Abraham Lincoln Again

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Mark Neely, Jr., author of the Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties , hasn’t much patience with such speculation. And in just under two hundred pages of lucid text he recently produced in The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America (Harvard University Press, $24.95) what I believe to be the best single-volume study of the Emancipator since Benjamin P. Thomas’s biography was published more than forty years ago.

Neely sticks to the documentary evidence, judiciously applying to it that quality most prized by Lincoln himself: “Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason. . . .” His focus is Lincoln the politician and statesman, not the troubled but largely unknowable private man. Since the written record is “meager” for Lincoln’s youth and early manhood, for example, Neely gives it just seven pages; because the Lincolns were reticent about their feelings for each other, he deals with all the vexing questions about their lives together in less than two.

Neely is admiring but unblinking. Drawing on the scholarship of Gabor S. Boritt and others, he demolishes the ancient myth that Lincoln was a political failure before the 1850s; in fact no Whig ever fared better than Lincoln did in his overwhelmingly Democratic state. And he does away as well with the more modern notion that Lincoln was little more than a party hack before the slavery issue propelled him into prominence. He believed deeply in the economic and political programs championed by his party: internal improvements, protective tariffs, the convention system for nominations to state offices—issues that have little appeal to modern historians but that meant enough to Lincoln to persuade him to take up politics rather than blacksmithing in 1832.

Neely sticks to the evidence, applying to it that quality most prized by Lincoln himself: “Cold calculating... reason.”

Neely’s Lincoln is substantive, but he is also a tough customer, relentlessly driven by ambition and perfectly willing during his 1858 Senate campaign to allege without a shred of evidence the existence of a vast conspiracy to spread slavery into the states and then to propose cheerfully that his followers counter Democratic ballot stuffing by hiring “detectives” to infiltrate the opposition and “control their votes.”

As Commander in Chief Lincoln often made mistakes, but unlike his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, he never for a moment lost touch with military reality, never flinched from the “awful arithmetic” that eventually won the war for the Union, allowed nothing—including even civil liberties and bitter opposition to conscription—to divert him from his course. Neely reminds us, too, that while Lincoln may seem to have been slow in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, once he had done so, nothing could persuade him to retreat from its consequences, and when it seemed likely that he might lose the Presidency in 1864, he schemed with Frederick Douglass to see to it that word of freedom reached the deepest interior of the Confederate states so that as many slaves as possible might strike for freedom before an administration less likely to have their welfare in mind took office in Washington.

If anyone from overseas asked me which single book he or she should read as an introduction to Lincoln, The Last Best Hope of Earth would be my enthusiastic answer.

Some years back the New York Center for Visual History produced an especially imaginative series on American poets, “Voices and Visions.” It’s now done it again with the lively ten-part history of the movies, “The American Cinema,” currently running weekly on PBS. Most documentaries about Hollywood tend toward fandom and fluff. These are different, filled with shrewd analysis, inside information, and a rich sense of history. And interwoven through them all are enough well-chosen clips from famous films both to delight those old enough to remember a time when people actually left their living rooms to be entertained and to give those who now think they needn’t stir outside at least a taste of what they missed.