Monday, July 5, 2010

Book Review: ABRAHAM LINCOLN, A LIFE, VOLUME 2 by Michael Burlingame (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009)

The second part of Burlingame's mega-bio of Lincoln covers the Civil War years... and here is where the author's decidedly pro-Lincoln stance is likely to be harshly criticized. Just as President Lincoln got slammed from both sides of the political spectrum during the nation's four-year ordeal -- with the Left damning his slow movement towards abolition and lack of energy in prosecuting the war and the Right nervous about the societal changes that too-hasty abolition would produce -- so "Old Abe" is criticized by fringe scholars today for all manner of sins: closet racism, imperialism, the introduction of tyrannical "big government" into American life, unwillingness to sanction a worker's revolution, and more. Burlingame, I am afraid, has left himself open to assaults from both sides, not so much by a refusal to criticize Lincoln (he correctly points out the problematic aspects of the wartime suspension of habeas corpus and the practical difficulties of Lincoln's mild Reconstruction plans, among other things) as by an inability to characterize anyone else involved in the drama without negative qualifiers. Doris Goodwin's TEAM OF RIVALS presented Lincoln's fractious Cabinet warts and all, yet still managed to demonstrate how such a disparate band of politicians managed to bring America's bloodiest war to a successful (to all but a handful of die-hards, anyway) conclusion. Reading Burlingame's descriptions of Edwin Stanton, William Seward, and company, one wonders how anything got done. Let's not even talk about the portrayals of Mary Lincoln and Lincoln's fiercest enemies. Lincoln's "psychological maturity" and unwillingness to hold grudges were unquestionably major factors in his success as a leader and politician, but here, the necessary level of restraint is portrayed as being almost superhuman. Those who "refuse to worship at Lincoln's altar" are not likely to have their minds changed by reading this book.

Burlingame's approach aside, this is as fair as a pro-Lincoln book can be, spending plenty of time quoting anti-Lincoln viewpoints. With the ugly events of the war itself getting relatively short shrift, the most depressing chapters cover the Lincolns' life at the White House. Mary Lincoln appears to have had virtually no redeeming qualities -- thereby making Abe's life all the more burdensome -- and the couple lost their son Willie to typhoid fever, besides. Office seekers, cranks, and the like added to the President's predicament. For Lincoln to have persevered through it all seems incredible to me. He is living proof that adversity does build character!

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