An Interview with Richard Etulain

An Interview with Richard Etulain regarding his new book Abraham Lincoln: A Western Legacy

Sara Gabbard: Please explain the series on South Dakota history which this book represents:

Richard Etulain:  This book is part of the South Dakota Biography Series published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press.  In 1997, the ambitious and diligent editor, Nancy Tystad Koupal, helped establish the Press.  It was a valiant, successful effort. Under Nancy’s efficient and energetic leadership, the Press quickly made itself known as a publisher of books about South Dakota and the American West. To expand its offerings, the Press launched its biographies series. Soon thereafter, the biographies series was expanded to include the subseries, Faces of Mount Rushmore. This volume, Abraham Lincoln: A Western Legacy (2020), lunched the Mount Rushmore series.  Books on presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt, as well as books on other figures connected with Mount Rushmore, will soon follow.


SG: Why is Lincoln’s legacy in the history of the West frequently given only a cursory glance?

RE: Historians of the Civil War usually depict the horrendous conflict as one between two American regions, the North and the South.  That is a valid, helpful approach. But most historians do not treat the American West as part of the deadly, fratricidal war.  They should.

During the 1840s and 1850s, the importance of the West for the future of the United States gradually emerged. Oregon Fever, the Mexican War, and the California Gold Rush brought the West onto the scene for Abraham Lincoln and other Americans.  By the mid-1850s, the North and South were already in an emotional argument about who would own and control the West.  The central point of the argument was slavery.  The new Republican Party in the North began its emphasis on not expanding slavery into the West. The so-called “Bleeding Kansas” in the later 1850s demonstrated how fractious the no-expansion argument was becoming.

By the election of 1856, Lincoln had made clear his stance as an anti-expansionist.  Historians have noted that Lincoln agreed with the Republicans in the anti-expansionist stance but have failed to see how such a stance expanded Lincoln’s interests in the West, as his statements in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, his letters as a president-elect, and his presidential actions proved.

A corrective to this oversight of the importance of the West to Lincoln and others of the time is historian Elliott West’s provocative new Greater Reconstruction thesis. Professor West argues that we must realize how the two most important subjects of the mid-nineteenth century–the issues leading to, through, and after the Civil War, and expansion into the West–must be viewed together to understand how much they are linked in importance and mutual influence. Following the Greater Reconstruction thesis will bring the West more thoroughly into the Civil War and Reconstruction stories, as it should be.


SG: One of your chapters is titled “Lincoln Shapes the West.” Please comment on his actions which you consider to be the most important.

RE:  Lincoln’s strong links with the American West are often lost in the understandably extensive emphases on the Civil War and events largely east of the Mississippi River. But even during his nonstop wartime schedule, Lincoln had time to deal with the West and encourage measures important to the history of the region.

Lincoln’s most important connections with the West include those involving homesteads, a transcontinental railroad, and a land-grant college act. Of Whiggish political background, Lincoln believed that new legislation was primarily the job of Congress, but he made clear his support for these notable congressional acts.  In May 1862, Lincoln signed the Homestead Act granting 160 acres to a new owner who paid a small fee and resided on the land for five years. Lincoln was convinced the act would benefit the West and new settlers, veterans, and farmers–and the Republican Party.  The following July, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act, providing generous land grants and funding for a transcontinental railroad stretching from the Midwest to the West Coast. Two years later, he backed greatly enlarged land grants and funding for the railroad. Since Lincoln’s days in the Illinois legislature and as a lawyer, he had supported railroads. At the same time, he signed the bill establishing the Morrill Land-Grant College Act furnishing federal lands to support the establishment of educational institutions providing training in “agricultural and mechanical arts.” Here was another example of Lincoln’s ongoing support of agriculturists.

Lincoln’s decisions on slavery clearly impacted the West. He supported the congressional legislation in May 1862 ending slavery in the western territories, and his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 ended slavery in the rebellious sections of the South and the western states of Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas.  In addition, Lincoln made clear that illegal slavery in other areas of the West must stop.

