An Interview with Ronald C. White

An Interview with Ronald C. White

Jonathan W. White

Ronald C. White is the New York Times bestselling author of two presidential biographies: A. Lincoln: A Biography (2009) and American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant (2016). He is also the author of Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (2002), a New York Times Notable Book, The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words (2005), and Lincoln in Private: What His Most Personal Reflections Tell Us About Our Greatest President (2021), which won the Barondess/Lincoln Award. His most recent book is On Great Fields: The Life and Unlikely Heroism of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (2023).


JW: You spent much of your early academic career working on American religious history. What drew you to that field?


RW: I was drawn to the field of American religious history as an historian because I believed that religion has been undervalued in the writing and teaching of American history. On my first day teaching a course at UCLA entitled “Religion in American History,” I asked my students: Who is Martin Luther King Jr.? Again and again over the years students answered something like, “Civil Rights reformer.” I discovered to my surprise that very few identified him as a minister of the African American church.


Pursuing this interest, I did my Ph.D. in the Religion Department at Princeton University, focusing on American Religious History, and working with professors John Wilson and Horton Davies. I also studied with professors Jim McPherson and Arthur Link in Princeton’s History Department. I had a tremendous experience at Princeton. There were only seven students admitted in my entering class. All of my classes were seminars, both in the Religion and History departments. The seminars usually consisted of six or seven students, the largest fourteen, the smallest 3. We were treated as colleagues with our professors.


It was a delight to work with a young Jim McPherson. In my years as a graduate student at Princeton his academic interests and teaching ranged beyond the Civil War. In one seminar he was at work on a project that became his book The Abolitionist Legacy: From Reconstruction to the NAACP (1976). I continue to believe this is an outstanding book but because he has become known as an historian of the Civil War it has never received the recognition it deserves. Jim and Pat McPherson were also very welcoming to Ph.D. students, inviting us into their home.


Growing up in the Civil Rights era, I wanted to know the historical antecedents to Martin Luther King Jr. My dissertation ultimately resulted in Liberty and Justice for All: Racial Reform and the Social Gospel, 1875-1925, published by Harper and Row in 1990. When I began my research, the prevailing wisdom was that the Social Gospel, however vibrant in engaging many social issues, was silent about the race issue. At that time a prominent African American scholar told me there was no Black Social Gospel.


In my book I argued that after the nation’s retreat from Reconstruction, the Social Gospel at the beginning of the twentieth century did engage the race issue. I used the debate between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois as a prism to investigate where leading Social Gospelers stood on this issue. For example, Washington Gladden, the so-called “Father of the Social Gospel,” was invited by DuBois to speak at Atlanta University in 1903 in a conference DuBois convened on “The Negro Church.” Deeply influenced by that experience, when Gladden returned to First Congregational Church in Columbus, Ohio, he preached a remarkable sermon in which he criticized Washington and stood with DuBois.


In a chapter I entitled “The Church Outside the Churches” I showed that many of the most progressive persons were not ministers constrained by white congregations and denominations but leaders of movements and editors who took more progressive stands, thus supporting the new NAACP, which had just been founded in 1909.


Little Pigeon Baptist Church (71.2009.081.1719)


JW: What led you to the study of Abraham Lincoln?


RW: In 1993, the Huntington Library, where I was a “Reader,” presented a Lincoln exhibit, “The Last Best Hope of Earth.” Teaching in the History Department at UCLA, I decided to offer a seminar on Lincoln. I assigned an anthology of Lincoln’s writings and decided to bring my students to the exhibit. I found someone at the Huntington Library—not me—to offer them a lecture on Lincoln.


That semester I found myself struck by Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. As I planned for a second Lincoln seminar for the following year, I wanted to assign a book on the Second Inaugural. Garry Wills had published Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America in 1992 but there was no book on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.


In 1994, I attended a symposium at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary on “Religion and the American Civil War.” At the conclusion, I mentioned to the conveners, Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, that none of the presentations focused on Abraham Lincoln. I was encouraged to submit an essay for their forthcoming book; they would decide if it would be included. “Lincoln’s Sermon on the Mount: The Second Inaugural,” was included in Religion and the American Civil War, which was published in 1998. In my first attempt to write on Lincoln, I felt like a “Johnny Come Lately” in a field where outstanding Lincoln scholars had spent a lifetime at their craft.


One day at the Huntington Library, a friend said, “You can write for a larger audience. Could I introduce you to my literary agent?” I knew nothing of that world. His initiative led to my literary agent and then to the renowned editor Alice Mayhew at Simon & Schuster. My first Lincoln book, Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, published in 2002, was selected as a New York Times Notable Book for 2002.


JW: There has been a lot of debate over the years about Lincoln and religion. How do you understand Lincoln when it comes to matters of faith?


