Shrewd Old Abe
Abraham Lincoln seems to be the man of the hour. Barack Obama, who has consciously modeled himself on the sixteenth president and launched his campaign from Lincoln’s Springfield, celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of his predecessor’s birth with a speech stressing his pertinence at this historic moment. At the same time, a group of prominent historians rated the American presidents and placed Lincoln at the very top of their list. This won’t surprise anyone: his “greatness” is widely accepted, even by those who know little about the man. And most of us know little about him, despite the many hundreds of books on the subject that have been written over the last century and a half. As a publisher once told H. L. Mencken, “there are four kinds of books that never, under any circumstances, lose money in the United States—first, detective stories, secondly, novels in which the heroine is forcibly debauched by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism, and other claptrap, and fourthly, books on Lincoln.” Too many of the books on Lincoln, unfortunately, are as full of claptrap as any occultist text. Back in 1962, Edmund Wilson complained, with justice, that “There has undoubtedly been written about [Lincoln] more romantic and sentimental rubbish than about any other American figure, with the possible exception of Edgar Allan Poe; and there are moments when one is tempted to feel that the cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg.”
Well, that was almost a half-century ago, and the intervening years have seen Lincoln easily outstrip Poe and just about everybody else. Barack Obama might be a future contender for lashings of Sandburgian schmaltz, but Honest Abe the Railsplitter has cornered the market up to the present day. And what a disservice Sandburg did to his hero! The Lincoln he passed on to posterity, taken up by dramatizers like Robert Sherwood (Abe Lincoln in Illinois) and John Ford (Young Mr. Lincoln) was a pious fellow, cloyingly folksy, rather humorless, who—according to popular hagiographies—never played cards or used profane language.
This image is far from the truth, and his contemporaries, at least those who came in contact with him, knew it. “‘Honest Old Abe’ was all very well for an electioneering rally,” commented one journalist during his presidency, “but shrewd Old Abe is much more to the purpose about these days.” Wilson, perusing Lincoln’s collected papers, noticed above all the “dignity of the public utterances,” varied occasionally “by some curtly sarcastic note to a persistently complaining general or an importunate office-seeker.” Sarcasm in fact came naturally to Lincoln, as it does to many people who are far more intelligent than those they have to deal with on a daily basis. (On the subject of the aforementioned “importunate office-seekers,” for instance, the harassed president once joked to a political crony that “Were it believed that vacant places could be had at the North Pole, the road there would be lined with dead Virginians.”) Knowing how destructive such sharpness could be, though, he kept it firmly under control, favoring the carrot over the stick in his myriad delicate negotiations with cabinet ministers, generals, admirals, and—not least —his wife. As naval historian Craig L. Symonds1 observes, Lincoln got his results through a considered diplomacy. “It was one of Lincoln’s great gifts that almost everyone who left his office, even if he failed to accomplish whatever mission had brought him there, did so with a powerful sense of the president’s personal concern for his problem,” he writes. “The president seldom criticized anyone directly, even when he felt compelled to dismiss them, and he never employed . . . confrontational language. . . . With the single exception of McClellan, Lincoln managed to maintain the loyalty, and even the admiration, of most of his disappointed generals.” As Lincoln himself wrote,
If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one. On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and heart. . . .
The “real” Lincoln has been obscured to posterity not only by Sandburgian cant but, more recently, by modern standards of racial politics that are wholly inappropriate to the 1860s. The turning point in this interpretational shift was a 1968 essay by Lerone Bennett, Jr., in Ebony, “Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?” Bennett contended that “No other American story is so false” as the myth of the Great Emancipator: Lincoln, he claimed, was a “conservative white supremacist” who “distinguished himself as president by sustained and consistent opposition to the fundamental principle of the [Emancipation] Proclamation that guaranteed his immortality” and planned ahead for a “Reconstruction of the white people, by the white people and for the white people.”
