'Six Encounters with Lincoln' challenges America's view of its 16th president

In her final book, a historian looks to take an objective measure of the administration of an American icon.

Six Encounters with Lincoln: A President Confronts Democracy and Its Demons By Elizabeth Brown Pryor Viking 496 pp.

How do we gauge the success of a presidency? The media has recently found itself asking this question. There are standard measures like passing durable legislation and responding well to crisis. Equally important, at least for the current president, are keeping campaign pledges and maintaining popularity through statements and speeches. President Obama’s goal seemed to be stability and incremental progress; President Bush (43) disregarded the headlines, content to let history judge his bold actions. Each administration seems to offer a new lens through which to view the office and its occupant.

When we evaluate the present, we inevitably measure it against the past. This raises an interesting question: just how effective were our most revered presidents? Take, for example, the man widely thought of as one of the greatest among them – Abraham Lincoln. He gazes out from iconic photographs and up from the pennies in our pockets with such reassuring benevolence that we tend not to assess his performance critically. The late writer and noted historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor urges us to do so in Six Encounters with Lincoln, her provocative final book.

An acclaimed biographer of Robert E. Lee and Clara Barton, Pryor found six overlooked episodes that reveal Lincoln’s character, his fallibility, and the awesome task he confronted, at times with mixed success. With them she seeks to replace the “mirage” that Lincoln has become with a living, breathing politician. “When we are aware of greatness we want to hear about it over and over again,” she writes, “but greatness does not mean perfection.” Lincoln’s blunders interest Pryor more than his moments of high inspiration.

Four of these six encounters involve interviews between President Lincoln and petitioners: a Union soldier, a Cherokee elder, a group of politically active women, and a southern businessman. The remaining two are set-pieces rather than conversations: a bungled flag-raising and a military review. Pryor uses each to illuminate some aspect of Lincoln’s presidency or character that is under-explored, or uncomfortable, or simply illuminating for its novelty. Several episodes are stretched rather thin, such as the brief interview with the soldier, during which Lincoln used the word “nigger.” This leads Pryor to discuss at great length a lamentable fact that was already known: that Lincoln used coarse and racially ugly language throughout his life. But other encounters are more telling.

The military review affords Pryor the opportunity for her most trenchant criticism: that Lincoln was ineffective as a wartime president. She offers it bluntly: “he blundered through military labyrinths with all the agility of an angered buffalo, while thousands of people died.” Shortly after Lincoln’s inauguration, a group of 78 Army officers came to the White House to meet their new commander in chief. Inexperienced in the customs of military pageantry, Lincoln shook hands rather than saluting, allowed his attention to wander during the ceremony, and generally struggled to project authority. It was a sign of things to come. During the Civil War, Lincoln “wrote orders himself, countermanded decisions, or sent mixed messages, without informing senior leaders – then wondered why his commands were not carried out,” Pryor writes. She also contends that his visible agonizing over the war projected indecision to the troops rather than the certainty that they needed. Worst of all, Lincoln had a talent for picking and promoting mediocre officers, culminating in the insubordinate leadership of General George McClellan.

These are fair critiques, yet Pryor does not tell the whole story. Lincoln of course relieved McClellan of his command, eventually recognizing and relying on the brilliant generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. He did not countermand their decisions. Lincoln proceeded from a key strategic insight: given the Union’s larger military and economic resources, time was on his side, despite individual Confederate victories. His military leadership was only part of his conduct of the war; political moves like the Emancipation Proclamation, preventing Maryland from slipping into the Confederacy, and securing passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery had military repercussions. Lincoln’s careworn face may have revealed indecision to some soldiers, but in a broader sense it reflected the agony of the nation’s most tragic hour. Brisk confidence would have been out of place. And, of course, Lincoln’s side won the war. Any fair discussion of his military leadership must show tally marks on both sides of the column.

The flag-raising encounter was a symbolic blunder that Pryor uses to explore Lincoln’s love of anecdote. Charged with christening a new Marine bandstand, he managed to pull the flag into a tangle between the pavilion and the flagpole. When the standard finally emerged it was badly torn and missing several stars: an uncanny representation of the fractured country. Lincoln might well have saved the scene for later use; he always had (or thought he had) the perfect yarn or homely story. In Pryor’s telling he told such tales strategically, deflecting opponents, delivering a cutting rebuke, or avoiding politically tense moments by taking the floor and then laughing uproariously. At other times Lincoln could be tone-deaf about his stories. A cruel political cartoonist has lady liberty asking Lincoln, “Where are my 15,000 sons – murdered at Fredericksburg?” To which the president replies, “This reminds me of a little Joke…”

Pryor uses other encounters to portray Lincoln as unsympathetic to women’s rights and indifferent to Native Americans. She closes with his interview with a southern businessman named Duff Green during Lincoln’s famous trip to Richmond at the end of the war in 1865. The two discussed Reconstruction, and by most accounts Lincoln was receptive to Green’s pragmatic suggestions for rebuilding the South. Yet Pryor is harshly critical of Lincoln’s conduct after leaving the ship that brought him to Richmond. He threw aside caution and toured the southern capitol while freed blacks surrounded him in adulation. White southerners seethed at the display, and Pryor seems determined to view the scene through their eyes, describing “an unwise victor, chuckling over his spoils in a most offensive manner.” But whose perception was more important: the vanquished South, which had after all caused the devastating war, or the liberated slaves, finally free after centuries of bondage? African-Americans in Richmond had earned their moment of jubilation, and so had the victorious president.

There is a difference between illumination and revision – between saying “he is more complex than you thought he was,” and “he is not as great as you thought he was.” "Six Encounters with Lincoln" walks this ridge and leaves too many footprints on the wrong side. A focus on his failures, paradoxically, casts the magnitude of his achievement into even stronger light. Lincoln proved himself both a political genius and a moral luminary – he freed the slaves, won the Civil War, and preserved the union. For all its trenchant analysis and graceful writing, "Six Encounters with Lincoln" manages to ignore these central facts. Perhaps Pryor thought them so well-established that they needn’t be repeated. Yet the result is a book that reads as a misguided effort to cut the great emancipator down to size. Pryor is right that Lincoln was not perfect. What she fails to say is that he was a close to perfect as any president we have had so far.

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