RW: When I first taught several Lincoln seminars at UCLA, and together we read an anthology of Lincoln’s writings and speeches, I was struck by the religious content that suffused Lincoln’s 701-word Second Inaugural Address: He mentioned God fourteen times, quoted the Bible four times, and invoked prayer three times. My academic colleagues cautioned me to not get too excited for they argued that this is what presidential inaugural addresses always do. Not so. In the previous eighteen inaugural addresses I was surprised to see that the Bible had been quoted only one time—by John Quincy Adams.


Scholars have long written about Lincoln’s development as a politician, especially in his understanding of the evils of slavery. But as for his religious development, they have continued to depict him in static terms: he remained a fatalist or determinist in his religious beliefs.


Lincoln grew up in Kentucky and southern Indiana in the midst of the Second Great Awakening. His parents attended Baptist churches. As a boy Abraham reacted against the emotionalism of that religion. By the time he settled in New Salem he rejected what he called “revealed religion” and became a fatalist.


Funeral Address Delivered by Rev. Dr. Gurley, on the Occasion of the Death of William Wallace Lincoln (71200908405451)


But decades later life tumbled in. In 1850, in Springfield, three-year-old Eddy died. In 1862, eleven-year-old Willie died. Both of these events, plus the terrible crucible of the Civil War, forced Lincoln to rethink his religious beliefs. He could not embrace the emotional Baptist tradition of his parents, but turned instead to the more rational Presbyterian tradition: First Presbyterian in Springfield and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington. The point is often made that Lincoln did not join either congregation, but Lincoln was not a joiner. An advocate of temperance, he never joined a temperance society, but he spoke for them.


Rev. Phineas D. Gurley (Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Pa.)

Lincoln’s Springfield law partner, William Herndon, is often cited about Lincoln’s lack of religious faith. But Herndon did not know Lincoln in his four years in Washington. Nor did he know Phineas Densmore Gurley, minister of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. I have read Gurley’s sermons at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia. Finishing number one in his class at Princeton Theological Seminary, Gurley preached about providence: a loving God who acts in history. In Lincoln’s Second Inaugural he has left fatalism behind and speaks about providence, of a God who acts in history: “The Almighty has his own purposes.”


JW: You’ve now moved on to major military figures of the era—Ulysses S. Grant and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. What led you to shift your focus, and did you find it a difficult transition from your earlier work?


RW: After writing a biography of Lincoln, who is so well known, I wanted to write a biography of Grant, who I believed needed to be known by a larger audience. For many, Grant the general had been compared unfavorably to Robert E. Lee. Grant the president was often known primarily for the scandals in his administration. The year 2022 would be the 200th anniversary of Grant’s birth. American Ulysses: The Life of Ulysses S. Grant was published by Random House in 2016. I am pleased that in the four C-SPAN Presidential Historians Surveys in the twenty-first century, Grant has risen thirteen places.


“Grant and His Generals” (National Portrait Gallery)


As for Chamberlain, this suggestion of a biography came about while speaking about my Grant biography at the Jonathan Club in Los Angeles in 2017. Someone asked a familiar question: “What is your next book?” I replied, “I don’t know. Does anyone have any suggestions?” From the back of the audience, Mark Lipis shouted, “Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.”


In my subsequent due diligence, I learned that there were fine books on Chamberlain as the hero of Little Round Top, but none that told his larger life story. Chamberlain was elected governor of Maine four times, president of Bowdoin College, and became an eloquent lecturer about the meaning of America in the five decades after the Civil War. If earlier biographies were a zoom lens focusing on Little Round Top at Gettysburg, I wanted to employ a wide angle lens writing about his multiple vocations as teacher, soldier, governor, college president, lecturer, and memoirist. I did not find this biography a difficult transition, but the chronology took me fifty years beyond Lincoln and thirty years beyond Grant as I tried to place Chamberlain in his context. In the biography I was determined to pay more attention to the contradictions in the very admirable Chamberlain.


Little Round Top, Gettysburg (Library of Congress)


JW: You call Chamberlain an “unlikely hero.” What made him so unlikely?


RW: He was unlikely for at least several reasons. First, as a boy he loved horseback riding, swimming, and sailing, but there was one boyhood sport he would not do. Boys did what they called “gunning,” but at an early age, Chamberlain decided he would not shoot a gun to kill animals. When asked by other boys, he replied, “It is a mean thing to snatch pleasure at another’s loss.”


Second, his father wanted him to pursue a military career. His maternal grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War. As an eleven-year-old boy he watched his father march off to lead a regiment in the Aroostook War fought over a boundary dispute with the Canadian province of New Brunswick. At age fourteen, his father enrolled him in Major Charles Whiting’s military school, which he attended for one year.


