Ronald C. White Jr.: Why Lincoln still matters

Historians in the News

... In conjunction with the bicentennial of his birth, a slew of new books on the 16th U.S. president have appeared. Among the best-reviewed is the biography "A. Lincoln" (Random House) by historian Ronald C. White Jr., who drew on new research for his portrait.

CNN talked with White about Lincoln's impact on the country, President Obama's affinity for him and what lessons Lincoln has to offer Americans of today. The following is an edited version of White's comments:

CNN: Thousands of books have been published about Lincoln. Why did you decide to write a new biography?

Ronald C. White Jr.: Probably surprising to many is how many new discoveries have been made about Lincoln just in the last 15 to 20 years.

For example, about 20 years ago, a professor in Illinois wondered if there were still Lincoln legal papers laying around in the almost 100 courthouses in Illinois. So he got together a group of students, and they began searching those courthouses, and they found [thousands] of Lincoln legal documents. ... I wanted to treat more of that part of Lincoln's life -- he spent nearly 24 years as a lawyer. This is just an example of what we have discovered only in recent years.

CNN: More than 100 years after his death, why does Lincoln still fascinate us?

White: I think for many he embodies the best of America. The fact that a man of such humble origins, with less than one year of formal education, could, in his term, have the "right to rise." He felt that America was a land where we should not put any shackles or weights upon people. One reason he hated slavery so much was that it puts weights upon people. ...

I'm going to be speaking in Italy and Germany in April, and people there are fascinated with Lincoln for the same reason.

Now, to be sure, Obama has shone a large spotlight on Abraham Lincoln. I think this is somewhat responsible for rediscovering this man at the beginning of the Lincoln bicentennial in the year 2009.

CNN: Why do you think Barack Obama has made such a point of aligning himself with Lincoln?

White: It's become commonplace for politicians of both parties to invoke Lincoln -- literally wrap themselves in the mantle of Lincoln -- especially at political conventions. But when I read "The Audacity of Hope" it came through to me that this is something quite genuine.

As Obama is seeking to define his own vocation as a politician, he found in Lincoln -- Lincoln's inclusive spirit, Lincoln's humble demeanor, Lincoln's great gift with words -- he found here some of the very values that he wished to inculcate into his own life. ... I think he picked up on the symbolism of Lincoln, using the very same ceremonial Bible [for his swearing-in], picking as his theme a "new birth of freedom," re-enacting the final 137 miles of the train ride [Lincoln took to Washington for his first inaugural]. It's fascinating that here this African-American politician is finding a model and a mentor, and I think it is the values that Lincoln represents that Obama is finding....

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