Henry Ford once said that "history is more or less bunk. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's dam is the history we make today." Do Americans care about history or not? Journalist Andrew Ferguson discusses America's relationship with its own history using the continuing fascination with Abraham Lincoln as a case study.
Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: is American history, history?
Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.
Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: a conversation with Andrew Ferguson. When an American says that's history, what he means is that's over. It doesn't matter. Andrew Ferguson begs to differ. For the last couple of years, Andy has been researching Abraham Lincoln and the place that Abraham Lincoln still has in America today. What Andy has discovered is that to Americans, history matters.
Andrew Ferguson is a Senior Editor at the Weekly Standard magazine and a columnist for Bloomberg News. He's currently working on a new book Land of Lincoln.
Title: De-Bunking History
Peter Robinson: We're often told that the teaching of history in American schools has grown worse recently. But here's Henry Ford speaking as long ago as 1916. "History is more or less bunk. We want to live in the present and the only history that's worth a tinker's dam is the history we made today." Is it a distinctive feature of American society that we simply don't care about our own history?
Andrew Ferguson: Well, I'd argue with the premise. I don't think Henry Ford cared about history. And I think if you look at it a little more closely, you'll find that the thought that Americans don't care about history is really a canard and an insult that's not true.
Peter Robinson: All right. You may now prove it. In November 2001, the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia dismissed the case of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. Who was Dr. Mudd and why was his case being heard in 2001?
Andrew Ferguson: Well, Dr. Mudd was dead at the time and, in fact, had been dead for I believe a hundred and twenty some years.
Peter Robinson: Died in 1883, I recall?
Andrew Ferguson: Yeah '83, I believe. Hundred--almost 120 years before his case was finally dismissed. Dr. Mudd is a classic American figure in that people can think of him as a tragic hero, a martyr or as a villain who never quite got what he deserved. He lived in Southern Maryland during the Civil War and one night, April 15, the night of--April 14th, April 15th--1865, a very rainy night, there was a knock at his door and he opened it up and there were two riders who had obviously been riding hard for several hours, one of whom had broken his leg. The man--one of the men helped the other into his living room. Dr. Mudd being a doctor fixed the man's leg, put him up for the night then bid them goodbye the next morning. Two days later soldiers came to Dr. Mudd's house in Southern Maryland and said did you realize that the man whose leg you fixed had just killed the President of the United States?
Peter Robinson: To which Dr. Mudd replied…
Andrew Ferguson: Holy moley! So he says. He says he didn't know. Dr. Mudd was eventually convicted. The army proved to their satisfaction that Dr. Mudd had known it was John Wilkes Booth, had had a longstanding relationship with John Wilkes Booth who had gone to Mudd by prearrangement and spent the night there. And Dr. Mudd was essentially guilty of aiding and abetting the assassin.
Peter Robinson: You write, I quote you, "Did prosecu" this is your own sifting and examination of the evidence, "Did prosecutors present evidence in court in this military tribunal to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Dr. Mudd was guilty is an interesting question and the answer to it is no. An even more interesting question is was he guilty and the answer pretty much unavoidably is yes."
Andrew Ferguson: Yes.
Peter Robinson: Explain.
Andrew Ferguson: Well, you have to really get into the details of the case but essentially what Mudd--Mudd is an interesting figure for several reasons but one of which is that he becomes an exemplar of the way we think about history. We want him to either be a conspiracy-minded or a full conspirator with John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln or we want him to be a martyr and someone who was railroaded by a kangaroo court.
Peter Robinson: Unambiguously good or unambiguously bad.
Andrew Ferguson: Right. But Mudd is not that. And when you get into the sifting through the evidence, what you really find is a man who was a Southern sympathizer who had a casual relationship with John Wilkes Booth, who was clearly sort of drawn to Booth by his--Booth's celebrity. He was--Booth was one of the most famous men in the country at the time and enjoyed being with this man and had been with him a couple of times before the assassination. And probably helped Booth recruit people for what was then a kidnap plot to take--seize Abraham Lincoln and bring him to Richmond.
