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David S. Reynold's Book 'Abe' Reveals New Information About Lincoln

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

No matter how divided the country is now, Abraham Lincoln had it worse. He was president during the Civil War. A new biography explores Lincoln's life, and while it is one of many, it comes from historian David S. Reynolds, author of acclaimed works on the 19th century. "Abe" follows a president who steered a middle course. He even steered a middle course on slavery, waiting for years into the war before issuing his Emancipation Proclamation.

Reynolds writes of Lincoln's political style in a chapter called Blondin, Barnum and B'Hoys - three B's - Blondin, Barnum and B'Hoys. Each of those three was a 19th century cultural phenomenon that reveals something fresh about Lincoln.

DAVID S REYNOLDS: Charles Blondin was the stage name for a French acrobat who was a famous tightrope walker. In 1859, in the summer and fall, he came to America and made a tour. And among his amazing feats was to walk a tightrope without a net, of course, across Niagara Falls. And he would do this and do tricks - somersaults. He went over on stilts. He went at night. He went in chains but, most famously, pushing a wheelbarrow and then, even more famously, carrying a man on his back across Niagara Falls.

INSKEEP: I'm getting tense just listening to you describe this.

REYNOLDS: I know. I know (laughter). I - yeah, he became a real sensation. And quite quickly, Lincoln was compared in the popular press to Blondin because Lincoln stood between extremes. He was kind of on a tightrope. And, intentionally, he wanted to be there. And several times, he himself compared himself to Blondin because when people during the Civil War came to him and said, can't you make it more of an antislavery war explicitly and - or this - he said, if I were Blondin and I had the entire nation's riches and fortunes and future in my wheelbarrow, would you be telling me to, you know, lean left, lean right? He said, no, you'd be quiet and allow me to stay right where I am, right in the center.

INSKEEP: So Blondin, this tightrope walker, gives us some of Lincoln's style, and then you mention Barnum, P.T. Barnum.

REYNOLDS: Yes.

INSKEEP: Who is he and what does he have to do with Abraham Lincoln?

REYNOLDS: P.T. Barnum was the great showman of his day who put on exhibit a lot of people who represented what I call the -est (ph) factor - the largest, the smallest, (laughter) the strangest-looking or the oldest, whatever. And most of these were just humbugs, such as a 160-year-old woman who actually was only in her 70s.

But Lincoln himself was kind of put on exhibit. And he used to joke about himself as being the ugliest guy around. A lot of - even biographers at that time kind of made fun of his cavernous face and kind of unkempt hair and deep-set eyes. He was often compared to an ape or a gorilla, and he had a very awkward gait and everything. This may sound like a very critical thing, and it was a very critical thing, but the people at that time sort of feasted on this kind of sensationalism. And there was a side of Lincoln that almost tapped into this kind of performative, Barnum-esque theatrical culture of the day.

INSKEEP: In what way?

REYNOLDS: Well, he allowed himself to be advertised as Old Abe, Honest Abe, Abe the Illinois Rail Splitter. What happened during the 1860 campaign - it was called the Rail Splitter Campaign because there were pictures of him everywhere in rolled-up sleeves, no coat, no jacket. I mean, by that time, he was a respectable lawyer who wore ties and jackets and everything like that. But he said, you know, I did get elected because of my image, of Babe (ph), the Illinois Rail Splitter.

And it became such a popular trope. There were literally newspapers called the Rail Splitter and campaign posters and so forth and songs. And it was all about him cutting down trees and splitting rails and everything. And that was very, very much Barnum-esque culture.

INSKEEP: So he's a tightrope walker. He's a bit of a showman.

REYNOLDS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: And then in this three B chapter - Blondin, Barnum and B'Hoys - what are B'Hoys? That's not a word I quite recognize.

REYNOLDS: B'Hoys was the average street person of that time. He emerged, initially, out of the New York streets in the 1840s. But this was the working-class figure - the butcher, the carpenter, the common laborer, the kind of everyday man - who becomes a national myth. And Lincoln was kind of presented as this version of the Illinois B'Hoy, this kind of rough, crude and yet, basically, honest. I mean, the B'Hoy - he was rough but also, basically, very good-hearted.

And then it got picked up by his followers, these young followers who were called the Wide Awakes. And these were generally young men - sometimes young women, but mainly young men - who dressed up in oilskin coats and carried torches. And they were really the ones who led the rallies.

INSKEEP: So these were kind of a youth movement but of average, not well-educated people who related to Lincoln, felt that Lincoln was one of them.

REYNOLDS: Absolutely. They related. And the fact that he had a slight, kind of a Midwestern accent and would sometimes use slang words and tell jokes. He was known for his humor - very much the average person could identify with him. And he really became beloved among many Northerners.

INSKEEP: You have written about the president who presided over the most divided time in America, when divisions led to actual civil war. Do you feel like you know one thing that Lincoln would do if he confronted the divisions that we face today?

REYNOLDS: I do know one thing. The one thing that he would do today is that he would not inflame partisan divisions because he would know that the very worst thing that you can do is to inflame them. And even in conducting the Civil War, that was beyond a partisan division; that was a war that was conducted - it was actually begun by the South and its belief in slavery. He wanted to win the war and to make a deal with the South, but he always had justice, human justice, within his mind.

And if he were alive today, he would always have human rights in his mind. And it did turn out to be an anti-slavery war, which was the greatest injustice to human beings that has happened in American history. So he would be thinking of all Americans, but that would include African Americans. And back then, there were 4 million enslaved African Americans. So that's how he would respond today.

INSKEEP: The newest book from the acclaimed historian David S. Reynolds is "Abe: Abraham Lincoln In His Times." Thank you, sir.

REYNOLDS: Thank you very much, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.