Reviews | What Abraham Lincoln Can Teach Politicians in a Polarized Time


The new biographies of Abraham Lincoln inevitably invite the question: Why the world needs another? Only Jesus of Nazareth is said to have been the subject of more books, and he had an 1,800 year head start. However, we can rightly say that it is a golden age, rich in works that illuminate more than it repeats, the age of the encyclopedia Michael Burlingamepolitically acute Sidney Blumental and multifaceted Harold Holzeramong others.

Lincoln sustains such interest because his life is the cast of an unusually elusive and complicated character amid the drama of America’s greatest crisis, which still reverberates to this day. In the final study of this life, biographer Jon Meacham gives us a Lincoln for the moment, when the sculptural figures of American myth are indicted 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,” writes Meacham, “represents Lincoln’s struggle to do good as he defined it”—that is, to pursue the “ultimate extinctionof slavery, as he put it – “into the political universe that he and his country inhabited”.

This political universe has uncomfortable but illuminating parallels with our own. Lincoln’s era was one of passionate intensity, loud voices and closed minds, demagogues who exploited public opinion and conflict-averse officials who trembled with fear.

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Lincoln knew from childhood, Meacham demonstrates, that slavery was wrong and scoffed at America’s founding rhetoric. He was not satisfied, however, with being morally correct. He wanted to be an effective force for change. And he understood that ending slavery would require immense force and power – both political and persuasive – which he pursued deliberately, shrewdly and tirelessly.

The story is driven by the sheer improbability of it all. This man who sought historical immortality got his start in a family known mainly for its abject poverty and sexual promiscuity. He had no education to speak of. He was simple to some eyes and downright ugly to others. The greatest orator of his time spoke in a drawling, high-pitched, creaky voice. He was an incompetent and socially awkward suitor.

In a democratic republic, the force that cannot be ignored for long is the roar of public opinion, a brute beast easily awakened but difficult to control. Lincoln sincerely respected public opinion, unlike those politicians who believe the secret to success lies in learning to feign genuine consideration for the people. He was of the people; he knew what it was like to be despised, underestimated, deplorable. He knew the latent possibilities of ordinary humans as well as their manifest limits.

There’s plenty to praise in Meacham’s delightfully original book. I’ll pick just one of these gems, as it illustrates the timeliness of the author’s approach to the unfathomable depths of his subject. He reminds us that Lincoln came of age in a country “troubled by debates about democracy and public life.” The technology of political clamor advanced rapidly as newspapers multiplied and the telegraph shortened distances. “Getting involved in the government of society and talking about it”, observes the French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville, is “the only pleasure that an American knows.

In this context, Lincoln’s first address to the temperance society in Springfield, Illinois, takes on new significance. Other biographies mention this 1842 event as another rung in Lincoln’s rise. But in Meacham’s account, Lincoln speaks of our times as well as his own. Fair conferences are not a means of winning people over to a cause. “To be harassed and condemned; being told they were totally wrong” was for Lincoln “a path not to reform but to intransigence,” writes Meacham. “If you wanted to win a man to your cause,” he said quotation Lincoln,”first convince him that you are his sincere friend.

“On the contrary,” continued the young frontier politician, “suppose you dictate his judgment, or command his action, or mark him as a being to be shunned and despised, and he will withdraw into himself.” The “head and heart” of the person one wishes to change becomes as impenetrable as “the hard shell of a turtle”.

This insight into human nature guided Lincoln down the tortured path of emancipation. Until the last sentence of his last monumental speech, Lincoln acted with malice towards none, with charity towards all. If that made him less than a perfect scourge of human prejudice and cowardice, it made him a more effective politician. Lincoln got results.

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