Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln
and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861
By Harold Holzer
Simon & Schuster, 640 pages, $30
Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer
By Fred Kaplan
Harper, 416 pages, $27.95
Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander In Chief
By James M. McPherson
Penguin, 384 pages, $35
Looking for Lincoln: The Making of an American Icon
By Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, and Peter W. Kunhardt Jr.
Alfred A. Knopf, 512 pages, $50
The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and
Legacy from 1860 to Now
Edited by Harold Holzer
Library of America, 964 pages, $40
Lincoln looms large this Thanksgiving. He always resurfaces in November, the month of the Gettysburg Address and the holiday he helped to create (it was in 1863 that he invited his fellow citizens “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”). He also tends to reappear when we’re in trouble: in the 1960s, and the 1930s, when F.D.R. visited his memorial every year on his birthday, and tried overtly to claim Lincoln for the Democratic party. Such a realignment seems to be in the cards again, judging from Barack Obama’s recent words and deeds. It will drive the Republicans crazy, but that’s half the fun of it. In fact, they left Lincoln a long time before he left them.
Why do we love Lincoln? One simple answer is the tidal pull of marketing—a force Lincoln, the most photographed politician of his era, understood well. Next Feb.12 marks the bicentennial of his birth in that famous log cabin, and entire forests are being wiped out to keep up with what is expected to be a healthy demand for the latest in Lincoln biography. (Dwight Macdonald divided all American writing into three categories: fiction, nonfiction and Civil War.)
It’s been said that no book with Lincoln on the cover has ever lost money, and publishers will subject that hypothesis to a robust test in 2009, with books ranging from exhibit companions (the Library of Congress is planning a retrospective) to compilations of his writings to essays about him to scholarly treatises. At present, a search for “Lincoln” on Amazon yields nearly a quarter million results (241,858 and counting)—almost half the number of soldiers who fell in the Civil War. That would suggest that for all our searching, we still haven’t found him.
The new flood of books will allow us to reacquaint ourselves with a president so familiar that we sometimes forget how elusive he can be. Fifty years ago, in an address to Congress, Carl Sandburg put it well when he called him “as hard as rock and soft as drifting fog.” In one of his eerie final dreams, Lincoln felt himself to be “in a singular and indescribable vessel moving with great rapidity toward a dark and indescribable shore.” So he continues to float, a little out of control, like an untethered balloon at the Macy’s parade, leading us once again to parts unknown.
BUT THERE’S MORE to it than a birthday—one also feels something new, what Seamus Heaney once called the “rhyme” between hope and history. We’re about to inaugurate a 44th president with more than a passing resemblance to the 16th. Barack Obama’s supporters have compared him at various moments to John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt, with varying degrees of plausibility, but the media has generally ignored the historical comparison that the candidate himself has always promoted. Mr. Obama launched his campaign on February 10, 2007 (an eternity ago), in Springfield, Ill., and cited exactly one historic figure—Lincoln. All Illinois politicians talk about Lincoln—it comes with the license plate—but Mr. Obama does so with feeling. He announced his VP pick in Springfield. His victory speech quoted Lincoln’s first inaugural (“We are not enemies, but friends”). His farewell letter to the people of Illinois two weeks ago cited Lincoln’s farewell to Springfield. The theme of his inaugural will be “A New Birth of Freedom,” a phrase from the Gettysburg Address that he used at the very beginning, in his speech launching his candidacy.
It’s the perfect theme, both patriotic and corrective, implying that we’re in need of a new definition of “freedom,” perhaps the most important word in the American language, and yet one that we have grown a little tired of hearing about, in the wake of Guantánamo and other shortcomings. Lincoln argued against exactly this problem, furious that defenders of slavery tried to claim “freedom” as a reason to invade sovereign nations, and eager to give it a new meaning, closer to what the founders intended—a word meant to connote human rights, tolerance and the unfettered potential of the individual, not secrecy, war and the untrammeled power of the executive. He put it well in 1864: “The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.” It will be a great pleasure to see the word brought back to its proper coordinates.