The western area where Lincoln was least successful was in handling Indian affairs.  Although he promised to address problems in Indian policy, he was unable to do so. Plus, his actions vis-à-vis the Sioux Uprising in Minnesota in 1862 were controversial–then and now.  Lincoln countered the military’s decision to hang 303 Sioux men but allowed 38 to be hanged for the crimes of murder and rape.  Lincoln saved the lives of 265 Sioux warriors but his permitting the others to be hanged in the country’s largest mass hanging remains controversial to this day.

One must conclude that during his presidency Lincoln kept his eye and hands on the West–as much as his overloaded schedule allowed.  He was a Man of the West, before and during his presidency.

SG: How did the Civil War affect his Western vision?

RE:  The Civil War both expanded Lincoln’s previous ideas about the West as well as introduced new subjects for his consideration.  Sandwiched among the nonstop demands of daily managing an all-out war, Lincoln nonetheless found time to deal with the West in a range of measures and activities.

Lincoln’s support for and signing of the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railroad Act, and the Morrill Land-Grant Act—all congressional legislation in 1862—were part of the president’s push into the West during the Civil War. This legislation, Lincoln thought, was important to Republican and national growth beyond the Mississippi.  Equally important was Lincoln’s backing for the establishment of the Department of Agriculture. Congress followed Lincoln’s push for this new organization so important to a nation of farmers, and Lincoln signed the act in May 1862.

Even more time-consuming were Lincoln’s dealings with territories in the West.  When Lincoln entered the White House, eight territories existed in the West; during his presidency, three new territories were organized: Arizona and Idaho in 1863, Montana in 1864.  So, while president, Lincoln appointed governors, secretaries, judges, Indian agents, and surveyors-general in eleven territories.  He may have appointed as many as 100 men to these offices from 1861 to 1865.  Usually, he selected friends of his, Cabinet members, or members of Congress; nearly all loyal Republicans.  This power of appointment and his advice to many of his appointees added up to Lincoln’s becoming something of a political founding father of the American West, particularly for his party’s expansion into the region.

One of Lincoln’s western actions, often overlooked, was a pathbreaking environmental decision.  In June 1864, he signed into law the Yosemite Valley Grant Act, setting aside nearly 40,000 acres of California’s Yosemite Valley for “public use, resort and education.”  The act was something new in American history.

Lincoln’s western interests were not limited to the territories. Noah Brooks, the California journalist who became virtually a Lincoln advisor, enlarged the president’s attention about the state of California (1850).  Illinois Whig Edward Baker, after whom the Lincolns named their son Eddie, moved to California and then Oregon, where he was elected to the U. S. Senate. Lincoln’s physician, Dr. Anson Henry; David Logan, son of Lincoln’s second law partner; and Simeon Francis, editor of a Springfield, Illinois, newspaper–all moved to the new state of Oregon (1859). These friends kept Lincoln aware of political shifts in California and the Pacific Northwest. Other political friends, including several appointed to territorial slots, also kept Lincoln up-to-date on the West.

One needs to keep in mind that throughout his life Abraham Lincoln was a forward-looking man. As a young man, as a rising politician, and as president he often considered his and the country’s future.  For Lincoln, the American West was a large part of the nation’s future. He wanted to help shape that future–and did.

No American president up to Lincoln’s time, save perhaps for Thomas Jefferson (via the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition), provided as much shaping power on the West as Abraham Lincoln.


SG: Please describe the concept of creating a presidential monument in South Dakota.

RE:  Although South Dakota historian Doane Robinson was the first to consider a possible historical monument in the Black Hills to draw many more tourists, sculptor Gutzon Borglum fathered the idea of making it a presidential memorial.  Where Robinson, a western historian, wanted to celebrate the historical West in a South Dakota setting, Borglum wished to lionize national figures in a western location. Over time, the sculptor came to view the Mount Rushmore carvings as a “Shrine of Democracy.”