Peter Robinson: The original plan was to kidnap him, not to kill him?
Andrew Ferguson: Right. That, of course, went by the wayside with Appomattox and Booth turned his thoughts to murder probably unknown to…
Peter Robinson: Went by the way--once the South lost decisively, there was no point in kidnapping Lincoln?
Andrew Ferguson: Right.
Peter Robinson: All right. So the act of killing comes into Booth's head as an act of revenge at that point?
Andrew Ferguson: Yes, at the--yes--this was the only thing to do to the tyrant. Probably Mudd did not know about that. In fact, it's almost certain that Mudd did not. But he was on the fringes of the conspiracy. I think he did realize what was going on. He certainly recognized Booth the night that he came to his farmhouse in the rain and did mislead the federal troops who were trying to catch Booth when they finally came to Mudd's house. So again, he's not the devil. He's not an angel. He's not a martyr. He's someone who got caught up in something that spiraled out of his control. He hedged a little bit here. He hedged a little bit there and ruined his life as a consequence.
Peter Robinson: So his family pursues his cause for over a century and a quarter. You published an article on Dr. Mudd in the Weekly Standard. You'll be expanding it for your book The Land of Lincoln. Your article received a big response. You appeared on C-span to discuss it. The reaction was so big that publishers from New York began calling you to suggest that you write this book. You also mention James O. Hall who devoted some fifty years of his life to gathering and sifting the evidence. He concluded that Mudd was guilty. What does this fascination with Dr. Samuel Mudd suggest to you about America's purported disregard for history?
Andrew Ferguson: Well, the Mudd case works on several different levels. First for the family, of course, it's a matter of clearing the name of their grandfather, their great-grandfather who was as I say a very admirable man in many ways. It's a wonderful mystery. It's something that is essentially unknowable since we'll never be able to pin down exactly what the degree of culpability of Dr. Samuel Mudd was. So there's something--always a sort of a will-o'-the-wisp involved as there is in the very best historical questions. Something always just out of reach that provokes fascination and really can never slake your interest in it.
Peter Robinson: Let's look at one more story about Abe Lincoln and the meaning of history.
Title: Statuary Gripe
Peter Robinson: In 2001, a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad was unveiled in Richmond, Virginia which had, of course, served as the capital of the confederacy. The statue was unveiled to commemorate a visit that Lincoln and Tad made to this city just days after the North captured Richmond and just days before Abraham Lincoln would be killed. The unveiling of this statue causes an uproar and Andrew Ferguson writes, "What made the controversy newsworthy was that there should be a controversy at all." Explain that statement.
Andrew Ferguson: Well that's--I can't think of a better way to say it because I remember reading in my local paper that this--there was going to be a statue put into Lincoln. I'm from Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, the original Land of Lincoln where you can't turn around without tripping over a statue of Abraham Lincoln. I thought oh that's interesting. Then within two or three days, there's a huge conflagration in Richmond, people writing letters to the editors, demonstrating in the streets, websites thrown up on the internet, protesting this. I thought well, what can you protest about Lincoln? It's sort of like Lincoln is so large it's like objecting to the moon. It's--he's just a fact of life and his essential goodness. I never really thought of questioning. But it turns out again, this fascination with history is so deeply rooted in Americans--back to my original point--that this placement of this statue became almost--Lincoln himself was put on trial again. And people had to start from the very beginning and say: why was Lincoln great? Why does he deserve a statue?
Peter Robinson: In reporting the story, you spent a lot of time among what you called "the Lincoln haters." And yet you take them seriously. David Leek, a member of the Sons of Confederacy. "Lee inherited slee," excuse me, Lee--this is Robert E. Lee--"Lee inherited slaves from his wife's father. He freed them at once. Slavery," David Leek maintains, "was a sin against God, Lee believed, and then, only then, when his country, Virginia, was invaded by Yankees, he did not hesitate to take up arms to defend her." That is to say, whatever Lincoln may have claimed and whatever all of us may have been taught in grade school, the Civil War was never really about slavery. What did you make of that charge?
