English Feature #7-37187 Broadcast Febuary 19, 2001
Abraham Lincoln, one of the two presidents Americans honor today in celebrating Presidents' Day, is one of the most written-about people in the world. It is said that only Jesus Christ and Napoleon have had more books devoted to them. Today on New American Voices Gabor Boritt, an immigrant from Hungary and the author of 15 books on Lincoln and the American Civil War era, talks about some of the reasons why the 16th president of the United States continues to be such a compelling figure.
"He's a genuinely great man. We live in an age when we do not like to speak about -- historians don't like to speak about great men or great people at all. But I would say Abraham Lincoln is genuinely an amazing human being, and I find him fascinating to this day."
Gabor Boritt is the Director of the Civil War Institute and Professor of Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He came to the United States as a teenager in 1957, shortly after the Hungarian revolution was put down by Soviet tanks. Quite by chance, he says, he picked up a book about Lincoln, and became fascinated by the man.
"Especially for an immigrant such as myself, part of the fascination is the road the man travels in a lifetime. He is born in Kentucky, his parents are illiterate -- and their son Abraham Lincoln writes the Gettysburg Address. Just imagine to go such a distance in a lifetime."
Apart from his remarkable rise from poverty to prominence, Professor Boritt believes that President Lincoln has another legitimate claim to greatness.
"He is solid as a human being can be, and he is soft at the same time. He knows how to make decisions, he knows how to move ahead, but not move ahead so fast that he wrecks the cause he's working for. Under his leadership the United States saves itself, establishes itself permanently as a lasting democracy, ends slavery, and it puts the United States on the road to what it is today, a great nation."
For many people, Lincoln's stature as a great president and as a symbol of American democracy is based on his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which led to the freeing of American slaves. But Professor Boritt believes that there is more to it than that.
"Certainly emancipation is part of it, and we live in a multi-cultural world, a multi-racial world, of course, and the fact that he is able to rise above all those divisions at a time when it was not easy and not common to do so, speaks for itself. But I think it goes well beyond relations between blacks and whites and different kinds of people. It goes to his fundamental nature. He was a democrat with a small "d". He believed in the equality of men, he believed that everyone should have the right to make what they could of themselves. In short he is a genuinely good man who over the past century and a half has become a symbol."
Professor Boritt's first book - the one that is closest to his heart, he says, because he wrote it while still learning English - is entitled "Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream". In it he says that even before becoming president, Lincoln promoted economic policies that would open the door to the American dream to many, including the German and Irish immigrants that were coming into the country in large numbers in the middle of the 19th century. Professor Boritt describes the American dream.
"It is the dream that you can reach as far in life as your abilities take you. That you can be born in a log cabin and become the president of the United States. The American dream is the dream of the right to rise as high as your abilities will take you."
Gabor Boritt says that he himself was a beneficiary of the country Abraham Lincoln helped to create, where immigrant boys, along with everyone else, can aspire to live the American dream.
"I was a 16-year-old boy when I came here, and I had exactly a dollar to my name, and I couldn't speak the language, and I did most any "executive" job that came in my hand, that means washing dishes… and I lived out in the Dakotas, so I worked in the fields, I could clean out barns as well as anybody. I put myself through college, I borrowed some money but mostly I paid for it by working, and well, I guess some people claim that I'm one of the experts on Abraham Lincoln today, and the American Civil War -- so that's going a long ways. I guess someone might say, "Only in America."
In addition to being a Lincoln scholar, Civil War expert, professor and writer, Gabor Boritt now has another role – that of movie actor. He has a small part as a Confederate Army commander in a new Civil War epic film called “Gods and Generals”, for which he also served as historical consultant. The film opened nation-wide on February 21st.