And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle by Jon Meacham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Another book on Lincoln? There has been so much written on the life of Abraham Lincoln that I was a bit skeptical about a new book, but with Jon Meacham writing I had to invest the time to find out for myself. I am glad I did.
Meacham has taken a different road to examining Lincoln. There is biographical material, but that is not the point of the effort. Meacham wants to understand Lincoln, not just as a political person, but as a moral one. Meacham takes on some of the Lincoln criticism, and his evolution as a politician, and as a man. The acknowledgement of Lincoln as “flawed” is stipulated to up front. But those flaws, including the “colonization” idea, and some references in early speeches on race that do not comport with Lincoln’s reputation, are part of his evolution. In that sense Meacham focuses heavily on the religious evolution of Lincoln, and the book is heavy on religious influences of the day, especially the ones that impacted Lincoln.
Meacham does not avoid the practical, political part of the Lincoln persona. He acknowledges that Lincoln was constrained from advocacy of what may have been his true goal, emancipation, from day one by the underlying racism that existed at that time. Meacham gives us a fine evaluation of the “reformer” vs the “politician” put forward by Wendell Phillips:
“The reformer is careless of numbers, disregards popularity, and deals only with ideas, conscience, and common sense. Wendell Phillips remarked. He feels, with Copernicus, that as God waited long for an interpreter, so he can wait for his followers. He neither expects nor is overanxious for immediate success. The politician dwells in an everlasting NOW. His motto is ‘Success-his aim, votes.’ His object is not absolute right, but… as much right as the people will sanction. His office is not to instruct public opinion, but to represent it.”
Meacham, Jon. And There Was Light Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle. Pg 321-322
Lincoln, while representing public opinion, but nudging it towards his views, was just too slow for many in the Republican Party. Talk of dumping Lincoln for re-election in 1864 did not materialize, but pointed to the enormous pressure that Lincoln felt, from both ends of the political spectrum. I was amused by the observation from Jesse Fell on Lincoln’s “speed” in getting to the right position.
“While Lincoln ‘Don’t go forward as fast as some of us like, he never goes backward.’”
Meacham, Jon. “And There Was Light Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle. “Pg 321
That was not a flip comment, as Lincoln faced enormous pressure to modify some of his actions, including the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as the ultimate war objectives. But as Meacham points out repeatedly once Lincoln staked out a position he simply could not be moved, even where the perception existed that these positions were politically problematic. To Meacham this is evidence of Lincoln’s growth on the moral side. Yes, Lincoln was an astute politician, but not everything he did was driven by political considerations.
Meacham does not always have to connect the dots on lessons that may be derived for today. He tells us of some of the charges lobbed by the pro-slavery forces at those who favored abolition.
“‘The parties in this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders- they are atheists, socialists, communists…on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other,’ the Presbyterian clergyman James Henley Thornwell, a defender of slavery from South Carolina, said in a representative sermon.”
Meacham, Jon. “And There Was Light Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle.” Pg 180
The playbook is indeed very old.
In the epilogue Meacham quotes abolitionist Elizabeth Cody Stanton, who had opposed Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, on Lincoln:
“I see now the wisdom of his course, leading public opinion slowly but surely up to the final blow for freedom.”
Meacham, Jon. “And There Was Light Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle.” Pg 419
Lincoln was indeed “flawed” but his actions, and the results of those actions, not only saved the Union, but destroyed the institution of slavery.
Meacham sums it up beautifully:
“In life, Lincoln’s motives were moral as well as political- a reminder that our finest presidents are those committed to bringing a flawed nation closer to the light, a mission that requires an understanding that politics divorced from conscience is fatal to the American experiment in liberty under law. In years of peril he pointed the country toward a future that was superior to the past and to the present; in years of strife he held steady. Lincoln’s life shows us that progress can be made by fallible and fallen presidents and peoples- which in a fallible and fallen world, should give us hope.”
Meacham, Jon. “And There Was Light Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle.” Pg 420
I am a Meacham fan so I have a bias towards his work, but I do believe that this new work does bring a perspective on Lincoln that is worthwhile, and definitely worth a read.
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