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CAMERAMAN: This is Florentine Films’ The Civil War, sound roll 58, camera roll 374 on March 21, 1988. Seven and a half inches per second, full track mono, 60 Hz neo-pilot, and this will be an interview with William Safire.
WILLIAM SAFIRE: Is this chair nutty, or do you want me to sit in that one?
KEN BURNS: Oh, this is, this is beautiful. Really, really, it’s going. OK? [TONE] What event in the war would you most like to have witnessed if you could have been there in that four-year period?
WILLIAM SAFIRE: If I could project myself back in time, the moment that I’d love to enter the Civl War era would be the morning of July 22, 1862, in the Cabinet room when Lincoln said to his Cabinet that it was time to consider the emancipation of the slaves. I put that wrong, it should be when he told them he was going to emancipate the slaves. It was a stunning moment. Seward almost dropped his teeth. He thought he had discouraged it when it first came up. It was against everything Lincoln had promised all the Republicans, and indeed the country, that he would not become an abolitionist, he would not strike at slavery where it existed, and here suddenly he was changing the character of the war. And in that meeting, Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster General, came in at a dramatic moment and saw that the cabinet was split. There was Stanton, pro-abolition, and Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, seemingly pro-abolition but not really happy with the fact that here was Lincoln stealing the radical’s clothes and running off with something, and Blair comes at the meeting, realizes what's going on and presents the political argument against emancipation. In other words, we’ll lose the fall elections. If we lose the fall elections up in the North, then the Democrats will say, uh, we've determined the nature of the war and the goals of the war, and let's settle the war. And if the Democrats gain control of Congress and win control of the State Houses in states like New York where the draft came from and the money came from, then there would be impossible pressure to end the war and you would have no emancipation of the slaves. The South would go its own way. So he felt logically it was self-defeating and here you had men, not black and white, not saying I’m for freedom and I’m for slavery, but talking the way we do today about the practical politics of emancipation, and at that point Lincoln took it under advisement. He didn't make the decision, he backed away from the decision. And later on came around to thinking that because he was losing the war militarily, he had to do something dramatic that would trigger an emotional reaction in the North and given a new and ennobling sense of why, why we are fighting this war.
KEN BURNS: What was the event that allowed him to [UNCLEAR]?
WILLIAM SAFIRE: Some people feel that Antietam was the, the thing or the battle or the news events that enabled him to emancipate the slaves. I wonder about that, because Antietam was a draw, it wasn’t a Union victory. Now, same as today, the President said, well, it was a great Union victory. And an argument can be made that was, it did indeed stop the invasion of the North by General Lee. And from the North’s point of view, from Lincoln’s point of view, it wasn't a defeat the way so many of the battles had been. And having not been defeated, having stopped the invasion of the North, at that point he issued his huge case saying that unless the South decides to come back into the Union and make some kind of deal, that in three months’ time, one hundred days, the slaves only in the disloyal states would be freed. Now a lot of people felt that was hypocrisy. Here was Lincoln freeing slaves, not in the border states that were loyal, where he could free them, but only freeing the slaves in the rebellious states where he could not free them. And I think that makes a pretty clear point that what he was doing was a military act based on military necessity.
KEN BURNS: Did he not want to free the slaves, then?
WILLIAM SAFIRE: Well, all his life he’d been against slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. But he realized that he was not elected President to free the slaves. He was elected President, in his mind, to hold the Union together. And those two great thoughts, union and abolition or emancipation, have become confused. Lincoln's purpose was to preserve the Union. That's a bunch of words. Lincoln’s purpose was to prove that the experiment in democracy was not an absurdity and the idea of majority not ruling would torpedo democracy before it could get started. And so he said, look, we've had this election, OK, i'm a minority president, I only won forty percent of vote, but I won, legally, according to our Constitution, and you can't pick up, go out, and set up shop otherwise. He said, you have to accept the rule of majority.
KEN BURNS: Is there a point when abolition and union become, they converged? [UNCLEAR] realized that the cause for abolition and the cause for union were probably one and the same, at least practically speaking?
WILLIAM SAFIRE: I think at one point Lincoln realize that his abstraction of fighting for the experiment called democracy wasn't getting off the ground. He was losing the war in ’62. He was melancholy to the point of depression. [PHONE RINGS]
KEN BURNS: We’re rolling.
