Civil War Symposium speaker talks historical importance of the blue and the gray

civilwar_stuffBY JACK SHORT – A century and a half, and a day, before you read this sentence, the civil war ended, marked by Grant’s acceptance of Lee’s surrender. Five days after that, Lincoln was assassinated.

It seems appropriate, then, that at this year’s Civil War Symposium, presented by the Friends of the Boca Grande Community Center, one of the world’s foremost scholars on Lincoln will speak.


Harold Holzer, who is also senior vice president for public affairs at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, has published over 500 articles about our nation’s 16th president, written several books and been a guest on numerous television programs for his understanding of the president and, according to his biography, the political culture of the Civil War Era.

He was also appointed by president Bill Clinton to the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission in 2000, and was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2008 by president George Bush.

The Beacon spoke with Holzer; what follows is a portion of the interview. We decided, quite simply, that Holzer could tell the story much better than we could.

Beacon: The 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War – can you talk about what that means for you, personally?

Holzer: I will admit that I did not know it would be as big an observance as it’s been and would have stimulated so much scholarship and research … so I was very pleasantly surprised and caught up in it myself. What it means; in the most obvious way, any effort that helps educate students about their history … it’s just not being taught and we’re in danger of forgetting the lessons of the past that might inform a more intelligent approach to where we are now and to the future, so any effort to do that is welcome. …

Beacon: Can you tell me about (your first experience with the subject)?

Holzer: I literally picked Lincoln’s name out of a hat for a school assignment. It was about 1960, ’61, and as I was collecting the information I ran across the perfect book for me to have encountered and, around exactly that time, I first read about the civil war centennial and subscribed to reprints of Harper’s Weekly, and read Bruce Catton’s books on the Civil War from the Book of the Month Club.

I think I got the collective works of Abraham Lincoln when I was 13 from the Book of the Month Club … I still use them. They’re the same volumes I use for my research all these years later.

So I got involved really early and, frankly, I was very taken, even as a kid, with this little scandal that erupted early in the Civil War Centennial which was that the opening events were going to be in Charleston SC, and the one African American member of the board was told that she couldn’t stay at the hotel that the rest of the board was staying at. It was a whites only hotel needless to say. And president kennedy intervened – and I was very smitten with him as well – and he ordered the whole board to stay at a military base nearby, sort of circumventing the problem. I was very taken with that. When I was 11 I didn’t give much thought to what was restricted and what wasn’t. So it was kind of an … awakening.

Beacon: Is Lincoln a civil rights leader, a states’ rights leader, was he a gifted politician, a passionate champion of equality? What does he symbolize to you?

Holzer: The fascination with Lincoln for me was is that he … did more than any other person to save the country, hold it together, and to destroy its one cancerous contradiction, which is slavery.

The second thing is that – and I think I got this early without maybe identifying it specifically – is that he was the most beautiful writer about democracy who lived in that entire century – maybe the most gifted writer of any kind in that century. … He created this unforgettable prose.

The third thing is that … he gave his life for those causes that he believed in. He was the last casualty of this fratricidal war, and, the enormous significance to people of the time that he was shot on Good Friday and he was seen as a sort of resurrected American saint right away. It was also the Passover holiday, so he was immediately identified as a modern Moses who had freed people, ended slavery. He had this enormous symbolic significance from the moment he died.

Finally, he truly lived the American dream … He was really the most powerful proof that there really was an American Dream that could be fulfilled, from the poorest origins to the presidency. …

Beacon: You mentioned that … part of the importance of history is making an informed choice that would prevent us from reliving mistakes. Is there something in Lincoln’s or the Civil War’s legacy that ties in a very concrete way with events we’re experiencing now?

Holzer: Lincoln issued an order changing society when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. People scoffed at how it was going to be enforced in the beginning. He knew how it was going to be enforced; it was going to be enforced by winning territory in the south under battlefield conditions. But he just did it. He was not going to wait for a constitutional amendment to start this process.

And the idea of how presidential orders can be resisted and can sometimes bring enormous social and political change is something we are living through again … just as the immigration is going to heat up again in the campaign … I’m not saying immigration reform by presidential fiat is the right thing to do – I’m saying here’s how it worked before with presidential fiat so let’s play it out and let’s learn from it about the historical currents and change and how we should respond in an intelligent way.

The whole subject of presidential power is very crucial during the Lincoln administration: He suspends civil liberties; he closes down newspapers; he does things that would be unthinkable today … (so let’s) look at what we did before and what we lived through before, and what the explanations were, how the court responded, et cetera.

Beacon: What do you want to bring to the symposium?

Holzer: It’s a subject that I love to explore and I’m constantly updating it – it’s why Lincoln has mattered over the years, particularly to American presidents of all political parties and how this battle has been waged over the last 150 years about his memory and what it means.

Holzer will give his presentation on Monday, April 13, at 10:40 a.m. in the auditorium.

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