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Dr. Larry Arnn On Lincoln And The Civil War

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HH: I hope you have enjoyed these three days of commemoration of perhaps the most important week in American history, the week of, the first week of July in 1863 is the week in which everything changed in favor of the Union. The long and bloody war in the west, Vicksburg surrendered, and in the east, Gettysburg was won by the forces of the Union, though not elegantly. And to talk about the man and the theory who stood atop all of that is Dr. Larry Arnn, because this is the time of the Hillsdale Dialogue, where once a week, I talk about, usually with Dr. Arnn, a great work of the West. And today, in honor of this week 150 years ago, we’re talking about a great man of the West, Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Arnn, greetings and a happy day after the 4th of July to you. I hope your Independence Day celebrations were wonderful.

LA: They were wonderful, thank you very much.

HH: Let’s talk about Lincoln a little bit. When did you first, what place does he occupy at Hillsdale College, by the way?

LA: Well, you said last week, along with Churchill, he’s the man. And let me lodge something with you. In 2015, it’s the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death. And so we have to do like four shows about Winston Churchill.

HH: Absolutely.

LA: Yeah, Lincoln, you know, there were friends of Abraham Lincoln at Hillsdale College. The 1854 Republican platform, the first one, and the one that cracked the nut that made Abraham Lincoln president, was written by about 12 people, and two of them were at Hillsdale College.

HH: Wow.

LA: And so we helped to found the movement of which Lincoln was part. The Civil War governor of Michigan that sent the troops to Gettysburg, we had about, at least three dozen young men fight in the wheat field and the peach orchard at Gettysburg in the Michigan 4th. That man was a man named Austin Blair, who had been a Hillsdale College faculty member before he went into politics. And so we had much to do with Lincoln. You know, Clinton Fisk, major general in the Union Army, and later founder of Fisk University, was a Hillsdale College faculty member, and he was a friend of Lincoln. He knew Lincoln very well.

HH: Now I love bringing that up, because I just finished talking for a couple of hours about the actual course of the Civil War with Victor Davis Hanson, a great friend of Hillsdale College.

LA: Yes, sir.

HH: So the audience is now familiar with the wheat field and the orchard, even if they weren’t at the beginning of this. And I also love to tell people that when I visited Hillsdale with you, and we walked around and we saw that central monument, you told me that the college emptied of young men when the war began.

LA: That’s right. There was a crisis faculty meeting, because we thought the college was going to go broke. There weren’t any boys around. And the faculty decided that they couldn’t in good conscience discourage young men from going to serve their country. And we had more, in absolute terms, than any non-military college we can find except Yale College, which is of course much larger than we. We had about 500 young men serve in the Union Army.

HH: Wow. It’s an amazing place to visit if you’re going through Michigan to stop at Hillsdale and see the monument. Our friend, Rich Lowry, was my guest on Wednesday talking about his new book, Larry Arnn, Lincoln Unbound, which he opens with a quote from the great American poet, Walt Whitman, about Lincoln. “Why if the old Greeks had this man, what trilogies of plays, what epochs would have been made out of him?” I know you agree with that, but why, essentially, would they have such material to work with?

LA: Well, first of all, people who are really superb at politics are very rare, like really great people in commerce are rare, and yet there’s always a few around, right? But what great statesmen do is so difficult, and so different in kind from what others who practice that art can do, that it’s just a fantastic thing to see when you see it. And since you’re not likely to be alive when somebody of the very first order is there, then the examples of those who were like that are precious, and very much to be studied. We’ve been talking about Aristotle. Aristotle says you learn the art of prudence, or the capacity of prudence by studying people who have the reputation for it. Well, Lincoln’s genius was the two things that statesmen have to unite. Lincoln had a philosophic and a poetic clarity when he spoke of the principles of the United States. It was, no one has explained more beautifully, not Thomas Jefferson himself, what the Declaration of Independence means. And he rises commonly to the level of the sublime when he speaks of it. Also, by the way, very often, the purely logical, too…

HH: Yeah.

LA: And so there’s that. But then the second thing is what statesmen have to do is calculate among shifting circumstances. And to understand the story of how the Republican Party, which is not any more, in my opinion, but was the greatest political party ever founded, what they did, and how they navigated through the incredible difficulties they faced, both political and military, Lincoln’s mind was extremely good at that kind of thing.

HH: And self-educated. Are you not amazed that that is the case?

