Larry Tagg is the author of 2009’s The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln: The Story of America’s Most Reviled President. Recently he took time to respond to some questions for Bull Runnings.
LT: I was born in Lincoln, Illinois. After living in the Land of Lincoln for eight years, my family moved to Dallas, Texas, where my father was Minister of Music at the Highland Park Presbyterian Church. As a high school senior, I won the city-wide high school extemporaneous writing contest. (I was lucky. The prompt was “Describe a concert,” and just the week before I had seen Jimi Hendrix for the first time, just after the release of Are You Experienced? Security was lax at the State Fair Music Hall in those days, and after the show I jumped onstage and walked backstage to Jimi’s dressing room, where I talked to his drummer, Mitch Mitchell. Jimi was across the room talking to someone else.)
I attended the University of North Texas, graduating cum laude in Philosophy in two years, and I was awarded a teaching assistantship at the University of Texas. After one semester of graduate school I knew academia was not for me. I was more a musician—a bass player, singer, and songwriter.
I moved to California in 1978 with an excellent band, Uncle Rainbow, to record under the aegis of Michael Hossack, one of the Doobie Brothers. In 1985, my band Bourgeois Tagg—with Brent Bourgeois, Michael Urbano, Lyle Workman, and Scott Moon—was signed to Island Records. We recorded two albums and had two hits, Mutual Surrender and I Don’t Mind at All. We toured Europe and America with Robert Palmer, Heart, Belinda Carlisle, and others.
After Bourgeois Tagg broke up in 1989 during the making of our third album, I toured as a bass player and singer with Todd Rundgren and Hall and Oates. (My audition gig with Hall and Oates was in front of a million people at the Great Meadow in Central Park on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day.) During the 1990s I was signed as a staff songwriter by Warner Chappell Music. My songs were recorded by Eddie Money, Kim Carnes, Cliff Richard, and others. I released two solo albums—With a Skeleton Crew and Rover—in Europe and America.
By the mid-90s I had a family, and the road had lost much of its allure. I became in English and drama teacher and Lead Teacher of the Arts Academy at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento, California. While I taught I began writing in my spare time. My first book, The Generals of Gettysburg, was published in 1998 by Savas Publishing, and the paperback edition appeared a couple of years later on Da Capo.
The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln, my latest book, took me about 7 years to research and write. It was a labor of love, of course. I love the scavenger hunt that is research, and I love trying to make the words come out right.
BR: How long has Abraham Lincoln been a focus of your studies?
LT: Lincoln has been the focus of my studies since about 2001, when I was working on a follow-up to my book The Generals of Gettysburg. Since I hadn’t seen a good history of the Army of the Potomac since Bruce Catton, I was working on a new history of that army that would take advantage of all the research that’s been done in the last 50 years, and which would concentrate more on the effects that the relationships between its generals had on the battles it fought. I was starting at the very beginning, with Winfield Scott and Charles Stone and the District of Columbia militia during the Secession Crisis.
BR: What first got you interested in tackling his “unpopular” side?
LT: Right away, I started turning up an alarming number of disparaging references by the generals to their Commander-in-Chief, Abraham Lincoln. It seemed like none of them took him seriously, or worse, thought he was an ignoramus, totally overmatched by the crisis. That jarred me, since it didn’t square with my education on The Great Emancipator, and it made me curious. The more I looked into opinion on Lincoln, both within the army and without, the more incredibly poisonous stuff I found. I thought, “Here’s the story!”
BR: What challenges did the project present?
LT: The most serious challenge in writing The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln was not to find material. That abounded—I ended up including in the book only the “10s” on a 1-to-10 scale of slurs I found on Lincoln. The hard part was walking the line between including enough examples of the violent criticism of Lincoln to make the book a good resource on one hand and writing a good narrative on the other hand. I had to go to the University of California to send for microfiche of Democratic newspapers, then wade through those for hours sitting at a microfiche reader. I had to be careful to balance those obviously biased sources with neutral observers that were more valuable as indicators of the lack of political support Lincoln had during almost his entire time in office. I am also careful, on any Civil War topic, to take with a grain of salt any reminiscences written by the participants later in the century—these were so clouded over, after hundreds of dinner speeches and rose-colored retellings, that they’re not worth much.
BR: Tell us about The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln.
LT: The thesis of the book is that Abraham Lincoln accomplished more with less political capital than any other figure in American history. I think the book is particularly valuable where it discusses the context of his presidency, the tenor of the times—I am particularly grateful to reviewers who appreciate these chapters of the book. Lincoln was president when respect for all authority was at low ebb, and when respect for the presidency as an institution was at its lowest point. (Just last week, I saw a new poll on presidents, and, as usual, the four presidents preceding Lincoln were in the bottom ten. The low quality of presidents was the result of the same boss-run party system that produced Lincoln, and Americans of that time were increasingly horrified by the quality of the presidents produced by the system. Lincoln seemed to many to be the worst of the lot. As a result of the seeming capriciousness of his nomination by the Republicans in 1860, wags titled Lincoln “His Accidency.”) Once he took office, he inherited a political milieu so overheated that everyone had flown to extremes right and left, which soon left Lincoln, a moderate, alone in the middle. I think that the more one knows about this context, the more one appreciates what he was able to accomplish.
