Classic review: A. Lincoln
[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Feb. 9, 2009.] This month marks the 200th anniversary of our greatest president’s birth. So it is perhaps inevitable that another flood of Lincoln biographies is upon us.
Some 60 titles have been released in the past few months alone, estimates Lincoln biographer James Swanson. At this point one could trace the route from Gettysburg to Vicksburg with Lincoln tomes stacked end to end – and still have enough left over for a cross-country March to the Sea in honor of General Sherman.
The world may not long remember what Lincoln’s biographers say here in the 21st century, but it is safe to conclude that Americans will never forget what the 16th president achieved. And, if there are memorable accounts of Lincoln’s life in the latest deluge, A. Lincoln by Ronald C. White Jr. should be noted among them.
White (author of both “The Eloquent President” and “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech”) writes popular history in the best sense. Like Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough, he delivers prose that is lively, informative, and, most of all, accessible. In “A. Lincoln” he sustains throughout a narrative that is as swift as it is thorough.
White’s Lincoln travels a familiar arc: from pioneer rube to up-and-coming politician who pursues a long-shot White House bid and then presides over an anguished Civil War reign. Yet Lincoln’s journey is infinitely fascinating, no matter how many times it is told. And here, with an astute historian’s eye and a particular emphasis on Lincoln’s brilliant use of language, logic, and Biblical allusion, it positively dazzles.
White covers the familiar themes and ideas, yet firmly places his own stamp on these historical perspectives.
Despite thousands of biographies and endless study, Lincoln, in some ways, remains inscrutable. To many, he is not only great, but saintly. To others, Honest Abe was anything but. Some historians see him instead seen as conniving and hedging, mending his beliefs even as he suspended civil liberties and wielded more and more executive power.
Is he the Second Coming or the first Dick Cheney?
White clearly falls in the former camp, and the way he arrives at his conclusion is what makes this biography worth reading. Lincoln’s greatness lies in his constant evolution and intellectual growth, balancing idealism (slavery is evil and should be ended) with healthy pragmatism. (Upon becoming president in 1861, Lincoln maintained it was his Constitutional duty to preserve the Union, with or without slavery.)
Perhaps most fascinating is White’s thoughtful consideration of Lincoln’s spiritual life. It’s well known that Lincoln invoked the Bible and Shakespeare as his main inspirations, but White’s rendering of Lincoln’s beliefs show a gradual transformation from fatalism to providentialism. And, really, how many of us have heard of Phineas Gurley, Lincoln’s minister in Washington, or knew of his vast influence on the president?
As White relates, Lincoln rarely attended church in Illinois, but became more diligent in Sunday worship during his White House days. He demonstrates Gurley’s estimable influence on the president, and his practice of avoiding the mixture of the political and the spiritual in his sermons.
Time and again, Lincoln calls upon and takes comfort in what White describes as an inscrutable God.
In so doing, Lincoln never argues God is on his (the Union’s) side. Instead, he posits that the intentions and will of men on earth may lead to seemingly inexplicable results because all on earth are but bit players, or instrumentalities, in the larger scheme of divine plans.
When White tallies up the religious imagery in Lincoln’s brilliant second inaugural address, the historian reveals just how devout the 16th president was. Lincoln’s second inaugural included 14 mentions of God, four Biblical quotes, and three invocations of prayer, White notes.
Few Americans summon the Sermon on the Mount in connection with Lincoln’s conciliatory gestures and remarks toward the South just before his assassination in 1865, but this biography makes clear how tangible those connections were. It is but one of many fascinating insights to be found in “A. Lincoln” alongside the more familiar sights of a brief address at Gettysburg, debates with Stephen Douglas, and a marriage saddened by the death of children.
Whether spiritual or secular, White’s historical hymns make for a fitting Lincoln memorial, one that is human and immortal in all the right respects.
Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.