Bennett’s article garnered a huge amount of attention and marked the beginning of a precipitous decline in Lincoln’s reputation among African-Americans. But Bennett’s thinking and phraseology are deeply unhistorical, his choice of words knowingly provocative. To use the phrase “white supremacist” is to conjure up quite deliberately the mental image of a hooded KKK thug or a redneck sheriff, images totally at odds with Lincoln and his way of thinking. Looked at in the context of the 1860s, nearly every white American, liberal as well as conservative, was a white supremacist if by that you mean someone who believes that it is in the normal and correct order of things for whites to be socially superior to blacks. A small proportion of Americans, mostly active abolitionists, did not believe this, but they were perceived as dangerous radicals by the rest of the country including its more liberal elements. Lincoln, like others who have successfully aspired to be forces for liberal change—Gandhi, King, and now Obama—was aware that it is futile to be a visionary without being a very clever politician at the same time. Bennett uses “politician” as a derogatory term, but only a politician could have pushed through emancipation and the subsequent Thirteenth Amendment in the face of a widespread assumption of black inferiority and a national dread of miscegenation.
This was understood by the crowds of freed slaves who thronged the streets of Richmond to see the “father Abraham” who, they believed, had led them to freedom. They had grown up in a world where they were considered subhuman, legally three-fifths of a person, and they could measure the distance the Emancipation Proclamation had brought them. A hundred years later, in Bennett’s day, radicalized African-Americans had new concerns and new ambitions. Reading Frederick Douglass, they could agree with his many reservations about Lincoln without feeling the truth, which perhaps only someone born in slavery could fully comprehend, that while Lincoln was “preeminently the white man’s President,” he had nevertheless been something of a miracle. Douglass would never forget, he said in his 1866 Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln,
the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the emancipation proclamation. In that happy hour we forgot all delay, and forgot all tardiness, forgot that the President had bribed the rebels to lay down their arms by a promise to withhold the bolt which would smite the slave-system with destruction; and we were thenceforward willing to allow the President all the latitude of time, phraseology, and every honorable device that statesmanship might require for the achievement of a great and beneficent measure of liberty and progress.
The key word here is “statesmanship.” Statesmanship requires honorable devices—and less honorable ones, such as bribery. A democracy is not like a monarchy, where the monarch can change laws and social structures by fiat; in a democracy, the executive cannot deviate too radically from public opinion, and if he does, he must be very discreet in guiding public opinion toward his own way of thinking. “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground,” Douglass said, “Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent: but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult [my italics], he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.” Craig L. Symonds states the case nicely: “At his core Lincoln was a politician, not a revolutionary; he believed in the efficacy—and sanctity—of the political process.”
He pushed a little here, resisted a little there; he tried out ideas on various constituencies until it became clear where the thrust of history was taking him. But all that time as he shepherded history along, nudging gently or prodding forcefully, he believed he was guiding the country in the direction that history, or fate, or Providence, would choose for itself. He was history’s instrument, not its prime mover.
Though Lerone Bennett’s article was a necessary corrective to blind Lincoln-worship in its day, it wildly overstated its case and distorted history. Nevertheless, it is now obligatory to retread all this turf in any treatment of Lincoln. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s television special, Looking for Lincoln, which aired on PBS the night before Lincoln’s 200th birthday, was symptomatic of this necessity. Interviewing the now-elderly Bennett and various other thinkers, Gates nodded sadly and solemnly over tales of Lincoln’s racism: perhaps he was just adopting the classic interviewing technique of playing the naïf so as to elicit talk and explanations from the subject, for he cannot have been surprised by any of this nor, as a cutting-edge academic, ignorant of the profound philosophical and political differences between the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries.
Less interesting, in the final analysis, than Lincoln’s racial attitudes is the question of why he attached such overriding, even religious significance, to the Union. As he stated again and again, it was to save the Union, and not to end slavery, that he went to war. “I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual,” he said in his First Inaugural. Why? The founding fathers didn’t think so; George Washington, in private, gave it twenty years at most. They were painfully aware that it was a fragile, even arbitrary, alliance of disparate interests, cultures, and ethnic groups, and that the issue of slavery would probably break it in the not-too-distant future. What, after all, had New York moneymen, Massachusetts industrialists, Virginia planters, and Kentucky frontiersmen to do with one another? Madison and Hamilton might have been amused at New York City Mayor Thurlow Weed’s bold idea, broached during the Civil War, that the city should secede from the Union in its own right so as to be able to continue doing business with both sides—but they would not have been particularly surprised.
