William Lee Miller's Lincoln's Virtues is less an "event" chronology than the tracing of the moral and ethical core of Abraham Lincoln's beliefs, what Miller calls the man's "unintended preparation for greatness." Miller posits that Lincoln rightly deserves his nonpareil place in American history. But, he continues, Lincoln's greatness is best appreciated only when we realize he was merely mortal and therefore free to follow any number of courses of actions. Miller, through scores of eloquent exegeses of Lincoln's writings and speeches, explores the path--consistent, though evolving--this free agent took. Lincoln chose politics as his work. As a politician he was subject to the very real constraints of collective action. However, such was the man's "moral self-confidence," that the mantle of greatness alit on his shoulders alone. This is a revealing, delicate, and at times soaring work. It also presupposes its readers are much more than casually familiar with Lincoln's life and times. - -H. O'Billovitch
From Publishers Weekly
In a narrative that positions a careful analysis of Lincoln's life against his popular legend and "ritual celebration," University of Virginia historian Miller (Arguing About Slavery) provides an incisive and shrewd discussion of Lincoln's development as a person and a politician. If it is assumed from the outset that Lincoln was "a spectacularly wonderful man," Miller argues, it "may diminish our appreciation of the ways in which he may actually have become one." Thus Miller's project to chronicle man rather than myth is explicitly concerned with the evolution of Lincoln's character, motivations and ideals. Chronicling his rise from an Appalachian boyhood to the corridors of power, the author makes a host of wise observations about this "ungainly westerner" that are informed as much by Miller's considerable knowledge of human nature as by his study of Lincoln's utterances over the years. According to Miller, Lincoln's life was motivated by the desire to distance himself from his humble origins; though he may have begun as a young man of the people, he quickly sought a place among the intellectual and cultural elite that Thomas Jefferson had dubbed the "natural aristocracy." He never introduced his sons to his father and stepmother. He harbored an intense dislike for all forms of menial labor, and was displeased when campaign posters positioned him as a rail-splitter. In this same spirit, he despised the simple, petty bigotries common among the working classes of his day and eschewed the Know-Nothingism popular in the United States of the 1850s as being beneath him. It is this Lincoln's studied and cultivated aloofness from the banal Miller argues, that positioned him for greatness. (Jan. 22) Forecast: This brings a fresh and refreshing perspective that Lincoln devotees will appreciate.
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