New York: Random House, 2022
676 pages, $40 hardback
When Abraham Lincoln died in a bricklayer’s house across from Ford’s Theater on April 15, 1865, the weeping secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, said . . . something. Nobody knows exactly what. The most common version of the story holds that Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” But some thought his words were more prosaic: “Now he belongs to the angels.”1
Such disagreement seems fitting in Lincoln’s case—an apt symbol of the way the Great Emancipator was, and remains, a subject of divided opinion. Even during his lifetime, many said that Lincoln was as disunited as the country he sought to lead; some even claimed to see his asymmetrical visage as proof of internal contradictions—an observation that Daniel Chester French built upon when sculpting the statue for the Lincoln Memorial. It features one hand relaxed to represent peace, the other clenched in a fist to symbolize war. Lincoln’s actions and words could, indeed, appear inconsistent. His Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves—but only in states over which he had no effective control. He insisted on equality—but refused to endorse black suffrage. He said the nation was fighting for liberty—but approved the arrest of dissidents and the suspension of habeas corpus.
More recently, some activists have turned against Lincoln, citing his hesitant approach to the rights of black Americans and his occasional use of racist language. The president who insisted on what he called “the principle of ‘Liberty to all’—the principle that clears the path for all [and] gives hope to all”—also said he was “not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with the white people” (207, 168). These words have led writers such as Lerone Bennett Jr. to label him a “conservative white supremacist”—a notion endorsed by Bennett’s admirer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, in the New York Times’s “1619 Project.”2
Such things make it all the more gratifying that Jon Meacham would offer an up-to-date, smoothly written, and objective new biography that makes a powerful case for Lincoln’s merits while acknowledging his genuine shortcomings. Nowadays, when it is so fashionable to demean and slander the great men of American history, it’s refreshing to encounter a book that is unafraid to defend the reputation of one who has a fair claim to being the greatest.
Lincoln entered politics as a Whig, with commonplace ideas and modest prospects. But everything changed in 1854, when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed white residents of America’s western territories to vote on whether to enslave the territories’ black inhabitants. That Act—authored by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas—repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which had confined slavery to the southeastern part of the country. As Lincoln later said, the Compromise put slavery “in the course of ultimate extinction,” because as the nation grew, slave states would find themselves outvoted in Congress and would likely be forced to adopt some means of liberating the enslaved. Repeal of the Compromise seemed to eliminate this prospect and to guarantee that slavery would become permanent and continent-wide. Lincoln found this intolerable. He thrust himself into competition with Douglas, leading the new Republican Party in opposing efforts to expand slavery into the West. . . .
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1. Adam Gopnik, “Angels and Ages,” New Yorker, May 28, 2007, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/05/28/angels-and-ages.
2. Lerone Bennett Jr., “Was Abraham Lincoln a White Supremacist?,” Ebony, February 1968.
3. Paul M. Angle, ed., The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958), 14.
4. Don E. Fehrenbacher, ed., Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832–1858 (New York: Library of America, 1989), 328.
5. Fehrenbacher, Abraham Lincoln, 512.
6. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 268, 270.
7. Fehrenbacher, Abraham Lincoln, 685.
8. Ephesians 6:5.
9. Fehrenbacher, Abraham Lincoln, 36.