But Lincoln, not a conventionally religious man, claimed a religious rationale for the Union and its people, the Almighty’s “almost chosen people,” and approached what Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer has called “a messianic belief in American exceptionalism.” All the authority of the president comes from the people, Lincoln said, “and they have conferred none upon him to fix terms for the separation of the States.” As President-Elect, he maintained that
. . . the very existence of a general and national government implies the legal power, right, and duty of maintaining its own integrity.
The right of a State to secede is not an open or debatable question. . . . It is the duty of a President to execute the laws and maintain the existing Government. He cannot entertain any proposition for dissolution or dismemberment.
And in his First Inaugural, he held that
Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.
There speaks the lawyer. In fact only fifteen years earlier, in a speech against the Mexican War that would come back to haunt him, Lincoln had argued that “Any people anywhere . . . have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. . . . This is a most valuable,—a most sacred right.” Most Americans at that time, and a good many now, have believed that it is this sacred right to revolution, and not the perpetual maintenance of the Union, that is the greatest legacy of the American founding. It was Lincoln’s achievement—and just how valuable an achievement it is, is still very much open to question—to yoke the disparate States together forcibly and to create a nation of Americans, rather than a loose alliance of Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, etc. Our very adherence to our flag (and in what other country in the world is this so extreme?) is a measure of how recent, and how uncertain, our national allegiance really is. A situation like that in which Robert E. Lee, anti-secessionist and anti-slavery, could refuse Lincoln’s offer of the command of the Union armies because he felt himself to be more a Virginian than an American is unthinkable nowadays.
The Civil War is a provocative example of that old cliché, “history is written by the winners.” America now widely accepts that the war, with its 620,000 dead, widespread suffering, and traumatic social upheaval, was the correct way to deal with the apparently intractable problems that rent the country apart in the mid-nineteenth century. In the years directly following the war, the idea that so many could have died in vain was publicly unacceptable; it still is. But it is possible to ask this question without being a ranting racist or a Confederate apologist: what would have happened if the seceding states had been left alone to form their Confederacy? Slavery would have died out eventually, probably sooner rather than later as European countries stopped buying American cotton: it was dying, after all, everywhere else in the Western world. There would have been two countries rather than the superpower which is now, in the twenty-first century, running roughshod over other nations. One would have been an industrial, liberal power; one would have been a conservative, agrarian one. This separation might have made for a more balanced Western hemisphere. It is also important to note that the political, religious and cultural fault lines that run through the modern United States (think Red and Blue) are drawn along the Union vs. Confederacy fault lines, and the deadlock that has paralyzed Congress for the last decade or so might be the inevitable reflection of problems left unsolved by Reconstruction.
A recent updating of Edward Creasey’s classic Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo has added five more recent conflicts, including Vicksburg. What if Vicksburg had gone the other way? Or: what if Sherman had taken Atlanta just after, rather than just before, the 1864 election? The Democratic candidate, George McClellan, would probably have won the presidency with a mandate for peace and compromise. How would that have changed the future configuration of the United States? And another great “what if?” of history: what if Lee had accepted the Union command? Taking into consideration his skills in comparison with those of the men who actually led the Union army for the first two years of the war—Scott, McClellan, Meade, Burnside, Buell—it would appear that with Lee in charge the Union could have won the war in a year or less, without the long, punishing years of conflict, the great loss of life, and the bleeding of the South that was effected by Grant’s “total war” policy of 1863–5. The bitterness of Reconstruction, too, would almost certainly have been mitigated.
