Customer Reviews: Father Abraham: Lincoln's Relentless Struggle to End Slavery
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VINE VOICEon May 28, 2006
It has become fashionable in recent decades for historians and commentators from the extremes of the ideological spectrum to depict Lincoln as a cautious racial conservative, even a racist, only brought in the end to reluctantly embrace the destruction of slavery as a measure to win the Civil War. In such a view, Lincoln is far from the traditional "Great Emancipator"; instead he is limited to following in the wake of those persons more forward-looking, more morally courageous than Lincoln himself. Richard Striner's book persuasively demolishes such a picture and, on the contrary, portrays Lincoln as a dedicated enemy of slavery (and a friend to racial equality, at least in 19th century terms) who labored consistently and at great length to at last crush the hated institution. Striner does this with a careful survey of Lincoln's career from his earliest political days until his death. And Striner boldly takes on each of the quotes from Lincoln speeches and writings that are usually used to "reveal" Llncoln as a racial conservative who adopted emancipation much against his real will, showing those quotes in their broader contexts, describing not only what else was going on at the time and what else Lincoln was simultaneously doing, but also examining those quotes in context of what else was said in that particular speech or document. Lincoln was a politician of great skill, willing to publically advocate a course seemingly adverse to his real goals but, in the long run, laying down a pathway towards accomplishing those goals. And, perhaps more than any other American president, Lincoln was a master of language, sometimes crafting a phrase, a sentence, or a paragraph that superficially says one thing while meaning, upon close examination, something else.

Stiner also provides a valuable look at the very real fears that Lincoln and his associates had in the years leading up to the Civil War that slavery was on a road towards expansion, not extinction. Moreover, Striner shows that the South's leading spokespeople on the subject of tariffs (sometimes cited as the "real" underlying cause of Southern secession, instead of the uncomfortable issue of slavery) privately admitted that their real concern was slavery, with tariffs providing a convenient stalking horse at a particular moment. The shadow of slavery lay darkly over antebellum America, and Striner's book retores the portrait of Lincoln as a dedicated leader in bringing the country forward to the end of the "peculiar institution".
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on December 31, 2009
Was he the "great emancipator" or did his famous Emancipation Proclamation free very few slaves? Was he a friend of African-Americans or rather a typical 19th century white supremacist? Did he really believe in "colonizing" US-born blacks in Africa or the Caribbean or was this just a diversionary tactic to mask his real intentions? Above all, was his primary goal to kill slavery in the US or to save the Union (country) from those who seceded from it and made war (at Fort Sumter) on it?

The person referred to above is, of course, Abraham Lincoln ("AL" or "L" hereafter), sixteenth president of the US, and these questions are ones that people living in the US during the civil war era (roughly 1840s - 1870s) argued over and are questions that historians who study that era are still debating and probably always will.

While it is difficult and perhaps dangerous to attempt to describe a consensus among historians about ANY topic, it is possible to state a view of AL that many or most L. historians of the last 40 to 50 years would probably accept or share. This view describes L. as a reluctant emancipator who moved cautiously against slavery. True, his natural inclinations were anti-slavery, but for constitutional reasons, he believed that only individual states could determine the legality of domestic institutions such as slavery. His goal was to contain slavery to existing areas and, in so doing, put it on the road to "ultimate extinction". Later, once the war began, for military and diplomatic reasons, L. issued his limited proclamation of emancipation. And while he never issued an equality procalamation or suffrage proclamation, there is evidence to suggest he was prepared to support at least partial suffrage for African Americans and was moving toward political equality in concept.

In the book FATHER ABRAHAM: LINCOLN'S RELENTLESS STRUGGLE TO END SLAVERY, historian Richard Striner seeks to partially overturn or at least seriously challenge this (consensus) view of L. For Striner, L. had not only always hated slavery but was, since 1854 at least, strongly committed to trying to get rid of it. He calls AL a "moral visionary", an "ethicist" who was also "an artist in the Machiavellian uses of power". (page 2) L. wasn't only interested in saving a union where slavery was legal. What good was a country wherein a significant segment of the population was owned by others? (He was also a golden rule man.) No, L. would refuse to compromise on slavery once he was elected president and even after a number of slave states left the Union. Sometimes he chose to mask his true intentions and throw white supremacists a bone with talk about colonization of blacks outside the US.

