As Sacramento hosts With Malice Toward None this week, the Abraham Lincoln exhibit commemorating the president’s bicentennial birth, local author Larry Tagg is traveling to Los Angeles to promote his book The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln: The Story of America’s Most Reviled President at the San Gabriel Valley Civil War Round Table in Pasadena.
While many project Lincoln as one of history’s greatest and most honorable presidents, Tagg has something else to say on the subject.
The former musician, who currently teaches English and drama at Hiram Johnson High School, spent the last six to seven years researching for and writing his second book, which he released in stores just over a month ago. Tagg said he has had a fascination with Lincoln for a long time, and the "spectacular animosity against Lincoln" seemed irresistible subject matter for a book.
Contrasting the enormous white marble replica of the nobly seated man in Washington, D.C., so often associated with Lincoln, Tagg said that during Lincoln’s time, his contemporaries viewed him in a very different light.
"Across the board, all the newspapers were writing ‘Here comes this cowardly president arriving like a thief in the night, sneaking into Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital.’ Right from the get-go he was digging himself out of a hole [and] had no prestige," Tagg said.
It is this unfamiliar view of the president that Tagg opens his 473-page narrative with and poses the question: "How could a man elected President in November be so reviled in February?"
Lincoln polled less than 40 percent of the popular vote, Tagg said. To put the figure in perspective, he added that Lincoln was at a 25 percent approval rating coming into office, which is a lower rating than President George W. Bush had going out.
The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln guides the reader from the president’s unpopular entrance into the presidency and the political climate surrounding him, through Seward and Sumter, the Emancipation Proclamation, his reelection and his assassination shortly afterward.
Though it is a historical piece, Tagg expressed that his approach extends beyond simply restating history. "I really tried to write in a way that brings the times to life," he said. "It’s a story for people that like history but want to read a good yarn."
Sketches and cartoons of Lincoln throughout the book, some characterizing him as a harlequin or vampire, provide a true sense of the opposition that Lincoln faced. In addition to newspaper sources, the book relies on what Tagg calls the "social observers" of the time, using their diaries and letters to express the sentiments of that time period.
Tagg emphasized that it is the media, however, that was Lincoln’s most ruthless critic, and stated that there was no such thing as fair and balanced reporting during that time. "These are tame times. As hard as it is to think of an Ann Coulter or a Rush Limbaugh, or for the other side, a Keith Olbermann, as really kind of tame and toned-down, compared to these guys back then, [they are] tame," he said.
Although he was reelected in 1864 following the Emancipation Proclamation, Tagg explained that Lincoln’s reelection was not a result of love for "The Great Emancipator," rather, the votes were "for the cause and not the man." To prove his point, Tagg referred to a quote he pulled from the Wisconsin Democrat that reads, "If he is elected for another term, we hope somebody will plunge a dagger into the tyrant’s heart."
As he was finishing his book during the recent campaign months, Tagg noticed that his feelings toward Sarah Palin as a "fringe character who talked funny and didn’t really know anything," were not too different from the sentiments found in many of the scathing newspaper articles about Lincoln.
The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln is more than just a catalogue of insults to Lincoln, Tagg reassured. He said as readers flip through the chapters they ask where the animosity stops. "I hate to say it, it turns around when he’s assassinated," Tagg said.
Tagg explained that the contemporary view of Lincoln changed in one weekend. Assassinated on Good Friday, by the time what is referred to as "Black Sunday" came about, the preachers’ sermons "cast him in a martyr role" saying he was the "American Moses who led the nation out of slavery."
Reflecting on the book’s ties to today, Tagg touched on the notion that some might say President George W. Bush’s reputation could be reversed just as easily in the future. "The unpopular Mr. Bush is next, right?" he said jokingly.
The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln is currently sold in bookstores, as well as on amazon.com.
You can order a copy of the book here: purchase book.
Larry Tagg is also the author of The Generals of Gettysburg.