New biographies of Abraham Lincoln inevitably invite the question: Why does the world need another? It is said that only Jesus of Nazareth has been the subject of more books, and he had an 1,800-year head start. Yet one can fairly claim that this is a golden age, rich with work that illuminates more than repeats — the age of encyclopedic Michael Burlingame, politically acute Sidney Blumenthal and multifaceted Harold Holzer, among others.
Opinion | What Abraham Lincoln can teach politicians in a polarized time
Lincoln sustains such interest because his life is the casting of an unusually elusive and complicated character amid the drama of the United States’ greatest crisis, which reverberates even now. In the latest study of that life, biographer Jon Meacham gives us a Lincoln for the present moment, when the statuesque figures of American myth are being arraigned at the bar of 21st-century standards. “And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle” is a book-length answer to the tangled question of the Civil War president’s relationship to slavery.
“This book,” Meacham writes, “charts Lincoln’s struggle to do right as he defined it” — that is, to pursue the “ultimate extinction” of slavery, as he phrased it — “within the political universe he and his country inhabited. “
That political universe bears uncomfortable, but illuminating, parallels to our own. Lincoln’s time was one of passionate intensity, of loud voices and closed minds, of demagogues who exploited public opinion and conflict-averse officeholders who cowered in fear of it.
Lincoln knew from boyhood, Meacham demonstrates, that slavery was evil and made a mockery of America’s founding rhetoric. He was not satisfied, however, to be morally correct. He wanted to be an effective force for change. And he perceived that ending slavery would require immense force and power — both political and persuasive — which he pursued deliberately, cunningly and tirelessly.
The story is enlivened by the sheer improbability of it all. This man who sought historical immortality had his beginnings in a family known mainly for its subject poverty and sexual promiscuity. He had no education to speak of. He was homely in some eyes and downright ugly in others. The greatest orator of his era spoke in a high-pitched, grating drawl. He was an inept suitor and socially awkward.
In a democratic republic, the force that cannot long be ignored is the roar of public opinion, a rough beast easily aroused but led with great difficulty. Lincoln genuinely respected public opinion, unlike those politicians who believe the secret of success is learning to fake a sincere regard for the people. He was of the people; he knew what it was to be looked down upon, underestimated, deplorable. He knew the latent possibilities of ordinary humans as well as their manifest limitations.
There’s much to praise in Meacham’s delightfully original book. I’ll pull out just one such gem, for it illustrates the timeliness of the author’s approach to the fathomless depths of his subject. He reminds us that Lincoln came of age in a country “roiled by debates about democracy and public life.” The technology of political clamor was rapidly advancing as newspapers multiplied and the telegraph shrank distances. “To meddle in the government of society and to speak about it,” the French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville observed, is “the only pleasure that an American knows.”
In this context, Lincoln’s early address to the temperance society of Springfield, Ill., takes on fresh importance. Other biographies mention this 1842 event as another rung along Lincoln’s rise. But in Meacham’s account, Lincoln speaks to our time as well as his own . Righteous lecturing is no way to win people to a cause. “To be hectored and condemned; to be told that they were wholly wrong” was for Lincoln “a path not to reform but to intransigence,” Meacham writes. “If you would win a man to your cause,” he quotes Lincoln, “first convince him that you are his sincere friend.”
“On the contrary,” the young frontier politician continued, “assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself.” The “head and heart” of the person one wishes to change become as impenetrable as “the hard shell of a tortoise.”
This insight into human nature guided Lincoln along the tortured road to emancipation. To the last sentence of his last monumental speech, Lincoln acted with malice toward none, with charity for all. If this made him less than a perfect scourge of human prejudice and cowardice , it made him a more effective politician. Lincoln got results.