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Five questions with Lincoln scholar Michael Burlingame

Michael Burlingame, the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, will be speaking at Pine Point School in Stonington about "Lincoln's mindset at the beginning of the Civil War."

Burlingame taught at Connecticut College from 1968 to 2001, when he retired as the May Buckley Sadowski Professor of History Emeritus.

He is the author and/or editor of a dozen books on Lincoln, not the least of which is his two-volume biography, "Abraham Lincoln: A Life," published in 2008, which has been hailed as the definitive work on the 16th president.

We asked Burlingame five questions about his favorite subject.

1. We've read that during the campaign for the presidency, Lincoln stayed home in Springfield, Ill., while others crisscrossed the country campaigning for him. What was Lincoln doing/thinking during the campaign?

"That was the style in those days. It was considered unseemly for somebody to campaign on their own behalf. It wasn't dignified. Steven Douglas broke that pattern, and he was widely criticized for that."

2. Before Lincoln even took office, seven states had seceded from the union and elected a Confederate president, and yet in the months before his inauguration Lincoln was notoriously mum about this division of the nation. Is that an accurate impression, or did he take a position we're not aware of?

"He kept his silence because the situation was so fluid, so he wanted to maintain silence publicly. Privately, he was very active behind the scenes writing to members of Congress, telling them not to fall for any compromise that would allow slavery to expand. That was the basic principle of the Republican party: that it would not allow slavery to expand."

3. Lincoln's reticence to address the crisis disappointed many of his supporters. And when he finally did, in speeches given as he traveled to Washington to take the oath of office, he seemed, by some accounts, to lack a grasp of the seriousness of the situation. Why was he so cautious in taking a position on the issues?

"It's basically because you just didn't know what was going to happen from one day to the next, and he didn't want to commit himself to any action that would be undercut by the next day. He argued that, 'All of my positions have been spelled out in my speeches. I've given 174 speeches. They are widely printed.' What it came down to was slavery would not be allowed to expand and secession would not be tolerated."

4. Mere hours before Lincoln's inauguration, the Senate had passed a constitutional amendment (the Corwin amendment) that, if ratified by the states, would protect the institution of slavery in perpetuity. When Lincoln gave his inauguration speech, he said of the amendment, "I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable." What was he thinking?

"He believed that the Constitution already forbad the federal government to interfere with slavery in states where it already existed, so that amendment would be a tautology. Also, I think he believed the chance of that passing in three quarters of the states was thin. So I think it was a sop to the secessionists.

"The slavery expansion issue is a proxy for slavery in general, for saying, 'We don't think slavery is a good idea and it should be abolished.' But then once war breaks out, then the rules change... Lincoln argued that his oath of office to uphold the Constitution meant he should preserve the union of the country."

5. It seems that Lincoln's first decisive move as president was to decide to try to hold Fort Sumter, against the advice of Gen. Winfield Scott and a seemingly futile endeavor. What was his strategy here?

"It took a lot of nerve on his part. Here's this guy that's been a one-term congressmen... Scott is the hero of 1812 and the Mexican war and considered the greatest general since Washington, but Lincoln believed that to give up Fort Sumter was to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Confederacy.

"Lincoln was thinking, 'I can't let the fort go without tacitly acknowledging the Confederacy, and yet I don't want to take a step that could be interpreted as firing the first shot.' So he sent just food and said the warships won't do anything unless the supply ships are fired on, so he put the South in a bind.

"What the Confederates were trying to do was to the get the other eight slave states to join them. They were told once the firing began, the other states will join you. That seems to have been on Jefferson Davis's mind."

Meet Mr. Lincoln

Who: Michael Burlingame, author of "Abraham Lincoln: A Life"

What: Will talk about "Lincoln's mindset at the beginning of the Civil War"

Where: Pine Point School, 89 Barnes Road, Stonington

When: May 13, at 7 p.m.

For more information: (860) 535-0606


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