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President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman Hardcover
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Subtle and nuanced, this study is something of a sequel to Miller's Lincoln's Virtues. Here he examines Honest Abe's moral and intellectual life while in the White House, prosecuting a bloody war. Miller finds that early in his presidency, Lincoln balanced two strong ethical imperatives—his duty to preserve the union and his determination not to fire the first shots. Of course, Miller also addresses that other great moral challenge: slavery. In short, says Miller, Lincoln believed slavery was not only profoundly wrong but profoundly wrong specifically as measured by this nation's moral essence, and he used a terrific amount of political savvy to push through emancipation. But more original is Miller's discussion of what Lincoln thought was at stake in the war. Through a close reading of the president's papers, Miller persuasively argues that Lincoln believed secession would not merely diminish or damage the United States but would destroy it. That, in turn, was an issue of global import, for if the American experiment failed, free government would not be secure anywhere. Miller has given us one of the most insightful accounts of Lincoln published in recent years. (Feb. 5)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the MP3 CD edition.
Miller’s Lincoln’s Virtues (2002) extolled the qualities of the future president; this companion volume considers Lincoln’s character in exercising the powers of the presidency. Largely laudatory, Miller treats illustrative Lincoln decisions in the context of Lincoln’s frequent reference to his duties under the oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” One set of decisions pertains to the pardon power, Lincoln’s application of which was usually lenient (sparing army deserters) but on occasion stern (hanging a slave trader). But the presidency can be more powerful than its enumerated powers, and in areas where Lincoln dipped into constitutionally murky waters, such as the suspension of habeas corpus or his issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Miller shows Lincoln’s dedication to his oath, that is, to preserve the Union against the Confederacy. Historically, this lodestar for Lincoln stokes criticism for his slow pace toward abolishing slavery, but Miller stints no plaudits in defending Lincoln for politically practical rectitude. Also praiseworthy of Lincoln as diplomat and commander-in-chief, Miller’s examination will hearten Lincoln admirers everywhere. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to the MP3 CD edition.
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Abraham Lincoln is rightfully remembered here for the actions he took during the short time he actually served in the White House. This is not a book about Mr. Lincoln's youth, his career in Illinois, or his family life. How this statesman balanced power, people, and ethics in reaching his twin noble objectives is laid out in a most compelling way by William Lee Miller.
(I especially found interesting the material presented on President Lincoln's use of the pardoning power.)
Purchase this book for yourself, or a friend who may question why the world still celebrates a politician who was born almost two hundred years ago.
[NOTE: A more detailed review to follow shortly]
I read this book as part of an ongoing book discussion group by the Lincoln Group of DC. Over a dozen people with interest in Lincoln joined monthly to impart varied and invaluable insights into the meaning of this book and others. My thoughts above come from my own reading and biases, but are greatly influenced by the input from the Lincoln Group discussion group, for which I give my heartfelt thanks and appreciation.
In terms of its contents, the book looks both thematically and generally chronologically in over 400 pages of core material at the ethical aspects of Lincoln’s presidency, as well as his focus on both prudence and idealism. In terms of its elegant tension between Lincoln’s tying together of Union and emancipation, his desire to act in as restrained a manner as possible to avoid brutality and act in a constitutional manner while preserving central authority and overcoming the rebellion, the author demonstrates both Lincoln’s skill and the immensity of his task. The author also makes it a point of talking about those times where Abraham Lincoln, normally a person inclined to give mercy, both gave it (to many of the Sioux warriors of Minnesota in 1863, for example) and did not give it (to captured slave traders and the murderer of an officer leading black soldiers in Norfolk) in striking ways. The author’s friendship with Frederick Douglass comes in for exceptional praise for Lincoln’s fairmindedness. Many of the chapters have title headings that come from Lincoln’s writings, and the author pays close attention to material, like Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and annual addresses, that have seemed a bit dull and dry to many readers, pointing out the timing of various statements as a way of illuminating the silences and implications of his writings.
Above all, this book is unified by a few themes. One of them is the ironic deflation of the Southern view of honor that shows up time and time again as a malign force within the country, whether it is in the Confederates insulting the honor of “neutral” Kentucky by invading their territory first and pushing it further into the Union camp, or in Southern honor leading to the assassination of Lincoln as well as the aforementioned young lieutenant of a black regiment sent to patrol in Norfolk. Another unifying theme is the way that Lincoln’s origin served to make him far more beloved among common people, and those who took the time to get to know him well, than the elites of either American or European society, many of whom were nonetheless horrified at his assassination. The author comments some on his diplomatically insincere notes to European leaders or monarchies and aristocracies, but not to one of his few notes to a fellow republican regime. Likewise, the author comments on the fact that for Lincoln union and liberty were deeply united, in ways that were better understood by the rebels and the slaves than by many northerners whose racism and emotional distance from slavery despite their complicity in it economically and socially did not connect the two issues. For those who want to see a praiseworthy and largely positive portrayal of Lincoln as a practical statesmen committed to his duty despite its challenges, this is an excellent book on those grounds. A book that combines an appreciation of grace and charity and justice in dealing with others, as well as avoiding the trap of supporting the lie that being a leader means being a macho poseur is a book that deserves appreciation merely on moral grounds alone. The fact that it is written with skill, has elegant footnotes, and is full of gentle irony makes it even better.
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