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Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography Hardcover – January 15, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

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.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (January 15, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037540158X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375401589
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #723,492 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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52 of 58 people found the following review helpful By dougrhon on June 5, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Perhaps no figure in American history has been the subject of more mythology, legend and revision than Abraham Lincoln. He has been elevated to the status of Christ-like martyrdom. He has been called a white supremacist and a racist. Revisionists of the right have accused him of fomenting war to promote mercantile interests. His motives and morality have been questioned. His commitment to the anti-slavery cause has been questioned. But who was the real Abraham Lincoln? What were his true thoughts on the great issue of the day? How did the prairie born son of illiterate pioneers become the most revered man in American History?
In this wonderful new book, William Lee Miller examines, not so much the events of Lincoln's life as the evolution of the character of the man historian Paul Johnson calls "a kind of moral genius." The book covers the years from Lincoln's birth until his inauguration in 1861. In particular, Miller examines how Lincoln's politics can be squared with his morality. Using Lincoln's own words, Miller effectively refutes the revisionists of both the right and the left and restores Lincoln to his rightful place as an American giant and irrepressible foe of slavery.
Miller is an unabashed admirer of Lincoln. Through careful scholarship and relentless logic, the author dissects Lincoln's words and actions, explores his motivations and raises and disposes of revisionist arguments. He does so in an amusing and folksy style that clearly reveals his affection and fascination with this greatest of all Americans. All of the positive traits associated with Lincoln are shown to be true. In speech after speech, Lincoln is revealed to be an intractable foe of slavery.
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Kerry Walters VINE VOICE on March 1, 2002
Format: Hardcover
There's likely been no other American so widely dissected as Abraham Lincoln. Author after author has explored Lincoln's outer world to the point of exhaustion. It's only understandable, then, that the fashion lately seems to be an exploration of his inner one. So we have a spate of books in the last few years that explore Lincoln's psyche, his religion, his sexuality,his relation with his family--and now, with Miller's new book, his moral character.
Miller tells us that he wants to begin afresh by forgetting the Lincoln myth and tracing the moral development of Lincoln in order to see where he winds up. But of course this is an impossibly objective position to attain, and the fix is in from page one: the reader knows--and so does Miller--who's going to win the race. Lincoln predictably emerges as a complex individual who rises to historical prominence not just because he grew into an astute statesperson, but also because he was a virtuous human being. The first alone would have given him power; both together give him greatness.
Most of Miller's tracing of the inner life of Lincoln isn't particularly new, although it is pleasingly systematic. But two characteristics of his approach are worth noting. First, Miller obviously admires his main character without falling into the hagiography that bedevils so many books on Lincoln. Second, Miller's thesis that the contours of Lincoln's moral character are shaped by his earnest efforts to repudiate his backwoods heritage is both novel and persuasive. This argument alone would make the book a worthy read.
But what the book doesn't do--and perhaps no single book can do this--is explain why it is that we simply can't seem to get enough of Lincoln. Lincoln is a sort of national icon. The fascination with him is apparently endless. Miller's book will contribute to the on-going fascination.
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
William Lee Miller's book underscores Lincoln's general goodness and honesty. This book is less so a traditional biography and more an examination of Lincoln's moral beliefs and principles. The author traces Lincoln's ethical development from a young man in New Salem, Illinois to the mature Lincoln at the height of his intellectual powers in the 1850's and 1860's. Mr. Miller indicates that yes Lincoln was a politician and could be quite good at wheeling and dealing. However, he never engaged in back room negotiations without first taking into account all angles and ramifications, and would never attempt to promote anything totally dishonest. We would describe Lincoln today as a man who was tough but fair. He sought compromise and took into account the possible "fruits" of whatever he was proposing. He was not an absolutist. He realized that the real world was a prism with shades of gray. He was never capricious, as he researched and pondered deeply all his beliefs and subsequent actions. Like any human being he was not perfect and because of his legend it is easy to fall into thinking that he was saint like. He was a truly good-hearted man, who was keenly intelligent and insightful. When our country was at war with itself his steadfastness at the helm and magnaminity he showed towards the Confederates ("with malice toward none") serve as an example of true leadership. His being an American icon is well deserved. Thank you, Mr. President.
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41 of 51 people found the following review helpful By scott sirk on January 26, 2002
Format: Hardcover
William Lee Miller's book Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography proves Abraham Lincoln was a most unique individual an
ethical politician. Miller introduces the Lincoln as he lived and breathe and Lincoln lived and breathe politics. Lincoln's practice of politics is familiar to us because it was partisan, compromising as well as searching for consenus and individual distinction.
Lincoln the politician seems commmon, it is his ethical quality on the rub of a matter which is outstanding. For Lincoln there was more to poltics than winning elections. There were larger issues of life to be effected by law and politics. Miller points out Lincoln achieved his moral basis from no individual but from the reading of books such as the Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, biographies of Washington and Shakespeare.
Miller indicates that in Lincoln's early political career the larger issue was the rise of the common man which Lincoln believed was best achieved by Henry Clay's Whig policies. Post-1854 Lincoln's moral issue was slavery. Lincoln recognized slavery was a moral issue and to present it politcally as a moral issue and not allow it to be presented as an economic issue clouded by the prejudice of the day as Lincoln's great political rival Douglas presented the slavery issue.
Miller presents Lincoln's strength of mind and in particular its ability to study and think an issue. His clear judgment balanced by a sincere sensitivity. This was best explained by Leonard Swett in the footnotes on p490 of Miller's book.
The best part of the book was the Stanton-Lincoln relationship on pp 410-426. Stanton began with disdain of Linclon but in working with Lincoln in the Civil War Stanton grew to respect Lincoln and be astonished by Lincoln's work.
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