March 17, 2006
BOOK REVIEW: British Historian Crafts Masterful Political Biography of Abraham Lincoln
Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic
Hinton, WV (HNN) – Of the making of Lincoln biographies there is no end, so it was with some trepidation that I picked up Richard Carwardine’s “Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power” (Knopf, 416 pages, $27.50, 74 illustrations, 3 maps, indexed, glossary, sources, etc.).
My fears were misplaced: This is simply the best biography of Abraham Lincoln I’ve read in years. And as an Illinoisan – albeit one born in Michigan who moved to the Prairie State at the age of 10 – I’ve read many biographies of Lincoln. If you’re looking for an in-depth, one-volume biography of Lincoln and have narrowed your choices down to one, this should be the one.
The British edition was published in 2003 and won the Lincoln Prize from Gettysburg College – a signal honor. Carwardine is the Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford University and is a specialist on the American political and religious milieu of the mid -1800s. Despite being an academic of the highest order, I’m pleased to report that he doesn’t write like one. This is a very readable book.
“Lincoln” isn’t a biography in the usual sense, dealing with Lincoln’s love of Ann Rutledge and similar details of his life in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois — it’s strictly a political biography, showing how Lincoln’s grasp of reality and human nature enabled him to accomplish his goals. If you’re looking for a “Brokeback Springfield,” delving into Lincoln’s sleeping habits and his choice of bedmates, look elsewhere!
Carwardine marshals his facts and insights to show how a man who was almost always underestimated by his opponents in the courtroom or on the campaign trail managed to win the highest office in the land, twice.
Lincoln contemporary Leonard Swett is quoted by the author as saying that anyone “who took Lincoln for a simple-minded man would very soon wake up with his back in a ditch.” He was referring to Abe Lincoln the high-powered corporate lawyer, but the assessment applies to Lincoln’s political acumen as well, Carwardine demonstrates.
Another Lincoln biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, last year dealt with his handling of the fractious new party’s elements in “Team of Rivals.” It’s important to remember that the Republican Party was only about five years old when Lincoln was elected in 1860. And, as both Goodwin and Carwardine demonstrate, it was a party of factions – reflecting the nation and, in microcosm, Lincoln’s Illinois.
Yes, the state of Illinois was in one state very reflective of the nation as a whole, with New England and New York mirrored in the counties north of the Illinois River at Ottawa, site of the first of seven Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858.
The far south of Illinois, known as “Egypt” because the rich soil watered by the Mississippi, Wabash and Ohio rivers formed a delta-like area reminiscent to some of the African nation. The far southern tip of Illinois was a miniature South, albeit without slavery, but with “Negrophobic” attitudes that prevail to a large extent to this day, as described by a book I reviewed last year called “Sundown Towns.”
In between lies the vast, mostly flat middle of the state, reflecting values common in much of the rest of the country. It was and is farm country, but manufacturing was already springing up in many cities. Places like Springfield, Galesburg, Quincy, Alton even today are significantly different than the “Yankee” cities and counties north of the river, where I grew up.
Carwardine shows how Lincoln tailored his speeches in each of the seven debates, beginning at Ottawa, to his audience. (For trivia buffs, the debates took place in Ottawa and Freeport, in the northern part of Illinois; Jonesboro in “Egypt;” and Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy and Alton). The Lincoln-Douglas debates, from August to October 1858, brought national attention to Lincoln as a major player in the Republican Party, even though Democratic incumbent Stephen Douglas was re-elected to the Senate by the Legislature (this was long before the popular election of senators).
The choice of Chicago as the site of the 1860 Republican convention was no accident. It was a heavily Whig, later Republican, metropolis, reflecting its location in the northern third of the state. Lincoln the lawyer had powerful corporate clients in the burgeoning city by the lake and he managed to win the nomination over candidates that many deemed more electable, like William Seward and Salmon P. Chase and John Charles Fremont, the 1856 GOP candidate.
Carwardine shows how Lincoln was a master of political spin, cultivating the newspaper reporters and publishers and rewarding those who were on his side with lucrative jobs for the former and printing contracts for the latter.
Lincoln was not an outwardly religious man, although he knew his Bible from cover to cover, but he knew what buttons to push and levers to move to gain support from all religions, especially the many Protestant faiths that permeated Illinois. He had strong support from ethnic groups like German-Americans, thanks to listening to advisors such as Carl Schurz; less supportive were the Irish immigrants in cities like New York, which were strongly Catholic and Democratic. New York, of course, was the scene of the bloody riots in 1863 that saw gangs of mostly Irish-Americans attacking and killing blacks in the city.
One looking for parallels might well settle on another Illinoisan, Ronald Reagan, who gained his knowledge of America in what might well be the most American of states. This comparison is strictly mine, not Carwardine’s, but the way both Lincoln and Reagan understood public opinion and the importance of religion in American life undoubtedly contributed to their political success.
Central to the book is Carwardine’s examination of Lincoln’s views on slavery, which began to be modified during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Remember, the debates came only a year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, which denied citizenship to African-Americans.
Lincoln at first resisted the abolitionists and radical Republicans like Fremont and Seward, only to gradually come around to their views as the war continued, Carwardine says. The historian doesn’t whitewash some of the more controversial decisions by Lincoln, such as the suspension of habeas corpus and the prosecution of Clement Vallandigham, a thoroughly misguided action that only made the Ohio politician a political martyr.
Carwardine’s Lincoln is a outstandingly moral man who resisted the prejudices of the time, as witness his rescinding of Grant’s infamous “Jew peddlers” ban, stating that this was a prejudicial act in light of the Jews serving in the Union Army. Lincoln also opened the door to Jewish chaplains in the army. His approach to religion was of the “Big Tent” persuasion.
“Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power” will go on the shelves of every history buff as a major contribution to Lincoln scholarship. Knopf is to be congratulated for publishing this outstanding biography.
Publisher’s web site: www.aaknopf.com