During most of his adult life, Abraham Lincoln was a conscientious, ambitious mainstream politician. He was regarded by many in his own time and since as the least experienced and most ill-prepared man ever elected president. What distinguished Lincoln from other presidential hopefuls? How was he able to attract the support to win nomination and election? William Lee Miller explores Lincoln's life and career from a unique perspective and helps us to better understand the man within the context of his times in his thoughtful, stimulating and very readable new book, Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography.
"To an unusual degree," Miller writes, "Lincoln rose to political visibility by moral argument." Not as a moral philosopher or a prophet, however, but as a politician. The author writes, "it was exactly the prudent adaptation of the political possibilities, on the one side, that made the moral argument effective on the other. He managed, while responsibly attending to the political complexities and while dealing respectfully with those who disagreed, to state with great force, clarity, and persistence the moral argument at the foundation of the new majority-seeking party."Miller traces Lincoln's life "selectively, for its moral meaning." He shows how Lincoln developed his own views and beliefs early on, regardless of differences with family and friends. We see Lincoln's disciplined intelligence and strong will assert themselves, along with an appreciation for concrete reality. "Lincoln developed a confidence in his own powers of understanding and judgment that would be a key to all his accomplishments," writes Miller. This would include what the author calls a moral self-confidence as well.
It would be hard to exaggerate the importance in Lincoln's moral biography of his 1854 speech in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which extended slavery to those territories. Lincoln wrote that he was "losing interest in politics when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again." In his address, Lincoln said the heart of the matter was that the new act "assumes there can be a moral right in the enslaving of one man by another," something that had not been assumed before. Miller regards this speech as better than anything Lincoln said in the debates later with Stephen A. Douglas.
Miller guides us masterfully through Lincoln's public career from 1854-1860, when he was engaged in "moral clarification" with the Declaration of Independence as his main criterion. During this period, and as president, Lincoln "would always oppose slavery strongly but within the law, under the Constitution, affirming the continuing bond of the Union."Throughout the late 1850s, Lincoln used his political skills to shape the Republican Party of Illinois, keeping focused on the new party's defining objective of opposition to extending slavery because it was a moral evil. Miller notes that "For all his caution about the racial prejudice of his audience, Lincoln would make repeated affirmations of a humane universalism and egalitarianism."This outstanding interpretative biography does not always portray a flawless hero. In addition to some missteps, practical political calculations figured in all of Lincoln's major decisions that had a moral basis. But Lincoln was a politician, and Miller deftly demonstrates how brilliantly he was able to weave morality and politics together.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.