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Lincoln in the Foxhole

Our most eloquent president meets our greatest war.

Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By JONATHAN D. HORN
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Lincoln on War
edited by Harold Holzer
Algonquin, 336 pp., $24.95

Abraham Lincoln, George McClellan

President Lincoln and General George McClellan, Antietam, 1862

Getty Images

"Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” So observed Lincoln about North and South in his Second Inaugural. In private, however, the president mused, “God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time.” Neither, of course, could Abraham Lincoln be. Yet over the past decade, those supporting American military intervention and those opposing it have each found ways of invoking Lincoln’s name against the other. If only both sides could, at least, read the same Lincoln canon.

Enter Harold Holzer. As the author or editor of more than a score of books about Lincoln, Holzer knows his way around the archives as well as anyone. His expertise shows in the selections he chooses for this engaging one-volume compilation on the topic that dominated Lincoln’s presidency. Given how much has already been written—the 16th president has inspired an estimated 16,000 books—it is fair to ask what else can be said. The answer for Holzer lies in what Lincoln said himself. While abridging in places, the book presents notable letters, addresses, and proclamations as Lincoln wrote them. (All who would proclaim their intellectual superiority by exulting in the trivial mistakes of others should take heed in the prairie lawyer’s spelling struggles.)

While Lincoln on War coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Holzer argues that the book is as much a guide to present politics as a work of history:

“Modern commanders in chief .  .  . have routinely and repeatedly (if sometimes inappropriately) cited Lincoln’s resolve, and quoted Lincoln’s words (often unpersuasively), to justify wars of their own,” he writes. In the selections that follow, it is easy to see why. There seems to be a Lincoln for every political taste. There is the young man who worried about whether his generation could preserve the freedoms that the then-greatest generation (the Founding Fathers) had won. There is the congressman who opposed the Mexican War but voted for funding the troops (not the other way around, Senator). There is the commander in chief who suspended habeas corpus and asked Congress, “Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?” Holzer omits that last line in a rare editorial misfire.

Like most compilations, Lincoln on War risks becoming a book that students of history merely consult in parts instead of reading as a whole. One can imagine White House and congressional aides stockpiling copies so they can arm their bosses with quotations for the next military debate. It would be a shame, however, if Lincoln on War ended up as a martial version of Bartlett’s. When stitched together by an editor of Holzer’s skill, Lincoln’s writings still provide one of the best narratives of the Civil War. That these documents remain so coherent a century and a half later speaks to how Lincoln never lost sight of the war’s larger historical context even as he struggled through its day-to-day trials. If, as Holzer notes, the president’s “words on war ultimately approached the sublime,” the path that led Lincoln there began long before the Gettysburg Address or Second Inaugural.

Lincoln understood that the means by which we wage war have a way of changing the ends for which we fight. If winning the war required abolishing slavery, the president could not simply promise to restore the union on its original basis, as he had at the war’s outset. Instead, his letters and speeches needed to build toward the “new birth of freedom” that he gave voice to at Gettysburg. The progression that Holzer captures is a reminder that wars do not follow scripts, and presidents must adjust their words accordingly. It is not inconceivable that a president who has confined military operations to protecting innocent lives in Libya might one day find himself explaining why it became necessary to remove a murderous dictator. We should be so lucky if his words followed the arc of Lincoln’s writings toward an ever-expanding vision of liberty. And while Lincoln on War won’t settle any of today’s debates over war and peace, perhaps it can restore some humility.

The question, after all, is not whether Lincoln is on our side but whether we are on Lincoln’s side.

Jonathan D. Horn was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

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