Andrew Ferguson: I think it's false but it's still--there is enough in it to be tantalizing. That is to say, Lincoln's own view towards Blacks and towards slavery itself was much more ambiguous than we want to admit often. Lincoln's view--or Lincoln's involvement as a lawyer was, for example, to defend a slave owner who was trying to retake his slave under Illinois law. Lincoln defended the man. Lincoln had no problem adjudicating the will of his father-in-law, which involved the transfer of a number of slaves, title to a number of slaves. It wasn't really until 195--1850's that he became intimately involved with the slavery question and then it was essentially a matter of preserving the Union, which was always his paramount concern. Within this ambiguity, the Lincoln haters can come in and then say well, he defended this slave trader. He was--had his own quite ambivalent views about race and the differences between the races, made many racist remarks that have come down to us--many of them in public during the Lincoln-Douglas debates--some atrocious passages from those that I think would horrify modern sensibility. And so into that kind of ambiguity, these Lincoln haters can walk and say he wasn't--not only not a saint, he was in fact, a villain. So it's this exploiting of the ambiguity that allows them to turn all of the conventional wisdom on its head. And again the conventional wisdom is weak--has its weaknesses.
Peter Robinson: Another member of the Sons of the Confederacy who you quote, "The North chose to be magnanimous in victory," he's talking about a deal that gets struck after the Civil War, "The North chose to be magnanimous in victory, content with their success in maintaining the Union. Without the objection of the North, the citizens of the South were able to venerate and remember the heroic actions of their men at arms." So the North claims legal sovereignty, they preserve the Union but they permit the South their dreams of heroism, their sense of honor and commenting on this comment, you add, "The veneration of Lincoln in North and South was part of the deal too."
Andrew Ferguson: Right.
Peter Robinson: How does the veneration of Lincoln fit into the post-Civil War deal?
Andrew Ferguson: Well, there's a beautiful phrase used by the historian, Harold Holzer, which is that there was a tacit agreement not to interfere in one another's memories, which I think is a perfect way to put it. Part of the deal though was the South had to agree that the Union was a good thing, that the country had to be a unit, had to be together. And that there was--that unit was built on the will of one man, Abraham Lincoln. So what you saw as the twentieth century progressed, even beginning back in the 1890's was not a veneration of Lincoln. I think that might be too strong of a word but an acknowledgement of his vastness, his greatness.
Peter Robinson: Even in the South?
Andrew Ferguson: Even in the South. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is probably the premiere--what they call heritage--Southern heritage organization, in the 1940's in a very symbolic and pregnant act placed a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and then continued to do so for the next twenty years as a way of saying okay, we've let bygones be bygones. What the man did was so large and consequential that we have to admire him. The deal started to break down--the deal between North and South--with what people call the second reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement of the late '50s and the early '60s in which as has been said maybe too sentimentally but I think partly true, the Civil War was started--was fought over again--in which the central government had to impose its will on the South to end segregation and Jim Crow. When that started to break down, again it broke down this agreement between the two sides. You started to see more and more Lincoln hatred bubble up again as a consequence of what I think the Southerners would think of as a lack of good faith on the part of the North.
Peter Robinson: Let me challenge Andy's assertion that Americans actually care about history.
Title: Don't Know Much About History
Peter Robinson: 2002 report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, "found that none of the nation's top fifty colleges and universities require students to study American history," none, "and only ten percent require students to study history at all. In the entire country, only three undergraduate institutions require a course on the United States' Constitution to graduate. They are the United States Military Academy at West Point, the United States Naval Academy and the United States Air Force Academy." Final item, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCulloch, "We are raising a generation of people who are historically illiterate." What's going on?
Andrew Ferguson: That is all straightforward and correct. There are two things to say about it. First is this isn't anything new. I think people like McCulloch want, even though he manages somehow--even though we're all historically illiterate--he still somehow manages to sell 1.5 million copies of his doorstop books that are actually quite beautifully written and very informative about…
Peter Robinson: John Adams is the latest. Right.