WILLIAM SAFIRE: If the phone rings again, don’t answer it.
KEN BURNS: OK. Kitty, can we have the door shut? Let’s — I’d like to have the door shut, please. You know, we said when we were talking before, 125 years is a blip, a blip in the scale of history. To a lot of people, a lot of people don’t remember why we should care about the war. What is it about it that is important to us today?
WILLIAM SAFIRE: The Civil War was the second central event in American history. The first was the Revolution, that started it. The crisis came in 1860, ’61. The crisis was, will the experiment started in 1776, and 1789, will it work? It's under challenge now. Can you split up a Union? Does the South have the right to secede? Now we look about it back today and say, well, of course there has to be a Union and nobody can secede. That isn't the way it was back then. A good argument can be made that the Southerners were looking at the North the way the North looked at Great Britain under the King George the Third. And they said, look, we’re a different kind of country, we’re being oppressed by the, by the North, and we’re entitled to independence. Were they right?
KEN BURNS: Was there justification for the South to secede?
WILLIAM SAFIRE: If you believe in democracy being the rule of the majority, they were wrong. If you believe that a country or a group of people has the right to water the tree of liberty with their blood, as Jefferson said, and they can do it and they can get away with it the way we got away with it in the Revolution, then they're right. Results do count in history in looking back. But why was the Civil War so important? Besides going to the basic idea of whether majority rules or not, it had to do with power. Power and its distribution in America, and what the Civil War did, what Abraham Lincoln did, was pull together this nation into not a collection of states or a association of regions, but into a national government.
KEN BURNS: What was the event that made that more irreversible? Was there an event in your mind after which it had to end on…
WILLIAM SAFIRE: When was the war made irreversible? I suppose at Bull Run, the first Bull Run. Up to then was a phony war, it was a bunch of parades and people are making speeches at each other, and having fun. I mean, it wasn't a serious war. At Bull Run, the North expected to crush the South and was routed thanks to the excellent intelligence work of Rose Greenhow, who stole some of the Union plans. Suddenly, the North realized that blood was being spent, their own blood, and that this war would take a long time. And the North then reacted, I think properly, to the real challenge of the South. It wasn’t the challenge at Fort Sumpter, it was the challenge at Bull Run.
KEN BURNS: [UNCLEAR] Willard’s hotel. What was Washington like?
WILLIAM SAFIRE: We’ll take a walk up to the door here and be careful crossing the street ‘cause it's probably a sea of mud, there’s no paving. Look up toward Capitol Hill, and you see that the Capitol dome, which doesn't exist, it's just like an open molar, it’s under construction. The carcasses of dead horses are in the streets, they’re having a big sanitation problem. There's a miasma coming from a swamp, that is where we now have the State Department, coming in with a different kind miasma. And the city is a small town and it's a very worried town. It’s worried about being invaded and taken over. It's a Southern town, with some connection with the North, but if you're the President of the United States early in 1861, you don’t know if there is a North.
KEN BURNS: Tell me about that man. Especially in ’61, there’s some question that he might have been a tyrant.
WILLIAM SAFIRE: Was Lincoln tyrannical? In some sense, yes, he did put the ends before the means, which we all know ethically is terrible to do. On the question of habeas corpus, did he right, have the right to suspend it? Well, there it is in the Constitution, the right of habeas corpus may not be suspended except in cases of rebellion and invasion, and this certainly was a rebellion. But it is located in that part of the Constitution that has about the powers of the Congress, and so when, when Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and essentially said that a military officer can make an arbitrary arrest and the civilian courts meant nothing in that case, the Chief Justice of the United States, Roger Taney, said no. And he went to Baltimore and sat in the case as a circuit judge and defied the President and said, no, you cannot do this.
KEN BURNS: But Lincoln did.
WILLIAM SAFIRE: Lincoln, in that situation, did the smart thing. He ignored Taney as if he didn't exist. He didn't confront him, he didn't argue with him, he just ignored him.
KEN BURNS: And what Taney think, what did the Chief Justice think Lincoln was going to do in that particular case?
