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Sunday, February 17, 2008

The bicentennial of Lincoln's birth on Feb. 12, 2009, will bring a flurry of new books about our 16th president. Throughout the year, we'll be reviewing the most notable.

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In The Long Pursuit: Abraham Lincoln's Thirty-Year Struggle with Stephen Douglas for the Heart and Soul of America (Smithsonian, $24.95), Roy Morris, Jr. argues that were it not for Douglas, "Lincoln would have remained merely a good trial lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, known locally for his droll sense of humor, bad jokes, and slightly nutty wife."

Another Douglass -- Frederick, with an extra "s" in his name -- crossed paths with Lincoln. In Douglass and Lincoln: How a Revolutionary Black Leader and a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery and Save the Union (Walker, $26.95), Paul Kendrick and his father, Stephen Kendrick, evoke the tension between the president, who "had made clear for three years that saving the Union was his goal," and the former slave, who "had been equally clear that this goal was not enough."

The title of George M. Fredrickson's Big Enough to be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race (Harvard Univ., $19.95) comes from a remark by W.E.B. Du Bois about Lincoln's views on race. This was a president who could issue the Emancipation Proclamation while looking for a place to relocate freed slaves. "We are different races," he told African American leaders. "It is better for us both . . . to be separated."

As a scholar at the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Ind., Gerald J. Prokopowicz faced innumerable queries about the 16th president. In Did Lincoln Own Slaves? and Other Frequently Asked Questions About Abraham Lincoln (Pantheon, $24.95), he answers the titular question with a "No," but segues into a related question that bears on the inconsistency pointed out by Du Bois: "Which was he -- the 'Great Emancipator' or a clever, lying racist?" "Neither, fully," Prokopowicz relies, "but more of the former."

-- Dennis Drabelle


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