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.
According to Douglas, the Kansas-Nebraska Act simply embodied “the great principle of popular sovereignty”—that is, unlimited democracy—on which the nation’s Constitution was based.3 But Lincoln pounced on the fallacy in that assertion: “The doctrine of self-government is right,” he told an Illinois audience months after the Act’s passage,
but it has no just application, as here attempted. Or perhaps I should rather say that whether it has such just application depends upon whether a negro is not or is a man. . . . When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal;” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.4
He never wavered on this throughout his feud with Douglas—which climaxed four years later with their famous series of debates—and his arguments were notably eloquent, particularly when contrasted with Douglas’s unabashed racism. Like many of his contemporaries, Douglas insisted that although America’s founders may have said “all men” have the right to liberty, they only meant white men—a position shared, not coincidentally, by Hannah-Jones and other Lincoln detractors today. Yet the future president held firm to the principle at issue: “There is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence,” he said during the 1858 debates. “I agree with [Stephen] Douglas he is not my equal in many respects—certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of [Stephen] Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”5
Such intransigence proved crucial in the immediate aftermath of his election to the presidency, and Meacham’s description of this episode is the best part of his book. In the months between November 1860 and the inauguration in March 1861—the so-called Secession Winter, during which South Carolina and six other states left the union—slave owners and their northern collaborators proposed myriad compromises to avoid bloodshed. The most popular was offered by Kentucky Senator John Crittenden; it would have drawn a line across North America to the Pacific Coast, guaranteeing the legality of slavery below that line by amending the Constitution. Lincoln opposed the idea, not only because of his antislavery convictions but because the slave states had repeatedly bullied the federal government since at least the 1830s, with the latter almost always conceding to southern demands under the threat of violence. To appease them yet again would only have rewarded their intimidation, effectively guaranteeing another round of extortion.
Lincoln could not actually do anything before his inauguration to block the Crittenden Compromise, except to rally members of Congress to oppose it. That he did, under pressures to which many men in his place would have bent—and Meacham rightly highlights the importance of his inflexibility at this crucial moment: “Lincoln courageously resisted compromising on slavery in an hour when such compromise was within the realm of acceptable opinion,” he writes. “In these cold and complex months, Abraham Lincoln was both statesman and moral being, choosing the difficult over the easy, the catastrophic over the convenient, the right over the wrong” (201).
In underscoring this, Meacham outclasses David Herbert Donald, whose 1995 book Lincoln until now had been the best one-volume biography of the sixteenth president. Donald was a superb historian but far more interested in the pragmatic, day-to-day machinations of party politics than in leaders who elevated principle above mere scheming. In his version of the story, “the chances for compromise in 1860–1861 were never great,” and Lincoln’s refusal to endorse it, while admirable, was motivated more by awareness that to do so “would disrupt the party that elected him” than by the courage of his convictions.6
Yet as Meacham shows, the Crittenden proposal was a real threat—and Lincoln’s moral courage was not just right but also, and for that reason, the only truly practical plan. That’s because by 1860, slavery’s opponents were so accustomed to cowardice on the part of their leaders that Lincoln’s refusal to surrender gave them the morale boost they needed. A cynical Henry Adams, watching Crittenden’s allies negotiating the compromise proposal with Republican lobbyists, predicted that Lincoln’s party would eventually embrace “some damned nonsense or other”—but Lincoln, knowing such concessions would make his party, in his words, “a mere sucked egg, all shell and no principle in it,” said no (209). Adams and other antislavery men were thrilled.
“I have been greatly urged, by many patriotic men, to lend the influence of my position to some compromise,” Lincoln said afterward. But “if, when a Chief Magistrate is constitutionally elected, he cannot be inaugurated till he betrays those who elected him, by breaking his pledges, and surrendering to those who tried and failed to defeat him at the polls, this government and all popular government is already at an end” (220).
Yet if Lincoln was so firm in his convictions, why was he so slow to free the slaves, and why did he endorse colonization schemes—as late as December 1862—that urged black Americans to leave the country? The answer is that he lived in a place and a time in which racism was pervasive, and he could not push faster than his own constituents were willing to accept. He “was a campaigner who believed that the public sentiment he so respected tended to be best shaped gradually,” writes Meacham. And although “in popular memory, the Civil War is broadly cast as a death-struggle between North and South and abolition and slavery,” the reality “was much more complicated. He was a minority president: he faced opposition not only in the Confederacy but in the tenuously loyal border states; and . . . faced powerful and numerous opponents in the north” (162, 247). Had Lincoln tried to invalidate slavery by fiat upon entering office—or even long afterward—his army would likely have refused to fight, and the Confederacy would have prevailed by default. His job, rather, was to patiently mold public opinion. What many viewed during his lifetime as temporizing—and some today characterize as hypocrisy—was actually Lincoln’s principled statesmanship in a constitutional republic.
