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What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America's Greatest President Paperback – May 9, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


Abraham Lincoln:

The Myth and the Man

In 1863 the democratic republic as a form of government was rare and in danger of extinction.

In Europe, the dominant region of the world, monarchs and aristocrats were securely in command. The nations of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans were divided among the empires of three dynasties: the Habsburgs, the Romanovs, and the Ottomans. Germans who did not live in Habsburg lands were ruled by petty dukes and princes in a handful of large kingdoms, of which the most important, Prussia, was the domain of the Hohenzollern family. Italy was carved into small and weak states subject to Habsburg or French domination. Iberia and Scandinavia, too, had their kings and aristocrats. France was a dictatorship ruled by Louis Napoleon, who like his uncle had posed as a champion of republican government before declaring himself emperor.

Britain was the most liberal great power in Europe, but it was far from democratic. The monarchy and the House of Lords were hereditary. The House of Commons was elected by a tiny elite of commoners. The Reform Act of 1832 increased the percentage of the adult population in Britain permitted to vote from 1.8 percent to 2.7 percent. Subsequent reform legislation in 1867 and 1884 increased the electorate to 6.4 percent and 12.1 percent, respectively.(1) British colonists in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were subject to imperial authority, while in India and other parts of the empire nonwhite subjects lacked not only the suffrage but basic civil rights. Although Britain had abolished slavery in its domains in the 1830s and had moved to suppress the transatlantic African slave trade, British authorities and colonists had substituted other kinds of forced labor scarcely better than slavery, such as contract or "coolie" labor.

Outside of Europe and the European empires, the prospects for liberal democracy were even bleaker. From North Africa to the Persian Gulf, the dissolving Ottoman Empire provided a tattered canopy over local rulers and spheres of influence obtained by Britain and France. In the Chinese empire, weakened by British and French aggression and local rebellions, the only tradition of governance was one of despotism tempered by bureaucracy. Black Africa, a patchwork of kingdoms and tribes, would soon be incorporated into a handful of European colonial empires.

In this world of empires, monarchs, and hereditary nobles, republics were scarce. In Europe the Swiss republic and the tiny Republic of San Marino were oddities. In Africa the only republics were those of Dutch-descended Boer farmers and the struggling Republic of Liberia, founded by the United States as a home for former slaves. The largest state in Latin America, Brazil, was an empire ruled by a Portuguese monarch. The Spanish monarchy continued to govern Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other island possessions. The former mainland colonies of Spain, from Mexico to Argentina, were republican in form. But since they had gained their independence, most of these Latin American states had oscillated between dictatorship and anarchy. In 1863 much of Mexico, the home of a series of failed republics, was under the control of a Habsburg princeling named Maximilian, who had been installed as "Emperor of Mexico" by the French emperor Louis Napoleon.

Two waves of liberal and democratic revolutions--the first beginning with the French Revolution in 1789, and the second taking the form of the revolutions of 1848 in Europe--had failed to replace aristocratic monarchy with democratic republicanism as the dominant form of government in Europe and the world. Attempts to establish democratic republics in Germany, Italy, and Hungary had been smashed by the forces of monarchy, and the French republic had been extinguished by Louis Napoleon's dictatorship. Not only many advocates of republicanism but also many proponents of liberal, parliamentary monarchy had been executed, jailed, or exiled by the authoritarian royal governments of continental Europe. Many liberal German political activists and intellectuals, known as Forty-Eighters, had fled their homeland for refuge in the United States. The two most famous European proponents of liberalism and republicanism in 1863 were both in exile: the Italian statesman and theorist Giuseppe Mazzini and the French poet and politician Victor Hugo.

