Yet another way to look at Lincoln

A British scholar offers an 'emotionally detached' view of Lincoln as a politician.

His statue stands in London's Parliament Square along with those of Winston Churchill and other British statesmen. Prime Minister Tony Blair has quoted him. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has recorded his most famous speech on a CD.

Nearly two centuries after his birth in a one-room cabin with a dirt floor, Abraham Lincoln remains the most admired of American presidents, both internationally and in his native land.

Scholars in recent decades have striven to sort the man from the legend. Some have sharply criticized his flaws. But if Lincoln is no longer quite the untainted prairie star he was to an earlier generation, he is still the figure most often invoked - regardless of party lines or culture war divisions - as embodying the best of American ideals.

British historian Richard Carwardine's "political biography" Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power generally shares this admiring view, but not the nationalism that colors the Lincoln legend. This "emotional detachment," Carwardine feels, enables him to "peer through the veil of myth" and see his subject clearly.

His study, first published in England, won the scholarly Lincoln Prize in 2004. Newly released in an "enhanced" US edition, the book is among the most thoughtful of the many that have been pouring out in anticipation of the Lincoln bicentennial now three years away.

Oxford professor Carwardine depicts Lincoln as both a canny politician and an earnest, if always pragmatic, reformer. He notes the multifaceted character that earlier biographers have described: strong ambition combined with appealing humility; strong ethical convictions combined with astuteness in reading and leading public opinion. Lincoln's skill in connecting with Protestant religious sentiment, says the author, marshalled Northern support for the Civil War.

The study largely acquits Lincoln of the racial bigotry that some others have charged. Lincoln was a man of his time, and to some degree shared the prejudices of his era. Unlike many, however, he recognized a bond of common humanity that transcended race. He was never a hater. Through the course of his presidency, his views on race continued to mature.

On the other hand, Carwardine's Lincoln is not "the extraordinary figure" many earlier biographers have portrayed. Lincoln's elevation to icon status, in this perspective, stemmed less from personal endowments than from external circumstances, especially the victory of Union forces and Lincoln's subsequent martyrdom. Other equally gifted politicians simply had less access to power.

This may be the least satisfying of the book's conclusions. Carwardine's trans atlantic perspective does clear away patriotic biases, but is less useful in plumbing Lincoln's human and spiritual depths.

Academic detachment can itself distort. Carwardine describes the Illinois village of New Salem, where Lincoln lived in his early 20s, as "an aspiring commercial hamlet." Well, all right - I suppose technically that could describe the two dozen or so crude structures that made up this tiny, soon-extinct mudhole of a town. But it hardly conveys the difficulty and obscurity with which the young Lincoln wrestled.

Nor can Lincoln the man be reduced to an ordinary politician skilled in wielding power and words. How many two-minute speeches like the Gettysburg Address have there been in human history? And how did Lincoln come by the compelling values his speeches expressed?

The historian Merrill Peterson has said that Lincoln "lived off the spiritual capital of his words." No politician of the period, and very few since, have spoken with similar spiritual authority. Carwardine treats Lincoln's unconventional religious views with balance and care, but draws back from the inner life of the man who said after the battle of Gettysburg, "Never before have I prayed with so much earnestness." Yet even more than his rise to power, this inner life made him unique.

Richard Carwardine by no means seeks to diminish Lincoln's historical stature. His focus is on Lincoln's relationship to the political forces and social groupings which supported him. This is an important part of the story - but it is only a part.

It is a long way from the mudhole in Illinois to the statue in Parliament Square. There is more to be understood and said of the man whose life connected those two worlds, if the ideals that lifted Lincoln are to live another century.

T.C. Johnsen has written on American religion and history for this newspaper as well as academic publications.

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