The American Enterprise

Richard Norton Smith: one of America's most distinguished historians discusses our nation and our Presidents--in particular, Abraham Lincoln, whose Presidential library and museum he has just opened.("Live" with TAE)(Interview)

Historian Richard Norton Smith has worked for Republican politicians (Senators Edward Brooke and Robert Dole), written biographies of Republican leaders (Herbert Hoover, Thomas Dewey, and, forthcoming, Nelson Rockefeller), and directed the libraries of GOP Presidents Hoover, Eisenhower, Ford, and Reagan. So it is fitting that his latest job is connected to the granddaddy of all Republicans. He recently became director of the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.

The museum opened in late April to much fanfare, and also some controversy: Quite unlike the usual staid Presidential reliquaries, the Lincoln museum features realistic life-size figures set within painstakingly re-created tableaux that take a visitor from Lincoln's rude birthplace into the White House and on to Ford's Theater. Critics have attacked this populist approach as the "Disneyfication" of Lincoln.

TAE associate editor Bill Kauffman interviewed Richard Norton Smith in his office in Springfield.

TAE: If not for John Wilkes Booth, would all this exist?

SMITH: It would. The larger question is whether all this would exist were it not for Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan.

Eliminate Booth from the picture for a moment. You still have the Civil War. You still have Gettysburg. You still have emancipation. You still have the age-old and continuing conundrum of race, and Lincoln's personal evolution on that subject, which in so many ways mirrors our own and makes him such a contemporary figure.

TAE: But he achieves apotheosis through assassination, right?

SMITH: Yes. But the figure he cuts in American history would not be smaller had he lived to grapple with the problems of Reconstruction. His political genius might have proved insufficient, or it might have changed history dramatically. Maybe he'd be a Franklin Roosevelt: someone who dealt with the twin crises of economic depression at home and world war.

Lincoln navigated the greatest crisis in American history, followed by a sequel pregnant with possibilities for good or ill. The effects extend right down to our own present times. The sheer dimension of what Lincoln grappled with would ensure him a place on Mount Rushmore and a library-museum of this size.

TAE: What do you find most appealing about Lincoln the man?

SMITH: His growth: moral and personal. I don't want to sound hagiographic, but there's a reason why Lincoln is a secular saint in America's civic religion. Mysteries still attach to this man: that someone with so little formal education would go on to write the most enduring prose of any American. …

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