Sunday, June 28, 2009

Book Review: Lincoln's Virtues

This book is not for the faint of heart; or for anyone who falls asleep easily. Don't get me wrong: the book is worth reading. It looks at Abraham Lincoln from a different prospective. Rather than just Lincoln the politician, or just Lincoln the war president, William Lee Miller goes deeper, delving into the moral, philosophical and spiritual [not religious] underpinnings of Abraham Lincoln. Miller then makes a strong argument that those moral and philosophical foundations go a long way toward explaining why the man is on Mount Rushmore.

A central tenet of Miller's work is this: Lincoln abhorred slavery. He viewed slavery as inherently wrong, and he held this belief by the age of 30. To those who have argued - using some of Lincoln's own words - that Lincoln was not truly against slavery, or did not truly believe that bondage was wrong, Miller painstakingly [with the emphasis on pain] refutes these critics throughout the work. Any ambiguity as to Lincoln's feelings about slavery, according to Miller, fall to the floor once you understand his 'virtues'.

Yet, if that is a central tenet, Miller also insists that those who deify Lincoln are equally misguided. That Lincoln was a fantastic politician is generally agreed to, even by his critics. But many who worship Lincoln believe that his political activity was nothing more than an end to a means: that he didn't really like politics and didn't do the things that politicians do. Miller argues that this is simply not true. Lincoln not only was good at politics: he loved it. Miller's message to Lincoln-worshipers who try to forget that Lincoln was a politician is simple: the man not only liked politics but he practically founded the Illinois Republican party. Certainly not something that one who abhors politics would do, no?

Lincoln was a true Whig at the start of his political career, which began before he turned 30 when he served in the Illinois House of Representatives. He was a firm supporter of Henry Clay and his idea of an 'American System' of national improvements. Unlike Clay, however, he believed that slavery was morally wrong. Unlike abolitionists of the next two decades, however, Lincoln did not believe that slavery where it existed should be touched. Where Lincoln was adamant, however, was that slavery should not spread to new territories. Lincoln often made the analogy of dealing with slavery the way you deal with walking in to find deadly snakes in a bed with your children: the snakes are an evil, but you dare not disturb them for fear of your children being harmed. You do not, however, put more snakes in the remaining beds, either.

Miller looks at the 1860 election in an interesting way, too. Basically, working backwards, Miller says the question isn't how Lincoln got elected President. The question is: how did he secure the Republican nomination. The distinction is important because, according to Miller, it was largely a foregone conclusion that whomever the Republicans nominated stood a better than even chance of winning the presidency.

So, how did Lincoln secure the nomination? A commonly-held misconception is that a great deal of luck was involved. Miller argues that, while luck played a small role, it was no more than the fact that Lincoln was "lucky" to be from Illinois; "lucky" that Illinois had been home to Stephen Douglas; and "lucky" that Lincoln had used his six-year verbal jousting with Douglas to create a litany of speeches and written documents outlining his views far beyond Illinois itself, making him something of a national figure even before the 1860 convention. The location of that convention is often viewed as "lucky". It was not. Lincoln was instrumental in getting Chicago chosen as the site of the convention.

Throughout the book, Miller does a thorough job of tracing the trajectory of Lincoln's journey from self-taught lawyer to the White House. While dry and somewhat existential at times, Miller includes enough politics and history to make the book worth reading. He gives more depth to Lincoln than many authors. His is a balanced look at the life of the "real" Lincoln, not the icon with a monument on the Mall in Washington.

The book stops at Lincoln's inauguration. There are numerous examples, however, of the 1861-1865 Lincoln and his decision-making. But the purpose of the book is not to report on Lincoln the President. It is to explain how Lincoln the President came to be. What his values were, what his philosophies were, what made him what he was. After reading this, you'll get a greater appreciation of Lincoln the Icon, too.
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