The Magazine

Pious Abe?

Lincoln's Christian Fatalism

Apr 10, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 29 • By DAVID FRUM
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Abraham Lincoln

Redeemer President

by Allen C. Guelzo

Eerdmans, 516 pp., $ 29

 

Lincoln

A Foreigner's Quest

by Jan Morris

Simon & Schuster, 208 pp., $ 23

 

Abraham Lincoln

A Constitutional Biography

by George Anastaplo

Rowman & Littlefield, 400 pp., $ 35

 

Abraham Lincoln on Screen

A Filmography

by Mark S. Reinhart

McFarland, 304 pp., $ 49.95

 

Don't Shoot That Boy!

Abraham Lincoln and Military Justice

by Thomas P. Lowry

Savas, 336 pp., $ 24.95


Alan Greenspan calculated a little while ago that the United States' economy is getting lighter: One thousand dollars' worth of economic production literally weighs less than its equivalent did in 1973. If true, it's little thanks to the Lincoln publishing industry, whose output shows no sign of miniaturization. Give the word that you'll review the year's output, and you'd better up your Christmas tip to the delivery man, for he's going to be hauling half a hundredweight of books to your door.


Most of these books are, needless to say, intended for specialists. Mark S. Reinhart, a Columbus, Ohio, librarian has compiled a monograph listing every movie and television show in which Lincoln is represented: Abraham Lincoln on Screen. Thomas P. Lowry, a doctor and amateur researcher, has made a remarkably thorough study of Lincoln's famously merciful treatment of deserters from the Union Army, Don't Shoot That Boy! -- a book that offers Civil War buffs great gobs of new facts to master. George Anastaplo of Loyola University in Chicago closely parses Lincoln's rhetoric in a fine essay on the Emancipation Proclamation in Abraham Lincoln: A Constitutional Biography.


These books may venture pretty far off the beaten track. But they add to our knowledge of America's greatest national trauma, and even those who don't feel moved to read them should feel grateful that somebody felt moved to write them.


Alas, it is impossible to feel grateful to the parties responsible for the most lavishly publicized of the new Lincoln books, Jan Morris's Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest. Not even the most scathing reviewer could do justice to this book's worthlessness. It approaches a kind of absolute zero of badness.


A Foreigner's Quest is ignorant: Morris asserts that "the Missouri compromise [drew] a boundary which became known as the Mason-Dixon line" -- moving the world-famous line more than eight hundred miles to the south and west of its actual terminus, rather a hairraising mistake in a book about the Civil War. It is lazy: Morris's idea of research is to visit places where Lincoln lived and quote what the park rangers say about him. It is cynical: In a desperate attempt to find something new to say about Lincoln, Morris borrows without attribution playwright Larry Kramer's flimsy, but at least novel, allegation that Lincoln was homosexual. It is morally obtuse: Morris analogizes New York governor William Seward's role in Lincoln's rise to power to that of Franz von Papen in Adolf Hitler's. And it is almost physically painful to read: Morris, a former soldier and newspaperman who accompanied the expedition that conquered Mt. Everest in 1953, underwent a sex-change operation nearly 30 years ago and now writes in a tone that is alternately giggly and bitchy, and that altogether sounds as much like a real woman as a blackface minstrel sounds like Paul Robeson.


Morris's book is nearly enough to discredit the Lincoln industry. But, as if in tacit atonement for it, that same industry has produced Allen C. Guelzo's Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President -- one of the subtlest and deepest studies of Lincoln's faith and thought in many years.


Abraham Lincoln was born in the last month of the presidency of Thomas Jefferson on the slave side of the Ohio River to a poor farming family. His Baptist parents adhered to an especially grim version of Calvinism. Lincoln himself rejected their faith, but he never fully escaped their predestinarian theology. In 1846, during his first campaign for Congress, Lincoln explained (to reassure neighbors anxious about his reputation for unbelief) that he had never been a "scoffer" at Christianity, but added that "in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the 'Doctrine of Necessity' -- that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control."