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Steve Inskeep's new book, 'Differ We Must,' takes a nuanced look at Abraham Lincoln

NPR’s Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep recently released a book about Abraham Lincoln titled, “Differ We Must.” It’s a nuanced look at the former president’s political acumen and his disagreements with others about slavery.

Inskeep sat down with KJZZ's Word podcastto talk about it.

STEVE INSKEEP: I have always been interested in history. I loved reading it as a kid. I have a memory of my grandparents taking me in their RV to look at the Gettysburg Battlefield. We drove from Indiana across to Gettysburg. This is my third work on American history, specifically on the 19th century.  

TOM MAXEDON: The title, “Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded In A Divided America,” was taken from a letter that Lincoln wrote to his best friend, and I wonder if you can tell us a bit more about that friendship, but also the content of that particular correspondence.

INSKEEP: Yeah. I think it gets to the essence of the book, which is Lincoln's face to face meetings with people who disagreed with him, who differed with him, including many who disagreed with him about slavery, who thought that he was not radical enough or that he was far too radical. Joshua Speed was the best friend of Lincoln's life. He'd been born in Kentucky, just as Lincoln was. But unlike Lincoln, who grew up very poor, he'd grown up in a very wealthy family and Joshua's father, owned by the time of his death, I believe about 57 enslaved people who worked a hemp farm outside Louisville, Kentucky, and that was Joshua Speed’s, upbringing. Now, when both men were living in the Free State of Illinois, they became best friends, Speed and Lincoln. And by the 1850s, when slavery was the central crisis facing the country, Lincoln wrote his friend a letter, and it's clear they disagreed about slavery. Speed agrees in the abstract that slavery is bad, but in Lincoln's opinion is not politically serious about voting in a way that would change anything. And so Lincoln tells him, he's wrong. But then he says,” if for this, you and I must differ, differ, we must,” effectively saying philosophically, OK, I get that we're going to disagree about this. But then he signs the letter, your friend forever. And the important coda to that little story, in my view, is that Lincoln kept touch with this guy he disagreed with — didn't shun or ostracize the guy. And when the Civil War came, and Lincoln was president, he got some use out of him. Joshua Speed remained loyal to the Union, and helped keep the slave state of Kentucky in the Union in the early months of the war.

MAXEDON: I think it's such a great way that you've positioned this book and all the disagreements that you talk about. Lincoln disagreed with many fellow politicians, his own advisors, generals even. And you examine some of those disagreements in 16 particular incidents. How did you make your choices?

INSKEEP: Thank you. It was hard. And in fact, there are entire chapters that I wrote that I cut out of the book. By narrowing the focus, I felt that I was able to expose things that were new, or at least not very commonly known. Some of the characters in here are very famous. Some of them are extremely obscure. But there's enough information about their meeting with Lincoln and how they differed in background, or in opinion, or just total disagreement. And, so I hope in the course of the book, you get a feel for America then and almost, by reflection, now.

MAXEDON: At the same time, his engagement did not prevent secession and a bloody Civil War. But, you think that there's lessons that can be drawn from his just desire to engage, right?

INSKEEP: Yeah. And this is a distinction that I'm glad you asked about gives me an opportunity to talk about it. There's kind of a social media reaction to this book, which is totally understandable. And maybe somebody listening is having it. “You want me to think of Lincoln as the guy who reached out to the other side. He went to war against the other part of the country.” And this is absolutely true.

But here's what I mean by that: Lincoln built coalitions. His goal was not to persuade everybody, because that's not possible. His goal was not necessarily even to change a lot of people's minds. But, he wanted to find people who had enough to agree on that they could form a political majority. He worked before the Civil War, and before his election as President to help build an anti-slavery coalition, which was really hard because there was a lot of racism in this country, and a lot of mixed opinions about slavery, even among people who thought it was generally wrong.

He was a guy who was not going to yield to the demands of the South that did not accept his free and fair election as president of the United States. But he built a large coalition to keep the rest of the Union together. And that majority formed a numerical advantage on the battlefield, which is why the Union won the Civil War.

MAXEDON: NPR’s Steve Inskeep is author of “Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded In A Divided America,” which is out now. You hear most frequently as part of Morning Edition from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. weekdays here on KJZZ. Thank you so much, Steve. I appreciate your time.

INSKEEP: I'm glad to do it. Thank you.

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Tom Maxedon was the host of KJZZ’s Weekend Edition from 2017 to 2024.