The Travails of Lincoln's Transition

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Sunday, November 2, 2008


Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861

By Harold Holzer

Simon & Schuster. 623 pp. $30

In a critical essay entitled "The Great Secession Winter," Henry Adams portrayed an ill- prepared Lincoln concealing his ineptitude between the election in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861 behind a strategy of "masterly inactivity." While almost everyone, then and since, has stressed "inactivity," Harold Holzer shifts the emphasis to "masterly," arguing that Lincoln navigated that treacherous winter with principled leadership.

Reiterating his views in private letters to leaders rather than in public addresses, Lincoln exerted more "power and influence before his swearing in" than any previous president-elect, argues Holzer, the author of more than 30 books on Lincoln and the Civil War. Contrary to the dominant view of a Lincoln who grew to greatness in the maelstrom of civil war thanks in part to his talent for sensing the will of the people, Holzer's Lincoln was great from the outset and boldly followed his own lights rather than public opinion.

Holzer's prose ambles in rangy, companionable strides that gradually gather momentum as he seeks to show how ingeniously Lincoln handled four chief tasks: choosing his Cabinet, writing his inaugural address, re-introducing himself to the American public and getting to Washington, D.C. It seemed impossible for the president-elect to accomplish any of those tasks without outraging one side or another -- white Southerners, northern Democrats, Republicans or all of the above. So Lincoln's strategy, Holzer contends, was to maintain a "confident silence." Holzer covers Cabinet selection in enough detail to generate empathy for Lincoln as he endured the tedious process. Yet far from eschewing the grubby politics of plum-awarding, Lincoln reassured all factions by appointing representatives of every region and political stripe. Holzer may overstate the case for unfailing brilliance here: One Cabinet member soon left in disgrace, while two more bickered for years.

Lincoln President-Elect treats readers to a close reading of Lincoln's First Inaugural. Holzer portrays Lincoln laboring over the text in a dusty storeroom and a stuffy train car, and he demonstrates that the result, which emphasized rule of law and argued that slavery "could be contained without compromising founding principles," amounts to a masterpiece.

Holzer is at his best in reconstructing Lincoln's train trip from Illinois to Washington. Readers may occasionally grow impatient (do we need five pages about deciding to grow a beard?), but the evocation of the journey -- crushing crowds, endless boring miles, panic over hotel arrangements -- is worth it. Along the way, Lincoln made over 100 impromptu speeches, which were criticized for their thin substance and inconsistent delivery. Yet Holzer insists that the speeches reintroduced "the old campaigner to his . . . public" while keeping under wraps "the official policy he planned to unveil at his swearing in."

Although conflicting accounts regarding Lincoln abound, Holzer does not reveal why he chooses particular sources over others, and this may be the book's chief shortcoming. For example, Lincoln once entrusted a handbag containing the draft of his inaugural address to his son, Robert, only to have Robert drink too much and absentmindedly hand it off to someone else, causing Lincoln to search frantically through a pile of luggage. Some witnesses placed this incident in Cleveland, while others remembered Harrisburg. Holzer unhesitatingly locates it in Indianapolis, merely noting in the endnotes that two sources, one of which is a 1920 reminiscence by the very Robert who was tipsy at the time of the incident, "convincingly remembered Indianapolis." Certainly, the image of a hapless Lincoln surrounded by carpetbags matters more than precise location. But the problem is that anyone who writes about Lincoln must weigh contradictory evidence about almost everything, including matters of grave importance, and the criteria for selection need to be clear.

Lincoln President-Elect emphasizes Lincoln's early greatness and the public's cluelessness, perhaps to the point of overkill. It sets up a static view of Lincoln that diminishes his growth and plays down the quality he most valued: his ability to start from, but then urge forward, public opinion. Yet as they are swept up in this magnificently told story, readers may rethink how Lincoln handled the eve of the nation's greatest crisis, in which case a little exaggeration is a small price to pay.

-- Chandra Manning teaches history at Georgetown and is the author of "What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery and the Civil War."

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