And then when the military situation looked slighly brighter for the Union cause (after the horrible battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg), he issued a proclamation to liberate some, not all, slaves. But once this action was taken the only turning back from full
liberation might come from one or both of what Striner refers to as "worst-case futures": losing re-election as president in 1864 and/or losing the war itself, in which case all of his antislavery actions would undoubtedly be overturned. Thus, L. strove mightly in 1863-1864 to prevent both of these possibilites, all the while being hard at work planning to "reconstruct" the old slave states without slavery. End of my summary of the Striner argument.

How convincing is his argument? Readers will certainly decide for themselves, but this is a very difficult proposition for several reasons, a couple of which are that AL's words were often contradictory and also because L. had a way of telling people what they wanted to hear and not necessaily what he believed. The author definitely caused me, essentially a subscriber to what I've termed the consensus view, to question and think about what I have come to accept about L. over the decades. As such, I think this is a very important book.

The book contains not only superb endnotes demonstrating Striner's heavy use of the work of scholars such as LaWanda Cox, Harry Jaffa, James McPherson, William Lee Miller as well as, of course, Basler's COLLECTED WORKS of Lincoln, but also, and drum roll please,
a (very useful) bibliography, a device which I've thought might be on the way to ultimate extinction.

For reasons that puzzle me, this volume is not very well known in the L. literature. This is unfortunate because I found it to be one of the more thoughtful books on L. that I've read during this 200th year of his birth. Strongly recommended.
Tim Koerner December 2009
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on February 9, 2006
I met the author through a friend, and was intrigued at the wonderful conversations I had with Striner. As we discussed "Father Abraham," which at that point had not yet been released, I was very anxious to get ahold of it. Having finally acquired the book, I am nothing but impressed at the detailed information that backs every assertion made, and the very much conversational style writing that Striner uses. The book is an easy read and really gets the gears turning in your mind.
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on March 14, 2013
While revisionist history now calls Lincoln a reluctant emancipator and a racist at heart this book shows how wrong that view is.
From the time he was first in the state legislature from a racist white supremecist culture Lincoln constantly spoke against slavery which he always regarded as an abomination. While, as a lawyer, he never thought he had the power to eliminate slavery where it was constitutionally protected he always spoke against its expansion. One of his first acts as President was to allow the death sentence for a slave ship captain to proceed in spite of the captain's political friends pleas for mercy. He said he could not abide a man sending hundreds of Africans into perpetual bondage for mere money. While hundreds of previous such cases resulted in few prosecutions and no executions he put his foot down and virtually ended the illicit slave trade that had been going on for decades. It was the first execution for slave trading even though there had been 100 such cases in New York alone in 1860. He paid for the funeral expenses of his valet and had him buried in Arlington cemetary with the single word CITIZEN on his tombstone whereas blacks had not been considered citizens until then.He met with Frederick Douglass in the White House and Douglass wrote about how he never met a powerful white man who treated him as an equal until then. Later when it appeared that Lincoln would not be reelected Lincoln asked Douglass to get a group of like minded people to go into the deep South and get as many slaves as possible to get to the Union lines so they could be freed knowing that if McClellan won he would eliminate the emancipation proclamation. Finally in his last speech where he called for blacks to get the vote the racist John Wilkes Booth decided that that was the last straw and he killed Lincoln a few days later.Lincoln was murdered because of this.
Lincoln had called for colonization for freed blacks because the country was so racist he could not imagine blacks being treated fairly. It was only his leadership that finally got the country to the point where they would support the emancipation. Lincoln was a giant. The blacks never had a more powerful and loving friend.
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on October 21, 2007
I picked this up in a general English language bookstore here in Bangkok, without any expectations, encouraged only by the fact that James McPherson strongly recommends it on the back cover. It's a beautifully researched, well-written, engaging, and convincing overview of Lincoln's attitudes to slavery and emancipation.

