In my continuing run through the Penguin Lives Series, I have just finished Abraham Lincoln. What stuck me as I was reading was the similarities between Lincoln and Churchill. Like Churchill, Lincoln’s was a hero not because he never failed but because at a crucial moment in history his character made all the difference.
This particular Penguin Life is interesting because Thomas Keneally, a novelist living in Australia, tells it in straight narrative form. Keneally is most famous for his novel Schindler’s Ark that inspired the film Schindler’s List. It is interesting to read a novelist’s take on Lincoln’s life. Obviously Lincoln’s life and times were complex and controversial and so it must have been difficult to tell the story in less than two hundred pages. That Keneally attempts it at all is one of the reasons I like the Penguin Lives series in the first place. Massive biographies and studies of Lincoln, the Civil War, and nineteenth century politics can be quite daunting. A short but fast paced overview of this towering figure is of great value.
That said Keneally came up a bit short in parts.
Now I am not a Lincoln scholar or even a person that familiar with the time period. Rather, I tried to judge the writing and the organization. The writing is fair overall but at times it seemed forced; like the author is unsure if this is a novel or a history book. Keneally tries to bring in some trivial points to give you a flavor of the time. He frequently mentions the wether on a particular day, for example, even though it bears no relation to the event. It seems odd to mention the fact that it was icy when Lincoln traveled to the Illinois statehouse to take his seat as representative. He also lacks a rhythm when describing Lincoln’s early life, the story seems to jump around and Keneally doesn’t chart the time frame very well.
The story picks up quite a bit, however, as Lincoln begins to pursue the Presidency in earnest. From the point at which being elected president becomes a real possibility the book picks up pace and flows nicely. The meat of the book is really an enjoyable read. You can follow the press of events as Lincoln becomes president and civil war looms. You read in wonder the pressure and responsibilities that are thrust upon Lincoln’s shoulders and can’t believe the people he had to put up with in the course of the most dangerous time in American history since the revolutionary war. The political infighting and treachery; the personal difficulties and tragedies; and the violent and devastating events of the Civil War make for an exciting and gripping story – all the more so as they are true.
The other structural issue I had was that the book simply ends with Lincoln’s death. Keneally doesn’t provide any kind of wrap-up or post-script to the amazing story he has just told. Granted the ending has quite a punch but it leaves one looking for more clarity more sense of history. Even a short post-script with thoughts on Lincoln’s legacy would have rounded the book out nicely.
Well, if the book was an enjoyable – if at time stilted – read, what about insight into the subject? A couple of things struck me about Lincoln while reading this book: that Lincoln was right about slavery, that his approach was a conservative one, and that he used his rhetoric in defense of his ideals.
First off, I do not want to get into a huge debate about slavery, the Civil War, and Lincoln as the root of all evil. So if you are itching to fight that battle look elsewhere. Lincoln had his faults and his failings that is certain but at base he was simply right about slavery. He understood that the only way to rationalize slavery was to negate the slave’s humanity. This Lincoln refused to do. In one of his many debates with Stephan Douglas Lincoln proclaimed:
In the right to eat the bread of his labor without the leave of anyone else, the slave is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.
Lincoln understood that slavery was a great injustice (if justice begins with “to each his own” then slavery was the opposite of justice), a blot on American ideals. Lincoln, however, also understood that slavery was enshrined in the Constitution and that only an amendment could change that fact. Obviously an amendment would need the support of the South. His goal was a gradual fading away of the support for slavery. This gradualism infuriated both the slave owners and the abolitionists. But Lincoln understood that times change and that utopian revolutions often destroy more than they fix. Just as the brutal wage labor of the frontier eventually was replaced by the less burdensome and more civilized life of towns (of independent businesses and professions) so too would slavery and its attendant economy slowly fade. He looked to the West as a place that would flourish free of slavery and pull the country in that direction. What pushed Lincoln was the insistence of the Southern States that they be allowed to expand and solidify their peculiar institution. One of Lincoln’s most famous speeches eloquently explains:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new – north as well as south.
The Southern leadership was seeking to set up the West as the future bastion and savior of slavery and this is what forced the confrontation between Lincoln and the South. Upon his election southern leaders chose violent confrontation rather than accomodation. Lincoln did all he could within his principles to avoid an open clash. And probably his greatest mistake was in assuming that the South was not intent on rebellion.
Lincoln’s view of slavery was at base conservative. As we noted above his understanding of the innate dignity of man and his equality under God led him to oppose slavery. His sense of justice and his belief in gradual and orderly change were also fundamentally conservative. He was not intent on creating chaos and upheaval nor the terrible bloodshed of the war. But he was not willing to sell his principles out for a peace that was bound to fail. He realized that the issue of slavery was going to come to a head, that it had to be dealt with at some point. He would have preferred to let time and slow change work but he wasn’t willing to accept defeat of the American ideals he held so dear. In much the same way Churchill did a century later, Lincoln knew that he might not “win” but he could certainly lose, to the detriment of the country and civilization he loved. When the country nearly fell apart around him, Lincoln stood firm and by the force of his character and his leadership rescued the country from suicide, anarchy, and destruction.
In much the same way, Churchill mirrors Lincoln in his use of rhetoric. Lincoln was not a polished, wealthy, highly educated man. Far from it, he could be coarse, awkward, and he suffered from depression all of his life. But he knew the power of words and ideas and he deployed them to great effect. The Lincoln-Douglas debates must be accounted as some of the most powerful and important political debates in our history. They are full of insightful and moving rhetoric employed not just for political but for moral ends. The Emancipation Proclamation of course has become embedded in our memory and the words inspire us still today. Lincoln, like Churchill, changed history not just with his actions but also with his words.
For these reasons and for many others, Lincoln is rightfully enshrined in history as one of our greatest presidents. His was a life of hardship, tragedy, and depression; and yet also courage, bravery, character, leadership, and eventually a place in history. We would do well to study and ponder this amazing man and his times.
If you are looking for an in-depth and analytical study of Lincoln, Keneally’s work is really not for you. If on the other hand you are looking for a brief but fascinating narrative of his life, this work might suit you. It is an interesting and easy read largely because the subject is so fascinating and important. Perhaps, checking it out of the library is the way to go. That way you can enjoy the ride but not feel guilty about owning the vehicle.