This book by Dr. Ronald C. White is a full biography of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. It begins with a “Cast of Characters” providing us thumbnail bios of the people we’ll meet in Lincoln’s life.
The institution of slavery is a constant presence in the book, from the earliest times of Lincoln’s life when he was born in Kentucky. “Abraham Lincoln came of age amid a growing controversy over slavery in Kentucky. David Rice, a Presbyterian minister, had delivered an address before the Kentucky Constitutional Convention of 1792 calling ‘Slavery Inconsistent with Justice and Good Policy.’ Rice argued that slavery was ‘a standing monument of the tyranny and inconsistency of human governments.’ He declared slavery to be not only bad for blacks, but corrosive of the values of whites as well. Both Thomas and Nancy Lincoln experienced slavery everywhere they lived. The Berrys, with whom Nancy lived before her marriage, owned five slaves. When Thomas worked for a year in Tennessee, he came to know his uncle Isaac’s six slaves. In 1811, two years after Abraham Lincoln was born, the tax list for Hardin County listed 1,007 slaves for taxation, whereas the white male population over the age of sixteen was 1,627. The churches in Kentucky became central players in the debate over slavery. The Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians–the largest Protestant churches in the early settlement in Kentucky–were torn and sometimes divided by the controversy. Jesse Head, the Methodist minister who married Thomas and Nancy, had a reputation for speaking boldly against slavery; it is likely they heard him preach on the subject.” [p. 17]
Most know early in his career Lincoln won election to the Illinois legislature. While there he took his first official stand against slavery. “Alarmed about the rise of abolitionism and it call for interference with the institution of slavery in the Southern states, Governor Duncan brought to the legislature memorials from Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, New York, and Connecticut. On January 12, 1837, a resolution deplored ‘the unfortunate condition of our fellow men, whose lots are cast in thralldom in a land of liberty and peace,’ but stated that ‘the arm of the General Government has no power to strike the fetters from them.’ The purpose of the resolution was both to denounce the abolitionist societies and affirm ‘that the right of property in slaves is sacred to the slave-holding States by the Constitution.’ The resolution stated that the federal government did not have the right to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia without the ‘consent’ of the citizens of the district. Without much debate, the legislature adopted the resolution by a vote of 77 to 6. Lincoln was one of the six who voted no, his first public stand on the issue of slavery. Illinois, though counting itself a ‘free’ state, was not so free in the 1830s. In the two decades after Illinois became a state in 1818, the largest number of new settlers came from the South. Slavery persisted in the popular folkways of the state despite the provisions against it in the 1818 constitution. And slavery was growing in Missouri, the state’s neighbor to the west, which shares a long border with Illinois. As Illinois grew in population, the debate about slavery became more divisive. Immigrants from New England and New York generally settled in northern Illinois. Although they were a small minority of the total population, they had loud antislavery voices. Immigrants from Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky tended to settle in central and southern Illinois, and most were pro-slavery. But not all. Some, like Thomas Lincoln, had immigrated to Illinois precisely because they did not like slavery in their home states.” [p. 75]
Most of Lincoln’s speeches against slavery are well known. In 1857 the Supreme Court released its odious Dred Scott ruling. Lincoln’s political rival, Stephen A. Douglas, gave a speech in Springfield in support of the ruling. “Lincoln, roused by Douglas’s address, decided to answer him directly. For two weeks in June, he studied in the Illinois Supreme Court’s law library on the first floor of the state capitol. He read the written opinions of the justices, drawing especially on the dissent of Associate Justice Benjamin Curtis, and perused commentaries on the decision in a variety of newspapers. On the evening of June 26, 1857, Lincoln offered his response in the statehouse. It was not the kind of answer many expected. Walking in with law books under his arms, Lincoln’s speech was not that of a Republican firebrand, but rather a thoughtful, calm address. He began by assuring his audience that he did not agree with those who advocated resisting the Court’s ruling. Instead, he said he believed as much as Douglas–‘perhaps more’–in obedience to the rulings of the judiciary, especially when they involved matters of the Constitution. He quickly added, ‘But we think the Dred Scott decision is erroneous. We know the court that made it, ahs often over-ruled its own decisions, and we shall do what we can to have it to over-rule this.’ Lincoln, relying on his legal sleuthing, instructed his audience on the true way a Supreme Court decision could be accepted by everyone. The decision would need to be unanimous, without ‘partisan bias,’ based in precedent, and making use of agreed-upon ‘historical facts.’ Lincoln then proceeded to demonstrate how this decision did not inspire public confidence because it failed on every one of these points.” [p. 238] This speech in Springfield would become one of Lincoln’s most famous and important speeches.
White’s narrative is strongest when discussing Lincoln’s personal life and his political life. It’s very week on military issues, and only gives us a superficial look at Lincoln’s relationships with his top commanders. White has to rely on standard views of commanders like Major General George B. McClellan, views that are tainted by dislike of McClellan and a lack of understanding of the general. Still, the narrative is engaging and is an easy read, even though the book, at just under 800 pages, is quite the tome. It never bogs down and the reader is always eager to resume reading it. Very accurate when discussing politics and Lincoln’s private life and generally accurate on the progress of the Civil War, the book is useful for students of Lincoln as well as students of US history and the Civil War. I can highly recommend it.
I bought this book several years ago while attending the Lincoln Forum Symposium in
Gettysburg PA. I was just wrapping several
books up to protect them in Brown paper and that book was one of them! A very great book one of several on Abraham
Lincoln that I have bought. He is my favorite Man in History after Jesus Christ!!
I recommend it to everyone!
Hey Al! I have this book! I bought it at the last Lincoln Forum. I have read it and it’s really good. Nancy
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Thanks for commenting, Nancy. It’s good to hear from you. I agree, it’s a good book.