Needless to say, the Lincoln anniversary has added a substantial tributary to the mighty river of Lincolniana. To begin with, The Library of America has produced a deluxe “Bicentennial Edition”: two volumes of Lincoln’s speeches and writings (1832– 1858 and 1859–1865) and The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy, edited by Harold Holzer. The last is of particular interest, bringing together essays on Lincoln from such diverse commentators as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Lowell, Karl Marx, H. G. Wells, Winston Churchill, Leo Tolstoy, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Allen Ginsberg, as well as many of Lincoln’s contemporaries and colleagues.
In the field of biography, Michael Burlingame has bludgeoned the opposition with his meticulously researched, extraordinarily wide-ranging work: Abraham Lincoln: A Life has been deemed by Doris Kearns Goodwin the biography that Lincoln scholars have been anxiously awaiting for decades. At two thousand pages, this is a book that casual readers might steer clear of, but that would be too bad; by all accounts it is the most comprehensive and perhaps the best book on Lincoln that has come along in at least a generation.
On the other end of the scale, former Senator (and presidential candidate) George McGovern has produced a slim, pocket-sized life for Times Books’ American Presidents Series, under the editorship of Sean Wilentz and the late Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. McGovern has streamlined Lincoln’s life and significance eloquently, paying special attention to the liberties he took with the Constitution during the Civil War: like all war presidents, he used the force of circumstances to expand the power of the executive: more than 13,000 citizens were arrested during the Civil War without benefit of habeas corpus, which Lincoln suspended in 1863, and they were tried in military courts, not civilian ones. It would seem that George W. Bush could call on impeccable precedents for his recent, much decried acts. And in acts which even the Bush administration could not get away with, Lincoln encouraged government censorship and even had newspaper editors arrested. He also became the first president to call on military conscription—the draft.
These activities might have been understandable, McGovern writes, “But serious questions as to their legalities are justified. It is also debatable whether these actions enhanced the power of the Union or shortened the war. Breaking the law is ordinarily not a good idea, even in wartime.” But McGovern concludes, undoubtedly correctly, that “he did not stretch the limits of presidential power because he was interested in power per se. If he favored a liberal interpretation of the Constitution it was because he wanted to save the Constitution. . . .” Harriet Beecher Stowe had said much the same thing at the time. “Lincoln certainly was the safest leader a nation could have at a time when the habeas corpus must be suspended, and all the constitutional and minor rights of citizens be thrown into the hands of their military leader. A genius might have wrecked our Constitution and ended us in a splendid military despotism.”
McGovern is also interesting on an aspect of Lincoln’s presidency that is often passed over: the sweeping legislative acts that were passed by the Republican-controlled Congress, including the Internal Revenue Act of 1861, the National Banking Acts of 1863 and 1864, and the creation of the excise tax system and the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Three landmark acts—the Homestead Act, the Land Grant College Act, and the creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture—“formed a tripod on which much of America’s great agricultural success has rested from that day until the present.” Lincoln and the new Republican Party effected a radical shift in this country’s philosophy of government in inculcating a general “belief that the federal government could and should play an important role in the public welfare. . . . Prior to the Civil War, liberty was thought to be the restraint of government from tyrannizing the individual. After the war, liberty was something that the government helped to provide; it was the broadening of individual empowerment.” Some people have held Lincoln responsible for creating “big government,” which makes it the more ironic that modern Republicans are so eager to claim him as one of their own.
It was a whole new way of conceiving of government—as a positive rather than a negative. This theme has been elaborated on by Allen C. Guelzo in Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America; Guelzo has a large historic vision, seeing the debates not so much as exercises in rhetoric or show business, as some others have done, but as “the greatest assizes that were ever assembled at any time . . . for the life of the nation, for the liberty of a race, for the triumph of eternal principles.” What Lincoln was attacking, along with the extension of slavery, was the traditional American conception of government as a basically amoral force, a mere facilitator for unencumbered individualism. Jacksonian Democrats like Stephen Douglas refused to look at policy as a reflection of morality; “at the deepest level,” Guelzo writes, “what Lincoln defended in the debates was the possibility that there could be a moral core to a democracy. . . . What was the American experiment about? Finding space to be free, or finding an opportunity to do right?” Guelzo defends Lincoln’s definition, as indeed most Americans would, but it should be remembered that the conception of government as a moral force can be dangerous when the government falls into the hands of an unscrupulous administration which uses moral justifications to mask military aggression.
