David S. Reynolds begins “Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times” by noting that Jesus Christ is the only historical figure who’s been the subject of more books than the 16th president of the United States. Reynolds’ is one of two impressive recent biographies of Lincoln. The other, written by another distinguished historian, H.W. Brands, is “The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom.”
Reynolds’ cradle-to-grave biography, 1,000-plus pages long, is the more monumental as well as the more reverential. But both books are excellent, and both portray a Lincoln who was uniquely suited to steer the Union through the Civil War and toward equality and justice.
Reynolds rejects the popular perception that Lincoln, a self-taught lawyer with less than a year of formal education, was unprepared for the presidency. He argues that Lincoln’s immersion in the culture of tumultuous 19th-century America turned out to be ideal preparation.
In making this case, “Abe” presents a fascinating primer on everyday life in Lincoln’s time. Lincoln, Reynolds writes, enjoyed culture “in all its dimensions – from high to low, sacred to profane, conservative to radical, sentimental to subversive.” The author offers up a riot of influences, beginning with Lincoln’s frontier childhood, which featured events like logrollings and house-raisings, bringing together settlers of all classes to help clear land and build homes. He writes admiringly of Lincoln’s voracious interests, which ran from Shakespeare to bawdy humor to Euclidean geometry.
Today the most recognizable image of the Great Emancipator is the solemn Lincoln of the colossal marble memorial on the National Mall in Washington. Reynolds reminds us of a different Lincoln, the gangly, ill-clad country lawyer who cannily poked fun at his own appearance. At a time when showman P.T. Barnum’s sensationalism was popular, Lincoln, “sometimes compared to a Barnum exhibit,” Reynolds writes, “performed as the lowly Uncle Abe. He was the humble American as political spectacle.”
Reynolds compellingly argues that the president drew upon and assimilated these varied cultural strands in order to foster national unity. In the midst of the Civil War, the president famously declared that the point of the devastating struggle was to save the Union, not to free the slaves. While Reynolds calls this statement “disingenuous,” arguing that the “inwardly radical antiracist Lincoln” had to move cautiously on race to retain the necessary support to win the war, Lincoln did see the Union’s preservation as his sacred duty. One way he hoped to strengthen the Union was by encouraging a common American culture; to him, “culture was a great equalizer, a joiner,” Reynolds writes. “It put kings and commoners, presidents and the people on the same level.”
In the run-up to the war, Lincoln also had to tread carefully by publicly disavowing John Brown. The radical abolitionist had massacred five pro-slavery settlers in the Kansas territory in 1856 and subsequently led a deadly, failed raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, hoping to arm nearby slaves and set off an insurrection. In “The Zealot and the Emancipator,” Brands foregrounds the central irony that while Brown embraced violence as a means to end slavery and Lincoln condemned it, Lincoln’s eventual path resulted in carnage beyond what Brown, who was executed in 1859, could have imagined.
Brands is an adroit storyteller and captures both Brown’s intensity and zeal and Lincoln’s pragmatism and wit. Visited by various religious men wishing to advise him on the war and claiming to represent divine will, Lincoln remarked, “If it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me.”
The president’s profound second inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865, as the war was nearly won, pointedly spoke not of Southern slavery but of “American slavery.” Despite his calls for reconciliation in the speech, Brands notes, “Lincoln’s suggestion that ‘every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’ sounded chillingly like Brown’s final prediction that ‘the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.’” Weeks after the inauguration, Lincoln was assassinated. In the end, Brands writes, “Brown was a first martyr in the war that freed the slaves, Lincoln one of the last.”