Bio maps Lincoln's path to freedom

Book review: "A. Lincoln: A Biography"

Book review: "A. Lincoln: A Biography"

February 23, 2009|By BOB HOOVER / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"A. LINCOLN: A BIOGRAPHY." By Ronald C. White Jr. (Random House; $35)

The contrast between the two inaugurals of Abraham Lincoln illustrates the story of the four terrible years that separated them.

Before his first swearing-in, March 4, 1861, the Republican Party's first president had arrived without fanfare in Washington, his timing unannounced to avoid assassination.

At 52, Lincoln was an untried, unknown quantity with no executive experience in government. He stood for preservation of the nation and a ban on slavery in new states, but status quo in slave states and enforcement of fugitive laws.

The crowd, estimated at 25,000, gathered around the unfinished Capitol, seemed to greet the new leader's conciliatory inaugural speech tepidly. Later, Frederick Douglass charged that Lincoln "bends the knee to slavery as readily as any of his infamous predecessors."


Although seven Southern states had seceded, there was hope that hostilities could be avoided. South Carolina's attack on Fort Sumter was more than a month away.

Four years and 600,000 war casualties later, the scene, again on March 4, at the inaugural was a madhouse of more than 50,000, called the biggest crowd ever in Washington.

It was swelled by deserters from the dying Confederacy, hundreds of freed slaves and phalanxes of Union troops. They had gathered to hear the popular president, re-elected in impressive fashion, speak on the brink of victory as the Southern insurgency collapsed.

Permitted to enter the White House after the ceremony, Douglass would tell Lincoln that his speech was "a sacred effort." The Union victory would be declared the next month.

Lincoln's journey from a raw backwoods lawyer to inspirational and triumphant leader during the country's worst crisis is the centerpiece of Ronald C. White Jr.'s sympathetic and encyclopedic biography of the 16th president in his bicentennial year.

It's among the latest of 16,000 books on Lincoln since 1860, a figure provided by his Bicentennial Commission, so White faces quite a challenge to write an original account. He doesn't try.

Instead, White's history of Lincoln's early and formative years, while conventional, is thorough and lively but one-sided. He goes to some length to justify or excuse his subject's faults and mistakes, including Lincoln's refusal to attend his father's funeral. During the war, Lincoln would pardon or forgive hundreds of strangers, but his antipathy toward his father would remain for the rest of his life.

The course of Lincoln's careers as prairie lawyer and Illinois politician during the feverish years before the Civil War is recounted in great detail. These are stories told often before but gain interest as seen with White's fresh eye.

Most impressive is Lincoln's almost fierce ambition to be a well-read citizen and effective writer and speaker. While his fellows were boozing it up and consorting with "fancy women," he kept his head clear for his books, says White.

Several principles motivated Lincoln: a strong national government, loyalty to the Constitution and belief that slavery must be contained.

Lincoln took advantage of the growing influence of the new Republican Party, launched in 1854, with its nationalistic and abolitionist factions uniting as the Southern slave defenders threatened to bolt the Union as the country grew westward.

How Lincoln wrested the presidential nomination from better qualified candidates in 1860 and survived an election clouded with uncertainty against two opponents, including U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas, his Illinois rival, demonstrates that the man from Illinois not only had effective supporters, but a political shrewdness that would serve him well in the White House.

Lincoln stumbled a lot as the commander in chief and he was burdened as well by the death of a child, the deteriorating mental state of his wife, Mary, and backroom politics. What sustained him was his gradual embrace of spirituality and faith in God.

White's careful interpretation of Lincoln's second inaugural address reveals how much Lincoln had changed during the ordeal, growing more sensitive and caring about his country as he grew stronger in his faith, a faith that directed him to abolish slavery and welcome all into his "new birth of freedom."

Words reflect the soul of the speaker, White proves. He has written not only a comprehensive biography of facts, but a rare account of Lincoln's spiritual journey from common rail-splitter to American savior.

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