As he approached graduation from high school, his parents were divided about what his future should be. His father wanted him to attend West Point. His mother wanted him to become a minister or missionary. After graduating from Bowdoin College, he chose not to attend a military school but rather Bangor Theological Seminary.


Because Chamberlain did not become an ordained minister, these three years have received only several sentences in Chamberlain biographies. Because I have been a dean and a faculty member at Princeton Theological Seminary and San Francisco Theological Seminary, I knew that many persons who attend seminary and do not become ministers still regard their theological education as extremely valuable in their various future vocations.


Bangor Theological Seminary was founded in 1814 but closed its doors in 2013. Fortunately, all their records were acquired by the Maine Historical Society in Portland. Researching those records allowed me to reconstruct interesting aspects of Chamberlain’s three years as a student from 1852 to 1855.


JW: Are there popular myths about Chamberlain that need to be dispelled?


RW: The most common recent myths are the criticism that Chamberlain fabricated or exaggerated his role both at Little Round Top in 1863 and in the surrender at Appomattox in 1865. One historian has argued that there is little contemporary evidence for Chamberlain’s role in leading the surrender ceremony at Appomattox.


To try to understand this question I traveled to Appomattox. I was welcomed by Patrick Schroeder, historian at the Appomattox Court House National Historic Park. He has spent years researching the surrender and shared with me multiple contemporary sources reporting on the surrender and Chamberlain’s role in leading it. I am grateful for his generous cooperation in researching and writing the Chamberlain biography.


In the biography, I also want to be alert to what is missing in the subject’s story. For Chamberlain, it was the three years he attended Bangor Theological Seminary. At his graduation he received invitations to lead three congregations as their pastor. Because he did not accept these calls, but was offered a teaching position at this same time at Bowdoin College, these three years have been largely omitted in previous biographies.


I have long believed that modern biographies pass too quickly over the younger years of their subject. Yet, when I speak to audiences, people quickly agree that these years are so formative in who they become as mature adults. I spend two chapters on Chamberlain’s formation at Bowdoin College where the curriculum focused on an education grounded in the classics. Even though Bowdoin, like many nineteenth-century colleges before the Civil War, was rooted in a Protestant ethos, his studies at Bangor Theological Seminary allowed him to go much deeper into the breadth and depth of the Christian faith. In researching the Chamberlain papers at the University of Maine at Orono I found Chamberlain’s 123 pages of notes from his Bangor Seminary class in Systematic Theology that he kept all his life.


By the 1850s, Baptists and Methodists, much more experiential traditions compared to Congregationalists and Presbyterians, were enjoying enormous success, often led by ministers who were not seminary or even college graduates. Congregationalists and Presbyterians, by contrast, wanted their ministers to be both college and seminary graduates. This suited Chamberlain.


When he served as president of Bowdoin from 1871 to 1873, I was curious to see how this theological education might play out in the Baccalaureate addresses he gave each year. Each year he took a contemporary question—how does science relate to religion?—and brought his enormous learning to what really were sermons.


JW: I have a fond memory of you and me going to see the spot where Chamberlain was wounded at Petersburg a few years ago. I also know you’ve visited other places related to the Chamberlain story. How important is it for you to visit the sites where the events in your writing took place?


RW: Yes, you and Timothy Orr, your historian colleague, were immensely helpful in my understanding of Chamberlain at Petersburg.


I do worry that today some historians are doing their research almost exclusively from their computers in their offices rather than making the effort to visit the sites so central in the life stories of the subjects. For Chamberlain, I needed to understand various places in Maine—Brewer, Bangor, Augusta, Portland—where he grew up and lived, as well as the battle sites where he fought, especially Gettysburg and Petersburg.


For Lincoln, reconstructed New Salem, and Springfield. For Grant, the towns of Georgetown, Ohio, and Galena, Illinois, and the battles sites of Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, the Wilderness, and Petersburg.


I discovered early on how important it is to have the right guides. For example, at Chattanooga all of the buildings associated with Grant were torn down in the middle of the twentieth century, but National Park Service historian James Ogden met me there with maps and photographs. In writing about Chamberlain at Gettysburg, military historian Carol Reardon was enormously helpful in guiding me on my visit.


JW: In many ways, Chamberlain seems like a larger-than-life figure, yet his tombstone is modest. What were your feelings when you first saw it in person?


RW: I was surprised. After reading a critic who argued that Chamberlain was a self-promoter, I was surprised at the simplicity of the gravestone. No mention of Gettysburg or being governor of Maine and president of Bowdoin College.