Guelzo’s account of the debates is extremely clear and detailed, but it occasionally becomes tedious because so many of the protagonists’ arguments were repeated from one debate to another. As Guelzo points out, Douglas was more repetitive than Lincoln, perhaps because Lincoln understood the new mobility of information. Douglas still saw America as an oral culture, and he prepared his speeches (for the debates were really a series of speeches) as one-time oratorical events aimed specifically at whichever particular audience he happened to be addressing. Lincoln recognized that his words would have more impact and reach a far wider audience, in print. Hired “phonographers” transcribed each speech for the newspapers, so that the whole country became aware of the great principles that were being thrashed out in provincial Illinois. “If there was any clear goal in view with sequential-speech debates, it seemed principally to be getting transcribed and reported in newspapers or published afterward as books. Either way, debate was more often an affirmation of print, rather than a triumph of voice.” When Douglas won the Senate seat (though not the popular vote) by a hair, he went to Washington; Lincoln, however, got busy editing the debates for publication in book form—a masterful act of self-promotion which would ease his way to the presidency two years later.
Lincoln’s feel for oratory was reflected in his writing. Literary scholars from his day to ours have recognized that he possessed a peculiar gift in that department, as in so many others. “Alone among American Presidents,” Edmund Wilson opined, “it is possible to imagine Lincoln, grown up in a different milieu, becoming a distinguished writer of a not merely political kind.” (Though I think Wilson was doing an injustice to Thomas Jefferson here.) Jacques Barzun has identified the four principal qualities of Lincoln’s literary art as “precision, vernacular ease, rhythmical virtuosity, and elegance,” and deemed him a major force in transforming American high literary style: “Lincoln’s example, plainly, helped to break the monopoly of the dealers in literary plush. After Lincoln comes Mark Twain, and out of Mark Twain come . . . Sherwood Anderson, H. L. Mencken, and Ernest Hemingway.”
Fred Kaplan, a literary scholar and the author of books on Twain, Dickens, and Henry James, among others, has addressed this side of Lincoln with Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, in which he closely examines both his subject’s writing and his reading. Like Barzun, he sees Lincoln as a key figure in the development of an American literary style markedly different from the British variety. Of his early sojourn in Indiana, Kaplan writes that
Precision, brevity, and plain speech became his characteristic style. Local Indiana speech had special colloquial power. The young man grasped and embraced that. It emphasized the demotic language that eventually, as the nineteenth century progressed, became the literary language of America, the gradual burgeoning of a consensus that a practical people could create a literature that took its linguistic values from the distinctive features of American speech.
But Kaplan assures us that this preference for the colloquial does not imply a rural bias or the sort of anti-intellectual prejudice that has become so prevalent in the American psyche: Lincoln “did not adhere to any of the cultural myths about the superiority of country to city life or the moral inferiority of corrupt city ways to pastoral purity.”
Lincoln had indeed been deeply unhappy during his years of working the land with his illiterate father, and never in later life expressed any opinion that the experience had been of particular benefit to his character. Still, he was not above exploiting its contribution to his myth. Intellectually and psychologically a highly sophisticated man, he retained throughout his life a yokel aspect which, while perfectly genuine—Lincoln had simple tastes, after all—he also recognized as a help to his political image. Against Douglas, both in the Senate race and the subsequent presidential one, he played a variation of the ploughman-versus-professor scenario that had worked so well for Andrew Jackson in his campaign against John Quincy Adams (and with which George W. Bush, many years later, would assail Al Gore): in his case it was the plain-living local fellow against the big-spending, high-rolling rich man.
