The Civil War and Abraham Lincoln: What's Fact and What's Fiction?

Louis Masur – Rutgers University

Abraham Lincoln is considered our greatest President and one of the most controversial. People have debated various aspects of his personality and politics. Was he depressed? Why did he tell so many stories? Was he truly opposed to slavery? Did he free the slaves? Did the Union prevail because of his leadership or despite him? This class aims to uncover the man and not the myth. In 1922, the historian W.E.B. DuBois proclaimed that Lincoln was “big enough to be inconsistent.” To be sure, there were tensions in Lincoln’s character and ideology: he could be happy and melancholy, could promote democracy and suspend civil liberties, could oppose slavery yet have doubts about the place of blacks in American society.

Some of what DuBois saw as inconsistency had more to do with political reality, especially in regard to the issue of the abolition of slavery. Lincoln had to contend with various pressures knowing that any misstep could very well lead to the destruction of the Union. Here is where his temperament becomes so important. As we shall see, Lincoln’s storytelling had a purpose, as did his gradual approach to decision making. But once he made up his mind, he seldom looked back. In the end, it is not that he was inconsistent, but that he was thoughtful and deliberate and was not afraid to change his mind and grow in the process.