Lincoln biographies

In a comment to “A Slow President,” maggie writes:

I would love to know what Lincoln biographies are you’re favorites. I haven’t read anything on Lincoln in a LONG time, but would love to read something fresh on him.

Maggie, I’ve been waiting a long, long time for someone to ask me that.  Some of this might not be “fresh,” since I’ve included one book almost as old as I am.  Well, let’s get started!

[book cover]A good reintroduction to Lincoln might be Stephen B. Oates’s With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, which came out in 1977.  I’ve read it twice, mainly because it’s such a good story.  Oates’s Lincoln is a bit romanticized, kind of an updated Sandburg version.  If you can find the unabridged, recorded version, you’re in for a treat.

The least romanticized Lincoln may be David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, which was published in 1995.  It’s a fine biography with lots of good detail.  Lincoln plays the part of a political operator, which he was, but one gets the feeling that the Lincoln here is a bit the product of late-twentieth-century America.  Too much the callous C.E.O.

My favorite Lincoln biography is Allen C. Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, which was published in 1999.   Quoting from my own customer review on Amazon: “Like a typical biography, Redeemer President goes through its subject’s life.  But unlike most biographies, Redeemer President centers on the maturation of its subject’s thinking.  Guelzo shows how some of Lincoln’s most famous ideas, such as his reliance on ‘the proposition that all men are created equal,’ were part of Whig orthodoxy.  To trace Lincoln’s development takes nothing away from his genius, of course.”  The book examines the maturation of Lincoln’s religious thinking, too.

The most recent Lincoln blockbuster, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, is a lot of fun.  It gives a brief biography of Lincoln and his three chief rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination up to that year’s party convention.  Then it follows the men through Lincoln’s presidency.  William Seward, the odds-on favorite for the party’s nomination in 1860, becomes Lincoln’s closest friend in his cabinet after Lincoln earns his respect.  Salmon P. Chaise is made out to be a vain opportunist that Lincoln must expend lots of energy managing during his first term.  The book focuses, as you might imagine, mostly on Lincoln’s cabinet. Published in 2005, Team of Rivals is really a great biography.

[book cover]My favorite Lincoln books are not biographies at all, but works of political philosophy by Harry V. Jaffa.  The first is Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, published in 1959.  Jaffa first makes Douglas’s case for “Popular Sovereignty,” the doctrine that allowed each territory to vote on whether it would be a free or slave state when it entered the union.  The second half of the book makes Lincoln’s case for natural rights, which Lincoln found embedded in the Declaration of Independence and which, when combined with the Constitution, required the eventual extermination of slavery.  The book focuses not only on the debates’ arguments but also on speeches and other historical events that flesh out those arguments.  If you read it, read its appendix first, which gives a great overview of the five years leading up to the debates, beginning with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Jaffa’s sequel, published in 2000, is A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War.  I set out here my Amazon customer review of the book:

A New Birth of Freedom is a book about Lincoln’s political philosophy, which Lincoln himself said (in so many words) emanated completely from the Declaration of Independence. The book is the sequel to Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided, written over 40 years earlier. In Crisis, Jaffa takes up Douglas’ arguments in the famous 1858 debates for the first half of the book and then Lincoln’s in the second half. In New Birth, Jaffa backs up from the 1850’s to take in a sweep of history and thought from Classic Greece to the present.

If the material in New Birth is far more wide-ranging than in Crisis, the theme in New Birth is much more precise. The south lost the war, but the philosophy behind the justifications advanced by southern leaders such as Calhoun, Taney and Stephens is winning the battle of the minds.

Crisis of the House Divided is like being in philosophy class, but New Birth is like being over at the professor’s house later for drinks. Jaffa seems to lazily go over mountains of quotes, philosophers, and arguments, and he returns again and again to make the same points. But it’s never tedious. One finds Jaffa’s repetitions well worded and essential in understanding how far we’ve fallen philosophically. And eventually, toward the end, one gets a sense of the book’s structure.

Here’s the book’s thesis. Most of us admire Lincoln, but most of us wouldn’t agree with his political philosophy. Lincoln really did believe that our nation was dedicated to a proposition — a proposition that also brought forth natural rights. Mr. Jaffa demonstrates how 19th Century historicism has won out over the Founders’ concept of natural rights. Just as Nietzsche bitterly accounts for how Jewish thought won out after the Israelites were defeated, A New Birth of Freedom laments the ascendancy of the Confederacy’s historical approach in today’s political thinking.

Jaffa traces natural rights from Greek and Jewish thought through Locke, Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln. Basically, Jaffa teaches that natural rights begin with the doctrine of the “state of nature.” In this state, a person has the right to life and liberty, and to property in order to defend his right to life and liberty. People form government in order to better protect these inalienable rights. In so doing, they yield the exercise of some of their rights, but not the rights themselves, which are inalienable. The people reserve the right of revolution, which is strongly asserted in the Declaration of Independence. Legitimate government can only exist through the consent of the governed, by a unanimous compact or contract. The measures of such a government by the majority’s will are deemed the will of the whole, so long as the minority’s rights are not violated by the measures.

All of this presupposes that all men are created equal. Jefferson found this self-evident, famously pointing out that we don’t find some people born with spurs on their shins and others born with saddles on their backs. Natural rights recognizes a distinction between God and mankind, on the one hand, and a distinction between mankind and beasts, on the other. The historical school finds all of this an accident of history. Picking up with Jaffa:

The historical school, which by the 1850s had largely displaced the natural rights school of the Founding, had also given rise to the romantic movement of the mid-nineteenth century. It too repudiated natural right, because it repudiated ‘rationalism,’ insisting as it did that ‘the heart had its reasons which reason did not know.’ Accordingly, Lincoln’s Socratic reasoning was rejected, because the very idea of justification by reasoning had come to be rejected. History, not reason, decided that some should be masters and others should be slaves. This movement of Western thought, from the natural rights school to the historical school, culminated in the Nazi and the Communist regimes of the twentieth century.

This was one of Jaffa’s few specific references to how the relativism of the historical school has affected modern history. I hope that, in his next book, Mr. Jaffa will give many more examples of how our retreat from the Founders’ conception of natural rights – and the clear distinction among God, people, and beasts underling that conception – has cost us.

Speaking of Amazon, to which I’ve linked each book title discussed, you pretty much have to ignore the aggregate stars the customer reviews give a Lincoln book.  Confederate sympathizers bash most modern books on Lincoln because these books don’t generally share their views of him, and by so doing they artificially lower these books’ star totals.

I seem incapable of writing short posts these days.  I hope you’re not sorry you asked, maggie.  And thanks for asking.



Posted September 28, 2008.