That Lincoln was able to maintain this reputation in the face of his wife’s enormous expenditures on clothes, jewelry, and furnishings says a great deal about his ability to hone his image and stay “on message.” Mary Todd Lincoln is widely agreed to have been a public liability for the president, whatever his private feelings for her might have been (and thanks to his discretion and that of their son Robert, who kept much of their correspondence private, that is something we can only guess at). Always high-strung and violent-tempered, she began to show signs of mental instability during the couple’s early days in the White House; the pressures of the position, her husband’s emotional remoteness, and the death of their beloved son Willie in 1862 accelerated her decline. Physically violent and ragingly jealous, Mary tried to calm her nerves with obsessive shopping that offended a country wrenched by the losses and hardships of war: in her first trip to New York after becoming First Lady, for instance, she spent nearly $8000 that can be accounted for. (Multiplying the sum by fifteen to get a modern figure, we find the total to be roughly equivalent to Sarah Palin’s spree before the 2008 election.)
With The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, Daniel Mark Epstein has attempted a description of this strange partnership. Unlike so many who have written about Mary, Epstein seems to have become fond of her, or at any rate eager to defend her and give her the benefit of the doubt when possible. He dutifully quotes critics, like the Lincoln relative Harriet Hanks, who “would rather say nothing about [Lincoln’s] Wife, as I could say but little in her favor I conclude it best to Say nothing,” or the Springfield minister who joked that Mrs. Lincoln was so inflated with self-importance “that she ought to be sent to the coopers and well secured against bursting by iron hoops.” Epstein, to his credit, sees more pathos than bile in Mary, and he makes an honest attempt to help the reader understand why Lincoln continued to love her and support her through all of her vagaries. There can be no doubt that he suffered from these, but neither, I think, can there be any doubt of his affection for his unhappy partner.
Epstein points out that the “caricature of Innocent Abe and Shrewd Mary is nearly opposite to the truth.” Indeed, Mary seems to have spent much of her married life in a state of bafflement, stonewalled by her husband’s emotional remoteness and passivity, his myriad extra-domestic concerns, and her inability to rise to his intellectual level. Lincoln, ever the diplomat, did his best to keep her placated; but it must have been weary work.
Epstein almost completely ignores the recent speculations that Lincoln was a homosexual. (Regarding his very warm friendship with Captain Derickson, for instance, he says only, “During Mrs. Lincoln’s long absences the president got lonely, and since female companionship was out of the question, the company of men would have to suffice.”) But in truth Lincoln’s sexuality, whether homo- or hetero-, is really the least interesting aspect of his character. Unlike many men of powerful drive and ambition (Winston Churchill is another exception), Lincoln does not seem to have been endowed with a terribly strong libido. The fascinating thing about his career is how little sex, love, and marriage actually impinged upon it. Mary remains very much a background figure in most studies of Lincoln, unless they focus, like Epstein’s, specifically on the marriage.
A book that held particular interest for me was Harold Holzer’s Lincoln, President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860–1861. Reading it, as I did, during the interregnum between the 2008 election and the 2009 inauguration, I was struck on almost every page by similarities between the two situations. Buchanan-like, Bush seemed already to have given up the job, while Obama, like Lincoln, was under considerable pressure to “do something” about the compounding disasters while being legally unable to act. Perhaps Obama studied Lincoln’s strategy, for his approach to the problem was very similar. The challenges facing Lincoln, of course, were more dire than our current ones: Seven states seceded from the Union between his election in November and his inauguration the following March (for in those days the waiting period was two months longer than it is now); the country was falling apart, and unlike Obama he did not have much of a mandate, having received only 39 percent of the popular vote (he was not even on the ballot in most Southern states). What, everyone demanded, did he have to say?
Nothing. “I feel constrained, for the present, at least, to make no declaration to the public,” he said.
First, I could say nothing which I have not already said, and which is in print, and open for the inspection of all. To press a repetition of this upon those who have listened, is useless; to press it upon those who have refused to listen, and still refuse, would be wanting in self-respect, and would have an appearance of sycophancy and timidity, which would excite the contempt of good men, and encourage bad ones to clamor the more loudly.
In private, he commented with his customary Biblical felicity that “They seek a sign, and no sign shall be given them.”
