In new book, alumnus questions Lincoln's role in Civil War
The new movie “Lincoln” tells the story of President Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment amid the Civil War. But a recently published book written by a Princeton alumnus argues that Lincoln in fact caused the Civil War because he misunderstood the South.
William Cooper ’62, a Guggenheim Fellow and history professor at Louisiana State University, published his sixth book on 19th-century America, “We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860–April 1861.”
In the book, he argues that Lincoln’s and the Union Republicans’ unwillingness to compromise with the southern states led to the Civil War. Cooper acknowledges that the South’s hard-line stance contributed to the outbreak of war as well, but points out that Lincoln never visited the South or had any southern friends. If Lincoln had understood the South’s intentions better, Cooper argues, he could have averted war.
According to Cooper, while some Republicans, such as Secretary of State William Seward, wanted to reach a settlement with the South, Lincoln remained unwilling to do so over the “territorial issue” — the question of whether new states in the West would be free states or slave states. Lincoln “thought that slavery was a blight on the body politic and that slavery should be circumscribed and that there should be no expansion of slavery,” Cooper said in an interview. The result was that seven states seceded from the Union and the Civil War began.
For Cooper, this failure in negotiation holds lessons for today.
“What it tells you about politics is that people who are intransigent create all sorts of bad results,” Cooper said. Cooper added that he believes that for the people who lived back then, the failure of the legislature to reach a compromise led to various years of brutal conflict with no certain resolution.
The Civil War has fascinated Cooper since well before he began his undergraduate years at the University. Cooper was born and raised in Williamsburg County, S.C. and comes from a long line of farmers. His father was a substantial cotton and tobacco grower in the area.
Joseph Logan ’62, a friend and former roommate, recalled that Cooper was proud of where he came from.
“He always talked about his grandfather, who was a big cotton planter in South Carolina and was called Big Pop,” Logan said. “He talked about Big Pop so much that we started calling him Big Pop.”
When it came time to apply to college, Cooper only had two schools in mind: his father’s alma mater, Davidson College in North Carolina, and Princeton.
Cooper learned about Princeton through an alumnus and family friend who lived in Columbia, S.C. He encouraged Cooper, a good student with a strong interest in history, to apply.
“I went up there; I looked at it; I liked it. So I decided to go,” Cooper said.
Once at the University, Cooper quickly became involved in a variety of activities. He was elected to the Freshman Council and later served on the Sophomore Bicker Committee, which coordinated with eating clubs to oversee Bicker and try to work out difficulties and problems with the bicker process.
Cooper’s primary focus at the University, however, was academics. From the start, he knew exactly what he wanted to study.
“I’ve liked history all my life; I don’t remember not liking it. I went to college knowing I was going to major in history,” Cooper said.
But he did not always know he wanted to be a professional historian. He realized this in college, under the influence of Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor David Herbert Donald.
“I had Professor Donald in class, he oversaw my senior thesis, and he encouraged me to apply to graduate school,” Cooper said. “The year I graduated he left Princeton and went to Johns Hopkins, and I went to Johns Hopkins as well [for graduate school].”
Friends remember Cooper as affable and intelligent, with a literary inclination but not bookish. A member of Quadrangle Club, he was quite good at balancing his school work and his social life, according to David Bramlette ’62, a federal judge in Mississippi and another former roommate.
Cooper was “a fun-loving guy and still is, but he didn’t let his extracurricular activities or inclinations overcome his hard work,” Bramlette said. “He was intent on becoming a historian, and he became one.”
But he and his friends were known to play the occasional prank on one another. Bramlette remembered one particularly silly incident involving both Cooper and Logan when the three roomed together their senior year.
“I remember Joe Logan took one of those firecrackers, one of those cherry bomb types, and threw it up in Bill’s bed between his legs, and that thing went off, and when it did I thought Bill was going to clean out the whole dormitory,” Bramlette said.
Cooper also joined the University’s Reserve Officer Training Program, at the encouragement of his father. Toward the end of his graduate school career, he served in the Army at the height of the Vietnam War from 1966 to 1968. He defended his dissertation while serving and became one of the few junior officers with a graduate degree.
“My army years were not the happiest two years of my life,” Cooper said. “There were difficulties regarding people around me and people above me.”
After the army, in the spring of 1968, he began looking for an academic job. He found one at Louisiana State University, where he has worked ever since.
According to Cooper, his Princeton years had a huge impact on his life and his career as a historian.
“Princeton affected me massively,” Cooper said. “I don’t think I have ever been around that many smart people in one place — [or] the academic requirements, the reading that was required, the way they required you to deal with the reading, to understand it, to write about it.”
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