Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Allen C. Guelzo | 2009-02-05 00:00:00 | Oxford University Press, USA | 160 | Civil War
Beneath the surface of the apparently untutored and deceptively frank Abraham Lincoln ran private tunnels of self-taught study, a restless philosophical curiosity, and a profound grasp of the fundamentals of democracy. Now, in Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction, the award-winning Lincoln authority Allen C. Guelzo offers a penetrating look into the mind of one of our greatest presidents.
If Lincoln was famous for reading aloud from joke books, Guelzo shows that he also plunged deeply into the mainstream of nineteenth-century liberal democratic thought. Guelzo takes us on a wide-ranging exploration of problems that confronted Lincoln and liberal democracy--equality, opportunity, the rule of law, slavery, freedom, peace, and his legacy. The book sets these problems and Lincoln's responses against the larger world of American and trans-Atlantic liberal democracy in the 19th century, comparing Lincoln not just to Andrew Jackson or John Calhoun, but to British thinkers such as Richard Cobden, Jeremy Bentham, and John Bright, and to French observers Alexis de Tocqueville and François Guizot. The Lincoln we meet here is an Enlightenment figure who struggled to create a common ground between a people focused on individual rights and a society eager to establish a certain moral, philosophical, and intellectual bedrock. Lincoln insisted that liberal democracy had a higher purpose, which was the realization of a morally right political order. But how to interject that sense of moral order into a system that values personal self-satisfaction--"the pursuit of happiness"--remains a fundamental dilemma even today.
Abraham Lincoln was a man who, according to his friend and biographer William Henry Herndon, "lived in the mind." Guelzo paints a marvelous portrait of this Lincoln--Lincoln the man of ideas--providing new insights into one of the giants of American history.
This year, the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, has seen the publication of a number of short biographies for busy readers, including books by James McPherson Abraham Lincoln and George McGovernAbraham Lincoln (The American Presidents Series: The 16th President, 1861-1865) Unlike these books, which offer an overview of Lincoln's life and achievement, Allen Guelzo's new book, "Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction", published by Oxford University Press is a work of depth. The book spends little time with Lincoln's conduct of the presidency during the Civil War or with Lincoln's personal life. Instead Guelzo's book focuses on Lincoln and the life of the mind. As Guelzo writes in his Introduction (at 8): "This will be a biography of [Lincoln's] ideas." Guelzo is Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director of Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College. He has written several other books on Lincoln with a focus on intellectual history, some of which I will link below.
Although engaged in the most public of professions, Lincoln was notoriously reserved and difficult to get to know intimately. Guelzo explores the books Lincoln read and the ideas which influenced him. Near the end of his life, Lincoln told a journalist that he "was a lover of many philosophical books" including Butler's "Analogy of Religion", John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty", and the works of the early American theologian, Jonathan Edwards. (p. 5)
Guelzo develops two large themes in Lincoln's thought. First, Guelzo sees Lincoln as a product of the Enlightenment, with its faith in progress, human reason, and secularism. Lincoln was a liberal in the classic sense of that much-abused word. Enlightenment liberalism taught Lincoln the importance of human equality and of individual effort. He wanted an activist government which promoted trade and commerce so that every individual would have a chance in life. He did not want people tied by what he viewed as shibolleths of tradition, hierarchy, or authority. In opposition to Jacksonian democracy, Lincoln early became a Whig, and his model statesman was Henry Clay.
The second and later developing theme in Lincoln is a qualification on the first. As shown in his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, in the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and in the Gettysburg and Second Inaugural Addresses, Lincoln became convinced that progress and free individual action were insufficient bases on which to build a democracy. Instead, there had to be a basic sense of right and wrong in fundamental matters of human conduct. Lincoln found slavery (if not racism) to be such a matter. He rejected Douglas's contention that slavery was somehow ethically neutral and that its acceptance or rejection should be subject solely to the popular will.
With the vicissitudes of the Civil War, Lincoln moved still further. Although he never joined a church or became a believer in any creed, he seemed to find a sense of transcendence that governed human life. He found that the War was playing itself out over the institution of slavery and the complicity that Americans North and South shared in it. His earlier skepticism and his faith in human reason and progress were qualified, Guelzo suggests, by his cautious belief in providence and some vague form of transcendence. Lincoln thus became the founder of the type of American secular religion that still has broad appeal to Americans of many different persuasions today.
Guelzo's book is organized less as a traditional biography than as an exposition of a set of ideas that shaped Lincoln's thought and actions. This is best evidenced by the chapter titles: Equality, Advancement, Law, Liberty, Debate, Emancipation, and Reunion. For a short work, Guelzo offers a detailed bibliography keyed to the major sections of his studies. Unfortunately, there are no endnotes to document his many quotations and references.
In an Epilogue, Guelzo tries to summarize the nature of Lincoln's achievement. Guelzo tries to show, in his view, what Americans today should learn from Lincoln. Among other things, Guelzo concludes,p. 128
"For Lincoln had, by a long and battle-smoke-stained path, discovered that liberal democracy was not an end in itself, as though merely counting noses was the last word in any political question; nor was it a merely a means that permitted the greatest nubmer to acquire the greatest levels of insipid material contentment. There is evil to be confronted in this world, irrational and spiritualistic as it may sound, and without a willingness to name evil as evil. liberal rationality will stand, hesitating, before the seeming-reasonableness that evil manufactures like a squid's clound of ink."