During the months before his inauguration, Lincoln was widely perceived as being inactive and indecisive, but of course the media were not as obtrusive at that time as they are today and were not able to pry into his day-to-day activities during the transition. He did not seek the limelight, preferring to mold his cabinet and his government away from the public glare. “Because the president-elect’s quiet string-pulling to prevent compromise remained shrouded,” Holzer says, “his public silence served to cement his historical reputation as an inefficient transition leader.” The reality, Holzer effectively demonstrates, was very different; Doris Kearns Goodwin’s classic study of Lincoln’s cabinet, Team of Rivals, tells a similar story. Assembling this team out of a rabble of r apacious place seekers was a very ticklish business indeed: “Poor Lincoln!” his friend William Herndon commiserated. “God help him! What angry looks & growls for bones that have fat & meat of them!”
Lincoln thought it both wise and politic to offer the State Department to the greatest of his rivals within the Republican Party, William H. Seward (a precedent Obama has followed in his choice of Hillary Clinton), but was dubious whether the disgruntled Seward could be persuaded to serve under him; an alternate possibility was Edward Bates. “It was Lincoln’s singular talent for manipulating subordinates and peers alike that he could so easily convince two sophisticated men simultaneously that they were each his first and only choice for the same job,” says Holzer. Another challenge were the endless maneuverings and negotiations with Simon Cameron, who was indelibly stained with allegations of corruption but nevertheless considered essential for the purposes of regional representation in the government. He eventually accepted the post of Secretary of War, but served less than a year before his unsavory past caught up with him and he was compelled to resign in favor of Edwin M. Stanton. On the bright side, the mass resignations of pro-slavery senators before the inauguration at least made the confirmation process for these choices relatively easy.
Of all the remarkable aspects of Lincoln’s life, one of the most remarkable was his unexpected development as Commander-in-Chief. A provincial Midwesterner who had never been abroad (except for a brief foray into Canada while visiting Niagara Falls), had served only briefly, and without distinction, in the 1832 Black Hawk War, and had made no particular study of military strategy, Lincoln could not have been expected to perform terribly effectively. Nor did he even expect it of himself; his principal idea was to find a military genius who would take over the running of the war and leave him, as much as possible, out of it. But such a genius—whom he was at long last to find in Grant—was a long time coming. Lincoln rather quickly came to realize that Winfield Scott, seventy-five years old and 300 pounds, was not this man; but he had high hopes for George McClellan, hopes that were dashed only after an agonizing history of inaction, sluggishness, arrogance, and egregious, even treasonous, insubordination. Famed Civil War historian James M. McPherson’s Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief describes Lincoln’s slow takeover of the war in painful detail, the author’s withering contempt for McClellan positively dripping from the pages.
Lincoln was faced with the necessity of command from the moment he took office: within twenty-four hours of the inauguration he was handed a letter from Major Robert Anderson at FortSumter, saying that without reinforcements he could not hold out for more than six weeks. Five of his seven cabinet members, led by Seward, recommended withdrawal; the decision to attempt the relief was very much the president’s. “Of all the trials I have had since I came here [the White House],” he remembered six months later, “none begin to compare with those I had between the inauguration and the fall of Fort Sumpter [sic].”
He quickly embarked on a crash-course in military strategy. As his private secretary John Hay later recalled, “He gave himself, night and day, to the study of the military situation. He read a large number of strategical works. He pored over the reports from the various departments and districts of the field of war. He held long conferences with eminent generals and admirals, and astonished them by the extent of his special knowledge and the keen intelligence of his questions.” The Constitution does not define the powers of the Commander-in-Chief, and the examples of the previous war presidents, Madison and Polk, provided little in the way of guidance. In the end, he turned out to be the most hands-on of all war presidents.
McPherson judges that Lincoln was not a natural strategist but squeezed success from canniness and hard work to the point where he outdid his generals and advisers. He was not impressed by precedent, “how it had always been done before,” and he favored talent over seniority. And his instincts about the way the war must be waged finally turned out to be correct. He had urged generals like McClellan and Meade to attack Lee’s army rather than trying to take the capital, Richmond, and in the end this is how the war was won, with Union commanders capturing or destroying whole Southern armies: Grant at Vicksburg, Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, Thomas at Nashville, and Grant again at Appomattox.
