Rescuing Lincoln

Most Americans are familiar with the young Abraham Lincoln. Stories abound of his truth telling, rail splitting, candlelight reading, soil tilling, store keeping, and flatboat driving. Amazingly enough, James M. McPherson has managed to touch on all of them — and a few more besides — in this brief biographical essay written to coincide with the bicentennial of the birth of our 16th president.
 

 
James M. McPherson, Oxford University Press, 96 pages, $12.95
 
Most Americans are familiar with the young Abraham Lincoln. Stories abound of his truth telling, rail splitting, candlelight reading, soil tilling, store keeping, and flatboat driving. Amazingly enough, James M. McPherson has managed to touch on all of them — and a few more besides — in this brief biographical essay written to coincide with the bicentennial of the birth of our 16th president.
 
As expected, 2009 has been the occasion for the birth of a number of new Lincoln biographies, the longest of which reaches four digits, page-wise. In Lincoln’s day such a tome would have required at least three digits worth of candles to read.
 
What might not have been expected is that one of the nation’s premier Civil War historians would weigh in with so slight a volume. And yet that is just what McPherson has done. More to the point, this ridiculously slim volume works ridiculously well. It’s more than an exercise in niche marketing or relief for sore eyes; it’s a biographical essay for readers who know a little or a lot about Lincoln, as well as for readers who lack Lincoln’s stamina or candle-power.
 
Let’s return to that flatboat for a moment. In 1828 and again in 1831, Lincoln and a pal steered such a craft down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. In McPherson’s estimate, each excursion "widened his horizons" in more ways than one. Along the way, he encountered innumerable people and scenes that were entirely new to him. But the most vivid of the lot was the sight of some of his fellow countrymen "shackled together with irons."
 
The young Lincoln had surely known of slavery, but he had never seen slaves. And once he did, the sight never left him. Years later he wrote that those bound men remained a "continual torment to me."
 
Some historians have used that famous Lincoln line to hammer its author. Their hammering goes something like this: If that sight was so tormenting, why didn’t Lincoln become an abolitionist? Instead, the young Lincoln decided to become — horror of horrors! — a politician. Worse than that, it appears that he never so much as toyed with the idea of joining the tiny ranks of the abolitionists. To add to the general embarrassment of it all, Lincoln was perpetually consumed with ambition — and political ambition, no less.
 
According to his law partner, Billy Herndon, Lincoln’s ambition was a "little engine that knew no rest," driven by nothing less than an all-American and all-consuming desire to be known. In the midst of one of his all too frequent bouts of depression, Lincoln confided to his closest friend that he was "more than willing to die" except "that he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived."
 
Some abolitionists did manage to be remembered — think William Lloyd Garrison — but Lincoln is not among them. Worse than that, for much of his political life, Lincoln was an anti-abolitionist and the target of abolitionist ire. Can the author of the Emancipation Proclamation be rescued from all of this?
 
 
In a word, yes. And McPherson is a most able rescuer. His mission: to save Lincoln from the charge that there is anything necessarily inconsistent with being a politician and being a man of principle.
 
"If slavery isn’t wrong, then nothing is wrong." That’s another unforgettable Lincoln line that McPherson has remembered to include. It also expresses a principle that Lincoln never forgot, whether he was steering that flatboat away from danger (or from dangerously tormenting sights) or steering his country away from the "peculiar institution" of slavery.
 
The steering metaphor guides McPherson through the entire essay as he takes the reader on Lincoln’s anti-slavery journey. By McPherson’s estimate, Lincoln gave upward of 175 speeches on slavery between the 1854 passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the onset of his presidency. The consistent theme of every one of them was the "necessity to exclude slavery from the territories as a first step toward its ultimate extinction."
 
Ultimate extinction. Lincoln never wavered from that goal, as he simultaneously steered his political career and his country toward a "new birth of freedom." Of course, that steady hand was joined to a man of great ambition. And of course, men of great ambition are quite capable of making great mistakes. McPherson details some of those as well.
 
But to Lincoln’s great credit, his ambitions and those mistakes never let him steer away from his great goal. Of course, he would have preferred to achieve this goal without a great war, but when war came, he refused to steer away from it, nor did he hesitate.
 
McPherson ends his account with another story of Lincolnian non-hesitation: New Year’s Day, 1863, was the day he would sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But first he had to endure a three-hour ordeal of hand-shaking at a White House reception. Exhausted and scarcely able to hold the pen, he worried that the signature would be unsteady and some would conclude that he had hesitated. Never more certain that he was "doing right," he signed without hesitation and without trembling. And why not? After all, veterans of steering flatboats and countries are mightily prepared to do that sort of thing.
 


John C. "Chuck" Chalberg teaches American history in Minnesota. He can be reached at Chuck.Chalberg@normandale.edu.

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