When I visited the Pine Grove Cemetery in Brunswick, I learned that Chamberlain designed the three-foot gravestone. I thought I might read something of the great nab like:


Hero of Little Round Top

Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient

Governor of Maine

President of Bowdoin College


Instead, the gravestone read simply:


Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

1828 – 1914


Grave of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Photograph by Niles Singer)

In writing On Great Fields, I came to believe that throughout his life he sought to balance his ambition on one side, where he felt pride in his accomplishments, and self-effacement on the other side, where his Christian formation instilled within him as a youth taught him not to toot his own horn. His simple, unadorned gravestone, which he designed in 1914, bespeaks a man comfortable in his life and trusting in an eternal life to come.


JW: Lincoln, Grant, and Chamberlain each come down to us as great leaders. What characteristics made them so effective?


RW: Lincoln, Grant, and Chamberlain, with very different environments when growing up, shared several similar characteristics which made them great leaders.


All three were magnanimous in dealing with Confederate enemies. Lincoln articulated this eloquently in the final lines of his March 4, 1865, Second Inaugural Address: “With malice toward none; with charity for all.” Grant strongly resisted President Andrew Johnson’s desire to try General Robert E. Lee as a traitor. Chamberlain, in his speeches after the Civil War, opposed the cause for which the Confederate soldiers fought but praised their courage.


All three evinced humility—often called in the nineteenth century “self-effacement”—almost completely lacking in today’s political leaders. On Lincoln’s thirteen-day train trip from Springfield to Washington in February 1861, speaking to legislators in Trenton, New Jersey, he stated, “I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hand of the Almighty.”


Grant’s humility expressed itself at the moment of a high honor, arriving in Washington to accept Lincoln’s invitation to command all the Union armies in March 1864. Stepping up to the desk of Willard’s hotel, the desk clerk told him he could only assign he and his son a small room on the top floor. “That will be fine,” responded Grant. When the clerk asked him to sign the hotel register, he was taken aback when he read, “Ulysses S. Grant and son, Galena, Illinois.” Rather than exclaiming, “Don’t you know who I am?”—posters about Grant were everywhere in Washington—the self-effacing Grant, who usually wore a private’s uniform, did not pull rank.


When Chamberlain told Israel Washburn, the governor of Maine, that he wanted to offer his services to Maine and the Union and enlist in the Union army, the governor wanted to name him a colonel. Chamberlain said, essentially, “No, I don’t deserve that rank.” He would prefer to start at a lower rank and in time prove worthy of a higher rank. In a Union army of “wire pullers,” people always pushing for higher rank, Chamberlain would have none of it.


Finally, all three shared the quality of perseverance. We forget the incredible criticism Lincoln faced over what people called “Mr. Lincoln’s war.” Grant told his wife Julia not to read all the criticisms printed in newspapers about him and his too-slow military advances at Vicksburg and Petersburg. Chamberlain, told by two surgeons he would die after suffering terrible wounds at Petersburg, never complained as he suffered from the effects of those wounds almost every day of his life after the Civil War.


As to a shortcoming, were all three too generous to the Confederacy? After Lincoln’s assassination, some Republican senators said privately that they were glad he was no longer president because his Reconstruction policies were too generous. Grant, after his victory at Vicksburg, offered parole to all the defeated Confederate soldiers, the parole stipulating that they would never again take up arms against the Union. Which they promptly did. Chamberlain has also been accused of being too magnanimous to the defeated Confederate soldiers. In his postwar speeches he said again and again that he opposed their cause but commended the courage of the soldiers.


JW: You’ve tackled some of the largest figures of the Civil War Era. Who’s next?


RW: My fourth American biography will focus on the “unprecedented” story of John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives. After being a one term president, smashed by Andrew Jackson in the 1828 presidential election, at age sixty-four, old in that time, he served for seventeen years in the House of Representatives. I say “unprecedented” because apart from Andrew Johnson’s brief five months’ service in the Senate in 1875, no American president has served afterwards in elective office. In the twenty-first century we have witnessed George W. Bush and Barack Obama retiring from the presidency at relatively young ages, but not serving again in elective office. Jimmy Carter has had a remarkable retirement leading the Carter Center, but his service was not in elective office.


John Quincy Adams (National Portrait Gallery)


I am calling this biography Adams’s “Third Act,” the name of a contemporary organization promoting the idea that Americans in their sixties and beyond have much to contribute to their communities and society. Elected in 1830, Adams would challenge the “Gag Rule” which tabled petitions about slavery without discussion, took on the southern “slaveocracy,” and defended the slaves of the ship Amistad before the Supreme Court in 1841. I hope the Adams biography can shed new light on a remarkable American leader, but also raise the question about what we expect from American presidents when they complete their one or two terms in office. Could they also serve in the House or Senate?


JW: Thank you so much for joining us!