A conversation with Brian Dirck

This is the second in our occasional series of interviews with notable Lincoln scholars.  Dr. Brian Dirck is a professor of history at Anderson University in Anderson, IN.  He received his doctorate from the University of Kansas, writing his dissertation on Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.  That project was the basis for his book Lincoln & Davis: Imagining America, 1809-1865.  Other books he has written or edited are Waging War on Trial: A Handbook with Cases, Laws, and Documents; Lincoln Emancipated: The President and the Politics of RaceThe Executive Branch of Federal Government: People, Process, and Politics; Lincoln the Lawyer, which won the Benjamin Barondess Award from the New York Civil War Roundtable; Abraham Lincoln and White America; and Lincoln and the Constitution.

How did you get interested in the study of history in general and Lincoln in particular?

I suppose my love of history began with my family, particularly my dad and my grandmother. Dad has always been a big history buff, and growing up we used to watch history-related TV shows and movies all the time. My grandma was also a lover of history and folk stories, and she constantly told me stories about our family during the Great Depression, World War II, and (of course) the Civil War. Turns out I had a great-great grandmother, a Confederate sympathizer in Missouri, who actually hid a Confederate soldier under her petticoat while Union soldiers searched the house looking for him. Stories like that stick in your head.

Still, I wasn’t planning on doing history for a living until my sophomore year in college. I was fortunate enough to take a U.S. history survey course from Dr. Gregory Urwin, an outstanding teacher and scholar. His classes were simply mesmerizing; and later he became my advisor, mentor, and good friend.

Greg helped me develop my interest in the Civil War era, but I didn’t decide to focus on Lincoln until grad school. I shifted my attention towards the political, legal and constitutional aspects of the war while working with Harold Hyman at Rice University. I then entered the Ph.D. program at the University of Kansas, where I met Phil Paludan. Phil at that time was writing his book, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, and I acted as a research assistant for that book. This, along with many a conversation with Phil, sparked my interest in Lincoln, which has since become my primary scholarly pursuit.

Your first book examined Lincoln and Jefferson Davis side by side, and you argued that the two men had different concepts of the American nation. How would you contrast their views? 
Well, they were very different men, in so many ways. I argued that their personalities, their professions, and their political ideologies led them to develop quite different ideas about the nature of community in general. Lincoln the lawyer developed a sense of community as an eminently rational, reasonable enterprise, in which people come together based upon a larger unemotional calculation of mutual interests. Davis the former army officer, however, believed in what I called “communities of sentiment”—people who bonded on an emotional level, with shared feelings of camaraderie and loyalty. These very different ideas in turn fed how they understood nationalism, both before the war and as presidents of the Union and the Confederacy. 

Did Lincoln and Davis have distinct styles of leadership?

Very much so. Lincoln’s style of leadership was very rational, reasonable and devoid of any intense feelings of loyalty, anger, etc. He could work with just about anyone, because he didn’t need to think a person was a friend or an ally to interact with him; nor did he ever imply that he understood people’s inner motives. Davis, on the other hand, was all about friendship, inner motives, and emotion. He had to feel a certain sense of affinity for someone, a certain emotional bonding, or else he just couldn’t work with that person very well.

Now, that said, I’ve always hesitated to make the distinction of leadership style too lopsided in favor of Lincoln. Yes, he was a superior leader, of course (he was Lincoln, after all), but Davis was no fool; and I very much disagree with the notion, first advanced I think by historian David Potter, that, had the two sides exchanged presidents, the Confederacy would have won. I don’t think Davis was that bad a leader; he was really just handed a bad situation.

You’ve written quite a bit about government and public policy in addition to your historical work on Lincoln. How has your scholarship on subjects like the executive branch and the legal implications of waging war impacted your historical research? 
By giving me a good sense of context. It is so easy to get too narrowly focused on one little area of history, like Lincoln or the Civil War, and lose sight of the big picture. My work on the presidency in general, and the legal/constitutional issues involved in waging war in American history, helps me keep a sense of perspective.

One of your most well-known books is Lincoln the Lawyer. Why did you decide to examine his legal career as a research topic? 