In the realm of political thought as in the realm of practical politics, the tide was running against liberal republicanism in 1863. A generation of young idealists in Europe had been disillusioned by the shattering of republican hopes on the hard realities of monarchy and militarism. In France many embittered intellectuals chose art for its own sake as an alternative to a depressing reality, while others, equally indignant, concluded that idealism was a trap in art as well as in politics and developed harsh forms of realism in literature and painting and sculpture. To many thinkers in Europe and the world, democracy seemed unworkable and the idea of the rights of man an illusion of naive eighteenth-century utopians. Popular government inevitably collapsed into anarchy, to be followed by the restoration of authority by a strongman. Hierarchy, not democracy, was the normal condition of humanity, many disenchanted thinkers of the mid-nineteenth century believed. The historian Priscilla Robertson describes the depth of the hostility to liberal democracy in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century: "Albert, the workingman, was called by his first name all the time he was a member of the French government; Baron Doblhoff in Vienna was suspected because he gave parties where the nobility could meet the middle classes socially for the first time; the King of Prussia could label an assembly of professors 'the gutter'; Macaulay could stand up in the House of Commons to say that universal suffrage would destroy civilization and everything that made civilization worthwhile. . . ."(2)

In the past, autocracy and aristocracy had been justified by religion. By the middle of the nineteenth century, political thinkers were turning to another source of legitimacy: biology. Even before Darwin published his theory of natural selection in On the Origin of Species (1860), a growing number of influential theorists, of whom the most important was Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, had rejected the Enlightenment ideals of human equality and innate individual rights in favor of the supposed reality of racial inequality. Whether God or nature had created humanity, some races were destined to rule others--and within races and nations, some individuals were naturally superior and fated to lead. In the words of the British conservative Benjamin Disraeli, "All is race." To the growing number of Western thinkers who adopted versions of racial determinism, talk of the rights of man and democracy was sentimental nonsense, discredited both by the failure of democratic governments and the teachings of natural science.

In 1863 only one functioning democratic republic on the scale of a nation-state existed on earth: the United States of America. Beginning in 1861, the United States had been consumed in civil war. The Northern states, acting through the federal government, had fought to prevent the secession of the Southern states, which were controlled by a small minority of rich slave-owning landholders who feared the loss of their power and privileges to an unsympathetic Northern majority. Some of the leading statesmen of the Southern confederacy, echoing contemporary European pessimism about human rights and democracy, had declared that human rights were limited to Caucasians and that democratic government was not an ideal valid for all humanity but an inheritance of Anglo-Saxons alone. America's Founding Fathers had been mistaken about these matters, they argued, and the new Confederate States of America would be founded not on eighteenth-century illusions but on nineteenth-century theories about race and inequality.

It was in this context that Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States, delivered brief remarks at the dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863, where at great cost Federal forces had earlier defeated an invasion by the Confederate army: "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."(3)

According to Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, the American Civil War had a global as well as a local significance. Its local significance was the preservation of a United States within whose borders slavery would be abolished--the "new birth of freedom" which by 1863 had become an explicit war aim of the Lincoln administration. The...


“It will almost certainly change the way you think about America and one of its greatest presidents. . . . Lind makes an already somewhat mysterious president still more puzzling and interesting.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Well-researched and reasoned. . . . Adds valuable perspective to the vast arena of Lincoln scholarship. Lind’s aim is to give us a Lincoln in the context of his own times, as a man who lived within history and not above it.”—The Christian Science Monitor

“A thought-provoking contribution to the Lincoln literature that deserves to be taken seriously and will surely prompt debate.”—The Washington Post Book World

“[Lind] allows the reader to see beyond the surface for an intimate glimpse of this truly American icon.”—Tucson Citizen

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (May 9, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400030730
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400030736
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,138,434 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
"What Lincoln Believed" is part of a line of recent presidential biographies (Jefferson, Jackson) taking what some readers think is a hypercritical look at some of this country's leading political personalities. It's no exaggeration to say that "What Lincoln Believed" will, for many, be an eye-opener, especially those who haven't focused on our greatest president since high school.

While I had been familiar with some of Lincoln's motivations for the Emancipation Proclamation as well as his Free-Soil views, this remarkable work brought to light numerous other facets of Abe's views on slavery including the relative rights of "free" slaves (his support of the Black Laws) and various details of his support for black colonization in both Africa and the Caribbean.

While some reviewers believe author Lind went out of his way to excoriate Lincoln based on 20th Century views of race, my own belief is that he has very honestly widened the historical record on this shrewd, passionate and courageous man, ultimately paying him the highest tribute by comparing him to the leading figures of his day and explaining how Lincoln was the right man at the right time to preserve the Union and perpetuate the philosophical seeds of democratic republicanism - seeds that could easily have been cast aside as our nation continued to enter the world stage.

