Philip Kunhardt on “Lincoln’s Contested Legacy”

Philip Kunhardt
Philip B. Kunhardt III, author of Lincoln's Contested Legacy. Margie Kunhardt

Philip Kunhardt has spent the last twenty years writing and producing documentaries on historical subjects—including Freedom: A History of US, Echoes from the White House and Lincoln—and has co-authored four companion books for these series. His work has ranged from a ten-part study of the American presidency, to a history of violence in America, to a multi-part series on the history of American freedom. However, he repeatedly returns to the subject of Abraham Lincoln. His newest book, Looking for Lincoln, was released this past November.

What drew you to this story? Can you describe its genesis?

In the early 1990s, I wrote and co-produced a three-hour long documentary film on Abraham Lincoln’s life and was co-author of the companion volume, Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography. That book followed the chronology of Lincoln’s life, 1809-1865, though it began in the middle of the story with Lincoln’s secret arrival in Washington—amidst death threats—for his inauguration. The book had a short aftermath section, and I remember thinking at the time that it could be expanded into a whole new book. My new book, Looking for Lincoln, co-authored with my brother and nephew, begins with the bullet that killed the 16th president and ends 61 years later with the death of his son Robert. In my Smithsonian article I had the chance to carry the story forward up to the present.

What surprised you the most while covering this story?

I guess what surprised me most was learning how Lincoln’s memory has been invoked by polar opposites—for example by the ardent socialists and Communists of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the 1930s and by the rabid anti-Communist senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. On one hand this leads me to question whether anyone so diversely appropriated can have any clear message for us today. On the other hand I have come to appreciate the fact that so many people want to feel close to Lincoln. There is a tension between history and memory, and they are not always the same thing. But with Lincoln you can’t entirely separate the man from the myth—the two aspects are inextricably interwoven in him, and have been ever since the final years of his life.

What was your favorite moment during your reporting?

My favorite moment during the reporting was listening to Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in Grant Park in Chicago and hearing him quote from Lincoln’s first inaugural address, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” I knew Obama held Lincoln in high regard, but in that moment I saw a profound fulfillment of the American dream and an arc stretching forward from the time of Lincoln to our own times. I suddenly knew that my piece for the Smithsonian had to climax with that moment in history—a moment that has now been extended forward to his swearing into office with his hand on the Lincoln Bible.

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