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NPR's Steve Inskeep on his new book 'Differ We Must'


Abraham Lincoln may be as close to a saint as U.S. history has ever produced. He was wise and folksy, an eloquent speaker, a self-effacing jokester, a man who sprang from the soil of America and became a martyr for his country and emancipation. But our colleague Steve Inskeep begins his new book, "Differ We Must," by reminding us Abraham Lincoln was a politician. And Steve Inskeep, co-host of NPR's Morning Edition, joins us in our, and I do mean our, studios.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: (Laughter) Scott, good morning.

SIMON: Is there something about contemporary politics that moved you to think, this is a time to go back and look at Lincoln?

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah. I mean, I cover the news and also write history. I go back and forth. And each thing informs the other. Now, I'd be interested in writing about Lincoln at just about any time. I read about Lincoln since I was a kid growing up in Indiana, where he also grew up. But I got this thought to tell Lincoln's life story through his meetings with people who differed with him, who were different kinds of people and disagreed with him. And I did come to understand while covering the news that those disagreements were really, really relevant today.

SIMON: In fact, the title comes from a letter to Joshua Speed, arguably his best friend.


SIMON: They differed on...

INSKEEP: Slavery.

SIMON: ...Significant things. Yes.

INSKEEP: Slavery. Speed was a guy from Kentucky who grew up in a very wealthy, slave-owning family, and as an adult, when he befriended Lincoln, he told Lincoln that he disagreed with slavery in the abstract. He didn't think it was a good idea. He'd understood that it was evil. But he differed with Lincoln about how far to go to try to eliminate it. And Lincoln effectively said, slave owners are like this. They understand it's a problem, but they never vote that way. But then he did say to Speed, his best friend of his life, if we're going to differ on this, then differ we must. And he signed the letter, your friend forever. He kept working on this guy. And it turns out many years later, when the Civil War comes and Lincoln is president, he got value out of Joshua Speed in supporting the Union.

SIMON: Which is the point you make in this series of 16 encounters, that people who were opposed on one issue may not be opposed on all.

INSKEEP: Yes, which was Lincoln's insight. He didn't ostracize people. He didn't take a Puritan approach to politics where he said, I need to keep myself separate and apart from those people with whom I disagree. He tried to persuade them. That often failed, by the way. You don't always look across the table and persuade the other person to suddenly change their beliefs. But he thought, how can I get some advantage out of this encounter? How can I get some value out of my relationship with this person? And sometimes, in remarkable ways, he did. Other times, he failed. But he kept trying.

SIMON: It's irresistible not to bring up Lincoln's long relationship, really, with Stephen A. Douglas...


SIMON: ...A little giant, but a huge political force for the time. They ran against each other for the Senate. Lincoln lost. But in a sense, it positioned him to become president.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. This is a super famous campaign, and I feel that I need to define this because people...

SIMON: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Are confused. There's two famous Douglases. There's Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery and became a great orator and writer, an abolitionist. And then there's Stephen A. Douglas, who's a white man, who lived in Illinois and was considered one of the great statesmen of his age. And they ran against each other in this Senate race in 1858. And Lincoln lost. But they had these innovative debates, and there was a thing happening behind the scenes that I explore in my writing about this, which to me is a kind of secret history of what was really going on in that very famous campaign.

SIMON: Well, tell us about that.

INSKEEP: Yeah. He was trying to build a majority in this election, and he realized that to build a majority against slavery, which not everybody was terribly opposed to, even in the north, in this nominally free state.

SIMON: They're willing to accept it.

INSKEEP: They're willing to accept it.

SIMON: They made a living off it.

