Dr. Ronald C. White, Jr. is considered one of the foremost historians on President Abraham Lincoln. He has written several books on our 16th President, including the New York Times Bestseller A. Lincoln: A Biography. He has joined the group of prominent historical advisers working on “To Appomattox,” and has graciously taken time out of his busy schedule to answer a few of our questions.
Steven Hancock: When did you first become interested in the story of Abraham Lincoln?
Ronald White: The Huntington Library put on a large exhibit on Abraham Lincoln in 1993-94. I was teaching in the History Department at UCLA and decided to offer a seminar on Lincoln and bring my students to the exhibit. As we read Lincoln’s speeches and letters together we were all overwhelmed. One day a friend told me, “I could write for a larger audience,” and offered to introduce me to his literary agent in New York. This resulted in the publication of Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural published by Simon & Schuster in 2002.
SH: What part of Lincoln’s story interests you the most?
RW: I was drawn early to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and its surprising religious ideas and language. I say surprising, because Lincoln scholarship has pictured Lincoln as not religious. This launched me into a quest to understand Lincoln’s faith journey—from Deist or fatalist to one speaking about the providence of God in what he believed was his greatest speech.
SH: As an historical adviser to the upcoming To Appomattox miniseries, what is your role in the pre-production stage of the program?
RW: I have been asked to read the script and offer any counsel on historical matters.
SH: Stephen Lang has been cast as Lincoln in To Appomattox. Will you advise him on his portrayal when production commences?
RW: I would like to do so. Last evening I read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural before a large audience at a lecture at the Huntington Library. I have lived with Lincoln for so long, especially with his thinking and speaking, that I would like to offer counsel on how and why Lincoln is our most eloquent president.
SH: Why do you feel that Abraham Lincoln’s story continues to resonate with the American people?
RW: I am sometimes asked how Lincoln might advise President Bush or President Obama about Iraq. It is not that Lincoln can provide answers to contemporary problems. It is rather Lincoln’s spirit that we need so much today in our increasingly uncivil society. What do I mean? He treated his political opponents with respect—arguing over ideas not over personalities or motives. He was genuinely inclusive in spirit—including his leading Republican opponents and key Democrats in his cabinet. He loved his country, but was not into self-congratulation either about the country or himself. His Second Inaugural is unique among inaugural addresses for he criticizes the nation over the offense of “American slavery.” Although a man of the 19th century, his ideas and words still resonate in the 21st century. When the people of New York, on the first anniversary of 9/11, sought a poet or politician to articulate their deepest feelings, in the end they recited Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address together.
I want to thank Dr. White for taking time from his busy schedule to answer questions for our blog. His involvement will assure that Lincoln’s story will be portrayed correctly in the upcoming miniseries. To learn more, visit Dr. White’s official website.