Of course, freedom is also a word with special relevance to the African-American story. For all his imperfections, Lincoln remains essential to that story. On Easter Sunday 1939, after being barred from Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution, Marian Anderson sang from the comforting shade of the Lincoln Memorial. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr., gave the culminating address of the Civil Rights movement in front of Lincoln’s statue. On election night 2008, an alert photographer, Matt Mendelsohn, went to the memorial and captured the spontaneous eruptions of joy there (he described them in a New York Times Op-Ed the next day). The inaugural, three weeks before the bicentennial, will only deepen the connection: Thanks to the fact that presidents now speak on the west side of the Capitol, Barack Obama will be in direct dialogue with Abraham Lincoln, as they face each other across the Mall and all of American history.
AMAZINGLY, SOME OF THIS season’s books actually bring news. It’s hard to believe that any fresh discoveries are possible, but as historians plow these well-tilled fields, they continue to unearth new facts and artifacts. It was only this year that a curator found new images of the second inaugural at the Library of Congress. And it was not too long ago—1976—that the contents of his pocket the night he was killed were made available for the first time: two pairs of eyeglasses (one repaired with twine), a penknife, a watch fob, a cuff link, a handkerchief and a wallet with a Confederate $5 bill. The two eyeglasses had different prescriptions—perfect for a president coming in and out of focus all the time.
In the last few years, we’ve had Depressed Lincoln (compelling); Gay Lincoln (unpersuasive); and Machiavellian Lincoln (the master manipulator of his Team of Rivals). Among the new Lincolns now being offered up are Lincoln the Commander (a gripping study of Lincoln’s military leadership by James McPherson, the Civil War historian); Lincoln the Writer (an elegant portrait of his literary sensibility from Fred Kaplan); and Lincoln the God (a fascinating coffee-table book that describes how Americans became obsessed by Lincoln from his death in 1865 to the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922). That last book comes from the Kunhardt family, who not only recount this story, but inhabit it, for it was their ancestor, Frederick Meserve, who began the large collection of Lincoln photographs they continue to create books from.
Even the Library of America is joining the frenzy. It has already published three books of Lincoln’s writings, but now adds a fourth, essays about Lincoln, among them some works that were long hard to find. A number of foreign perspectives are included: Tolstoy was a strong Lincoln man; and with this volume, Karl Marx at last makes a cameo appearance in the Library of America, a fact that will brighten the day of conspiracy theorists everywhere.
Perhaps the most topical new book is Harold Holzer’s study of “the Great Secession Winter” that elapsed from Lincoln’s election to his assumption of power. It’s a moving portrait of a politician still feeling his way forward on the national stage, but beginning to find his strength. Mr. Holzer uncovers arresting kernels of information (the night Lincoln passed through Albany on his way to Washington, John Wilkes Booth, acting in the same city, stabbed himself badly when he fell on his dagger onstage). Nearly every detail evokes the present as well as the past, describing an outsider preparing to save the republic from years of misrule. Lincoln is besieged by visitors both friendly and unfriendly; he negotiates delicately with cabinet appointees; he gives more than 100 speeches, some better than others. Finally, he travels to inherit the prize, passing through a New York City that is not entirely responsive (its mayor threatened to secede, and P. T. Barnum put on display “The Great Lincoln Turkey”) before moving on to Philadelphia, Baltimore (where he was nearly killed) and finally Washington itself, where he was derided for avoiding assassination. It’s sobering to see the obstacles this outsider had to overcome to become Lincoln. Not only did most of the South secede before he took office, he also had the worst secret service nickname in history (“Nuts”).
Reading through this logjam of books, I was reminded of an observation made by Lincoln’s personal aide, John Nicolay. “Lincoln’s features were the despair of every artist who undertook his portrait. … Graphic art was powerless before a face that moved through a thousand delicate gradations of line and contour, light and shade, sparkle of the eye and curve of the lip, in the long gamut of expression from grave to gay. … There are many pictures of Lincoln; there is no portrait of him.” But that elusiveness does not discourage—on the contrary, it makes the hunt all the more exciting. “We cannot escape history,” Lincoln told us, and this holiday season the sheer number of references to him seems to prove it. But as he also reminded us, we have it eternally in our power to think anew. At this terribly important juncture in the saga of the United States, with Lincoln near the helm, we begin to do just that.
Ted Widmer, who directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, was a speechwriter for President Clinton. His latest book is Ark of the Liberties: America and the World (Hill and Wang). He can be reached at email@example.com.