"There is not much of it," Abraham Lincoln apologized for his first, brief attempt at autobiography, "for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me." Some 145 years and 16,000 publications later, there is now so much of Lincoln on the nation's bookshelves -- and still more to come, according to reliable scuttlebutt within the hyperactive community that calls itself the "Lincoln fraternity" -- that the subject, not to mention the biographers, appears inexhaustible. The only question is whether any but the hungriest readers will "long endure" when the fraternity brothers begin dancing with one another on the head of a scholarly pin.
Fortunately, this latest trio of Lincoln books suggests the theme can still attract new ideas and voices, still mine issues long ignored or oversimplified. Was Lincoln a liberator or a racist -- or both? Was he truly as vilified as some of his beleaguered successors have self-indulgently lamented? And what explains this uneducated man's extraordinary gift for writing? These new books offer answers that will invariably raise yet more questions.
He Contained Multitudes
Michael Lind's provocative reading of Lincoln's political philosophy, What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America's Greatest President (Doubleday, $27.95), argues that while Lincoln indeed deserves his No. 1 ranking among historians and the public, he doesn't deserve the mantle of "great emancipator." Lind's Lincoln is a mass of contradictions: a secular, rationalist, deist, Hamiltonian (on economics), Jeffersonian (on race), Enlightenment-influenced, egalitarian, protectionist, liberal white supremacist. But he remained committed to American democracy -- not because it might include blacks but because, by opening doors to opportunity at home, it held the promise of inspiring an end to tyranny the world over. The man whose only trip outside America was a brief stop on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls somehow understood that resisting the secessionists' effort to overturn the presidential election here might eventually topple kings and empower voters everywhere.
To be sure, Lind's Lincoln grows up hating slavery -- but only because it gives undue advantage to rich slave-owners, not because it dehumanizes blacks. Falling under the thrall of Sen. Henry Clay's "American System," in this telling Lincoln focuses his early political career on supporting economic opportunity for whites and deportation for blacks. Only later does emancipation become the means to propel economic development, though it ironically leaves no room for free African Americans.
This argument has been made before, though not so adroitly or relentlessly. Lind, a New America Foundation fellow, occasionally repeats himself (and Lincoln) in employing quotations that support his arguments. Thus, 70 pages apart, Lincoln shocks us with the same lines ("n" word and all) as he rails against the imagined evils of racial equality. Twice, Lind uses the same Lincoln quotation insisting that colonization was "akin" to Clay's venerated ideology. Lincoln believed colonization was right because his hero, Clay, believed so as well.
It's no secret that Lincoln held white supremacist views for most of his political life and pursued dreams of colonizing blacks abroad for part of his presidency. But Lind piles on anyway, even suggesting that the outrageous misuse of the Lincoln legacy in the 1930s and '40s by the segregationist Sen. Theodore Bilbo, a Mississippi Democrat, counts as evidence of Lincoln's own racism. Such reverse telescoping, as historian James McPherson once dubbed it, imposes politically correct but historically untenable expectations on long-vanished cultures and leaders. Certainly, Lincoln was a racist by 2005 standards. But in his own day, he was liberal enough to earn the sobriquet of "black Republican" and frighten slave states into a stampede of rebellion before he even became president.
Moreover, after blacks began fighting for their own freedom in the ranks of the Union army at Lincoln's invitation, the president acknowledged the inevitability of a biracial national future and abandoned thoughts of shipping blacks abroad, leaving a federal appropriation for such a purpose virtually unspent. As for the doomed president's final speech, which Lind dismisses as regressive, it was in fact so radical that it cost him his life. Its brief mention of limited black suffrage was enough to prompt one enraged earwitness, John Wilkes Booth, to vow, "That's the last speech he'll ever make."