LA: Well, Churchill, too, right? In other words, these capacities, you know, Churchill writes once that statesmanship cannot be taught either by reading or example. But it can be armed, right? Well, Lincoln just had a really big soul of a certain kind, and all of the virtues come together in him – magnanimity, generosity, magnificence, courage, and then the intellectual virtues. And that made him, to the people who knew him, in overwhelming majority of the cases, an extremely attractive man to know.

HH: Larry Arnn, next week we begin the study of Plutarch together. And Plutarch coupled great lives for study.

LA: Yeah.

HH: Who would you couple with Lincoln if you were writing an extension of Plutarch?

LA: Churchill, and the reason is sharp contrast, both modern, and they were doing the same thing, I claim. Churchill was short and fat, Lincoln was tall and skinny. Churchill drank all the time. Lincoln was a teetotal. Lincoln did a few things. Churchill did so many. Everything is different about them. Churchill is the grandson of a duke, born in a palace, an imperialist. Lincoln, common guy, right? Both of them were self-educated, pretty much. But in the end, it’s amazing. They come out to be doing the same thing with their lives.

HH: Last week, I posted a photo, Dr. Arnn, of a visit I made to Norway to Vineland Park in Oslo. And I went there to see a modern sculptor’s work. But as I walked through with the Fetching Mrs. Hewitt, I came upon a monument to Lincoln donated to the people of Norway in 1914 by the state of North Dakota. Somehow, it survived the occupation of the Nazis. Perhaps it was put away, perhaps it was restored, but it looked very, very old, and like it had not been disturbed since 1914. Did Churchill look to Lincoln during his period of what Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard wrote about The Republic Of Suffering? I mean, what an extraordinary burden to carry, probably unmatched until Churchill had to carry the burden of World War II suffering.

LA: Of course, Churchill had written about Lincoln. He had information about him. And sure, he did. And you know, Churchill’s understanding of the American republic, you know, and when we do our Churchill, I will explain all this to you. But like in the Fulton address and the Iron Curtain speech in 1946, where Churchill basically declares the Cold War, and set up for Reagan, ultimately, to win it, he says that the principle of the world has to be the principles that find their most famous and highest expression in the American Declaration of Independence, right? Churchill thought that the British Empire was to serve the principles of the American Declaration of Independence. Of course, he learned that partly from Lincoln.

HH: When we come back next week, or in November, we will take a break from our march through the great works to focus on Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. But since the battle sesquicentennial is this week, I have to set up for this and the next segment, why was he so bad at picking the generals for the war that he knew was so necessary?

LA: For the same reason that we’re bad at picking presidents. It’s very hard to be a good general. And it requires qualities that are rare. And generals who live in incredible risk, right, and they don’t want to lose their armies, and that makes them do things that are very destructive to their men. Churchill, by the way, is eloquent about this. What the Union generals would do is they always tried to keep Lee in front of them so they could know where he was. And Lee would go around them. And they would just become confused. And twice, early, Hooker especially, got into a position to destroy Lee’s army, but he lacked the confidence to go forward. And instead, Lee destroyed his.

HH: When we come back from break, then, I have to ask you why in picking Hooker, or before him, any, Ambrose or Burnsides, I mean, Ambrose Burnsides, or McClelland, any of them, why did Lincoln not figure out that it was this man in the west, Grant, that he needed.

— – – –

HH: It’s the Hillsdale Dialogue with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, which I do each week at this time. This week, we are taking a break from our march through the great works of the West to focus on what I called before the break the sesquicentennial celebration of the week that made America. I don’t know that Dr. Arnn agrees with my view of this week 150 years ago, but I think without Vicksburg and without Gettysburg, the course of the Union might have been profoundly different. What do you think, Dr. Arnn?

LA: Oh, sure. The two great crises of the war came in this July of 1863 when the Union finally won some battles that mattered. And if they hadn’t, you know, because especially Gettysburg, which was Lee’s second invasion of the North, and he never won a battle on Northern soil, if either Antietam earlier or Gettysburg had gone the wrong way, that would have changed things decisively. And then of course, you have to add in later, Atlanta, which Sherman taking Atlanta and then beginning his march, that’s how Lincoln was able to win the 1864 election. And so those were the two, the July of 1863 and then the summer of 1864 are the two turning points in the war, because McClellan was going to be elected president if the successes had not come. And then a peace would have been made that would have severed the country in two.

HH: Yeah, that’s what I think. And so I think people who miss the significance of this week are missing the significance that the war could have been lost, which is easy to do in retrospect, isn’t it, Dr. Arnn, that we lose the idea, or we gain an idea, a false idea of inevitability when none existed. And if not for Lincoln, we would not have this country.