WILLIAM SAFIRE: At that stage, you know, Taney told his family he was quite, quite prepared to go to jail, and there was a moment when there was a possibility of the President of the United States putting the Chief Justice in jail for treason, because after all he was challenging the authority of the President to defend the Union.
KEN BURNS: Who was Lincoln?
WILLIAM SAFIRE: Who was Lincoln?
KEN BURNS: Who was Lincoln? What was he? Where’d he come from?
WILLIAM SAFIRE: Lincoln was, I guess, God's gift to the nation in its moment of agony. He was a shrewd, cunning, opportunistic, passionate lawyer, an ambitious man, not a modest man, as John Haye, his secretary, carefully made note of. He was not a modest man. He was a man who had little concern for the trappings of power but every bit of concern for the reality of power. He, whenever he was challenged by his military he struck down his military and court martials and firing squads and everything. He took control of his military and George McClellan. When he was challenged by Congress, he, the Joint Committee on the conduct of the war wanted to seize control of operations of the war, and he very skillfully finessed them and confused them and tripped them up and kept them off balance, and of course on the basic challenge to the legitimacy of the Presidency of the whole Union, he was out to win. He wasn’t out to settle. We all look today presidents and say, well, now, look, victory shouldn't be it, you gotta work out a thing with a consensus and agreements and all that. He wasn’t looking for consensus, he was looking for victory, and was willing to put up with great expenditures of blood in order to win and to win for his principle of majority rule.
KEN BURNS: Was it worth it? Did it matter who won the war, finally?
WILLIAM SAFIRE: It mattered very much who won the war. Had the South won, the South would have built a nation, probably gone, taken Mexico and Central America and built a nation there. The North probably would've turned northward and taken Canada and build its nation there. But the principal would have been established here on this continent that if you disagree with the government, you can set up shop for yourself, and the likelihood of subdividing would have been there, the ghost of the successful secession. And I think what you would have seen is on secession after another, and a kind of anarchy, a Balkanization of the North American continent. So what happened in the Civil War was terribly important to the creation of a superpower.
KEN BURNS: Let me change, turn you in a completely different direction. Newspaper men. Sherman, William Tecumseh Sherman hated them. What were the newspaper men like then? What was the role they were fulfilling?
WILLIAM SAFIRE: William Tecumseh Sherman, Cump, was a nut about the press. He was convinced if he killed them all, there would be news from Hell before breakfast, and he was a nut about the press because the press said he was nuts. There were some stories saying that he was perhaps a lunatic or at least unbalanced, and that kind of gets to a general. And he freely arrested them, and when it came to Lincoln, if he could avoid anything that upset his generals, he avoided it. He would caution them if it came from a, a complaining source like Horace Greeley, who was a powerful voice within the Republican Party, not to arrest the, the wrong journalists.
KEN BURNS: Is it a tragedy? Six hundred thousand men died?
WILLIAM SAFIRE: Well, one of the things that you have to balance is the degree of blood and tragedy in the war against the degree of misery and evil of slavery. When, when we got into the war, we didn't think in terms of that balance. The abolitionists thought, we have this great moral evil in the land, human slavery. Even the Russians, the Russians were getting rid of serfdom at that era. And here was the last great bastion of bondage of human beings, that was terrible. Yet they didn't think of the other side, which is the six hundred thousand people who would get killed and maimed and their children who would not be born and their lives the lives that would not be lived. So there was a balance of blood drawn by the lash and drawn by the sword, as Lincoln skillfully put it. Looking back now, making the terrible judgment, you have to say that it was worth it, that certainly there were better ways of doing it, Lincoln’s gradualist suggestion of phasing it out and buying back the slaves over the years and manumitting them, would have been a lot more intelligent because it would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But that was not the way it was to be. Sometimes you have this terrible conflagration and it kind of sealed the American juices and brought the country through its tragedy to where it is today.
KEN BURNS: Who are you most drawn to, out of the whole period?
WILLIAM SAFIRE: Who were the exciting…
KEN BURNS: What one man or woman?
WILLIAM SAFIRE: I’m sorry, I’m not drawn to only one or two.
KEN BURNS: [UNCLEAR] Who’s the one man you’re most drawn to, I said, or woman?