Craig L. Symonds’ Lincoln and His Admirals is a very welcome addition to Lincolniana: Symonds, Professor Emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy, is tremendously knowledgeable on this relatively untreated theater of the Civil War and writes as easily and elegantly as McPherson does, with as profound an understanding of the importance of character and personality in the conduct of battle. His story shows Lincoln, who confessed at the outset of the war to knowing “but little about ships,” presiding over “the development and deployment of the largest naval force in American history to date”—in fact the greatest naval mobilization until the buildup following Pearl Harbor.
“As tentative as he was early on, he eventually became one of the most audacious of all chief executives,” Symonds judges. (Grant would have agreed: “The President has more nerve than any of his advisers,” he said once.) He was hampered by the unwieldy administrative setup of the period, with the Departments of War and the Navy established as separate and independent branches of government, neither outranking the other. One of Lincoln’s significant achievements was in finally making both departments answerable to a single commander, in that case Grant. Lincoln’s blundering in the decision-making process over FortSumter and his passivity versus McClellan were replaced by a growing confidence in his own instincts. His unprecedented decision to blockade the Southern ports taught him lessons he applied throughout the rest of the war—“that his advisers were fallible, that every decision had unexpected and unintended consequences, and that patience and flexibility were at least as important as firmness and determination in resolving difficulties.”
As most of these books indicate, Lincolniana—thank God!—has reached a new level of sophistication, although it is bad news that a new Lincoln film is forthcoming from Steven Spielberg—for Spielberg is as much a mythmaker as Carl Sandburg and has never made a movie for grown-ups in his life. Because in the end, it is not Lincoln the dreamer who is interesting, or Lincoln the poet, or Lincoln the lover, or Lincoln the backwoodsman, or Lincoln the autodidact, or even Lincoln the idealist. It is Lincoln the greatly intelligent—not Honest Old Abe but Shrewd Old Abe. His ability to combine ambition with an innate ethicism, high idealism with Machiavellian craftiness, has perhaps never been matched. So far from being humble, as his image seemed to imply, he was supremely confident. As John Hay stated, “It is absurd to call him a modest man. No great man was ever modest. It was his intellectual arrogance and unconscious assumption of superiority that men like Chase [Salmon Chase, his Secretary of the Treasury] and [Senator Charles] Sumner could never forgive.” Herndon, who knew him even better than Hay, concurred: “He had an idea that he was equal to, if not superior to, all things; thought he was fit and skilled in all things, master of all things, and graceful in all things.” Is this the Lincoln that Spielberg and his screenwriter, Tony Kushner, will bring to the screen? We can only hope, and doubt.
 LINCOLN: Speeches and Writings, 1832–1858. Ed. by Don E. Fehrenbacher. $35.00. LINCOLN: Speeches and Writings, 1858–1865. Ed. by Don E. Fehrenbacher. $35.00. THE LINCOLN ANTHOLOGY: Great Writers on his Legacy from 1860 to Now. Ed. by Harold Holzer. $40.00. The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Edition, The Library of America. Box set, $75.00.
 ABRAHAM LINCOLN: A Life (2 vols.), by Michael Burlingame. The JohnsHopkinsUniversity Press. $125.00.
 ABRAHAM LINCOLN, by George McGovern. Times Books. $22.00.
 LINCOLN AND DOUGLAS: The Debates that Defined America, by Allen C. Guelzo. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. $17.00p.
 LINCOLN: The Biography of a Writer, by Fred Kaplan. HarperCollins. $27.95.
 THE LINCOLNS: Portrait of a Marriage, by Daniel Mark Epstein. Ballantine Books. $28.00.
 LINCOLN, PRESIDENT-ELECT: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860–1861, by Harold Holzer. Simon & Schuster. $30.00.
 TRIED BY WAR: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-In-Chief, by James M. McPherson. The Penguin Press. $35.00.
 LINCOLN AND HIS ADMIRALS, by Craig L. Symonds. OxfordUniversity Press. $27.95.