Six more books on Lincoln
Of the 60-plus Lincoln books released this season, several stand out.
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McPherson does stumble at the end of the book when he excuses Lincoln’s stunning decisions to curb free speech and other civil liberties. McPherson writes that the president’s actions were mild considering the Civil War was a bigger threat to the US than the 20th century’s world wars or today’s terrorism.Skip to next paragraph
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That’s a stretch. But McPherson’s link from the past to present does raise a fascinating question: What if a modern Lincoln had faced a modern war? Would his actions be acceptable today? One thing seems clear: He’d be a formidable foe.
One of Lincoln’s intellectual opponents (turned friend) was the remarkable Frederick Douglass. Born a slave, Douglass had a seemingly unquenchable intellect and spirit. As a young fieldworker, he chose to be severely beaten by a tyrannical white overseer rather than submit. At the age of 20 he escaped and went on to become a mighty warrior in the fight against slavery. His skills as a writer and orator, arguably, rivaled those of Lincoln.
Together, asserts prize-winning author and historian John Stauffer in Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln and Douglass were “the pre-eminent self-made men in American history.”
In his biography Stauffer spins a fascinating story by intertwining the lives of Lincoln and Douglass. They met only three times, yet each profoundly touched the other. Before their introduction, Douglass often fulminated against Lincoln’s gradualist, pragmatic approach toward ending slavery and his doubts that freed blacks and whites could comfortably live together.
However, on their first encounter, Douglass was greatly moved by Lincoln’s humanity. “He treated me as man,” he recounted. “He did not let me feel for a moment that there any difference in the color of our skins!”
When Lincoln saw Douglass at his second inauguration (after two policemen tried to prevent Douglass from entering), Lincoln took him by the hand and said, “Here comes my friend,” adding that, “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more.”
Douglass ever remained a feisty spirit. Had Lincoln lived, the two men would doubtless have disagreed many more times. But Douglass was devastated by Lincoln’s death and mourned for him as “the greatest statesman that ever presided over the destinies of this Republic.” Lincoln’s widow gave Douglass her husband’s favorite walking stick as a memento of their friendship, and he treasured it as “a token of sacred interest.”
After countless books, movies, and documentaries, the death of Lincoln still holds the power to shock. Anthony S. Pitch, author of “They Have Killed Papa Dead!”: The Road to Ford’s Theatre, Abraham Lincoln’s Murder, and the Rage for Vengeance, calls the assassination “the saddest story in American history.”
It had its roots years before. On March 4, 1861, Lincoln’s first Inauguration Day, sharpshooters lined the roofs of buildings in the capital. Soldiers protectively surrounded the new president as he traveled in a carriage along Pennsylvania Avenue.
The passage of time has cast shadows over the full extent of the desperate efforts to protect the president, not to mention the devastating grief and cruel injustice that came after Lincoln’s untimely demise.
Now, Pitch looks through a wide-angle lens at the assassination in his emotionally wrenching new account. While the tangled title could have used an editor’s eye, the book is readable and expertly researched.
Pitch worked on the book for nine years, and his dedication shows in its pitch-perfect level of detail. Quotes from diaries of the time, some of them apparently never published before, portray the nation’s post-assassination grief in high relief. And Pitch has made some notable finds, including details about the lives of two of the assassination conspirators.
In perhaps the most revealing parts of the book, Pitch explores the deplorable treatment of the alleged conspirators, their circus trial, and the remarkable escape of conspirator John Surratt, who hid at the Vatican.