WILLIAM SAFIRE: You running? Going away from the obvious, the Lees and the Jacksons and the Lincolns and Greeleys and all, I was interested and went into some detail in my novel, Freedom, about the Civil War, in John Breckenridge, former Vice President of the United States, the youngest one, Kentuckian. A man in the middle. He didn’t much like slavery, he was for the Union, but he was caught as a border stater in the kind of real problem that we have today when you’re torn, when it's not clear, black or white or one way or the other, and he was pushed South and became denounced as the, this, the senator from Kentucky who was a traitor and became ultimately the Secretary of War of the Confederacy. But the kind of passions and complexities that went on within him were the real story of that Civil War. It isn’t black and white, it isn’t good and bad.
KEN BURNS: Thank you. Three pretty short questions to wrap it up. Um, you touched on this before, what was the essential question of 1862, for Lincoln, for the Union? What was the one question around which everything else turned, militarily and diplomatically? You think it’s emancipation, or…
WILLIAM SAFIRE: OK, if you were the President of the United States in 1862, in the summer, your basic problem is, you’re losing the war. You did OK at Shiloh, you almost lost it but just came back and saved, saved the day. The war is going no place, unrest in the North is spreading. The basic purpose of majority rule, of preserving the union, is losing its appeal, and what do you do to reform the troops, to give a new birth of freedom? And what you do is something dramatic. You scramble everything up, you do the most controversial thing you can conceivably do, which is to move toward the dreaded abolition.
KEN BURNS: What was slavery? In a nutshell.
WILLIAM SAFIRE: Slavery was a monstrous moral crime, but the farther we get away from it the worse it looks. However, to the people in the United States in 1862, it was an issue, it wasn't a decided issue. Some people felt very strongly on the issue of civil rights, human rights. Others said, look, this is property, this is the way it's always been since the ancient Greeks and we didn't elect Mr. Lincoln to, to change slavery, and indeed he promised that he wouldn't strike at it where it existed, even though he personally felt that way. So slavery, which seems like such a simple question today, was not a simple question then. It was not just right and wrong, it was all mixed up with the culture of the time.
KEN BURNS: The last question, what do we miss when we smother the Civil War in myths and legends and [UNCLEAR]. What’s, what’s the essential nook that’s missed by, by all the myths that we have around that war?
WILLIAM SAFIRE: The problem with the Lincoln myth is that it hides from us the man with his moles and all. He was tyrannical, he was opportunistic, he was a criticizable. The things he did set terrible precedents. But he was our greatest president, he was a man of flesh and blood and mistakes and passion and, and one thing he had that I wish candidates today had, and presidents today had, an overriding sense of purpose. He had one basic purpose, to preserve the Union, to make certain that Democracy was not an absurdity.
KEN BURNS: Thank you very much. Cut. That was a beautiful note to end on.
The Civil War
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Interview with William Safire
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Florentine Films/American Documentary, Inc.
Ken Burns - Florentine Films
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Ken Burns - Florentine Films (Walpole, New Hampshire)
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This is raw footage of an interview that Ken Burns conducted with essayist William Safire on March 21, 1988. Safire provides insight into the minds of the great political figures of the Civil War. He describes Lincoln as "God's gift to the nation" during the trying times, and explains his personality. Safire also offers a clear image of the political motives behind the Emancipation Proclamation. He supports the notion that the Civil War was necessary in order to strengthen and grow the power of the United States. Safire then explains that the war was full of balances of allegiances; both sides of the war lost many soldiers.
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War and Conflict
Copyright 1989, Kenneth Lauren Burns All Rights Reserved
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Copyright Holder: Florentine Films
Director: Ken Burns
Interviewee: Safire, William
Producing Organization: Florentine Films/American Documentary, Inc.
Producing Organization: Ken Burns - Florentine Films
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Ken Burns - Florentine Films
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Duration: 0:28:20
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Chicago: “The Civil War; Interview with William Safire,” 1988-03-21, Ken Burns - Florentine Films, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed November 30, 2023,
MLA: “The Civil War; Interview with William Safire.” 1988-03-21. Ken Burns - Florentine Films, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. November 30, 2023. <>.
APA: The Civil War; Interview with William Safire. Boston, MA: Ken Burns - Florentine Films, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from
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