was not shot dead by Boston Corbett as claimed, but escasped, lived, joined a sideshow, and was mummified--his remains on view in carnivals for generations.  i tend to think he was killed as reported

What were Lincoln's true feelings toward the abolition of slavery. I have read that the GOP at that time did not include abolition as part of their platform. The argument could be made that had the South not seceded that emancipation would not have occured during Lincoln's presidency. It is not hard to imagine that slavery could have endured until the 20th century.

Abolition per se was not a plank of the 1860 Republican platform, but an absolute ban on slavery in new western territories WAS--the idea being that outright abolition was politically un-achievable, but limiting slavery's spread would ultimately limit slave power ikn Congress and lead to the gradual demise of the institution.  i don't believe, however, that without war emancipation could have been introduced--it was after all a military measure from the commander-in-chief.

Do you have a diagram of Lincoln's family tree? I have a friend that claims she is a descendant of Lincoln. I would love to surprise her with a link to help her prove it to her friends.

the closest thing to a family tree (direct line only, however) appears in a book i did with mark e neely, jr., "The Lincoln Family Album."  for more info on the collateral line you might want to contact "Hildene" in Manchester, VT, the wonderful home of Robert Lincoln now a museum and research center

I firmly believe that if Lincoln were alive today, he would be an enthusiastic member of the Tea Party. Lincoln freed the slaves of his day, but today we are all slaves to the federal gubmint. Is this something that Lincoln would consider fighting a Civil War for, today, if he were alive, to make all men free once again?

Lincoln believed that government should play a role in doing what people could not do for themselves, or not do so well, for themselves.  i have no doubt--and of course all this is speculation--that Lincoln would regard Tea Party advocates who want to turn back the clock to another time and reverse the gains working people have achiedved sindce the new deal with the same contempt that he regarded Democrats who believed in protecting the right of people to own their fellow Democrats.  sorry, but i think Lincoln would be firmly on the other siede.  But that's what makes these discussions fun.

One of those executed for Lincoln's death was Mary Surrat of Waterloo, Md. I've read that historians are divided on her guilt and whether she ought to have been put to death. Just wondering on your take on Mary Surrat?

A most timely question since Robert Redford's bound-to-be-controversial movie on the subject, "The Conspirator," opens April 15, and strongly (and absurdly, in my view) claims she was railroaded by a vicious military tribunal and denied her rights as a criminal defendant.  not only is this untrue--not only does the film take enormous liberties with the truth--but Mary was as they say as guilty as sin.

For all those wacky and awful rumors about Abraham Lincoln faced in his lifetime, did anybody think he was Kenyan illegal immigrant?

no, just an unqualified babboon who couldn't make a decision, had radical ideas, and believed in a ridiculous premise called democracy and human freedom

I've seen a lot of blood-stained clothing, bedsheets, and blankets that are alleged to have been worn by Abe Lincoln on the night he was killed. Could these gruesome artifacts be used as a source of Lincoln DNA for cloning sometime in the future? I'm not talking about cloning by fans of Lincoln, but cloning by the mad scientists community.

a good one to end with at high noon.  yes, DNA testing could put to rest a lot of the myths and canards about Lincoln's health...and since the bloodstained clothes are unreliable (Major Rathbone, stabbed by Booth in the Ford's Theatre box, bled profusely while Lincoln didn't bleed much at all--making many of the bloodstained relics unreliable).  however, the USArmy Medical Museum has authgentic bone fragments from the autopsy--and therein lie the answers.  what else to preserve them for?  i say go for it.


In This Chat
Harold Holzer
Harold Holzer, the senior vice president for external relations at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was co-chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and is author of "Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter, 1860-1861."
Recent Chats
  • Next: