Two Actors on History's Stage
Thursday, March 16, 2006
A Life of Purpose and Power
By Richard Carwardine
Knopf. 394 pp. $27.50
The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer
By James L. Swanson
Morrow. 448 pp. $26.95
It is said that no historical figure other than Jesus of Nazareth has been more written about than Abraham Lincoln. It is a plausible speculation, for the details of Lincoln's life and death are familiar to everyone. But the art of biography often consists of making dry bones walk, and both these new books accomplish that rare feat.
Richard Carwardine, an Oxford historian, has produced perhaps the most illuminating general biography since David Herbert Donald's incomparable "Lincoln" (1995). His special assets are his command of 19th-century evangelical Protestantism and his interest in Lincoln's spiritual dimension. Carwardine deploys this special knowledge to impart a new coherence to Lincoln's emergence from Illinois lawyer to national eminence.
Lincoln's mythologists sometimes tailor his creed to fit cults of facile and sentimental religiosity. Carwardine's approach is better informed. Lincoln was never a conventional churchman, and his rich spirituality, although flavored by scriptural cadences, has notable affinities with the deism of his philosophical hero, Thomas Jefferson, as well as George Washington and other founders. Certainly his spiritual bearings had little in common with the evangelical zeal aroused by the so-called Second Great Awakening, although that zeal became a force in the political movement that carried him to the White House. Carwardine negotiates this paradox with skill and depth.
He is also persuasive on the political import of Lincoln's beliefs. For Lincoln, a moral politics became imperative in 1854. The galvanizing event was Sen. Stephen A. Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act revoking the Missouri Compromise, which since 1820 had barred slavery from U.S. territories north of 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude. Its repeal, reinforced three years later by the Supreme Court's Dred Scott ruling, seemed to adopt as national law the extreme Southern view that slavery was entitled to be established wherever the U.S. flag flew.