"What Lincoln Believed" will make you rethink some of your assumptions about a legendary figure, but you will close the book still knowing that our sixteenth president was the person America needed at its darkest hour.
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Format: Hardcover
As I read this I found myself thinking of the old saying that you know when a politician is lying because his mouth makes noise. We like to think of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. Mr. Lind is careful to point out that he was no slouch as a politician. You don't get elected to that office without being an accomplished professional politician. Perhaps the Great Emancipator is a title, a view that we hold of him several generations later.

Mr. Lind spends a good bit of time on the definition of the United States as a nation vs. an alliance of sovereign states. Mr. Lind shows Lincoln's vision of the United States as a model of liberty and democracy for the world. Mr. Lincoln's model seemed to be that a state had the liberty to join the Union, but did not have the liberty to leave.

I greatly enjoyed reading Mr. Lind's book. I do question some of his conclusions. They are based on the thinking of a man raised in a culture offset from Lincoln's by a hundred and fifty years.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book, like so many: too many other Lincoln studies is that it really paints an incomplete picture of Lincoln. Abe started his life being against slavery, while also sharing a stereotypical racial prejudice. Yes, Lincoln did originally believe in "expatriating" blacks to Liberia once liberated. But he continued to think about it, and long before he was assassinated, yet after he was elected, he came to understand that America was their home, be it ever so imperfect. Lincoln also invited Frederick Douglas to his second inaugural, being the first President to invite a black into the White House for social reasons. The next recorded invitation wasn't until Teddy Roosevelt was President, and was scandalizing for inviting a black to a White House dinner. Also, Lincoln used to allow any visitor into the White House, several times a week, before the burden of the office cut it to once a week. Each of those days, Lincoln used to listen to any visitor (and there were a lot of them) to get what he called his "public opinion baths." This even applied to slaves, Hardly looking racist by now. This is only one of the issues. Another was that he looked down on his fellow citizens as being "dumb", but what Lincoln really couldn't stand was somebody offering an opinion on a subject that they obviously didn't think through. While a decent book, it really lacks nuance. It would rank above the Southern Apologist, Di Lorenzo from Virgina. He should be educated well enough to know what he writes is pure dung, in my very experienced view.
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Format: Paperback
I was using this book for research purposes, specifically on Lincoln's personal beliefs. Cross-referencing with other materials that cite the same sources (as well as the cited writings of Lincoln) shows that Lind cherry-picks his evidence to bypass evidence that does not support his position. Sloppy at best and likely dubious.
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Format: Hardcover
Lincoln is an icon from our political past, but it seems that many groups want to claim him as exemplifying their beliefs: Democrats and Repubs, proponents of economic opportunity, civil rights advocates, etc. The author, by analyzing Lincoln's utterances and actions, demonstrates that none of them are entirely correct or wrong in their claims.

It cannot be forgotten when examining his life, that Lincoln, as any, was a man of his times. He did originate from very humble beginnings, as did many of his era, but he seemed to have an inordinate desire to make something of himself. Lincoln occasionally represented railroad interests in court, but it is quite a stretch to suggest, as the author does, that Lincoln was essentially a well-to-do lawyer for the fat-cats. If anyone can lay claim to advancing beyond log-cabin origins, it would be Lincoln.

Lincoln was first and foremost a Henry Clay Whig and adhered to his program of internal improvements, national banking, and the protection of industry by tariffs. He was not a free-trader as are the current Repubs. Furthermore, he constantly held that labor was more important than capital, hardly an idea held by modern Repubs or the slave-holding Southern oligarchs.

Lincoln had a lifelong reverence for the Declaration of Independence, especially in its advocacy of universal rights of liberty. And that fundamentally impacted his view on slavery, the burning issue of the times, yet Lincoln was essentially a racial segregationist. He was a "Free-Soiler," who advocated for the exclusion of slavery in new territories and states, as well as already freed blacks. Lincoln mostly hoped that freed blacks could form free societies outside of the US.
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