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"Lincoln's Hundred Days" and "Seward"

Two new Lincoln-related biographies offer further evidence that we will never tire of reading about our sixteenth president.

By Bob Blaisdell / October 3, 2012

Lincoln’s Hundred Days By Louis P. Masur Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 364 pp. Seward By Walter Stahr Simon and Schuster 704 pp.

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As Americans we know Lincoln’s faults and character better than that of any other president. Yet some of us are jarred when we are reminded how much of a politician he was. It’s absurd, but we don’t like it that the best president in our history was a politician.

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No matter the angle, however, no matter the focus on particular events or decisions in Lincoln's life, when we examine his story we always see an earnest human being struggling to know how to do what must be done. Many books about Lincoln have the feel of a novel. We the readers are able to watch him make his difficult way, as we know – even though he does not – that he’s doing about as well as an American man in his time could have done.

“That he seemed to take forever to act, that he hedged and hesitated, that he irritated not only his political opponents but also his friends, that he appeared at times to shrink from the unprecedented challenges before him, make the story all the more compelling,” Louis P. Masur says in his introduction to Lincoln’s Hundred Days, and he’s as good as his word. “By revisiting the hundred days between the preliminary version and the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation, we can observe Lincoln as he watched, worried, listened, read, debated, cajoled, prayed and even joked – then made up his mind and marched the nation toward freedom and the light of the unknown.”

In Masur’s telling, the story of the making of an important yet dull and confusing document is exciting and somehow suspenseful. The Emancipation Proclamation came about as a result of Lincoln’s deepest moral reflections and, as Masur shows, by a momentary political and wartime opportunity. Lincoln saw that the curse of America’s institutionalization of slavery, which no one thought could be done away with in the 19th century, was suddenly vulnerable.

Masur lets Lincoln take all the criticism for the document’s unconstitutionality, its crudeness, its half-measuredness, its faults and deficiencies, and also the due credit for the fact that – despite its stylistic awkwardnesses and limited emancipatory claims – it worked. The Emancipation Proclamation, it turns out, was not a bolt of lightning but a big blunt lever that effectively tipped slavery off the map.

What it meant at the time was debated and argued over, misunderstood and misinterpreted, reacted to with disappointment, outrage, and joy – but the carefully flat-voiced, legalese document did its work. “The most redoubtable decrees – which will always remain remarkable historical documents – flung by him at the enemy all look like, and are intended to look like, routine summonses sent by a lawyer to the lawyer of the opposing party,” noted that decree-flinger Karl Marx in October 1862, foreseeing that Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, “which is drafted in the same style... is the most important document in American history since the establishment of the Union, tantamount to the tearing up of the old American Constitution.”

Masur divides "Lincoln’s Hundred Days" into three: before, during, and after the period between September 22, 1862, when Lincoln published the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and the “Jubilee,” January 1, 1863, when Lincoln signed the final version. Some doubted that at the end of those 100 days he would go through with it; Lincoln’s inner struggles before he issued the Preliminary Proclamation and after he had done so, the transformation of public opinion, especially among Union soldiers (who were seeing real slaves in the real South) and politicians, is the swift narrative Masur directs especially well, as he quotes the participants and assesses the turning points. Masur also neatly manages to convey the complete arc of the war, including a moving retelling of Lincoln’s visit to captured Richmond on April 4, 1865.

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