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Lincoln’s political savvy highlighted in ‘Differ We Must,’ by NPR’s Steve Inskeep

Steve Inskeep's newest book details Abraham Lincoln's connections to the St. Louis region.
Mike Morgan
Steve Inskeep's newest book details some of Abraham Lincoln's connections to the St. Louis region.

Abraham Lincoln moved to Illinois when he was 21 years old. It was in that state — now dubbed “The Land of Lincoln” — where he became the politician that fueled his rise to the presidency.

Lincoln’s growth and skill as a politician is adeptly documented in a new book, “Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America.” Its author is Steve Inskeep, the longtime co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition.

“Lincoln had political ambitions from a very early age,” Inskeep told St. Louis on the Air. In 1831, when Lincoln moved to the village of New Salem, Illinois, he became a member of the minority Whig Party and to succeed had to garner support from people who may have otherwise been fierce critics.

“The other party, there was this group of local toughs, or bullies, known as the Clary’s Grove Boys, who tended to beat up newcomers in town, and the head of the gang, Jack Armstrong, challenged Lincoln to a wrestling match,” Inskeep explained. “And they're all sorts of accounts of how the match went, but Lincoln seems at least to have won these guys’ respect, and they ended up supporting him personally when he ran for office later even though they differed with him politically. That turned out to be characteristic of a lot of his career that was to follow.”

Inskeep tells Lincoln’s story through 16 encounters with people who differed from him in some way. Some of these interlocutors — Frederick Douglass and George B. McClellan — are well-known, and some are not as well-known. Each person is given a label. Douglass is the activist; McClellan is the strategist.

Two people with St. Louis-area ties are Owen Lovejoy, the extremist, and Joseph Gillespie, the nativist.

“It seems clear to me that [Lovejoy] played a role in recruiting Lincoln for the Republican Party,” Inskeep said of events in the mid-1850s. “And he may have influenced Lincoln’s tone somewhat.”

Lincoln’s Whig Party collapsed after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise and reopened the prospect of slavery in the western territories.

Lovejoy was an ardent abolitionist, much like his younger brother, Elijah, an anti-slavery newspaper publisher who was killed by a pro-slavery mob in 1837 in Alton. Owen Lovejoy, who was present when his brother was killed, took up the anti-slavery mantle.

“Lincoln was not sure that he wanted to be associated with [anti-slavery] extremists … but he gradually decided that his old party was dying, and the new one was politically smart enough to succeed and that he could help it do so,” Inskeep said. “Abraham Lincoln and Owen Lovejoy ended up collaborating over the next couple of years to shape what that party was. And here's another example [of how Lincoln is] more moderate or maybe we should say more pragmatic.

“He said his belief about slavery was the same as the radicals but as a question of what you could do about it, these other people who were more radical wanted to defy the incredible web of laws that supported slavery more directly, but Lincoln managed to collaborate with them.”

Edwardsville lawyer Joseph Gillespie is another encounter detailed in “Differ We Must.”

Gillespie was a member of the secretive Know-Nothings, an anti-immigrant movement — a movement to which Lincoln didn’t subscribe. During the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, Lincoln worked with Gillespie to try to form a successful coalition that would vault him to the U.S. Senate.

“Lincoln went to this guy who he disagreed with about immigration and said, ‘I need your support to get your backers to vote for me, against slavery,’” Inskeep said. “[Lincoln] tried this desperate, moral struggle of not betraying his own principles, not pandering to these people by saying something he didn't believe about immigrants, but only reaching out to them on an anti-slavery platform.”

St. Louis-area connections loom large in other chapters too. And, while there’s no shortage of research and words written about the 16th president of the United States, Inskeep said that he hopes his new book gives a sense of America’s diversity and helps illuminate Lincoln’s achievements.

“I've been into Lincoln ever since I was a kid growing up in Indiana, where Lincoln spent most of his youth,” Inskeep said. “I didn't truly feel that I understood how he appealed to people; just knowing that he's like a friendly kind of back-slapping guy didn't quite do it for me. And I gradually realized, through my research here, that Lincoln had a particular view of human nature. He thought that people acted out of self-interest. And so he needed to frame his arguments in a way that appealed to their self-interest, even as it appealed to some higher cause, which in his case turned out to be slavery.”

Listen to NPR’s Steve Inskeep describe more of the encounters that he details in the book. St. Louis on the Air is available on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or by clicking the play button below.

Steve Inskeep on Lincoln’s political savvy

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production intern. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.