INSKEEP: Yes, absolutely. Like, to build a majority against slavery, he needed every kind of person he could get. And that even included people who hated immigrants, who were nativists, who were part of these groups called No Nothings. And Lincoln reached out to a friend of his, Joseph Gillespie, whose anti-immigrant views were so toxic that Lincoln couldn't stand to listen to them at all. He said, if these guys ever get in power, I'd rather live in Russia. But he knew that some of them opposed slavery. And so he worked with Gillespie to bring in all the nativists that he could to vote for him. He didn't endorse their nativist beliefs, but he tried to get their votes. He did lose the election, but he was helping to build this new antislavery party, the Republican Party, which eventually changed the country.

SIMON: Lincoln has been criticized in recent years not just because he wasn't an abolitionist, but because he knew slavery was wrong and was not an abolitionist.

INSKEEP: And we should clarify, abolitionist in the mid-1800s meant somebody who wanted to ban slavery right away. And there were all kinds of other people who said they opposed slavery but felt that it would have to be gradual, that it was a giant transformation in society. And so Lincoln was taking a position, I think, strategically, that he felt that he could hold. I'm in a free state. I can't do anything about slavery in the slave states because the Constitution protects it there. But I want to restrict slavery. So he was not an abolitionist, but I think his marking down of the system as wrong makes him, in a way, a radical.

SIMON: I have to ask you about Lincoln's relationship with William H. Seward, who thought he should be president, who was sure he was smarter than Lincoln. Lincoln, of course, made him part of his cabinet.


SIMON: He edited his inaugural speech.

INSKEEP: Yes. Yeah. I love this relationship.

SIMON: And not lightly.

INSKEEP: Not lightly at all. No. Seward was this guy who'd been a senator. He considered himself the leader of this new Republican Party. He lost the nomination to Lincoln. Lincoln then made him secretary of state. And just before the inauguration, yes, he shows Seward his inaugural speech, and Seward sends a note back, and he says, this is really magnificent. I only have three problems here - the beginning, the middle and the end. Yes, exactly. So it's like, those are the only problems.

SIMON: Yeah.

INSKEEP: And he went through and made tons of suggestions, and Lincoln took a lot of them.

SIMON: How did he take advantage of, I'm sure, the many gifts and a lot of the wisdom William H. Seward had to offer without letting them detract from what he felt he had to do.

INSKEEP: I think Lincoln had a bottom line in his own mind. This is the moment when he's getting ready to take charge of the presidency. There's a large part of the country that has refused to accept the results of a free and fair election. We don't accept Lincoln as our president because he says slavery is wrong. Even though he says he won't interfere with us, he says it's wrong. That's - we can't take it. We're leaving the country.

And Lincoln is determined, as he puts it, to run the machine as it is, basically saying, I'm taking over as president, and I cannot let these people leave. I cannot let someone arbitrarily change all the rules of society. Can't be done. And as the war goes on, as this becomes a war, he says publicly, if I could save the Union without freeing a single slave, I would do it. If I could save the Union while freeing all the slaves, I would do it. If I could save the Union by freeing some and leaving others enslaved, I would do that, too. But what nobody knows when Lincoln publicly says that is that he had already drafted the Emancipation Proclamation and was waiting for the right political moment. He was a very crafty guy.

SIMON: What does Lincoln have to say to us in these fractious times, when a lot of people say the last thing they want is compromise or the people who disagree with me are incapable of compromise?

INSKEEP: I think Lincoln practiced a different kind of politics than many people do today. We hear a lot of talk about base politics. Let's grab on to our most extreme voters and try to grow that extreme voter base and see what we can do. And certainly, some people have won elections that way and seized power long enough to try to change the rules so they can stay in power that way. But Lincoln was practicing a different kind of politics. And it didn't mean getting along with everybody. The guy ended up being president during a war against his fellow citizens. So some people he was not going to compromise with or not able to compromise with.

But if it was going to remain a democratic country, somebody had to assemble a majority. And so he needed to figure out a way to reach out to people who differed with him on some things and find enough agreement that they could form that majority. That's a lesson for now.

SIMON: Steve Inskeep, his book, "Differ We Must." Thanks so much for being with us.

INSKEEP: I'm glad to be here. We don't differ about that.

SIMON: (Laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.