The next month after Robinson contacted Borglum about the sculpting project in late summer 1924, Borglum visited the Black Hills, and almost overnight announced his plans for the huge venture.  It must be a presidential site, the sculptor asserted, starting with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Later, he added Thomas Jefferson and Theodore to the presidential quartet. Borglum grandiosely promised that his faces-in-the-sky project would entice the entire nation to the Mount Rushmore.

A patriotic man with a strong attachment to conservative views of American history, Borglum was convinced that the four presidents, towering over other American leaders, must be memorialized.  For Borglum, Lincoln dwarfed all other presidents, and the sculptor set out to prove his mountain-top regard for the sixteenth president.  But the three other White House residents were extraordinarily worthy too: George Washington as a Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson as an expansionist, and Theodore Roosevelt as a sturdy, dependable leader. For fourteen years, from 1927 to 1941, Borglum set out to endow the presidential faces with his esteem for those leaders.

There is a danger in stressing too much the central role of Borglum in the Mount Rushmore story.  True, his dreaming, energy, and never-stop actions are in all ways notable.  Still, other important men stayed on the scene and worked through several conflicts with the contentious Borglum. The key figure as peacemaker and adjudicator was U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck of South Dakota.  A supporter of Doane Robinson, Norbeck was willing to swing his backing behind Borglum’s presidential project. Even more important, Norbeck, using his strong congressional connections, successfully lobbied several times for government funds that saved the project and kept it moving.  On a few occasions, he spoke strongly and correctively to Borglum but most often backed the project, urged the congressional financing, and worked out several vitriolic contests between Borglum and others working on Mount Rushmore.

Mount Rushmore, now eighty years after its completion, is emblematic of Gutzon Borglum’s dream of a presidential monument dramatizing four notable American presidents.  The crowds of American and international travelers visiting the site most often view the place as sacred to the American past.

SG: How was the site chosen?

RE: The selection of the Mount Rushmore monument site took a quick turn early on. Doane Robinson, a leading South Dakota historian and promoter for expanding the state’s tourism, wanted to place images of noted western figures in the “Needles” area of spiked granite formations in the Black Hills. He planned to place sculptures of frontier characters such as Lewis and Clark, Sacajawea, Buffalo Bill, and Red Cloud.

But when the strong-minded sculptor Gutzon Borglum was invited to consider the project and came to the Hills for a look-see, he immediately expressed a very different opinion of the site and possible sculptures.  For Borglum, the figures ought to be national characters–such as leading presidents–and the site should be on the granite face of Mount Rushmore, a mountain that crested at nearly 6,000 feet.

The Robinson and Borglum plans spawned more than a few emotional reactions. Some academics and journalists castigated the memorial ideas as “a desecration of the natural beauty of the [Black] Hills,” and other critics said the carvings would “ruin” the scene.  But Senator Peter Norbeck and U. S. Congressman William Williamson, both from South Dakota, supported the idea, thinking the monuments would be beneficial for the state and its tourism. The support of the state’s congressmen, and the congressional funding they helped secure during the Coolidge, Hoover, and Roosevelt presidencies, proved to be decisive. Without both the presidential support and congressional funding, the Lincoln and other presidential faces are likely to have never appeared on Mount Rushmore.


SG: Please give a brief description of the life and work of Gutzon Borglum. How long did he work on Mount Rushmore?

RE:  Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941) was an extraordinary complex man. Born into a polygamous Latter-day Saint family, Borglum early on proved himself by launching a notable career as an artist and sculptor. He quickly established an escalating reputation with his artworks. Among many others, his statues of General Philip Sheridan, labor activists Sacco and Vanzetti, and the Mares of Diomedes (galloping horses) gained national attention.