LA: It’s implausible. Everything about the way the Civil War ended up is implausible. It was all written in the cards, right, because just like today, there are movements in the government, and they seem unassailable. They’re just going from strength to strength rapidly. What was going on was they had their Court case in Dred Scott, they had their movement, right? They had their bulwark in the Constitution that they could keep their slaves in the states where it existed, and they were contending to make it spread across the whole country. And it looked like it couldn’t be stopped. And then when the Republican Party came up with a platform that they would leave it alone in the states in respect for the Constitution, but they would stop it from spreading into the territories any further under the Constitutional power that the federal government in fact has, but that was a death knell. And so then there was a secession, and the South had an army to surround the Capitol. And if Maryland had gone out, it would have been simply surrounded, right?

HH: Yeah, yeah.

LA: And Lincoln called for 75,000 troops. He had no way anybody would come, and anyway, and no way to know if anybody would come. And anyway, who is this Lincoln guy, right? He’s an Illinois lawyer, he’s got one term in the House, he served in the military in a little Indian skirmish for a few months once in his life, and so who is this guy who’s got to put together a great national movement to restore the Union and achieve our rededication to the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution? Who would have thought that anybody would be up to that? There’d been a long string of people who were not.

HH: Yeah. Yesterday, I spent all three hours with the great Harry Jaffa in a program that I play every year talking about the Declaration and the Gettysburg address. This, though, I want to read to you from Rich Lowry’s book about that Lincoln who comes from nowhere. It comes out of Illinois in 1858 debating Stephen Douglas. “This was the backdrop to Lincoln’s combat with Douglas. The legendary affair raged between them more widely than the immortal seven debates. The two traveled a collective ten thousand miles. Lincoln gave 63 speeches, usually about two hours in length. Douglas gave 130 in a count that included shorter, improvised remarks. And it almost lost his voice by the end. Lincoln wasn’t as well known, of course. Papers outside of Illinois were liable to spell his name Abram. And the New York Sun unaccountably dubbed him Abraham R. Lincoln. But Douglas knew what he was up against. ‘I shall have my hands full,’ he predicted.” Why did Douglas know he was up against something?

LA: Well, Douglas is a very smart man, and they knew each other. And you know, Douglas, by the way, proved to be a good man in his life. He’s the first man to actually run for president, you know, to go campaign all over the place. And in the 1860 election, he campaigned exclusively in the South, and he was stoned and heckled and threatened, and exclusively on a platform of no secession. And Douglas and Lincoln met after that, and not long before Douglas died. Douglas exhausted himself doing that. He had enormous respect for Lincoln, and he was a brilliant man. And it took a more brilliant man to undo, because you know, Douglas was bidding for the Republican nomination for the presidency.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And so he almost split this newly-established party and took it away from Lincoln. And so they were both fighting two-front wars, right, and because if Douglas had got his way, he would have been able to establish that the states each get to decide for slavery, and there’s no federal interest in the subject, and that by doing that, that’s how we guarantee that slavery gets restricted, he would say to Republicans. And he nearly, he was on his way, right? And what Lincoln did was, and he was trying to split Lincoln’s vote, see? Lincoln was trying to split Douglas’ vote. And so he in the debates, and extremely skillful how he did it, he got Douglas to say that he would never favor a federal slave code. And you’ve got to understand the significance of that, because here’s the trouble with slavery. You can write all you want to about how it’s a good idea, but these slaves have the unhealthy habit of trying to get away. And you can only really maintain slavery if you have strong laws that involve everybody helping to enforce them to keep it going. And so the ultimate wish of the pro-slavery parts of the South was a federal slave code. Douglas had to say no to that. And that’s how Lincoln successfully split Douglas’ vote.

HH: And see, it’s a remarkable talent, a political talent, as well as an intellectual fortress in Lincoln that I think goes unappreciated, because that was, that was crafty. It had to be crafty.

LA: Oh, yeah.

HH: He was crafty from the beginning.

LA: And you know, it’s like, I’ll pay tribute to your profession now. It’s like really skilled lawyers who can vindicate the right through the tangles of the law. And so it takes, you know, like Daniel Webster was a great lawyer.

HH: Yeah, yeah.

LA: And John Marshall was a great lawyer, and Joseph Story was a great lawyer. And in them, there’s these details that are crucial, and that make up the situation, right? And it’s a detail, but it’s vital that most of the land area of the United States is not yet organized as states. It’s a detail, and it’s vital that the Congress has different authority in the territories than it has in the states. And so those are kind of accidents, right? But they became simply central to the thing. And so Lincoln could explain, you know, here’s a piece of his beauty. Do we have time to do it?

