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A. Lincoln: A Biography Paperback – May 4, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In this excellent biography, veteran historian White emphasizes that Lincoln was our most likable major president, lacking Washington's aloofness and the deviousness of FDR and Jefferson. Many young men from the frontier overcame the handicaps of poverty and minimal education, but, White says, Lincoln did better than most, becoming floor leader in the Illinois legislature by age 30 and a prosperous lawyer. Contrary to the common view that Lincoln was a dark-horse for the 1860 presidential nomination after a single, undistinguished term in the House of Representatives, White stresses that Lincoln was an experienced politician, popular throughout Illinois, and known to national leaders. Few Republicans thought they had chosen badly. The author makes good use of Lincoln's voluminous private papers and those of his contemporaries to paint a vivid picture of Lincoln's thoughts as he matured and then guided the nation through the four worst years of its existence. White knows his subject cold and writes lucid prose, so readers choosing this as their Lincoln bicentennial reading will not go wrong. Illus., maps, photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Bookmarks Magazine
Having already written two books on Abraham Lincoln, Ronald C. White, Jr., understands better than most the challenges in bringing a fresh perspective to the most scrutinized president in American history. With 16,000 books, and counting, on Lincoln (as well as several dozen more in the period before the bicentennial celebration of his birth), the ground that remains to be covered is disappearing before scholars' eyes. But White, who draws on his own thorough research of the recently available Lincoln Legal Papers and plenty of other new material, stakes his turf. His weighty, yet readable, tome compares favorably to the popular histories of Doris Kearns Goodwin (Team of Rivals) and David McCullough (John Adams, Truman, The Great Bridge), making A. Lincoln a fine and useful addition to the growing canon of Lincolniana.Copyright 2009 Bookmarks Publishing LLC --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
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.
There are some strong features in this book--the character sketch of Lincoln is pretty compelling; his family background is laid out in more detail than in some other works on him that I have read; his development in Illinois is portrayed nicely; his tour as President is, finally, well detailed; the book covers his major speeches and letters in good depth, allowing his words to speak for themselves. Of course, many of the stories are already well known from other biographies.
The book begins with Lincoln's early life and his understanding of his family history (which did not go back very far). It is ironic that he was somewhat dismissive of his heritage, when--if he had known of more distant relatives in history--he had some forebears who had achieved some repute. The somewhat strained relationship with his father comes through, as well as his affection for his mother and stepmother. The story of the family's move from Kentucky to Indiana and, finally, to Illinois unfolds smoothly.
In Illinois, we see his growth and development from his years in New Salem to his move to Springfield. We see his passion for politics, his efforts to better himself, his development as an attorney.
Some of the high points. . . . His rise from a defeated candidate for the Senate in a campaign against Stephen Douglass to his ascent as a national politician (even though losing the election against Douglass, he gained wider visibility). His speaking tour of the East marked him as a player in the early Republican Party. The way he placed himself as the fallback candidate in the Republication Convention of 1860 is well told.
Then, the war years and all that went with that. His relations with political figures, private citizens such as Frederick Douglass, his generals, and so on.
The book moves along crisply and is a good read. People who are interested in Lincoln, I think, will find this a good volume to take a look at.
I don't usually read biographies but this was spectacular!