Yet the war itself also taught Lincoln, as it taught many of his countrymen, the full meaning of what America’s basic principles really demanded. As they watched black soldiers fight heroically to save the union and black statesmen such as Frederick Douglass strive to lead the country, the president and the people began moving beyond merely hating slavery toward embracing a free and multiracial union—a shift that was tragically cut short by Lincoln’s murder in 1865.
Unfortunately, Meacham stumbles when he tries to explain Lincoln’s steadfastness, attributing it overwhelmingly to the Great Emancipator’s religious beliefs. This is a distortion, however. Although there can be no doubt that Lincoln held some kind of religious views, they were unlike any conventional Christianity, and Meacham’s focus on Lincoln’s faith and the religious atmosphere of his day conveys an exaggerated, sometimes inconsistent impression. As a politician, he often employed religious language and imagery but typically more for rhetorical effect than from religious zeal; he understood what Meacham calls “the utility—and the ubiquity—of Christianity” in 19th-century America (93). But he was just as likely to quote from Shakespeare or Jefferson when discussing politics or power.
In fact, Lincoln was so taken with the secular writings of Voltaire and Thomas Paine that as a young man he wrote a book-length essay attacking Christianity and circulated it to friends, until a respected member of the community “thrust it into the stove” while scolding him that freethinking would wreck his career (40). Even Lincoln’s closest friends, Meacham admits, could only “make educated guesses” about his actual religious views (127). As for his opinions on slavery, Lincoln was led primarily by his own reason—as he privately acknowledged: “The Almighty gives no audable [sic] answer to the question” of whether slavery is God’s will, he observed in an 1858 memorandum that Meacham does not quote, “and his revelation—the Bible—gives none—or, at most, none but such as admits of a squabble, as to its meaning.”7 Thus, as Meacham later concedes, “his insight on the wrongness of slavery came more from an intuitive moral sensibility and a conviction that there were universal goods to be acted upon” than from “conventional Christian understandings” (226).
Meacham’s own commentary on the relationship between religion and slavery is also discordant. He implies early in the book that Christianity and slavery are incompatible due to “the biblical assertion that all human creatures were made in the image of God,” but it would be more accurate to say that the Bible—including the New Testament—is equivocal at best (12). In the Old Testament, the Israelites are positively commanded to enslave, and Jesus and his followers never preached that those in bondage should be freed; instead, they told slaves to “obey your earthly masters.”8 Pro-slavery theologians found plenty of biblical material upon which to base their contention that slavery was divinely ordained, or at least not a sin. Yet in describing how Confederates defended slavery on a religious basis, Meacham remarks that “if one were fighting God’s battles, then anything—including slavery and murder—was justified” (395). True enough—and it was precisely Lincoln’s recognition of this fact that disinclined him to base his positions on faith.
There’s no doubt Lincoln took Christianity seriously—enough to spend long evenings at the White House engrossed in conversations with clergymen—but in that pre-Darwin age, it’s unremarkable that he based his views to some degree on religion. Far more significant was his reliance on what he called “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason,” which he thought was the only safe path for the nation to follow.9 Meacham would have been better served to balance his description of Lincoln’s religious background with a discussion of the other sources that influenced his philosophy.
That would be challenging, of course, because Lincoln was a subtle, brilliant man with enough political skill to keep his mouth shut when necessary. What many of his contemporaries—and many today—mistook for paradoxes or even contradictions more often reflected the prudence of a leader facing the horrendous task of guiding the United States toward a philosophic principle when unprecedented bloodshed made it sometimes seem safer to disregard that principle. His actions could give the impression of inconsistency, generating the legend of two different Lincolns—revolutionary and conservative, peaceful and warlike, belonging to the ages and belonging to the angels. But a better understanding of his principled statesmanship, such as Meacham offers here, shows that there were never two Lincolns, any more than there were two nations in America. Rather, there was only ever one American dream: the one Lincoln said was embodied by “the principle of ‘Liberty to all’” (207).
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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.