Andrew Ferguson: …obscure historical figures. That suggests to me that his career is sort of a refutation of his point. But it's not new. Sam Weissman here at Stanford had the good idea to go back through the twentieth century literature and see if gauges of historical ignorance among the American people had ever been taken before and, in fact, there had been. There had been all kinds of studies about school children and what they knew. 1943, more than half of high school students couldn't distinguish between Jefferson Davis and Thomas Jefferson. In the 19--a study in Texas in the 1930s--most Texas high school kids didn't know who Sam Houston was. These are--this is a longstanding complaint. And it doesn't mean that it's untrue but it means that the crisis doesn't exist, or isn't new.
Peter Robinson: Let me ask you how to understand the people who are fascinated with history. Would it be fair to say that some Americans are interested in history even as some are interested in championship wrestling and some are interested in needlepoint? Is it nothing more than a hobby or is it deeper than that?
Andrew Ferguson: No, I think it's deeper than that and there are--if you concede that there was a certain kind of historical ignorance that is central to the American character, you can find all kind of reasons for it--we are a very present oriented people which is the commercial republic--we're about getting and spending. Henry Ford is the--summarizes that. But the second thing to say about it which I think does--as David McCulloch's own career does--tend to refute that is when the national assessment of educational progress comes out every four years with a--ringing alarm bells that, you know, 75% of high school students think that James Madison was a bass player for the Funkadelics. Or, you know, they, you know, they think Grand Funk Railroad was the first form of transportation across the West or something like that. They also list other things that are less noticeable, which is, for example, 85% of Junior High School students know that Martin Luther King said the "I have a dream" speech. Seventy some percent can identify the gospel song "Oh Freedom" with the Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, less than 40% know that the Bill of Rights was attached to the Constitution. This doesn't mean that we're ignorant of history. It means that we have concentrated on a certain kind of history to the exclusion of others. I wouldn't advocate that and I think that this is going too far but it does suggest that people are interested in history. They want history. They want historical knowledge and are willing to absorb it.
Peter Robinson: Now back to Abraham Lincoln and his place in American history.
Title: All About Abe
Peter Robinson: I quote you to yourself again. "When modern Americans dwell on Lincoln who is, after all, the inventor of modern America, we botch the job. Those who hate him turn him into a monster out of all proportion. Those who love him turn him into a sentimental old poop." In what way is Abraham Lincoln, your term, the inventor of modern America?
Andrew Ferguson: Well, the easiest way to say it and I--it's kind of become a cliché but it's true--before Lincoln, we as Americans, used the United States as a plural. We said the United States are this or that. After Lincoln, we say the United States is. He reaffirmed for us that we are a country built on an idea and the idea is rooted in natural law, in a view of what human beings are and that to accept this idea (clearing throat) is to become an American in a sense. If you are going to preserve that identity, the United States itself had to become one thing. It had to become something that overrode regionalisms, and factions and all kinds of sectarianisms. And that was Lincoln's greatness. And that's why I think he continues to hold a fascination for it.
Peter Robinson: Let me try a couple of alternatives on you and you tell me why they're mistaken or the extent to which they're true. Some of these are Lincoln hating sort of revisionists but, on the other hand, you take them seriously in your own writing, which is where I got them, by the way.
Andrew Ferguson: Oh.
Peter Robinson: Okay. He invents a modern America by resolving the struggle between states' rights and central government in favor of the latter, giving us the hugely powerful federal government we have today. He resolves the struggle between Jeffersonian ideal--the Jeffersonian ideal of an agrarian nation embodied in the South and the Hamiltonian ideal of a commercial nation embodied in the North in favor of the commercial ideal in the North--billboards, neon lights, entrepreneurship--that's Lincoln's America. What do you think of those?