HH: Hold it through the break. I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn as we celebrate Lincoln on this, the 150th anniversary of the pivotal week in American history.

— – – –

HH: I feel like I’ve won my own Gettysburg with him, because in the previous segment, Dr. Arnn admitted that it required a lawyer to save the Union. I think that’s what he admitted in the last segment.

LA: Not what I said, but I did say sometimes, lawyers do good, and even you. Let me, so first of all, we’ve established that Lincoln was artful beyond anything we’ve ever seen with our own eyes in political maneuvering. But let me explain the beauty that he achieved in the Lincoln-Douglas debates and elsewhere, and we’ll do it again in November when we talk about the Gettysburg Address. One of Douglas’ arguments is, and he’s drawing on the fact that people don’t think much of black people in those days, right?

HH: Right.

LA: And he says, “Lincoln thinks that the good people of Nebraska are good enough to govern themselves, and not good enough to govern a few miserable Negroes. And I can take my hog and my buckboard into Nebraska, and the federal government will protect my property in it. Why not my slave? Now I believe that the liberty of every American hangs on the answer to that question. I believe today abandoning the nature of the human being, we are building a government that can do anything it wants to us.” Lincoln replies, “The good people of Nebraska are good enough to govern themselves. That’s true. But no people are good enough to govern anyone else. And about the hog and the buckboard and the slave, of course they’re the same if they’re the same. But you know they’re not. And the people in the South know they’re not, because they’ve never passed a law trying a pig for murder. And they’ve never passed a law making it illegal to teach a pig to read. They know that these people are human. And if they’re human, they have their rights in nature.” And see, I think Lincoln’s deploying that argument. Save the freedom of every one of us.

HH: Now Larry, where did he get that? That’s book one of the Politics about which we were talking last week. When did Lincoln develop this theory, because he deploys it there? And I don’t know how that crowd reaction. Perhaps you do. But where did he get it from?

LA: Lincoln won the popular vote in Illinois, remember, right, for the Senate.

HH: Yeah.

LA: So that’s how they reacted. But where did he get it? It turns out Lincoln answered that question. He was on a train platform after he gave the Cooper Union address, and a journalist was standing beside him, and said, “Are you getting on this train, sir?” And Lincoln said, “I am.” And he said, “Can I sit with you? I saw your speech last night. I want to ask you how you did it.” And they rode on the train together, and this journalist writes it up. “Where did you get all that,” he said. Lincoln said, “When I was learning to be a lawyer, I kept running across the word demonstrate. And I thought it must be some altogether higher standard of proof. And I said to myself, Lincoln, you’ll never make a lawyer unless you learn to demonstrate a thing. So I memorized all of the propositions of Euclid.”

HH: Wow.

LA: Did you know that?

HH: I did not know that.

LA: In other words, Lincoln gave himself. He had this big soul, just like Winston Churchill, and he used it. He devoted himself to figuring this out. Nobody ever worked harder. And so by the time he walked out to argue with Douglas, and by the time he became president, he had developed himself to a pitch of perfection that’s hardly ever been seen.

HH: That is a remarkable thing, and to have done it on his own. I know that at Hillsdale, you have a course of study that you encourage your young men and women, or you mandate that your young men and women follow, but he didn’t have that. It’s remarkable as we sit here 150 years later after the slaughter I’ve been talking about with Victor Davis Hanson for two hours. And it was a horrible war, and that he had the soul and the purpose to get through it, but that it was all self-generated from frontier libraries and borrowed books, Dr. Larry Arnn. It’s amazing.

LA: But let me tell you something about human freedom that you learn in a college better than anywhere else. It is true that we help them, and we set up the course of study. But it’s also true that every one of them who learns does it himself. And you can’t do it for them. And to be a good teacher, by the way, is to understand that. Like the people who call in, I gather there’s a lot of them, I hear a lot about it, about these Dialogues?

HH: Yes.

LA: They wouldn’t get anything from them unless they were working, see? And it’s not what you and I know. It’s what they know, because they learn, right, just the same thing we learned. And so Lincoln was better at it than nearly anyone, but it’s also true every excellence that every human being ever develops is the reason we try to make an entitlement to an education today, where there can be none. Every excellence is the responsibility of the one who holds it.