The author has a strong thesis and a clear point of view, but whatever your views on Lincoln are at the start, you won't feel bullied (always my experience when I read anti-Lincoln books). The author demolishes all the old arguments for the view that Lincoln had no interest in ending slavery.

The opening chapters were the best and clearest single summary of the build-up to the civil war that I have yet read.

Let me mention two things that I did not understand before I read this book, that I now understand fully, and that most people still have serious misconceptions about.

First, it is often claimed that the civil war was at least partly, and perhaps mostly, caused by an argument over 'tariffs' and only partly by the debate over slavery. Striner points out that John Calhoun, the most famous opponent of the tariffs, was at first very much in favor of them. He later reversed his position. Why? Because it dawned on him that federally funded projects might not just lead to things like roads and railroads (which he was in favor of), but also to publicly funded emancipation of slaves (which he was against). People like Calhoun also felt (and stated at the time) that the tariff issue was just a test case for blocking the power of central government in general, and that their only goal in blocking that power was to prevent any future constitutional interference with slavery.

Second, I used to think that Lincoln 'only wanted to save the union' and saw emancipation as a means to that end. I now see that that was a very simplistic view. The threat to the union only arose in the first place because of the argument over slavery. Lincoln was against its expansion into new territories, because he (rightly) felt that its expansion meant its perpetuation, while its containment in the slave states held out the possibility of its extinction. Through his entire political career after the repeal of the Missouri compromise, he was driven by that desire to bring about the eventual extinction of slavery.

Once his election had caused secession (because of his anti-slavery stance) he then insisted on saving the union, but not if that meant compromising his goal of extinguishing slavery, his original purpose in entering politics in the first place. His goal was to preserve a union still dedicated to what he considered its original principles of human equality and freedom. This account of his thinking seems to me to make far more overall sense.

If you are cynical about Lincoln, or about politics in general, read this book and feel free to take a more positive view.
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on May 13, 2016
Thank you, Richard Striner, for this wonderfully researched and written book. I learned more new things about Lincoln than perhaps anything I've read and now I want to read more of your works. The book takes an objective approach in revealing Lincoln and reaches the only possible conclusion using his own words. We need a Lincoln now more than ever. He at once inspired pragmatism and patriotism. This is a significant book. Wish I could go back to school and take your classes!

From the book: "Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy, or despotism in some form, is all that is left." ~Lincoln
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on April 27, 2013
Much has been written about our 16th president. I found this book very enjoyable to read, and from my perspective, having read quite a few books about Lincoln, factually accurate. However, as a recent addition to the long list of biographers of Lincoln, I was expecting the author to do more to debunk those who've written that Lincoln did NOT pursue a relentless struggle to end slavery. Rather, the author simply chronicled all the steps Lincoln is known to have taken during his life to bring about an end to slavery.
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on April 26, 2013
Father Abraham sets about to demonstrate that Lincoln, from the beginning, felt that slavery was wrong and carefully and patiently worked in any way he could to bring about change in public opinion on the subject. He knew it would take time to accomplish this and had a tremendous grasp of how various actions would be perceived and whether they would work at a particular time. It refutes the opinion of other recent historians that Lincoln didn't become convinced that slavery had to go until the very end.
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on March 22, 2013
Excellent history relying on Lincoln's own writings and the contemporaneous writings of others to support the thesis that Lincoln was not a moderate when it came to ending slavery. He used all his skill in politics, military strategy and history to bring about an end to slavery.
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on May 15, 2013
After reading this book about Abraham Lincoln and his fierce struggle to end slavery, I felt such pride and respect for him. The movie, LINCOLN, meant even more to me after reading this book. I recommend it to everyone.
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