A Few Questions For James McPherson
Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson has a new book out entitled This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War which is a collection of essays on topics as disparate as the average soldier’s avid love of newspapers to the postwar creation of the mystique of a Lost Cause in the South. McPherson was kind enough to answer a few questions about his new book for us. Come back tomorrow to read an original essay by McPherson.
OUP: What first drew you to the study of the Civil War?
James M. McPherson: I was drawn to the study of the Civil War during my years in graduate school at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore (1958-1962). These years coincided with the early days of the civil rights movement, which was active in Baltimore, a border city. Along with other graduate students, I participated in sit-ins and picketing of segregated restaurants, movie theaters, and other facilities. Through these activities, and through news about civil rights activities in the South, I became impressed by the parallels between the times in which I was living and events of exactly 100 years earlier: conflict between North and South, Southern politicians vowing massive resistance to national law, federal troops being sent into the South to enforce national laws, violence in the South, Martin Luther King asking President Kennedy to issue a new Emancipation Proclamation on the 100th anniversary of the original, and so on. I decided to study the historical roots of these events in my own time, so I did my doctoral dissertation on the abolitionists, in the 1860s, who were the civil rights activists of their time and whose crusade for “Freedom Now” and equal civil and political rights for freed slaves anticipated the goals of the 1960s. That dissertation became my first book, The Struggle for Equality, and from that initial focus on activist reformers my interests gradually broadened to the political and military dimensions of the era of war and reconstruction, which have been the main focus of my work during the last 25 years.
OUP: What are the hot topics in Civil War scholarship right now?
McPherson: The hottest topics in Civil War scholarship now are encompassed by the rubric of “social history”–the home front, the impact of the war on families, women’s activities in behalf of the war effort, community studies, and the like. These will never surpass biographies of generals and narratives of military campaigns and battles in popularity, but they have made important contributions to our understanding of what Lincoln called “a people’s war.”
OUP: This year is the bicentennial celebration of Lincoln, what do you think these celebrations should focus on?
McPherson: The bicentennial celebrations should focus, I think, on two major themes: 1) the abolition of slavery and Lincoln’s role in it; 2) presidential leadership in a time of crisis.
OUP: Which essay in this collection is your personal favorite? Why?
McPherson: My favorite is the final one, on Lincoln’s invention of presidential war powers derived from the commander in chief clause of the Constitution, which he invoked for any and every action necessary to win the war–including the Emancipation Proclamation on a positive side, and the suppression of the civil liberties of those who opposed the war and (in some cases) tried to undermine the war effort, which is in some ways a more negative legacy of Lincoln’s use of the war powers.
OUP: In the last essay the title, “As Commander-in-Chief I Have a Right to Take Any Measure Which May Best Subdue the Enemy, ” comes from a Lincoln quote rationalizing the expanded power of the executive branch during the Civil War. Do you think similar expanded powers should be granted to the executive branch today in times of emergency?
McPherson: Whether similar powers should be granted to the Executive in times of emergency today as Lincoln appropriated in the crisis of civil war depends on the extent and degree of the emergency. Lincoln himself may have gone a little too far on some occasions, and I definitely think the current president has claimed and exercised powers that go beyond what is necessary to deal with the war on terror.
OUP: You write in “Escape and Revolt in Black and White” that some historians consider John Brown a terrorist. What is your personal opinion?
McPherson: I tend to look upon John Brown more as a freedom fighter than as a terrorist, recognizing however, that there is sometimes a thin to non-existent line between them. John Brown’s goals were noble, but his means were not always praiseworthy.
OUP: You write in “Long-Legged Yankee Lies” that “If the Confederacy had raised proportionately as many soldiers as the postwar South raised monuments, it might not have succumbed to “overwhelming numbers.” Do you think the south will continue to honor its veterans with as much vigor in this century?
McPherson: I think the “Lost Cause” mentality among many white Southerners, who honor their Confederate ancestors and glorify the “noble defeat” of the Confederate cause will persist for many decades, though I am not prepared to predict that it will be as strong at the end of the 21st century as it is at its beginning.
OUP: What question did we forget to ask? What else would you like our readers to know?
McPherson: One theme that may not emerge strongly in the book, but is certainly implicit even when it is not explicit, is that the two main achievements of the Civil War, the preservation of the United States as one nation, indivisible, and the abolition of slavery, could not have succeeded without the effective application of overwhelming military power and eventual success. This is one case where a desirable outcome could only have been achieved at the barrel of a gun.
OUP: What is your favorite book?
McPherson: My favorite book is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, which deals with issues connected with the Civil War more profoundly than appears on a first reading.