Monday, January 16, 2012

Book Review: Our Lincoln, edited by Eric Foner


Edited by Eric Foner
copyright 2008
W.W. Norton & Company

As the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth approached in 2009, many new books exploring his life, times and legacy came out and I purchased several of them.

Among them was Our Lincoln, a collection of essays edited by Eric Foner, yet somehow this book sat on my shelf until late in 2011, three years after it was published. 

This collection consists of four parts, which are the major topics of the book, and eleven essays, each by a distinguished Lincoln scholar. The sections are "The President," "The Emancipator,' "The Man," and "Politics and Memory." 

The book starts with four essays about Lincoln's role as president. James McPherson describes Lincoln's role as Commander-in-Chief of the Union military forces and how he as a non-professional military man, was able to exert his leadership and influence on the American army and navy during the war.

Mark Neely Jr.  then explores civil liberties under Lincoln's administration. One idea I found fascinating was his description of the well-known controversy over Lincoln's suspension of Habeus Corpus and Judge Roger Taney's opinion that this suspension was unconstitutional. Neely mentions the possibility that Taney's ruling may not have been totally constitutional either, based on at least one reading of the Judiciary Act of 1789.

Sean Wilentz contributes a discussion of Lincoln's political beliefs if relation to his beloved Whig party, the hated Jacksonian Democracy and how these worked together for Lincoln the Republican. He claims Lincoln was not only just a Whig, but that he used theories and practices that Andrew Jackson had espoused as well, despite the Whigs' dislike of "King Andrew." He shows that just because a person like Lincoln accepted a political party as a home did not mean that this person could only understand or believe in one line of political thought, especially with so many issues being vital to American politics.

The next essay, by Harold Holzer, does a fine job of describing how Lincoln controlled his image through the use of the new medium of photography. This section also does a remarkable job of showing how photography worked with and for existing artistic media such as sculpture and painting to shape the President's image. Artists of each of these styles frequently used the others to help them accomplish their goals, such as using photographs to complete a painting or looking at a painting to complete a sculpture. This was an especially educational chapter for me. I had understood how Lincoln had used photography to establish his image, but the inter-relation of the different ways of creating his image was new to me.

In part two, Lincoln's role in emancipating the slaves and his beliefs in race relations are the topics. James Oakes begins it with a discussion of the various types of rights that people at the time, including Lincoln, belidved existed. He shows how Lincoln believed African-Americans deserved "natural rights" (such as described in the Declaration of Independence) and "citizenship rights" (being treated as a citizen of the country, or at least of a state) , but that the concept of "political rights" (such as voting, holding office and serving on juries) was a state's choice. In this case, he argues, Lincoln supported "states rights" and if a state decided not to enfranchise African Americans, that was the state's choice and Lincoln did not oppose it.  I admit I struggled with this concept as it struck me that by denying the so-called "political rights," states could in effect prevent African Americans from enjoying their natural or citizenship rights. Perhaps this is one essay I will need to read and study again.

Eric Foner then contributes his own essay to this section, discussing Lincoln's long-held support of colonization,but also describing how this idea had taken hold in the United States and had quite a few supporters for many years. It is a good overview of colonization, the support it enjoyed at times, and some of the opposition this idea encountered, especially from African-Americans as well as many abolitionists.

Following that discussion comes a view of Lincoln and his relationships with abolitionists, especially black abolitionists, by Manisha Sinha. This essay describes Lincoln's evolution into a supporter of emancipation during the war, and shows how abolitionists helped lead Lincoln to this conclusion. It tries to focus on black abolitionists but I found it to be most effective in describing the role of abolitionists as a whole, not the smaller segment of black abolitionists. Black abolitionists were smaller in numbers and that seems to come across in this essay. Despite that, it is a good review of how those people (white and black) who favored a more immediate abolition of slavery worked with and influenced the President as he moved towards a policy of emancipation.

Part three begins with Andrew Delbanco's review of Lincoln's writing and the language he used, and how it compared to American writing styles that came before him. This was certainly an interesting part of this book. He describes the question of whether Lincoln's words carry the same weight to modern readers as they did to people who heard and read those words in Lincoln's era.

Richard Carwardine's essay Lincoln's Religion describes not just the long argument over what Lincoln actually believed and how he should be listed ( as a Christian or as a member of a specific denomination) but also on Lincoln's ability to understand the importance of religion to a large number of Americans at the time and how he shaped his language to communicate with them and get their support. Carwardine argues that the main instrument that aided the North in its ultimate victory was not just the amount of resources it possessed had, but, rather, its ability to maintain a patriotic spirit and avoid a war weariness that may have lead to a willingness to give up the fight. Many evangelistic Northerners and organizations played a role in maintaining this patriotism.

This section of the book concludes with Catherin Clinton describing the families of Abraham Lincoln - not only that consisting of his wife and children, but also a description of Lincoln's family as  a child, including his father, mother, step-mother and sister. This also includes a discussion of Nancy Hank's ancestry and how it may have influenced Abraham's development and beliefs, a point I had not read or considered before. (His relationship with his father is mentioned too, but that is a bit more common in Lincoln studies than the talk of his mother's background.)

The book concludes with its fourth part, a single essay by David Blight about the theft of Lincoln and his image in politics and memory. This started out as what I thought was a very good look about Lincoln's image is used commercially so frequently (a trend that was noticed in the 1920s" and how some modern writers have used Lincoln and his image and decisions as a basis to further their political agendas. It then evolved into a discussion of how the modern Republican Party has made attempts to use Lincoln and his memory to show this party as being in favor of Civil Rights. "The Party of Lincoln" is a phrase that he shows they have used (or variations of) to try to garner votes from African-Americans. At times, it appeared to me that the author made his own political beliefs a part of this essay, such as his use of the phrase "disaster in Iraq" on page 272 (instead of simply "war in Iraq), but as I read this more and saw how he was tying in Lincoln's image and the concept of memory (a concept which I would like to study more), I found that to be a minor issue. Blight uses several examples to show how certain conservatives have tried o use Lincoln's memory in their favor even when what he believed in may not be the same as what they believe. It is a very interesting essay, one I should ponder again, and a good way to end this book. 

Overall, this was a very good book, covering many aspects of Lincoln, his life and image, and how these factors influence our views of him today.  Our Lincoln is a book I certainly feel that students interested in our 16th President should consider reading and studying. 


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