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A. Lincoln: A Biography Paperback – May 4, 2010
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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Everyone wants to define the man who signed his name A Lincoln In his lifetime and ever since friend and foe have taken it upon themselves to characterize Lincoln according to their own label or libel In this magnificent book Ronald C White Jr offers a fresh and compelling definition of Lincoln as a man of integrity-what todays commentators would call authenticity-whose moral compass holds the key to understanding his life Through meticulous research of the newly completed Lincoln Legal Papers as well as of recently discovered letters and photographs White provides a portrait of Lincolns personal political and moral evolution White shows us Lincoln as a man who would leave a trail of thoughts in his wake jotting ideas on scraps of paper and filing them in his top hat or the bottom drawer of his desk a country lawyer who asked questions in order to figure out his own thinking on an issue as much as to argue the case a hands-on commander in chief who as soldiers and sailors watched in amazement commandeered a boat and ordered an attack on Confederate shore batteries at the tip of the Virginia peninsula a man who struggled with the immorality of slavery and as president acted publicly and privately to outlaw it forever and finally a president involved in a religious odyssey who wrote for his own eyes only a profound meditation on the will of God in the Civil War that would become the basis of his finest address Most enlightening the Abraham Lincoln who comes into focus in this stellar narrative is a person of intellectual curiosity comfortable with ambiguity unafraid to think anew and act anew A transcendent sweeping passionately written biography that greatly expands our knowledge and understanding of its subject A Lincoln will engage a whole new generation of Americans It is poised to shed a profound light on our greatest president just as America commemorates the bicentennial of his birth From the Hardcover edition
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The other unique thing White does in this book, especially in the second half, is to parse out how Lincoln developed some of his most famous speeches. White shows how Lincoln used English – the choice of words, the rhetorical and stylistic structures – to craft the final speech. These structural elements show why so many of Lincoln’s speeches are both simple to understand and at the same time highly memorable. Lincoln would take a draft, perhaps work it through with Seward, and then often redo it in a way that improved its presentation enormously. What is worth noting, especially in today’s world, is that these stylistic and grammatical elements were not just rhetorical devices but what Lincoln actually thought and felt put in a way that moved his listeners. It was a creative fusion of honesty and public presentation.
We desperately need to remember the person of Abraham Lincoln today. This excellent biography does Lincoln justice and is a lesson to us of what true leadership and the best of humanity can be in the midst of a terrible crisis on American history.
The book consists of a chronologic account of Lincoln’s life. But it is more than simply a listing of events. The events themselves are like the chords, which accompany the melody of his deepest thoughts. White allows Lincoln to speak to us through his speeches and writings. These works are not always repeated verbatim, but White summarizes them and expands upon them so as to give us an understanding of what Lincoln was actually thinking. In so doing, we hear Lincoln as he bears his soul to the reader.
White begins his book before Lincoln is born. His family history in America dates back to the 17th century, even before the birth of the nation. His parents were religious Baptists and he was born into their Calvinist beliefs. However, he soon abandoned organized religion when he became repelled by the emotionalism of revival meetings, which were intrinsic to the Second Great Awakening. Turning his back on revealed religion he sought refuge in reason and became a lawyer. As Patrick Cleburne, a confederate general noted, the law provided a stepping-stone to “distinction and civil importance”. White, in his insightful way, draws attention to the fact that Lincoln learned to examine issues from every angle before settling on a conclusion. This ability would serve him well, not only in his career as a lawyer but as a legislator and then President of the United States. It was is in the legal profession that he first encountered moral conflict, a condition that would plague him until nearly the end of his life. The law is adversarial and is thus based on conflict and confrontation, whereas Lincoln preferred mediation. He preferred to settle a case rather than argue it in court. He felt that after all is said and done, the adversaries would need to live together following their confrontation, a notion presaging his sentiments regarding reconstruction.
At age 28 while running for re-election to the Illinois state legislature, he delivered a speech at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois. The speech was ostensibly about the role of memory and our responsibility for preserving our political institutions. However, more importantly, it dealt with creating a secular religion with its morality based on reason. It became one of the most notable speeches ever delivered.
Reason, cold calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense. Let those materials be molded into general intelligence, sound morality and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws.
The collision of politics, morality and divine will occurred most acutely over the issue of slavery. Lincoln was always concerned about slavery, but the issue came to a head as the Civil War approached. The Lincoln Douglas debates were mostly about the moral issue of slavery. Although both Lincoln and Douglas were practical men and recognized the role of necessity in dealing with slavery, it was Lincoln’s insistence on recognizing the immorality of slavery that distinguished him from Douglas. For Lincoln, the issue became one of intolerable moral conflict. Only elimination of slavery would resolve the conflict and the attendant cognitive dissonance. With the end of the Civil War the conflict between morality and necessity came to an end. The slaves were at last freed and the country was saved.
An important subtext of the book is how Lincoln’s devotion to reason was eventually tempered by his surrender to God. In a letter to Albert Hodges in 1864 Lincoln described the evolution of his thinking evoking the role of God in directing man’s actions. Here he came full circle from the religion of his parents to an embrace of reason as a reaction to those teachings and finally to submission to God’s will. He described his beliefs in a private communication uncovered after his death, termed The Meditation on God’s Will. Lincoln counseled that one must defer to God, in all of his mystery and lack of transparency, a mystical notion divorced from reason:
The will of God prevails. In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with God’s will. Both may be and one must be wrong. In the present Civil War, it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party
The journey for Lincoln was a long one. The word God is rarely mentioned in Lincoln’s earlier writings and in fact is absent in the First Inaugural Address. It appears once in the Gettysburg Address, but then 14 times in the Second Inaugural Address. One of the pleasures of this book is that one discovers for oneself what God meant to Lincoln. In the Second Inaugural address, Lincoln submitted to God who is totally opaque and unknowing. This notion is more Islamic than Christian. If one understands how Lincoln came to understand God, then one comes closer to understanding Lincoln. His journey was intensely personal. Hence, the book is voyeurism at its titillating best.
It took real courage for White to write another book about Lincoln, much less a complete biography. Those who complete the book of over 750 pages hear beyond the background noise an entire Lincoln symphony. It is a real treat.