An Interview with Harold Holzer

Harold Holzer (credit Matt Capowski)

An Interview with Harold Holzer

Jonathan White

Harold Holzer is the Jonathan F. Fanton Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York City. The author or editor of 56 books, he won the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize for Lincoln and the Power of the Press (2014) and a second-place Lincoln Prize for Lincoln at Cooper Union (2004). His most recent books are The Presidents vs. the Press (2020) and Brought Forth on this Continent: Abraham Lincoln and American Immigration (2024). A recipient of the National Humanities Medal, he is chairman and co-founder of The Lincoln Forum, which held its 28th annual symposium in Gettysburg in November.


Jonathan White: You and I have spent a lot of time working together over the past five years on The Lincoln Forum. For readers of Lincoln Lore who are not yet members, what should they know about the Forum?


Harold Holzer: The Forum has become, I truly believe, the best Lincoln symposium, the best Lincoln “experience” in the nation. This time, we welcomed a record-shattering 350 scholars, students, and enthusiasts, along with some of the most renowned and popular historians of our time. The Forum takes place in Gettysburg every November 16–18, leading up to the annual observances of the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, so it has a unique and spellbinding atmosphere. We feature veteran and young historians alike, not only in lectures and panel discussions, but also small breakout sessions, battlefield tours, book signings, and art displays, not to mention breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. This time around, we featured a spectacular concert of Civil War music by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, and as a finale an on-stage discussion with Doris Kearns Goodwin.


A. I. Keller, “Lincoln’s Address at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863,” Harper’s Weekly, February 10, 1900 (71.2009.081.2806)


Merely recounting the highlights of the 2023 event reminds me of how complex it has become to plan and stage, though well worth the effort. Perhaps the most unique thing about the Forum is that even though it has more than tripled in size over the decades, it has retained a friends-and-family atmosphere—offering equal parts history immersion and annual reunion. And thanks to support from members, along with organizations like the Lincoln Presidential Foundation and the History Channel, we’re able to bring both students and teachers to the event on full scholarships, encouraging new generations to the study of Lincoln. A lot of work, yes, but as you well know, Jon, we took only a few days off for decompression and Thanksgiving before launching into our initial planning for the 29th annual symposium in 2024. You’ve been a great partner, and the results I think speak for themselves—though we both believe the best is yet to come. No pressure (much).


JW: You worked in journalism and politics before turning to the arts, working as a vice president at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How did your careers in those fields inform your thinking about Lincoln and the Civil War Era?


HH: I guess it’s no accident, as you’ve reminded me, that I’ve focused most of my books on political themes: on subjects like the nineteenth-century press, the impact of public oratory, and the influence of Lincoln art and iconography—the origins of political marketing and branding (the kind of work I did myself in the 1970s). I suspect that my own professional life in these fields does give me a unique perspective on these subjects—and I hope, some real-life insight into the mechanisms of image-making. Almost fifty years ago, I worked on election campaigns (pretty unsuccessfully, I’m the first to admit), and then did government service at the city, state, and federal levels. I was a press spokesman for a congresswoman and a governor, as well as for U.S. senatorial and mayoral candidates. So I invariably, and I hope usefully, apply my own experiences to the foundational experiences of those who labored in similar fields in the nineteenth century. Of course, these professions have changed enormously just in the past ten years or so. When I started out half a century ago, we didn’t even have computers, much less social media or email. A mere fax took about five minutes per page to send or receive (and smelled awful—those chemicals!). But what’s equally remarkable is how little the fundamental goals of political communications have altered since the Lincoln era, much less “my” era.


As for the art side, I certainly learned a great deal about American image-making at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during my cherished time on staff there (1992–2015), but in truth I’d already published three or four books on Lincoln and Civil War iconography (together with Mark Neely and Gabor Boritt) before arriving at the Met. Still, I remain deeply grateful to museum leaders like the legendary Philippe de Montebello, who encouraged me to conduct research, write books, and even present my findings at museum lectures. I must say, I also enjoyed prodding our paintings and photography departments to encourage more Lincoln and Civil War collecting and exhibitions.