— – – –

HH: In November, Dr. Arnn and I, Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, will revisit the Declaration of Independence as mediated through the Gettysburg Address. And in two years, we will come back to the Second Inaugural, Lincoln’s second great work of American rhetoric, not as well-known as the Gettysburg Address. But I wanted to finish my week talking about that, Dr. Larry Arnn, because this suffering, of which I was talking with Victor Davis Hanson, this massive, killing their mules and eating the rats at Vicksburg, the Confederates were committed to their lost cause, and many of them did not own slaves. And up, your college emptied itself of young men to go off and die by the dozens in a tiny, little, small college of the 600,000 who died across the United States in the course of this war. Lincoln has to bind up that wound. And so I don’t, even though we’re anticipating it by two years, he did so with words, which is remarkable. But tell people about those words, that Second Inaugural Address, and why it’s such a work of genius.

LA: I just was in a fantastic conversation about that very thing yesterday, and I’ll put it this way. The Gettysburg Address is a halfway point between the First and Second Inaugurals, logically, poetically, and literally. And what the First Inaugural of Lincoln is, is a beautiful piece of reasoning with an emotional appeal at the end. What the Second Inaugural is, is a prayer. And what he says, and you have to remember it says, “At this second appearing,” it begins, like a coming again, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: Then he says an extended argument is not needed. But then what he does is he draws on the common suffering of the war, because although the North and the South were fighting each other, they were both bearing the same wounds. And he says in there, God is everywhere in the Second Inaugural. And he says that God is not on either of our sides. God has purposes of His own. And God’s justice is being done to us both. If every drop of blood drawn by the lash through 200 years of the bondsman’s unrequited soil must now be repaid with another drawn by the sword, still it will be said that the ways of God are righteous altogether. And because we have suffered like this together, we can be one people again. And so then it becomes necessary for us to take care of each other’s widows and orphans, and bind up the wounds of the war.

HH: Was there any counterpart to this in the West? Churchill did not have the chance to give this speech when he was in office, because he was turned out of office. And as you’ve often said, remarkably, he was gone the next day in a great demonstration of his fealty to his beliefs. But is there anything even remotely approaching Lincoln’s Second Inaugural anywhere else?

LA: Well, sure. But Lincoln’s Second Inaugural is, you know, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural are in some senses unique pieces of political rhetoric, because their brevity and their beauty and their purity are not really matched by anything I know. But you know, read, like here’s a paragraph from Churchill after the Munich Agreements. And it’s, see, your point really is Churchill was doing business in a different way than Lincoln is on the occasions of his speeches. And Lincoln mostly was. But in these two, he isn’t doing any business, right? He’s commemorating something, only that. Well, Churchill writes that you must consider the character of the Nazi regime, and the rule which it implies, he says, so it’s a regime question, right? And we can never be friends with a Nazi power, however much our hearts go out to the German people. And then he talks about what Britain is, how beautiful it is, what a great thing it is, and how it must be preserved, you see. Rise up, he says at the end, as in the olden time. Will you go read that paragraph? Go read that Finest Hour speech, the last paragraph of that. You know, Churchill forecast the death of the British Empire in that speech, because when he says if the British Empire should last a thousand years, men will still say this was their finest hour. In other words, if we do this right, it won’t matter what comes later, and nothing that comes later can surpass this.

HH: You know, it’s remarkable, because I was talking about Joshua Chamberlain, of course, with VDH.

LA: Yeah.

HH: One of the finest hours in American history is when this college professor schooled in slavery, and in the theory of why it was evil, charges with no ammunition left, and you know, runs headlong into a superior force. And it’s a remarkable and inspiring thing. But I’m curious about, and we have two minutes left, Churchill lived to see the camps and understood what they meant. Did Lincoln know of Andersonville? And if he didn’t, would it have turned his soul if he had lived to learn the extent of the mayhem, the evil?

LA: I don’t think so. I think, well, partly because you know, the slaughter of the war, and then the evil in principle of slavery, Andersonville was not worse than those things, right?

HH: True, true.

LA: And Lincoln knew, you know, Lincoln had had that conversation in 1862 with a bunch of black leaders, where he’d said to them look, I don’t understand why you guys would want to live with us the way we treat you. Why don’t you go to another place? And I will help you get there. You can’t, it can’t be done unless you want to go, right? But why would you stay here with us? What do you even like about us, right? It’s beautiful. And he had a reporter there to make sure it was all reported. And all these men, there were about 20 of them who were in his office in Washington, in the White House. They all lower their heads, and then they say they’ll answer him. And they come back to him, and they basically say to him, Mr. President, we are Americans. What can be more moving than that? And you know, Lincoln dropped the idea of colonization after that. They’re going to stay here.

HH: Ah, what a perfect way on which to end this week. Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, next week to Plutarch, and I think we’ll be talking quite a lot about Lincoln and Churchill throughout that conversation as well. Thank you very much. All of these Dialogues available at, or at, or at

End of interview.


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