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Author discusses Lincoln's role in statehood

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- New Year's Eve of 1862 ushered in two of the most pivotal proclamations of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln's presidency -- one that declared freedom for all, and another that freed 48 western counties from a rebellious mother state.

Harold Holzer, the author, co-author and editor of more than 40 works on the 16th U.S. president, gave the 2013 McCreight Lecture in the Humanities on Thursday night. In "Emancipating Lincoln: Abe Lincoln Creates a State," Holzer addressed the socioeconomic and political landscape surrounding Lincoln's presidency, and how it shaped the borders of the 35th state.

"The purpose of the lecture is to bring the very best and most important scholars, authors and public intellectuals to West Virginia audiences," said Ken Sullivan, executive director of the West Virginia Humanities Council, which sponsored the event.

Holzer, who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton to the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and was awarded the National Humanities Council Medal in 2008 by former president George W. Bush, served as a consultant in the making of the 2012 Steven Spielberg film "Lincoln."

According to Holzer, the events leading up to the creation of West Virginia and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation were "messy," and rife with the same political pitfalls that still exist in modern politics.

"Most people point to Lincoln as responding to importuning that he moved on slavery quickly; while that's true, and he always led from behind, as President Obama says, and let himself be swept into advanced positions, keep in mind there is a segment of the right who don't want slavery to be touched, who don't want anything but the preservation of the Union," Holzer said. "Then there is Lincoln in the middle."

The secession of West Virginia from Virginia was complicated by the emancipation movement and by questions of constitutionality, Holzer said. Lincoln was conflicted by the idea of allowing a potential slave state to enter the Union after a drawn-out battle to make Kansas, the 34th state, a free state. When asked to vote on the constitutionality of allowing part of a state to secede from the rest without its permission, Lincoln's cabinet reached a 3-3 tie.

In his legal decision concerning West Virginia's statehood, Lincoln wrote, "It is said, the devil takes care of his own. Much more should a good spirit -- the spirit of the Constitution and the Union -- take care of its own. I think it can not do less, and live."

Holzer said Lincoln believed in the political practice of "cutting off the limb to save the body," and viewed West Virginia's secession from Virginia in that light, and rebuked an effort by the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Hamilton Stephens, to have the states rejoined.

"Archibald Campbell, editor of the Wheeling Intelligencer at the time, wrote in an editorial that noted that 'a grateful people will ever say, 'God bless Abraham Lincoln for West Virginia,'" Holzer said.

Holzer is also the creator of "Lincoln Seen and Heard," a collection of Lincoln's letters and memoirs featuring actor Sam Waterston that has been performed at the White House, Ford Theatre, the Library of Congress, the Clinton Presidential Library and the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Holzer serves as senior vice president for public affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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