Interview:Lincoln's Biggest Bet: Interview with Todd Brewster

Todd Brewster

Todd Brewster has had a remarkable career in both journalism and academia. He worked with both Life magazine and ABC News as a Senior Editor and Producer. When he was with ABC News he teamed with Peter Jennings on two monumental projects, The Century and In Search of America. The Century and In Search of America were mini-series that aired on the History Channel and ABC. In conjunction with the mini-series Todd Brewster and Peter Jennings wrote two bestselling books, The Century and In Search of America. In 2008, Brewster became the Don E. Ackerman Director of Oral History at the United States Military Academy. Brewster established a video archive of including veterans from World War II up to our most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to his responsibilities at West Point, Brewster is the Director of The Peter Jennings Project for Journalists and the Constitution. The Project brings in 40 Jennings Fellows each year to study the Constitution in depth. The Project is committed to helping journalists understand how the Constitution reaches into every American's life.

Scribner has published Brewster's book entitled Lincoln's Gamble: The Tumultuous Six Months that Gave America the Emancipation Proclamation and Changed the Course of the Civil War. Brewster's book explores the six months when Lincoln struggled with the war, his cabinet, and how best to free the slaves.

Here's the interview:

What drew you to write about Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation?

The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the three most important documents in American history, and yet it is by far the least known. It has more in common with the Declaration than the Constitution (the other two). Like the Declaration, it was an act of war and like the Declaration, it addressed the American value of equality. Yet unlike either of those documents, the EP was really the work of one man, Abraham Lincoln. How is it, I wondered, that we do not know more about this document, about its origin and development and the history of its authorship? And why is it so different from anything else that Lincoln ever wrote? No stirring phrases, no poetry here, only dense legalese. How do we make sense of it with everything else we know about him?

So all of that made me interested in studying the document and its history more deeply. Then I found that the six months between July 1862 and January 1863 served as a neatly contained episode of Lincoln’s life in that they framed the time when he first mentioned the Proclamation and the date when he actually signed the document. More than that, those six months were some of the most turbulent for Lincoln, the nation, and the war. When the book begins, he is still mourning the death of his son, Willie, who succumbed to typhoid in February and in fact, the opening scene is a carriage ride to the funeral of another child – this, the infant son of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton – who also died of typhoid. The climactic battle of Antietam falls in September of this year, the mid-term elections in November and Lincoln’s muddled address to the nation in December. Through all of this time, he is undergoing a spiritual, emotional and political crisis. What drama!

Lincoln's Gamble by Todd Brewster

Are there any themes or ideas from The Century and In Search of America that you see in Lincoln’s Gamble? Both The Century and In Search of America were trying to decode America, does Lincoln’s Gamble also try to do this?

The “decoding of America” is a preoccupation of mine and, yes, as with “The Century” and “In Search…” there is a lot in “Lincoln’s Gamble” that addresses the ever-evolving nature of the American identity. For instance, I believe that the Emancipation Proclamation was a turning point toward a bi-racial and ultimately a multi-racial America. We take this for granted now but pre Civil War America was largely white and Anglo-Saxon.

I do not know this for sure, but I would not be surprised if the wave of immigration that came at the end of the 19th century was driven in part by a feeling that began with the Emancipation Proclamation in that it emphasized the universality of freedom expressed in the American idea.

It was also a turning point for the notion of freedom as expressed in the American story. As long as the country sanctioned slavery, there was an inherent contradiction to the American idea. Lincoln understood this. He just didn’t know what path to follow out of the predicament that the Constitutional Convention, sanctioning slavery, had given us. What is at issue in the Civil War? A lot. It is not just the institution of slavery; it is the whole progressive notion that wherever you start in life you can come out better than you began. Lincoln’s own life had been an example of this freedom – he was a poor barefoot child of Kentucky who rose to become president of the United States. Slavery was an abomination not because it treated blacks as subservient from whites (racial equality is not a particularly prominent interest of Lincoln’s) but because slavery sprang from the same tyrannical spirit that monarchs claimed as their birthright: the power to live off the labor of others, to say, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.”

You justifiably describe the Emancipation Proclamation as Lincoln’s Gamble. How did Lincoln and his cabinet believe people would react to the Emancipation Proclamation? What were their worst fears?

Lincoln had a great many worries as to how the Emancipation Proclamation would be received. His cabinet did as well, though they were not always in agreement with him as to which worries were the ones they should most be worrying about. Lincoln was concerned about the reactions of the Border States; that emancipation might drive them to join the rebels. There were also worries that the Emancipation Proclamation would not be popular in the North. Early on in the war, many young men were prepared to join the fight for Union and did, but once Lincoln had declared emancipation it would be hard to argue that the war was not about ending slavery and it was unclear if Northern boys were prepared risk their lives for that mission. There were also concerns in the North that if the slaves were freed they would come up the river and take the hard labor jobs from white workers. But by far the greatest fear was that that they would not come North at all but turn on their former masters in a massive bloodbath spurred by their longstanding wish for revenge. In the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln included language encouraging the freed slaves “to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence.”

Aside from the Emancipation Proclamation what do you think were Lincoln’s credible alternatives? Did he try to develop any alternatives?

That is a very good question. Let’s not forget that up until the Emancipation Proclamation, the war being fought ostensibly to restore the conditions of the pre-war Union, which is to say, the nation with slavery intact. At any point, the South could have surrendered and retained its slave system. When the South did not surrender, the Proclamation was then issued in two stages – the preliminary Proclamation and the final Proclamation. The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was essentially a threat to the South: agree to rejoin the Union and adopt a plan for an immediate or gradual end to slavery in the next ninety days or the president will issue the order freeing their slaves and the invading Union army will enforce that. The second and final Proclamation put the policy into effect.