Andrew Ferguson: I think there's a lot of truth in that. And I think that it's something that Lincoln's conservative defenders in particular, need to take seriously. You know, a lot of the--there's also a lot of baloney in this. This Jeffersonian agrarian ideal is a lie and always was a lie because it was built on slavery. It was built on human chattel slavery that no country could permit to exist. So the opposition between Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian ideals, I think, is a little overblown. Really the only option we ever had if we were going to be a country of free men was a Hamiltonian country.
Peter Robinson: By the time Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, in his mind, I'm questioning his motives at that point--you go back to before the--to the 1850s and earlier and show ambiguity towards slavery, that's he a racist and so--by the time he issues the Emancipation Proclamation, is the Civil War about slavery to Lincoln?
Andrew Ferguson: Yes, absolutely. And this is another thing that--where he holds a fascination for us. You can trace Lincoln's thinking not merely through his unequaled speeches but also through notes that he wrote to himself that came to light after he was dead that his secretaries preserved. It's clear by the time the Emancipation Proclamation--he wrote it five or six months before it was actually issued--he realized that he had to fess up to something that he hadn't wanted to fess up to and that the country probably should too which is as he said later in the Second Inaugural, somehow this is about slavery. Somehow this is about the idea of what human beings are. To crystallize that, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It also had several, for him, splendid political consequences that--which is sort of the way he worked. He worked on many levels. But it was to redefine the war about--as about human nature and human beings.
Peter Robinson: Finally, the influence of Abraham Lincoln on a certain modern Republican president.
Title: I Knew Abe Lincoln…
Peter Robinson: In his Second Inaugural address this past winter, President George W. Bush declared, "America in this young century proclaims liberty throughout all the world and to all the inhabitants thereof. Renewed in our strength, tested but not weary, we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom." Was George W. Bush being Lincolnesque?
Andrew Ferguson: I think he probably thought he was. I think that that kind of grandiosity is not something that Lincoln would have fit comfortably. Lincoln saw the country in providential terms. Again it's one of the reasons that we keep going back to him. He defined it in providential terms. He saw…
Peter Robinson: Providential but--explain what you mean by that.
Andrew Ferguson: That it had metaphysical importance, that there was something about the United States in the--in the course of human history that was special. Whether that would issue eventually in a Bush doctrine as it seems to have or as Bush seems to think it has, I think is a great question.
Peter Robinson: But Lincoln says we're special. We're different from the ordinary run of nations and you can trace that right through to Reagan, to George W. Bush, to that extent, that this is the last best hope of man on earth. To that extent, that's Lincoln.
Andrew Ferguson: Absolutely. And remember he didn't invent that himself. He got that from the founders.
Peter Robinson: From the Declaration. Last question, Clare Booth Luce used to say that history had time to give each great figure only a single sentence. Jefferson wrote the Declaration. Churchill defeated Hitler. Reagan won the Cold War. You could go on like that. Give me one sentence for Abraham Lincoln.
Andrew Ferguson: Saved the Union, freed the slaves, redefined America for Americans.
Peter Robinson: Redefined. That's the…
Andrew Ferguson: Reaffirmed. I should say reaffirmed.
Peter Robinson: Reaffirmed.
Andrew Ferguson: Redefined is not…
Peter Robinson: Here's what I want to know. You say he got it from the Declaration and yet we all have the sense, re-reading that second Inaugural address of Lincoln's that he's doing something new. He's clarifying the Declaration, he's bringing it forward and making it accessible to the modern sense of--what is it that's new about Lincoln?
Andrew Ferguson: The newness is the practical effect that he thinks the promise implicit in the Declaration--made explicit in the Declaration--has. The practical effect is you can--you have to live as a single country. You have to take the proposition seriously. And it--equality has to be acknowledged as a fact of the country's existence, not as a goal to reach, not as some kind of government program but as the premise on which the country is built.
Peter Robinson: Andrew Ferguson, author of the book, which you're still composing, Land of Lincoln, thank you very much.
Andrew Ferguson: Thank you.
Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge. Thanks for joining us.