The Magazine

Transitional Lincoln

The speech that put a frontier lawyer-politician on the road to the White House.

Oct 27, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 07 • By YUVAL LEVIN
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Lincoln at Peoria

The Turning Point

by Lewis E. Lehrman

Stackpole, 350 pp., $29.95

Our world has many problems, but a shortage of books about Abraham Lincoln is not generally thought to be one of them. Lincoln is easily the most chronicled and examined figure in American history, and these days, academic historians often struggle to squeeze into any possible remaining gap in his story, or grasp for clever or controversial theories that might get their work noticed amidst the swarm of Lincoln scholarship. It takes a very special book to offer fresh wisdom on our 16th president and stand out from the pack without distorting its subject. Lewis Lehrman has written such a book.

As a philanthropist and patron of historical scholarship, Lehrman has long been associated with the study of Lincoln, although this is his first book on the subject. It is, as he tells us, a labor of love, several decades in the making. And Lincoln at Peoria does suffer from some of the failings of such labors of love: It is, in places, overargued and overwritten, cramming in every possible quotation and citation, every imaginable scholarly reference to support even the smallest points, yielding needless repetition. But more often it benefits from the devoted attention it has clearly received from its author, and from Lehrman's command of the immense range of scholarship on
Lincoln.

He begins from the mystery of Lincoln's political reemergence in 1854. In his early political exertions, culminating in his single term in the House of Representatives (1847-49), Lincoln was a fairly run-of-the-mill northern Whig. His top priorities were economic development and improvements to what we now call infrastructure, and he was known for his folksy sense of humor and talent for telling entertaining stories on the stump.

With his reelection prospects grim, Lincoln declined to run for a second term and returned to his legal practice, and while he was still tangentially involved in Illinois Whig machinations, he was, by the mid-1850s, a successful, comfortable, and on the whole, unremarkable Springfield attorney. He had made a few statements and speeches in opposition to slavery, Lehrman notes, but no more than would be expected of any Illinois Whig, and the subject never seemed to preoccupy him.

All of that changed with the emergence of what must stand as the single most disastrous piece of legislation in American history: the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The act, championed by Illinois senator Stephen Douglas, overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had sought to avert sectional conflict by dividing the territories of the Louisiana Purchase into slave and free states and so preserving an uneasy balance on the slavery question in Congress.

Together with the Compromise of 1850, which did the same for territory gained in the Mexican War, the arrangement had largely kept the peace between north and south. Douglas's bill sought, instead, to allow each state to determine the status of slavery in its territory by popular vote, thus making slavery again a live political issue.

The prospect of overturning the Missouri Compromise shocked Abraham Lincoln into action. Lehrman argues persuasively that this awakening offers an example of Lincoln's essentially conservative political temperament. He quotes Lincoln's fellow Illinois lawyer Samuel C. Parks, noting that Lincoln was disturbed not only by the direction but by the sharpness and abruptness of Douglas's effort: "The occasion of his becoming a great anti-slavery leader was the agitation of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise," Parks wrote.

Lincoln's opening moves in this new chapter of his political life aimed to defend the complex and layered arrangement of slavery compromises reached in the previous half century, particularly the Missouri Compromise and the aim of the gradual elimination of slavery Lincoln believed was implicit
in its logic.

Douglas's ill-considered bill, as
Lehrman demonstrates, linked Lincoln's type of essentially conservative anti-slavery feeling with both more radical abolitionism and more conservative unionism in the north, while support for it became a litmus test for southern politicians of all parties. It therefore elevated sectional divisions above partisan ones, and exposed the American political system to powerful stresses long kept in check.

Yet the new northern coalition had a less powerful regional identity than its southern counterpart, and needed a theory--a case for itself--before it could rise to the challenge of the moment. Just then, Lincoln emerged, offering this nascent coalition a vocabulary of idealism mixed with moderation, and Americanism joined to universal values.