But what would have happened if Lincoln had issued no Emancipation Proclamation? For one, he might have lost the war. Soldiers in the North were already growing weary of the fighting and unlike the South they were not defending their homeland so they did not have the same passion for the fight as the rebel soldiers did. The Emancipation Proclamation not only provided a new mission to the battle; it also unleashed the force of thousands of new soldiers – the freed slaves – who provided renewed vigor to the fight. Finally, what would have happened if Lincoln had issued the EP not in 1863 but in 1861 when the war began? Many people believe that the country was not ready for such a radical policy and that Lincoln would have looked ruthless in his approach to the South. In fact, Lincoln still hoped that he could retain the Southern states and establish a plan for a gradual, negotiated end to slavery. Here is an incredible thought to behold: Lincoln, in his famous debates with Stephen Douglas, argued that the peaceful and gradual end to slavery might take a hundred years or more, meaning that slavery would have remained a part of American life to 1958! Of course the long-term alternative to freeing the slaves was to return them to Africa. This remained an interest of Lincoln’s well after the Proclamation was signed.

Lincoln Memorial

Even though Lincoln is perhaps the most carefully documented and discussed president in United States history, he has remained surprisingly enigmatic. How does your book help us understand this complicated man?

I believe my portrayal of Lincoln shows him as more human, more flawed than most biographers are willing to acknowledge. The introduction describes the inspiration for this picture of Lincoln as coming from a passage in an essay by W.E.B. DuBois, the African-American intellectual whose work with the N.A.A.C.P. in the early part of the twentieth century was a force leading to the Civil Rights movement. In that essay, DuBois derides Lincoln as poor, uneducated, awkward and as “a politician down to his toes.” But he then goes on to say that he loves Lincoln not because he was perfect but because “he was not and yet triumphed.” Lincoln did not believe in equality, he was pessimistic about the races ever living together in harmony, he was far too trusting of his generals early in the war and he wielded power in ways that went well beyond Constitution. He was a master of indecision, projecting out the consequences of each choice and doing so, often, in front of others so that it was unclear where he really stood. In these six months, he goes through a spiritual and emotional crisis that leads him to greater and greater doubt. He was not some “giant among men,” as so many have portrayed him. He was a man.

When you were writing and researching this story, what surprised you most?

I think I was most surprised by the intensity of the debate over equality. Like many, I had always thought that those who wanted an end to slavery believed in the equality of the races. But this is far from true. Slavery was an issue unto itself. Then, even on slavery, it surprised me to learn that as late as 1860 the abolitionists were so far from the mainstream of American thought. They were looked upon as religious fanatics and many – even some who were not abolitionists but who believed slavery should eventually end – felt that the abolitionists were the reason for this war, not the Southern slaveholders. That all changes very rapidly. There is a delicious moment after the issuing of the Preliminary Proclamation in September, 1862, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase and John Hay, who was Lincoln’s personal secretary, retire along with a few other administration officials to Chase’s home to sip wine and celebrate the moment. Hay later wrote of this scene that they “gleefully and merrily called each other abolitionists and seemed to enjoy appropriating that horrible name.”

You co-authored your two previous books with Peter Jennings. I can imagine that having a writing partner could both be extremely rewarding and potentially frustrating. How did writing Lincoln’s Gamble differ from writing those two earlier books with Peter Jennings?

Peter and I had a great collaboration method. “The Century” was not only a book. It was also a television series. Same with “In Search of America.” We worked together on the overall concept for each project, but Peter and his Executive Producer, Tom Yellin, took the lead on the television while I took the lead on writing the books. I think that is the only way a collaboration can work. There has to be a senior partner and a junior partner and each medium has to work to its own strengths. By comparison, Lincoln’s Gamble was naturally, then, a more private project. It was both lonelier and more personal. There is a lot of me in “The Century” and “In Search…” but even more in “Lincoln’s Gamble.” That said, I have to add that Peter was a great partner and a great journalist. I miss him greatly.

How would you use Lincoln’s Gamble in a class? How will your book help students better understand Lincoln or the Civil War?

Well, to begin, it is a great study of the last six months of 1862, a period which forms a hinge moment for the war. The summer of 1862 is a point of failure for the Union; Antietam, in September, is a qualified Union victory (even though McClellan lets Lee get away); Fredericksburg, in December, is another disastrous defeat for the North. But with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the tide begins to turn. The shift comes from Lincoln’s decision to fight a more aggressive war. The Proclamation is part of this more aggressive war, of course, and upon its signing Southern leaders accuse Lincoln of abandoning the rules of “civilized warfare” by undermining civil society.

Lincoln’s decision to move away from the cautious battlefield plans of George McClellan – the arrogant, West Point trained general whom Lincoln fires in October, 1862 – takes this approach even further. West Point officers like McClellan had been trained according to the ideas of the Swiss military theorist Antoine-Henri Jomini who believed there was a science to war that, carefully followed, would limit the bloodshed and maximize the results. Yet in fact, Jomini’s theories had little application to the conditions of the American Civil War. After firing McClellan, Lincoln eventually moves toward what we today would call the Clausewitz approach to battle that was exhibited by Grant and Sherman: maximum force to achieve quick, decisive victories. This turning point is sometimes seen not only as a shift in the Civil War, but as a shift in the history of warfare itself, prefiguring the total war of the twentieth century.

So, I think you could use this as a study of the war. I would use Lincoln’s Gamble as a method of addressing how some of the greatest acts of human history are not obvious, inevitable or easy. They may look easy in retrospect but that is only because we examine them out of context or because we tend to be so protective of our heroes, of our “great man” vision of how history has unfolded.