Gibson Professor of History Elizabeth Leonard’s new book raises all kinds of questions about the period of American history surrounding the Civil War, including this one: How could this be the first full-scale biography of Joseph Holt?
Holt, Lincoln’s Kentucky-bred judge advocate general, was a pivotal player in the run-up to the Civil War, the implementer of changes put in place during the war, and a ferocious—if not entirely successful—opponent of those who sought to water down those changes during postwar Reconstruction. Holt’s was a long and dutiful career, as he served in the administrations of four presidents. But it was as the nation’s top prosecutor that Holt became known as the tenacious pursuer of the conspirators who plotted to kill Lincoln.
And yet somehow Holt’s life escaped the exhaustive scrutiny of historians and biographers—their loss and Leonard’s gain, as she perused Holt’s collected letters in the Library of Congress and other locations. The resulting biography is a portal through which readers can witness almost firsthand the simmering forces that boiled over in the Civil War and the political scramble that followed. Leonard, a meticulous and exhaustive researcher, uses Holt’s letters to construct a fascinating and detailed account of Holt’s life and the ways it reflected this tumultuous period of the 19th century.
We see Holt, the privileged son of a prospering Kentucky family, heading off to college with his family’s high expectations trailing him. Intensely bookish and no sufferer of fools (his grandfather urged him to get some exercise, saying his marathon study sessions would kill him), Holt became a successful lawyer in Kentucky and a political mover and shaker. Though he owned slaves, he early on questioned the morality of slavery and would later lament that President Andrew Johnson’s concessions to the former Confederate states were undoing the achievements of the Emancipation Proclamation.
But it was his decision to uphold the execution order for Mary Surratt that caused him to be painted as vengeful and bloodthirsty. Leonard’s research shows that he reviewed many postwar pleas for clemency with compassion.
That nuance was lost to many Americans at the time. They read broadsides fired at Holt by ex-President Johnson and rebuttals by Holt in newspapers. The prosecutor was seen by many as a hard-liner, one who would neither forgive nor forget.
Writes Leonard, “… they distilled Holt’s eighty-seven years of life and his nearly twenty years of service to the federal government down to his supposedly essential malice toward his native south and its earnest defenders.”
Ultimately, though, the man Leonard portrays is complex, often conflicted, proud of his Kentucky heritage, and protective of his extended family there, proslavery though they may have been. But Holt’s overriding loyalty, Leonard shows, was to the then-young nation and the achievement and potential it represented.