We see little of Lincoln the pragmatist in Guelzo's book. But we do see Lincoln as thinker. For all its brevity, this book will be of most interest to readers with a good background in Lincoln. Guelzo has developed his views on Lincoln in other books on Lincoln and Religion, on the Emancipation Proclamation, and on the debates with Stephen Douglas. The links are below. I learned a great deal from these books and from this "very short introduction" to Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Library of Religious Biography)
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America
Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America (Simon & Schuster Lincoln Library)
A very high benchmark set by this VSI book on short biography. Regardless of how many books you read about Lincoln, you could find things interesting and memorable from this slim volume, which is organized in major themes of Lincoln's life, achievements and historical significance. What an enjoyable read! Highly recommended.
This is a brief but brilliant book on Abraham Lincoln, which tries to show Lincoln as a product and developer of Enlightenment Liberalism. I've read many books on Lincoln, but most try to situate Lincoln in his historical and political context and not as a figure in the history of ideas.
Not that Guelzo doesn't also explain Lincoln's historical context as well. I understand now better than before how Lincoln stood apart from many of his immediate political predecessors, in particular Andrew Jackson, of whom Lincoln was the antithesis. In contemporary political terms, Jackson, despite being one of the key figures in the history of the Democratic party, was a passionate believer in small government. Lincoln, one of the founders of the Republican party, was an impassioned believer in the power of government and invested much of his political career in having government involved in large federal and state project. In today's terms, Jackson, the Democrat, was a believer is small government, while Lincoln, the Republican, was a believer in big government (Guelzo doesn't mention it, but it was under Lincoln that the largest federal program in American history to that point was undertaken, the building of the transcontinental railroad, undertaken by private companies funded by public capital). I've little doubt that today the two would switch parties (for the record, one of Lincoln's most prominent biographers, Doris Kearns Goodwin, also has stated her belief that today Lincoln would be a Democrat, since the GOP is today opposed to virtually all of the political issues that Lincoln held dear).
The book is largely organized around clusters of ideas that were crucial for the intellectual development of Lincoln as a political thinker. the Lincoln that emerges is Lincoln the philosopher of politics. And there are some very good results her from considering Lincoln more from an intellectual rather than a biographical point of view. Many personal details are omitted that are commonplaces in most books on Lincoln. For instance, little is said of Mary Todd Lincoln's struggles with sanity, or Lincoln's love for his sons and his relations with them, or his own struggles with sanity, or the possibilities of a homosexual relationship prior to his marriage (something I have always found to be extremely dubious), or -- what was central to Doris Kearns Goodwin's splendid recent book on Lincoln -- his contentious relation with his cabinet. Instead, Guelzo strives to make vivid the intellectual context for the major decisions that Lincoln made. In this he is absolutely brilliant and as a result I recommend this slender little book as much as many other larger and wordier volumes. I especially was intrigued by the passages in which Guelzo talks of Lincoln's growing religious beliefs. As is well known, Lincoln was not a Christian. He never attended or belonged to a church and could generally be considered uninterested in religious ideas. But as Guelzo shows, during the Civil War Lincoln, the sceptic, came more and more to see the conflict in religious terms, if not Christian ones. Thus the Enlightenment figure gave a unique turn to Enlightenment ideas. I previously knew Guelzo as the author of a well-regarded book on the Emancipation Proclamation(a book I have not read) as well as an intriguing biography of Lincoln on Wm. B. Eerdmans Press entitled ABRAHAM LINCOLN: REDEEMER PRESIDENT. More than ever I would like to read the latter, and reading this might also encourage me to read the former as well. It has also increased my interest in a book by the excellent evangelical historian Martin Noll (in my opinion, the best historian of the past century who can be described as an Evangelical) entitled THE CIVIL WAR AS THEOLOGICAL CRISIS.
I would not recommend this to anyone as the first or only book to read on Lincoln. But I would strongly recommend it to anyone who has read anything else on Lincoln and wants to have their understanding of Lincoln's work broadened and deepened.
This is a rather unique treatment of Lincoln, but it is not easy to describe its uniqueness. Perhaps we might specify what the book is not. You won't find much about Lincoln's personal life here. There is not detailed info on his political career. The last four years of his life (the presidency) receive minimal coverage. His murder gets a paragraph. Then what *is* it about?
When I was an undergraduate during the 1960s, this book would probably have been categorized as "intellectual history". It still might be. In his introduction the author states that he is mainly interested in Lincoln's thinking: "This will be a biography of his ideas." (p. 8) Some of the ideas he pursues appear as the chapter titles: Equality; Advancement; Law; Liberty; Debate; Emancipation; Reunion. So the book proceeds chronologically but in a topical manner. The emphasis is clearly on the pre-presidential years, with only two of the seven chapters devoted to his presidency. There is also a short epilogue summarizing Guelzo's view of the man's legacy and why he became "the Great American Man" (saved the union; championed economic mobility and political equality; advocated moral principles).
In looking at the notes I took while reading, I can't say I came across much new information. This might be because I earlier had read Guelzo's full length bio of Lincoln (ABRAHAM LINCOLN: REDEEMER PRESIDENT), to which one desiring elaboration should turn. In fairness it should be noted this book contains only about 125 pages of text (and small size pages they are). In this regard, I suppose it invites comparison with another (even briefer at about 65 pages) recent biography of Lincoln by James M. Mc Pherson (ABRAHAM LINCOLN). Of the two I prefer Guelzo, probably because of his ideas emphasis.
Although there aren't any endnotes here, readers are given two separate listings (organized by chapters) of books for further reading. That's 12 pages in a book containing only 147 total pages --especially impressive these days when publishers seem to have pretty much abandoned bibliographies. Shame.
This book is recommended to those interested in a brief look at Lincoln's ideas.
4 and 3/4 stars
Tim Koerner April 2009
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