Above all, I think all my professional experiences taught me the unwavering importance of communications in politics, governing, and influencing public sentiment, as Lincoln called it—by which I mean communications in both words and images. Lincoln understood both forms of messaging, almost from the beginning of his political career—and certainly once mass-produced image-making began flourishing in 1860. If I’ve accomplished anything, I hope it has been to remind modern readers about Lincoln’s own communications genius.


JW: You dedicate Brought Forth on This Continent to your grandparents, all of whom were immigrants from Eastern Europe. What led you to this particular topic after writing and editing so many other books on Lincoln?


HH: I actually came up with the idea quite a few years ago, suspecting that the 2016 presidential election might focus intensely on the immigration issue (as it did). Sensing that the discussion might get ugly, I felt it might contribute something to the debate to remind readers about how this issue has brought out both the best and the worst in America and among Americans almost from the beginning of the republic, particularly so during the Lincoln era. I also concluded that, save for Jason Silverman’s 2015 study for the SIU Press’s Concise Lincoln Library, this remained a neglected subject in the Lincoln literature. Ultimately, I deferred the project to do The Presidents vs. the Press, which was also inspired, in a sense, by the toxic 2016 campaign, the anti-press diatribes that continued during the Trump administration, and the prospect of an even more contentious presidential campaign in 2020.


You mention my grandparents; I never knew three of the four—two died before I was born, and one shortly after. But the one grandmother I knew combined devotion to old-world religious traditions (and cooking!) with a deep appreciation for her new life in America. I actually never heard her talk about her early years in Romania, which must have been dark and dangerous, else why leave as an eleven-year-old—on her own? It was as if her life started only when she arrived in the United States in the 1890s, even though she never learned to read or write English. I can’t imagine that it felt much different for the previous generation of foreign-born immigrants who yearned to breathe free, even though not everyone here made them feel welcome. And that’s the sensibility—and the tension—I wanted to bring to this book. It was a major issue in Lincoln’s time, and it deserves more attention now.


JW: Tell us about some of Lincoln’s earliest encounters with immigrants. How did his interactions with them compare with his interactions with white Americans, African Americans, and Native Americans?


HH: I’m not sure Lincoln even met a “foreigner” until he journeyed down the Mississippi River on a flatboat to New Orleans in 1828. When he disembarked in that cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic city, he first heard a foreign language (French) spoken and, significantly, glimpsed a slave auction for the first time. I suspect both experiences truly altered him—made him more aware of the world outside the American West and more pained by the treatment of enslaved people in the American South.


Lincoln’s most important early “encounter” with immigrants actually involved foreign-born residents in faraway Philadelphia, following the 1844 riot that broke out between Irish Catholic newcomers and longtime Protestant residents of the so-called “City of Brotherly Love.” The violence there was so widely reported that Whigs throughout the nation, aware that members of their party might be blamed because of their hostility to foreigners, weighed statements condemning the outbreak of anti-Catholic violence. It was Lincoln who drafted the relatively enlightened declaration issued by Springfield Whigs. I consider this moment to be the “immigration” equivalent of his very first “injustice and bad policy” condemnation of slavery; it placed him on record supporting a fair path to American citizenship for the foreign born, and on that guarantee he never wavered.


“Riot in Philadelphia,” July 7, 1844 (Library of Congress)


When immigrants—at first Swedes, then Irish and Germans—made their way to Lincoln’s home state and town amidst the mass European migrations of the late 1840s and 1850s, the future president widened his own horizons and quickly learned to deal with these new residents as potential political allies . . . and foes. For the irrepressible joke-teller, the arrival of the Irish also inspired a new trove of ethnic jokes that Lincoln never quite abandoned even as a sophisticated national leader—they became part and parcel of his arsenal of “funny stories,” always deployed with affection, as cringe-worthy and insensitive as they might seem today.


