Getting to know Lincoln:
New biographies mark bicentennial
12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, October 12, 2008
Even though the Lincoln landscape already is populated with many books, several authors have found new ground to cover ahead of the 200th anniversary of his birth in February. Here are some highlights:
Lincoln: The Biography
of a Writer
Available Oct. 28
Abraham Lincoln clearly belongs in the pantheon of political giants. According to literary historian Fred Kaplan, he also belongs among literary giants.
Mr. Kaplan explains that Lincoln wrote well because he read widely. He read, memorized and quoted poetry from Burns to Byron to Shakespeare. And like all good writers, he could take an idea he read elsewhere and re-phrase it in his own voice: In his schoolbook reader, Dillworth Speller, young Lincoln read that since Eden, man found himself enclosed by “the Angels above … and the Angels below.” Years later, this sentiment re-emerged and made history as Lincoln appealed to the “better angels of our nature.”
This gift for describing “linguistic tensions” allowed Lincoln to speak powerfully to a divided nation. He famously demonstrated this when he borrowed from another book he knew well, the Bible, to argue that a “house divided” couldn’t stand.
Tried by War
Abraham Lincoln as
James M. McPherson
Lincoln essentially created the commander-in-chief role, argues Civil War historian James M. McPherson. Setting aside James Madison’s forgettable performance during the War of 1812 and the relatively small-scale U.S.-Mexico War, Lincoln was the first president to serve as commander-in-chief during an all-encompassing conflict. He quickly realized that the war had many fronts, including the battlefield, the press and the public.
Lincoln’s counterpart, Jefferson Davis, possessed a stellar military background yet proved no match for Lincoln. The Illinoisan learned military strategy on the go and soon surpassed his generals in seeing the road to victory. When Gen. George Meade bragged about driving the enemy “from our soil,” Lincoln fumed: “The whole country is our soil.”
Thanks to his generals’ inability to see clearly, Lincoln made perhaps his most important strategic choice. He decided that war “was too important to be left to the generals,” writes Mr. McPherson.
Craig L. Symonds
Craig L. Symonds, a naval historian at the United States Naval Academy, presents a commander-in-chief with little naval knowledge who nonetheless grew into an effective naval strategist. Long before Alfred Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt placed naval power in the heart of American military strategy in the 20th century, Lincoln came to see that even 19th-century warfare required a strong navy equipped with innovations that he personally pushed for, including armored warships and heavy guns.
As with his army generals, Lincoln leaned on his admirals and often prodded them. During Gen. George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, Lincoln directly intervened and overruled Adm. Louis Goldsborough, who hesitated to send ships up the James River. The ships helped capture Norfolk, a major turning point in the war. Not bad for a president who claimed he knew “but little about ships.”
New Perspectives on
Lincoln and His World
Edited by Eric Foner
Our Lincoln provides a series of essays from noted Lincoln scholars, analyzing his legacy on everything from civil liberties to religion. Each portrait serves as a reminder that Lincoln’s warm glow in history was a raging fire of controversy during his lifetime.
Mark Neely describes Lincoln’s legal arguments in defense of suspending the writ of habeas corpus and his willingness to restore this writ later in the war. Eric Foner writes of Lincoln’s desire to see freed slaves transported out of America. (He supported colonization even after signing the Emancipation Proclamation but reconsidered after he began sending black soldiers into battle.)
And Richard Carwardine examines Lincoln’s skeptical faith and concludes the Civil War “encouraged an increasing profundity of faith.”
The essays show Lincoln just as many others have found him: complicated, conflicted and compelling.
Kasey S. Pipes is the author of “Ike’s Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality.”