The writings on Abraham Lincoln are almost too considerable to calculate, thus testifying to his endurance as historical personage, iconic hero and the source of curiosity for endless researchers. But with the bicentennial of his birth upon us, a wealth of recent publications retrace his life and legacy, hoping to shed new—or merely refocused—light on all that is already known about the man.
Ronald C. White Jr.’s A. Lincoln: A Biography is an imposing doorstopper of a book, close to a thousand pages and exhaustively annotated and referenced. As near as any interested reader might determine, White has left absolutely no stone unturned, from an account of forebear Samuel Lincoln leaving England for the New World in 1637, to the family struggles in Kentucky and Indiana, to the young Abe’s adventurous younger years, to his rise as lawyer and politician in Illinois, and on through the Civil War and the grief of the nation upon his assassination in 1865.
White’s research benefits from the availability of the recently completed Lincoln Legal Papers—which offer a more thorough view of Lincoln’s law practice—and also the emergence of newly discovered letters and photos. Besides a sense of Lincoln’s integrity—something pretty much easily assumed by most anyway—it is perhaps the man’s smartly practical spirit that emerges through this stout tome, in particular as relates to the great political issues before him (e.g., slavery) and the difficult task of guiding his armies and a nation through a horrific war, which tested every aspect of daily life and constantly demanded a nurturant sense of its absolute necessity. Finally, Lincoln rises up in this volume as a patriot of the ultimate rank, one with a determined eye on the prize: Union.
Abraham Lincoln is an entry in the highly regarded American Presidents series, originally under the editorship of the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. These volumes are usually authored by distinguished journalists or historians, and, once in a while, by noted politicos, in this case former South Dakota senator and 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George S. McGovern. McGovern capably sticks to the series formula, which involves a more general overview of the subject’s life and career, along with a development of the key themes that shaped his most important actions. McGovern’s tone is laudatory throughout, as he offers insights into Lincoln’s attitudes on politics, the war and his most dearly held personal beliefs. Coverage is from hardscrabble Kentucky beginnings to the last moments at Ford’s Theatre. This is a fine read for those who want to know about Lincoln but may not have time for the more in-depth biographies.
Inside the Lincoln White House
Pulitzer Prize winner James M. McPherson’s Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief mines a topic that’s been touched upon previously in many other publications—Lincoln dealing with the command aspects of war. Yet the author offers an engrossing narrative that shows how Honest Abe grasped the reins of his new and heretofore untested presidential duties, while also examining his difficulties in dealing with a string of Army generals whose failings often proved vexatious. McPherson gives us a Lincoln who, after taking office, immersed himself in a crash course on military strategy, then steadfastly applied what he’d learned to the enormous task at hand. Leaving the micro-issues of campaigns and tactics to his military men, Lincoln nevertheless consistently prodded them with commonsensical admonishments on the value of stalking the enemy and striking hard when necessary. Flummoxed by the vain and overly cautious McClellan, the unprepared Burnside, the disappointing Hooker and the merely competent Meade, Lincoln finally found his fighter in Ulysses Grant. McPherson effectively mixes the political undercurrent of events with his deconstruction of Lincoln’s process in eventually achieving victory.
Daniel Mark Epstein’s Lincoln’s Men: The President and His Private Secretaries captures the lives of Lincoln’s secretaries—John Hay, John Nicolay and William Stoddard—each of whom claimed Illinois roots by virtue of residence, education or work. Nicolay had essentially run Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign, Stoddard had been a supportive Illinois newspaperman, and the youngest, Hay, came recommended as a young poet and fresh graduate of Brown University. Epstein mixes their accounts into one narrative, with the obvious bulk of the material focused on their time in the White House, where the trio basically comprised the whole of the president’s staff. Nicolay did the chief executive’s scheduling and Hay ran interference; this duo eventually went on to jointly publish a seminal Lincoln biography years later. Stoddard, originally hired as a patent officer at the Interior Department, juggled several jobs, including assisting the president with his speeches, but eventually dealing more with the affairs of Mrs. Lincoln. Hay ultimately established the biggest name for himself—he was secretary of state under McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. This is a readable joint biography that connects its subjects to Lincoln with legitimacy.
His final act and legacy
Lincoln’s last year as president was certainly taken up in large part with the prosecution of the war, but, as Charles Bracelen Flood makes clear in 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History, the man was also dealing with intense extracurricular political matters. Somehow continuing to more or less efficiently battle the Confederate Army, Lincoln meanwhile dealt with the presence of French troops in Mexico, grousing cabinet members, myriad technical issues regarding the continued settling of the expanding American West and related railroad legislation, not to mention the onslaught of a stormy re-election campaign, which brought with it endless pressure from an often-hostile press and infighting within his own party about the terms of impending Reconstruction and the disposition of the freed-slave issue. Flood’s extensively sourced text tracks the official Lincoln in great detail, while also making sure the well-researched quoted excerpts provide insight into the president’s admirable character and manners and incredible strength under pressure.
The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now would make an astute gift for any Lincoln buff, but it’s a definite keeper for any home library as well. Editor Harold Holzer (whose Lincoln President-Elect was released last fall) gathers more than 100 works composed by writers, historians and politicians, from Lincoln’s time to the present day. The pieces represent all genres—essays, novels, plays, biographies, speeches, magazine articles, poetry and memoirs—and the topical coverage is essentially universal. That includes discussions on Lincoln’s fascination with language, the lost love of his life (Ann Rutledge), his historic debates with Stephen Douglas, his outlook on race and religion, his daily work regimen, and his politics and policies. Men and women of verse are here in force (Robert Lowell, Mark Van Doren, Stephen Vincent Benét, Marianne Moore, Carl Sandburg, etc.), and the general range of contributors throughout is all-encompassing (Emerson, Marx, Hawthorne, Stowe, Ibsen, Melville, Twain, Tolstoy, Wicker, Vidal, Safire, Doctorow et al.). Walt Whitman, perhaps Lincoln’s most ardent literary fan, weighs in with no fewer than nine separate contributions. Arrangement of the entries is chronological, but Lincoln diehards can pick this one up and start reading just about anywhere.
Thanks to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Brady believes in the “better angels of our nature.”