From his youth, Borglum was fascinated with Abraham Lincoln. His Lincoln was a westerner, a man of the people. In 1908, he carved a large head of Lincoln that captured the interest of President Theodore Roosevelt, was purchased, and placed in the Rotunda of the Capitol. A few years later his seated Lincoln, tired but thoughtful, was placed near the courthouse of Newark, New Jersey, where it became a favorite site for children and adults to rest and reflect. Borglum also named his only son Lincoln. In 1915, Borglum had been hired to prepare a huge Confederate memorial spread across the rocky side of Stone Mountain in Georgia. Eventually, the venture blew up, but as Borglum worked on that project in the early 1920s, he enjoyed an ongoing reputation as one of the country’s best-known sculptors.

After Borglum initially commenced carving on the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson faces on Mount Rushmore, he began to block out Lincoln’s head in the late 1920s. With much-needed congressional funding, the carving on the sixteenth president moved on apace, and the Lincoln face was officially dedicated on 17 September 1937.

Working with Borglum was difficult. Believing he was always right and could accomplish any task to which he set himself, he was stubborn, opinionated, and sometimes defiant. Still, he was a top-notch sculptor, always energetic and forceful.  No Gutzon Borglum, probably no Mount Rushmore.


SG: Please describe the official dedication of Mount Rushmore.

RE: Completion dedications have always been important–and pragmatic–celebrations for publicly funded projects.  Such dedications signal to funders and tax-payers that projects are moving forward and likely worthy of additional support.

Mount Rushmore manager Gutzon Borglum acted on this belief, convinced that dedications would loosen additional purse strings. In fact, there were six dedications at Mount Rushmore: for the site itself (1925), the first carving (1927), George Washington (1930), Thomas Jefferson (1936), Abraham Lincoln (1937), and Theodore Roosevelt (1939). Each celebration, Borglum believed, proved the project’s ongoing success.

The 1925 celebration launched the idea that became the Mount Rushmore monument.  Borglum, now in charge, had hoped to attract President Calvin Coolidge to the dedication.  When that did not happen, Borglum launched a splashy gathering, dramatically advertising the project and bringing in thousands of spectators.  South Dakotans had been ambivalent respondents thus far about Mount Rushmore; in 1925, Borglum succeeded in turning public opinion toward a more positive direction.  Two years later, President Coolidge, while summering in the Black Hills, spoke at an August 1927 gathering, warmly supporting the monument and encouraging the project managers to apply for government funding. Again, Borglum used the occasion well, gaining the president’s support and applying for federal monies.

The George Washington dedication on 4 July 1930 was less dramatic.  The celebration illustrated the presidential emphases on Mount Rushmore and the near completion of the first presidential face, but not much more.  The Thomas Jefferson celebration on 30 August 1936 gathered more attention because President Franklin Roosevelt was present and spoke at the occasion.  The president expressed his backing for the monument and urged another application for government funding.

Lincoln was Borglum’s favorite president, and the sculptor set out to make the Lincoln dedication special.  He considered Lincoln a “savior” and a “preserver of the Union” in Civil War times.  Borglum worked long and extensively on Lincoln’s face, making the sixteenth president’s face and eyes reflect his strength and complexity.  More than five thousand visitors came the dedication of Lincoln on 17 September 1937.  In Borglum’s bombastic dedicatory speech, he repeatedly praised Lincoln and the greatness of all the presidents.

On 2 July 1939, the presidential dedications were completed with a celebration of Theodore Roosevelt’s face.  Roosevelt was a favorite of several Mount Rushmore managers.  About 12,000 attendees came to the dedication. Borglum spoke of Roosevelt as the embodiment of the West and symbolizing the completion of the monument.

The series of dedication celebrations worked as the monument planners hoped. The gatherings sparked increased attention, obtained important verbal support of political leaders, and, most important, gained financial support. Over time, federal government funding furnished $836,000 of the total cost of $989,000 for the memorial. Celebration gatherings and enthusiastic cheerleading led to needed and necessary dollars.