The audience for the book was not academia, although I am a teacher myself. I was extremely scrupulous with my research and my conclusions so that my book would stand up to academic scrutiny, but I wrote for an intelligent general audience. I have to say I continue to be amazed that this book had not been written before. (As a songwriter, I knew a great song when I heard it and thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?”) I think the “angle” I took in The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln is a particularly powerful one for studying Lincoln the President, the mood of the North, and the politics of the Civil War. I recommend it as a primer on those closely related subjects. Besides my effort as a historian, I also put in a lot of effort as a writer. It is a great story—a wild ride.
BR: Did you find out anything while researching The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln that changed – or reinforced – any opinions you already had?
LT: It’s funny that in researching a book about how little people thought of Lincoln at the time, I can’t remember anything I found made me think less of Lincoln—the experience only added to my esteem for him. Politician is so often used as an epithet, and Lincoln, who was an unapologetic, bare-knuckles fighter of a politician—reminds us how a great politician can be a crucial asset to the American people. As a writer, I loved reading what Lincoln wrote; even his everyday notes to generals and politicians had a sinewy quality to them, a unique ability to see to the heart of a problem, small or large. Along with the rigor of his logic, there was a gentleness and a humor in his writing that is the most incontrovertible testimony to his character. However, I am not among those who think Lincoln was a military genius. Although he was an excellent student of military principles, his lack of knowledge about logistics and the friction of war made him a poor general-in-chief, which he was for the four months that ended with the disaster of the Peninsula Campaign. Also, he had inherited the racial prejudices of his place and time, and his flirtations with projects to deport African-Americans are embarrassing to us now. However, they were serious attempts to solve monumental, centuries-old national problems, and it was with regard to race that he showed the most growth as a man and leader.
BR: Considering Lincoln’s continuing unpopularity with Congress after Lee’s surrender, what’s your opinion of his prospects of successfully achieving a “soft” peace with the former Confederates and implementing the details of emancipation, while at the same time satisfying the Radicals?
LT: Yes, Lincoln was still considered an enemy by the Radicals who controlled Congress, and his prospect of pleasing them, while he tried in his usual gentle way to make Southern governments out of nothing, were nil. Andrew Johnson at least had a honeymoon period with the Radicals, while Lincoln had never been their man. However, Lincoln was without a doubt the best man to establish a “soft” peace with the former Confederate states. I consider the next hundred years, the hundred years of Jim Crow rule in the South, to be the biggest what if in American history: I think Jim Crow might have been avoided if Lincoln had lived. He was the one man who best knew how to navigate on the race question, and a president not squeamish about using presidential power to advance Jefferson’s principle that “all men are created equal.”
BR: How has the book been received? [Tagg’s response here is brief and modest. Personally I’ve noticed a profound silence from the Lincoln “establishment” on this, in my opinion, very important book, which gives us a rare look at Lincoln as he was viewed without the prism of martyrdom.]
LT: The response to the book by those who have read it has been all I could have hoped. However, not very many people have read it.
BR: What’s next for you?
LT: I look around for quite a while to find a great subject before I start writing. So I’m in the “read, read, read” phase right now, which precedes the research phase of my book writing. Two subjects have struck me. One is the two-week period after Fort Sumter when Maryland teetered on secession and Washington—with the entire government apparatus—was surrounded by rebellion and almost totally unprotected. I think that could be a “cinematic” narrative, and tramping around Maryland to find primary sources on those two weeks would be fascinating (though not easy; I live in California). The other subject is Lincoln and the Thirteenth Amendment, an act in which, unlike the Emancipation Proclamation, he did not take the initiative. I think there’s probably a good story there—he was trying to get re-elected at the same time, and his feelings toward a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery were complicated. I’ve got about six books next to my bed on that subject right now (though none specifically treats Lincoln’s role, which is good). I may also write a book on statistical research on Civil War battles, a subject I’ve been gathering material on for about twenty years, especially since I’m now working with the company that has produced Scourge of War: Gettysburg, an excellent computer strategy game on the Battle of Gettysburg.
These would be smaller books than The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln—I’m in the mood to concentrate on a smaller subject. I think, however, that The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln will be the “big book” to which people will return.
Thanks to Larry for taking the time to share his thoughts with us all, and we look forward to his future work. I’m intrigued by anyone who has an interest in exploring the numbers of the Civil War – it’s decidedly un-sexy but can be enormously enlightening. Remember back when folks thought Lee was outnumbered by McClellan during Seven Days?
Pick up a copy of The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln and give it a read. You’ll be glad you did.