Lind's book does offer many fine touches in crafting its dissonant portrait, including an uproarious account of an awkward 1863 White House meeting between the president and a group of American Indian chiefs. As Lincoln resorts to pidgin English to make himself understood ("We pale-faced people think that this world is a great, round ball"), his guests obligingly respond with grunts of "Ugh," according to the meeting's minutes. But Lind sees beyond the burlesque, deftly reminding us that Lincoln was, unusually for his day, a secular man of science (he was a patent-holding inventor, after all), more interested in modernizing "savages" than Christianizing them. He neatly calls attention to the presence that day of the head of the Smithsonian Institution. "In light of the religiosity that permeated American society in his time," Lind notes in a sparkling punch line, "it is significant that when Lincoln decided to instruct the Indian chiefs, he arranged for the presence in the White House not of a preacher but of a professor." Lind might have added that, as a young soldier, Lincoln prevented the murder of an elderly Indian during the 1832 Black Hawk War; as president, he meticulously reviewed a slew of death sentences after a Sioux uprising in Minnesota, resisting calls for mass executions. But Lind does not stray from his insistence that Lincoln's racism was pervasive. One will search in vain for Frederick Douglass's famous acknowledgment of Lincoln's "entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race."
One wonders, too, whether the manuscript might have benefited from one more reading -- or one more reader. Sherwood Anderson did not write "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," for example; Robert E. Sherwood did. The anti-Lincoln Democrat Erastus Corning hailed from New York, not Ohio.
Minor errors and galling repetitions aside, Lind's book is a thought-provoking contribution to the Lincoln literature. It deserves to be taken seriously and will surely prompt debate. In the end, though, readers may wonder how an author who believes Lincoln's only authentic disciple in the 2000 election season was Patrick Buchanan -- and that Lerone Bennett's recent anti-Lincoln screed, Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream, was based on "irrefutable" scholarship -- can still conclude that Lincoln "belongs to the ages."
In emphasizing Lincoln's principles, not his policies, Lind chose to devote little time to weighing contemporary attitudes toward him. Happily, the veteran Brooklyn College historian Hans L. Trefousse has produced a long-overdue corrective to years of imbalance on this subject in "First Among Equals": Abraham Lincoln's Reputation During His Administration (Fordham Univ., $27.95). Trefousse combed period newspapers, diaries and citizens' letters to the president and concluded that Lincoln was far more popular in his own lifetime than historians have acknowledged. This illuminating book offers an avalanche of evidence and will surely serve as a valuable source for future scholars.
But readers must still tread cautiously. One problem with relying on White House correspondence to measure public opinion, for example, is that Lincoln's clerks routinely purged it of disobliging mail; the surviving trove is hardly an accurate gauge of popularity. Nor did period newspapers stray from the party line: The pro-Republican Chicago Tribune was as unlikely to criticize Lincoln as its rival, the pro-Democratic Chicago Daily Times, was to praise him. Still, we have too long imagined that Lincoln's death abruptly transformed him from object of derision to object of worship. Trefousse's lively collection of wartime hosannas reminds us how early, and how often, Lincoln was lionized while he lived.
A Letter to the Widow Bixby
One abiding reason for Lincoln's popularity, then as now, is his glorious prose. Lincoln the speechmaker all but invented a new political dialectic, replacing orotund, Ciceronian excess with a simplicity that approached poetry. In Lincoln's Speeches Reconsidered (Johns Hopkins Univ., $35), John Channing Briggs, an English professor at the University of California at Riverside, parses some of Lincoln's long-neglected pre-presidential addresses. He finds yet more contradictions -- an orator capable of both a "spare and forensic" style in public utterances and grand private messages "meant to be overheard." It comes as no surprise that Briggs is dazzled by what he has analyzed, finding value even in such notorious clunkers as Lincoln's colorless eulogy of his idol Henry Clay and his sleep-inducing public lecture on discoveries and inventions. As someone who has dismissed both speeches, I found much inspired analysis here.
Briggs ends with a paean to Lincoln's famous 1864 condolence letter to the widowed Lydia Bixby, who supposedly lost five soldier-sons in battle. (It later turned out that her sacrifice was exaggerated.) Though the letter's authenticity has recently been subjected to new challenges, Briggs makes a convincing case for Lincoln's authorship. No one else, he insists, was capable of such "unaffected sublimity." Certainly no one else has been capable of inspiring so much historical attention.
Remarkably, Briggs, Trefousse and Lind have all managed to find new ground to harvest. They may not agree on Lincoln, but they would doubtless concur that while there is now "much" of him in print, there is not yet enough. In the right hands, there can never be too much. *
Harold Holzer is the author of numerous books on Lincoln, most recently "Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President."