SG: What agency has responsibility for Rushmore today? Is there any sign of deterioration?

RE:  The National Park Service was put in charge of the Mount Rushmore project in 1933, and then after a gap in its administration, was reassigned to the site in 1939.  The Park Service has directed the project since that time.

The Park Service has done an admirable job in keeping the Mount Rushmore National Memorial safe and up to date. It has added needed facilities, greatly enlarged parking, and expanded walkways, eating areas, and a museum section. They have also carefully watched the physical layout of the four faces, as well as the tourist facilities below.  Among these watch-cares are maintaining scrutiny of the mountain rock formations to check on any granite shifts, filling developing cracks with the latest sealants, and providing monitors to check on the impact of shifting temperatures and other climate changes.

Lacking needed finances, the Park Service has not been able to complete all of Gutzon Borglum’s dream for Rushmore.  The sculptor had begun work on a Hall of Records behind the Lincoln face and wanted a finely carved staircase leading up to the faces. After Borglum’s death in 1941, he son Lincoln took charge of the project, but World War II financial needs blocked more funding to totally complete Mount Rushmore. Besides the incomplete Hall of Records and staircase, the presidents’ bodies were to have been carved down to their waists.  That too has not happened.

Over time, several leaders and activists have spoken for an expansion of the monument.  In the 1930s, women leaders, including Eleanor Roosevelt, pushed for the head of Susan B. Anthony to appear alongside the four presidential faces, to illustrate women’s valuable leadership and contributions to American political life. Others have urged President Franklin Roosevelt as a worthy fifth president on the mountain.  In 2020, when President Donald Trump spoke at Rushmore, some of his strongest supporters called for placing his face next to Lincoln’s.

The most serious and ongoing challenge for the National Park Service in administrating Mount Rushmore is in handling the strong and continuing complaints of Indian speakers who claim Rushmore and the Black Hills was stolen from them.  Native spokesmen point to the Hills as their territory as a result of the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1869) but that their sacred lands were plundered following the gold rush to the Dakotas in the 1870s and beyond.  Since the carvings were begun in 1927, Dakota (Teton Sioux) leaders have especially criticized the desecration of their lands as evidences of racism and white supremacy.  Over the years, Indian critics and protesters have continued to speak out against Rushmore. In the early 1970s, protestors invaded the park area. As late as 2020, the strong protests continued.  Some activists go as far as to call for the destruction of Mount Rushmore.  In 1980, the federal government, through a Supreme Court decision, offered more than $100 million in recompense for the Blacks Hills, but the Sioux Nation rejected the offer, stating that the sacred Hills “could not be bought.” The challenge of Indian rights concerning Mount Rushmore continues, with no easy agreement in sight.

Yet despite all the challenges and controversies, the Mount Rushmore memorial remains a popular tourist site–and sight–for most Americans.  The National Park Service reports that between two and three million visitors come annually to see the presidential faces.

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Think of a few ways we have celebrated the greatness of Abraham Lincoln.  First, there are the nearly 17,000 books about him and the 60,000 volumes about the Civil War in which Lincoln is often a central character. Second, consider the reconstructed historical Lincoln homes in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois and other historical sites in Washington, D. C.  Third, are the museums and libraries dedicated to Lincoln.  Fourth, the monuments such as that in Springfield, Illinois, and the Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital celebrate his legacy. The great Lincoln films such as Robert E. Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) expound his greatness for movie audiences. Gutzon Borglum’s gigantic sixty-foot high Lincoln head on Mount Rushmore belongs with these classic interpretations of Lincoln.  It provides a unique view of Abraham Lincoln, including a reference to and a celebration of his western legacies.

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Richard W. Etulain is professor emeritus of history at the University of New Mexico.  He is the author or editor of more than sixty books, including his earlier edited Lincoln Looks West (2010) and his authored Lincoln and Oregon Country Politics in the Civil War Era (2013).

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