William Florville (LN-1138)

It’s worth noting that one of Lincoln’s closest early immigrant acquaintances was both foreign-born and a man of color: Springfield barber and entrepreneur William Florville of Haiti, who was a constant reminder of both the opportunities and limits of citizenship in antebellum America. I focus on European immigration, but point out early in the book that the phenomenon must be considered alongside concurrent movements for Black emigration and Native American displacement and containment. It’s complicated!


JW: What role did immigration play in Illinois state politics during Lincoln’s time in the legislature in the 1830s and 1840s?


HH: Naturally, immigrants—and the immigrant vote—became increasingly important in Springfield and Illinois as the sheer number of foreign-born residents cascaded. Chalk it up to simple arithmetic. Because the path to citizenship and voting rights remained so easy for white men—five years’ residence was all that was required in most places—the Irish- and, later, the German-born became more and more crucial as potential voters in swing states, including Illinois. It was a fact of political life that most Irishmen leaned Democratic for the simple reason that the party of Jackson welcomed them, while the opposition Whigs (Lincoln’s party) generally did not. Early German Catholic newcomers tended Democratic as well; only after 1848, when the failed liberal revolutions in Europe stimulated Protestant migration on a large scale, did the Germans become important voters within the Whig Party, and later, in the emerging Republican coalition.


Gen. James Shields (LN-1240)

Interestingly, one of Lincoln’s earliest political rivals (aside from Stephen Douglas) was Irish-born Illinois Democrat James Shields, whom he ridiculed both anonymously and publicly for years—and with whom he nearly fought a duel after Lincoln took responsibility for a venomous anti-Shields satire likely authored, or at least coauthored, by Mary Todd! Typically, Lincoln, who seldom held a grudge, would later wisely offer Shields a commission in the Union army, which turned into a symbolic triumph but a military disaster. Parenthetically, that near-duel also served to reunite Mary and her former fiancé—and we know where that led—in my view, to Lincoln’s political success, which I still don’t believe would have happened had he not married Mary. But that’s another story.


JW: Tell us about the waves of immigration in the antebellum period. What effects did immigrants have on American society?


HH: The two most important contributing factors to the tidal wave of immigration—aside from America’s own relatively open borders—were the Great Hunger caused by Irish potato crop failures, and the thwarted political revolutions that spurred German flight later in the 1840s. The resulting hundreds of thousands of refugees, whether they migrated for economic or political reasons—to eat or to think—profoundly changed American life. They brought new music, art, philosophy, and religious and cultural diversity to the United States, and created the foundation for widening the American dream. Of course, they also brought out an ugly side in the body politic, which Lincoln was compelled to navigate for the next fifteen years.


In purely political terms, the new Irish and German Catholic arrivals swelled Democratic majorities while contributing to the demise of the Whig Party in the early 1850s. In my view, the Whigs faded not only because they could not unite on an antislavery policy, but because they nurtured a large nativist, anti-Catholic element that caused disenchantment among many new citizens and voters. The huge waves of immigrants not only changed the voting rolls, they changed political leadership, too. Irish- and German-Americans in the East and West, respectively, took important roles in politics and government—men like Carl Schurz in Missouri and Gustave Koerner in Illinois, who became lieutenant governor. These men began their rise in this period, and were destined to be heard from often, both before and during the Civil War.


JW: The 1850s saw a rise in nativism, especially with the creation of the Know Nothing Party. How did Lincoln respond to these political developments?


HH: In a word: inconsistently. I suspect that my chapters on Lincoln and the Know Nothings will stimulate some attention and debate. It’s long been argued that Lincoln heroically resisted nativism within the Whig Party, and declared himself consistently in favor of citizenship and voting rights for the foreign born. This is as naïve an assertion as the simplistic onetime view that Lincoln always believed in racial equality. The truth is much more complex. As on the slavery issue, Lincoln always aimed at the great political middle, and this required him—perhaps “encouraged” him is a better phrase—to be too cozy for comfort on occasion with anti-Catholic nativists who at least shared his opposition to slavery. I try to track Lincoln’s growth in understanding and sympathy to immigration, a maturing process that ran parallel to his growing belief in executive, and, ultimately, constitutional emancipation. And grow he did—he went from flirtations with nativists to his ultimate role as a kind of “Great Immigrationor,” for which he has not received enough attention. But it was, to quote James Oakes, a “crooked path.”


