What Would Lincoln Do?

Historians examine how one of our most famous presidents would have faced historical challenges.

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There is no end to literary projects examining Abraham Lincoln, one of our nation's most enigmatic heroes. But Lincoln: A President for the Ages, timed to complement the new movie by Steven Spielberg, parses our 16th president through a new lens. Historians, journalists, and scholars imagine in a compilation of essays how Lincoln would have faced varied historical challenges of other eras. One scholar, for instance, theorizes why Lincoln might have fit in well with today's celebrity culture. The book's editor, Karl Weber, who also edited Food, Inc. and Waiting for 'Superman', recently spoke to U.S. News about the multifaceted leader. Excerpts:

What does this book add to our understanding of Lincoln?

We tried to reflect the multiplicity of Lincoln, because he is obviously a very complex historical figure. Perhaps people are not familiar with Lincoln as a hard-nosed political wheeler-dealer, for example. We invited a dozen historians to speculate how Lincoln might have handled a historical challenge very different from the ones he faced. We thought this would be an opportunity to delve into his character, his political instinct, the values that shaped him—and then apply those to issues from other times. We asked historians: How do you think Lincoln would have dealt with women's suffrage? If Lincoln had been president at the end of World War II, would he have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima? Would he be an idol of the conservative Christian right or would he do battle with them? The essays give us a new look at Lincoln, and yet they ground what they say about him in things Lincoln said and did.

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How would he have handled the War on Terror?

Frank J. Williams, who was the chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, writes that Lincoln would very likely have endorsed the Patriot Act and followed many of the policies that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have followed in terms of softening some civil liberties protections to track down terrorist plots and protect Americans. When faced with an existential threat to the United States in the form of secession, Lincoln took such steps as suspending the writ of habeas corpus, which was a serious challenge to constitutional law. Williams says that Lincoln recognized that in times of extremity you may need to do something like that, provided you do it with proper controls and with the right motives.

Elizabeth Keckley was a former slave and seamstress for first lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Why did you include an essay on her?

One of the things people have argued about for decades is Lincoln's attitude toward and his relationships with African Americans. He played a crucial role in freeing the slaves. Some felt he moved too slowly on that front while others felt he never really freed himself of the racism of that time. That Elizabeth Keckley was practically a member of the family adds something significant to the understanding of Lincoln.

What would surprise readers?

Virtually every reader will discover new things about Lincoln. For example, we touch on whether Lincoln might have been gay, and look at evidence on both sides of that question, something that the average person has probably never thought about.

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Why do we have such deep emotional and intellectual ties to this president?

In my introduction, I talk about his complexities—his resolve and sense of humor, his self-taught backwoods country lawyer personality, his remarkable shrewdness and depth of insight when it came to politics, his brilliant sense of timing, the fact that as a family man he had such a troubled life and yet that he was able to devote himself so single-mindedly and wholeheartedly to his country. When people start to learn a little about him, they become fascinated by him. He also is the central figure in the most traumatic and divisive issue in American history, which is slavery, racism, and the gulf between north and south.