That book was the product of a fortunate combination of circumstances. While at Rice, I worked under Harold Hyman, as I said earlier. Harold was both a Civil War and a legal and constitutional historian. When the time came to write my master’s thesis for him, I chose as my subject the law practice of a Texas lawyer, Nathaniel Hart Davis, who practiced law in Texas during the Civil War era. It was a nice little project, and it gave me an appreciation of the odd fact that very little has been written about the everyday lives and careers of nineteenth-century lawyers, and this despite the fact that America was practically wall-to-wall lawyers during that time.

I chose to focus on other things for my dissertation and first book. But right after Lincoln and Davis was published, I was asked to review for H-NET the awesome CD-ROM database on Lincoln’s law practice produced by the Lincoln Legal Papers Project. So now I owned this database (which of course I got to keep because of the review), and I had the opportunity to further explore some themes I had begun to explore in Lincoln and Davis. And I had some experience with this sort of analysis from my master’s thesis. Couldn’t have worked out better. 

How would you characterize Lincoln as a lawyer? What sort of preparation, if any, did his legal practice provide for his political career?

Lincoln was a solid, very competent attorney. He was not a super-star, a Clarence Darrow type, but he was good at his job, and he got better as he gained more experience. I argue in my book that he did his job, did it well, and was highly enough regarded that he earned the respect of his clients and his colleagues.

As for his practice’s influence on his leadership as president, that influence was subtle, but important. The law taught him how to negotiate and to work out pragmatic, common-sense solutions among people with different points of view—a great strength of his presidency. It also taught him that he need not necessarily like a person, or know that person’s innermost motives, in order to work with him/her. In his law practice he met all sorts of people—good, bad, indifferent—and he still had to find a way to work with them, and to get them to work with each other. The law taught him how to do that later on when he led a nation of often difficult, contrary people.

You’re a very prolific scholar. This year in particular has been busy for you, with the publication of two books. Do you keep a regular writing schedule? 

Yes, generally speaking when I’m working on a project, I aim for a page a day. This gives me a nice, regular rhythm, and is realistic, given my teaching schedule and family life.

One of the books you just released is devoted to the matter of Lincoln and race. What were his racial attitudes? How typical was he for a man of his time and place with regard to racism? 
Yes, my book on this subject is Lincoln and White America. In it I try to ask a question about Lincoln and race from a slightly different point of view. I wanted to understand what he thought about “whiteness,” what white racial identity was for him, and what he thought about the white supremacy that pervaded his time period. In this I drew upon the so-called “whiteness studies” pioneered by scholars like David Roediger, Noel Ignatiev, and others, which examines how white supremacy was structured as an ideology in American history.

I argued that Lincoln’s views on whiteness and white supremacy were rooted in his humble origins. We tend to romanticize those origins, but he would not have done so; and in fact, he would have been referred to by many in his time as “white trash.”  He spent a good deal of his early life trying to flee that “white trash” stereotype, and this colored many of his personal and professional choices. In his own racial views, I argue that yes, he was a white supremacist, but of a sort that was comparatively benign, especially compared to contemporaries like Stephen Douglas. He was capable of moments of humanity towards nonwhite people, but as a rule he did not challenge the tenets of white supremacy until the end of his presidency, when he began to finally and directly confront white supremacist thinking.

Your other new book is an examination of Lincoln and the Constitution. How would you describe his relationship to that document? Was he too broad in his use of presidential power? 

This book is part of the wonderful new Concise Lincoln Library series, published by Southern Illinois University Press. The idea is to provide brief, easily accessible examinations of various aspects of Lincoln’s life and career—as in my case, his ideas about the Constitution.

I argue in my book that Lincoln’s basic relationship with the Constitution can be summed up as essentially optimistic. Whereas so many others in his time saw in the document limitations, shackles and inadequacies, Lincoln saw the capacity for growth and progress in the Constitution, especially when coupled with the Declaration of Independence’s higher ideals. And while I recognize that Lincoln’s use of presidential power was quite robust and could occasionally lead to excesses, on the whole his record is quite positive. He was a strong president, but he was no tyrant, not to any reasonable observer.

Finally, are there any lessons modern American leaders can learn from Lincoln?

I think in this hyper-partisan political era we can see in Lincoln a man who was passionate and in many ways quite “partisan,”  himself, but still able to work with people of different points of view.

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Filed under Lincoln Historiography, Lincoln the Lawyer

One response to “A conversation with Brian Dirck

  1. Pingback: Brian Dirck discusses his Lincoln research | Past in the Present

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