Remember: even Lincoln’s famous 1855 “I am not a Know-Nothing” letter to his friend Joshua Speed has been misinterpreted. Lincoln never issued those anti-nativist sentiments for public consumption, as we often assume today; they were for Speed’s eyes only. What was more, Lincoln had expressed much the same sentiment, two weeks earlier, to Owen Lovejoy, but had added that the Republicans needed to remain a wide-tent party that united antislavery men of Democratic and even Know Nothing antecedents. “I have no objection to ‘fuse’ with anybody,” Lincoln reminded Lovejoy—again privately, “‘. . . to stand with any body who stands right’ on slavery.”


JW: What role did immigration play in Lincoln’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1858 and in the presidential election of 1860?


HH: Let’s frame that discussion by noting how alarmingly well the third-party “American,” or Know Nothing, party did nationally in the 1856 presidential election, spoiling any chances that the newly-organized Republicans would elect their first presidential candidate that year. By 1858, Lincoln was almost paranoically certain that Irishmen were being imported into Illinois to cast illegal votes against Republicans and defeat him, too. He warned supporters of such plots on more than one occasion, urging them to develop bizarre schemes of their own to counter them. This helps explain why Lincoln did not do much to make it clear, and public, that he opposed Know Nothingism in 1858—it played into anti-Irish prejudice among Republicans who had once been Know Nothings and would now support his Senate bid. But this gave Democrats a lane on which to charge Lincoln himself with secret nativist sympathies. I don’t doubt that Irish voters cast their ballots overwhelmingly for Douglas in 1858; but it’s clear that Lincoln exaggerated fears of massive Irish voter fraud and might have been better advised to denounce nativism outright.


In 1860, Lincoln was again subjected to charges that he was a closet Know Nothing. And while he remained convinced that Irish Catholics would oppose him, perhaps decisively, in states like New York, Republicans now counted large swaths of German Protestants firmly committed to Lincoln. Germans also mounted major pro-Lincoln campaigns in states like Indiana, Ohio, and Missouri—successfully in the first two. Was German support decisive in electing Lincoln in 1860? I’d go with the conclusion that their votes proved very important, but probably not dispositive. Much research and analysis has been done on that score, but the results remain inconclusive.


JW: What role did immigrants play in the Civil War? And please tell us about some of Lincoln’s most memorable or important encounters with foreign-born Americans.


“Enlisting Irish and German Emigrants on the Battery at New York,” Illustrated London News, September 17, 1864. Castle Garden is in the background. (


HH: It is seldom emphasized in history books, and never in films, but much of the Union army spoke with a foreign accent. More than 200,000 Germans and some 150,000 Irishmen fought on the Federal side. But let me emphasize not only their patriotism, but Lincoln’s genius in attracting foreign-born volunteers in the first place. There was no guarantee that such mass-enlistments would occur, especially among Irish Democrats. But almost as soon as Sumter fell, Lincoln encouraged leading Germans and Irishmen, both those with military experience and those with nothing but political followings, to raise so-called “ethnic” regiments to fight to preserve the Union. By emphasizing patriotism and loyalty, these appeals generated a robust response, both from Germans who hated slavery and Irishmen who feared Black freedom but supported the Union (not to mention Swedes, Hungarians, Italians, Englishmen, Canadians—you name it.) Clearly, and in the nick of time, Lincoln had learned how to successfully conduct multi-ethnic politics and communications.


