Given the everlasting cascade of books about Abraham Lincoln, is anything at all left to be said? Perhaps. We sometimes overlook Lincoln’s pivotal role as a cause—or at least a provocation—of the war. Without his election, would hostilities have broken out? A hypothetical question, of course, but it is imaginable, if unlikely, that with a different election outcome in 1860 the secessionist fever might have abated—if (a big if) the abolitionists had quieted down. It might even have dawned on the South Carolina fireeaters that paid labor is more efficient than slave labor, as was congruent with the spirit of the age. But historical might-have-beens are sterile, and Michael Burlingame wastes little time on them.
No one, to turn to historical reality, has ever fully explained Lincoln’s evangelical resolve to save the Union at any cost, unless it was his old congressional colleague Alexander Stephens, who observed that Lincoln’s dedication to the Union approached “religious mysticism.” Lincoln himself obviously meant it when he spoke of the American democratic union as “the last, best hope of earth.” If it perished, the cynics who saw democracy as mob rule would be vindicated. Burlingame adds substantially to this mystery.
One persistent and fascinating question is how a rough-hewn plainsman, sprung as he himself said (in quoting Thomas Gray) from “the short and simple annals of the poor,” attained surpassing strength, wit, and eloquence. Lincoln’s biographers, including many of the best, have viewed his political and spiritual maturation as a seamless process in which hidden strengths were intimated early, had there been wit to detect them.
In the conventional view, what was lacking all along were the catalytic events of the 1850s: the quarrel over territorial expansion, the collapse of the Missouri Compromise, and the Dred Scott decision. They galvanized him and became for him, as for Jefferson 30 years earlier, “a firebell in the night.” Of Lincoln’s mature emergence Burlingame offers an arresting explanation. It was, so to say, a sort of Dr. Phil moment, in which Lincoln, till then a sort of “political hack” (he actually uses the term), with the usual billingsgate vocabulary, experienced a transformative personal crisis. It left him with a new identity and a certain “psychic radiance.”
In his early forties Lincoln underwent a profound transformation as he passed through a difficult, painful but ultimately positive midlife crisis. . . . During his semi-retirement from politics, Lincoln outwardly devoted himself to his law practice while inwardly wrestling with the profound questions that many men confront as they make the transition from early adulthood to middle adulthood: What do I really want from life? . . . What do I hope to accomplish with the rest of my days?
This seems plausible, and Burlingame, a seasoned scholar, holder of the Lynn Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois, Springfield, knows his stuff. This compact volume covers the usual story with style
Some details are new, at least to the present writer. The term “miscegenation” first appeared during the Civil War, replacing the older term “amalgamation.” Lincoln, Burlingame tells us, was too busy with other matters on the wartime day when a consoling letter needed to be written to Mrs. Bixby, who had lost five sons in the Union cause. Its well-remembered phrases (e.g., that no one had “laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom”) were actually ghosted by his young secretary John Hay, a wordsmith with a distinguished future as historian, journalist, and statesman.
As for the main figures in the war, Burlingame is caustic on the Rebels generally and no kinder than others to Gen. George B. McClellan, Lincoln’s first generalissimo and ultimate foe in the 1864 election. Few detractors, however, have heaped upon McClellan so many hostile adjectives, one of which carries intimations of a personality disorder diagnosis without benefit of clinical information: “quarrelsome, mistrustful, secretive, harshly judgmental, rigid and self-righteous . . . an envious, arrogant and grandiose narcissist.”
Here, we catch a whiff of what is perhaps the only signal defect of this otherwise equable book: that when it comes to those who obstructed or delayed Lincoln’s war aims, and even more those who opposed them, it falls short of “malice toward none.” Jefferson Davis, for instance, with his “egotism and disputatious nature . . . helped undermine Confederate unity.” Perhaps the operative term there is “helped.” By the logic of voluntary association, the Confederacy was vulnerable to disunity without the assistance of Davis’s temperament—if Burlingame has that temperament right. Other scholars have recently disputed the hackneyed portrait of Davis as a sour, dyspeptic, unsociable war leader.
As for the South’s most famous general, had Robert E. Lee “decided to remain true to his oath . . . the Civil War would doubtless have been much shorter and far less bloody.” The point is unarguable, given the gross bloodshed of 1864-65. But the same might be said of Lincoln and Grant, both of whom were accused of butchery because they also aimed to win a costly war.
Burlingame is entitled to his contempt; it’s his book. But crisp dismissals of men of substance and virtue, however mistaken they now are deemed, do small justice to the anguish felt in all civil wars by good men tormented by divided fidelities.
Who then will, or should, read this little book? Any and all students of our great national tragedy who want a compendious, informed, and readable brushup. But a warning: It comes seasoned, at times, with drops of the purest bile.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.