Soldiers of the 63rd New York Infantry, part of Thomas Francis Meagher’s Irish Brigade (Library of Congress)


Alexander Gardner (LN-0578)

My book devotes a great deal of space to this effort, and to the mixed bag of military leaders who responded to the call. The roster includes outright failures like German-born Franz Sigel (who nonetheless served as a magnet for early recruitment) and Irishman James Shields (who had the misfortune of coming up against “Stonewall” Jackson). Along with outright success stories like Phil Sheridan (Irish), I focus on controversial commanders like Carl Schurz (German), who was charged with incompetence at Chancellorsville; and Michael Corcoran (Irish), who exhibited heroism at First Bull Run only to descend into alcoholic uselessness later. I think in the end, even if the war was ultimately won without so-called ethnic generals, the war couldn’t have been waged without them. And let’s not forget foreign-born wartime influencers like Francis Lieber (German), who developed a new code of war; inventor John Ericsson (Swedish), who developed a new weapon of war (the USS Monitor); and photographers Mathew Brady (Irish) and Alexander Gardner (Scottish) who recorded the war for posterity.


Perhaps nothing better characterized Lincoln’s ingenious but indiscriminate campaign to galvanize immigrant Unionism than his determination to recruit the German general whom Edwin Stanton referred to as “Schimnmel-what’s-his-name”: Alexander Schimmelfennig. Lincoln constantly misspelled his name, but the Prussian-born officer served his purpose by inspiring German recruitment in Philadelphia, though he ended up hiding in a pigsty during the final two days of the Battle of Gettysburg.


Gen. Carl Schurz (OC-0918)

I think my book will point to Carl Schurz as the most important immigrant in Lincoln’s life. A Seward supporter at the 1860 convention, he campaigned relentlessly for Lincoln once he won the nomination, but expected a major diplomatic post in return. He got it, then quit to serve in the military. Schurz’s mixed army record is fascinating enough, but his wartime conversations and correspondence with Lincoln are truly extraordinary—exhibiting all the pride, passion, and impatience the German-American community harbored for the president, and in turn eliciting all the respect and tolerance Lincoln exhibited for this young, emotional, sometimes feckless, but always influential German-born leader.


JW: We tend to think of Irish-Americans as being anti-Lincoln and German-Americans as pro-Republican. Are these fair characterizations?


HH: Generally, this was indeed the case. The horrific New York City anti-draft riots in 1863 were visibly initiated by Irish-American Manhattanites outraged by conscription laws that exempted the wealthy, largely Protestant, elite and, worse, in their view, required them to fight a war now devoted to freeing slaves as well as restoring the Union. Lincoln won less than a third of the vote in the presidential elections of 1860 and 1864 in largely-Irish New York City.


A scene from the New York City Draft Riots: “Charge of the Police at the Tribune Office” (Library of Congress)


Looking at the Irish weekly newspapers of 1864, one does sense an initial reluctance to embrace the Democratic peace platform. But in the end, they came out strongly for McClellan, arguing that Lincoln’s “despotism” could not be endorsed at the polls. Conversely, German-language newspapers began the election year of 1864 almost universally opposed to Lincoln, particularly critical of his failure to include Border States like Missouri (where many Germans lived) in his emancipation policy. Like the Irish press, though, the German editors ultimately came home, rejecting the third-party Frémont movement, endorsing Lincoln, and making a major difference in Lincoln’s re-election triumph in November.


JW: Now that you’ve tackled yet another large and important topic, what is next?


HH: I’m not quite sure. My agent and my book editor have both stepped down from their jobs, and now that I’ve passed a milestone birthday, I’m considering the possibility that Brought Forth might be the last book that I bring forth. Then again, I’ve always wanted to do a book on Lincoln and the artists and sculptors who helped forge his image and define his legend. I’ve been researching the book, on and off, for more than thirty years. I’ve done several magazine and journal articles on the subject, and I’d love to make further use of all the material I’ve amassed. Is there still a market for well-illustrated books? I suppose it’s worth finding out.


JW: Thank you so much for joining us!