Lincoln: a Life of Purpose and Power
By Richard Carwardine
416 pp | Alfred A. Knopf | 2006 | US$27.50  

The author, who received the Lincoln Prize for this masterful study, is the Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford. His book is not a conventional biography and only alludes to Lincoln’s private life fleetingly. Its purpose is to place him in his local and national context and to show how Lincoln’s personal attributes combined with the complex political, religious and patriotic landscape of his time to make him one of America’s greatest men.

Carwardine deliberately eschews partisanship. He is well aware that his subject’s heroic stature has been enhanced by the plaudits of posterity: Lincoln as “Saviour of the Union” and as “Great Emancipator”, both capped by his title of “First Martyr”, given to him by his untimely death on Good Friday 1865 at the hands of the actor John Wilkes Booth. His book demonstrates convincingly that Lincoln’s life is fascinating enough without resorting either to hagiography or revisionism.

What we have is a scholarly, sober and detailed account of a man who was not just a consummate and successful politician but an enduringly great statesman, whose formidable command of language is as stirring to read today as are the wartime speeches of Sir Winston Churchill. Indeed, it is instructive to place these two men side by side. Both came to power at a time of national crisis; both were men of vision with fine qualities of leadership; and both stood firm against an immense evil: slavery in Lincoln’s case, Nazism in Churchill’s.

A life of personal struggle

Lincoln kept no diary or journal. When questioned on his early life he quoted the English poet Thomas Gray, “The short and simple annals of the poor”, and said no more. Carwardine does not probe where there is no proof. He argues that Lincoln’s life, though with its fair share of setbacks and disappointments, was one of continuity, not sudden change, in the mid-1850s. “The child is father of the man” wrote the poet Wordsworth and Lincoln’s early life – he was born in 1809, when the Declaration of Independence would still have been fresh in men’s minds — gives some clue to its later development: his ambition and studiousness, despite poverty and having had less than 12 months of formal schooling; his reading of the King James Bible, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the lives of Washington and Franklin; his belief in “work, work, work” as he taught himself first surveying and then the law. He could be subject to fits of depression and a sense of failure. What is admirable in those formative years before he emerged on the national stage is the evidence of his strength of character; failure did not deter him, but spurred him on.

As a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln’s political ambitions were nourished by “a vision of what the nation should be”. His background had given him an innate belief in meritocracy: all men should be able to profit honourable from their labour and to advance themselves. At state-level politics he insisted that “the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy”. If “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – the credo of the founding fathers of the Union and Lincoln’s own lodestar – were denied to black Americans it was an intolerable injustice. Later, as President, he was to declare, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

Carwardine shows that Lincoln did not set out initially to champion the cause of American slaves in the Southern states; as so often happens, outward events dictated the course of his political career. During the four-month debating contest in 1858 with Stephen Douglas in the campaign for a seat in the Senate, the burning issue of slavery dominated. In an extraordinary demonstration of grassroots democracy, both men covered 10,000 miles across Illinois, delivering 60 set speeches and many impromptu addresses to audiences of thousands. At the end Douglas was exhausted, while Lincoln was getting into his stride – a tribute to his great physical strength as well as his belief in the democratic process: his wish to influence people by reasoned argument, not demagoguery.

These speeches showed his listeners his unrivalled verbal eloquence. As the author observes, “the spoken and written word was his most powerful weapon”. Though not a conventional church-goer, Carwardine carefully delineates Lincoln’s pervasive sense of a Biblical God to whom he would have to justify his decisions and actions, and his deepening sense of the part Providence had called him to play in America’s destiny. This gave an almost uncanny resonance to his utterances. Unlike modern politicians Lincoln used no speech-writers. A natural orator, his moral forcefulness and scriptural allusions made his speeches spellbinding. During a 90-minute extempore speech at Bloomington in 1856, the listening reporters forgot to take notes. His opening address against Douglas took the charged and memorable image, “a house divided against itself cannot stand”.

This was prophetic. By the time Lincoln had secured the Republican nomination for the presidency in May 1860, America was deeply divided on the slavery issue. By the time he was sworn in as President the country was sliding towards civil war and he “sensed the nation faced a historic moment of moral crisis”. Eleven southern slave states, with nine million inhabitants, and great economic resources, finally seceded from the Union and formed their own Confederacy. They were led by South Carolina: “Too small for a republic, too large for a lunatic asylum” as one person observed. For Lincoln, reluctantly drawn into war, anxious not to involve foreign powers and resolved not to be the first to shed blood, what began as a determination to preserve the constitutional integrity of the Union, slowly developed into a question of the emancipation of African-Americans. This was undoubtedly aided by the 190,000 black Americans who helped in the war effort, either fighting for the Army of the Potomac in their own regiments or undertaking other military tasks.

Carwardine describes in detail the complex interweave of his Party, the press and the broadly Protestant “work ethic” outlook of Northern Americans that gave Lincoln his popular power base. He appealed to voters’ desire for self-improvement and economic independence, as well as to their patriotism and sense of Christian justice. At the White House he made himself accessible to all sorts and conditions of men; he had the common touch, loved anecdotes and vulgar jokes yet led a morally blameless life. He never swore, gambled, smoked or drank, and though a man of integrity and honour – “honest Abe” – he was not a narrow, pietistic Puritan. The theatre was his relaxation, tragically as this turned out, and reading aloud from Shakespeare, particularly the history plays, Macbeth and King Lear – studies in the abuse of power – was his imaginative inspiration, offering him “companionship in melancholy”.

Lincoln was seen as “the black man’s president”. As the Civil War drew to an end, he concerned himself with the civic and political rights of the now landless, homeless and ill-educated former slaves. His assassination came too soon for him to follow emancipation with the laborious task of proper enfranchisement and citizenship; a hundred years later this battle was still being fought. Nor was he vengeful towards the former Confederate states; as his memorable inaugural address on 4 March 1865 for his second presidential term put it, “…with malice towards none; with charity for all.”

Lincoln’s secret

What does Carwardine select as the essential qualities of this awkward, ungainly, humble man? First, his self-reliance; Lincoln had many friends but no intimates and having consulted and taken the measure of his critics he was confident in his own judgement. He was often misjudged and underestimated by the Democratic opposition, but by a mixture of superb timing, shrewdness about human nature and an indomitable integrity he usually came out the victor. Second, his sense of self-worth; this was not vanity or self-regard but a proper sense of his own dignity – a dignity which he accorded to all other men. Third, there was his “conscious striving for self-restraint” and his refusal to use his considerable executive powers unconstitutionally. Finally, he had a capacity to speak candidly without giving offence.

When he first left Illinois for Washington Lincoln had said to his law partner, Herndon, that when his term of office was over he would return to practise law again, as if nothing had happened. In his humility he probably hoped this would be the case — but it was not to be. At his funeral more than a million people lined the streets in mourning. It was left to the poet Walt Whitman to articulate the profound collective sorrow:

O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done/
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won…
It is some dream that on the deck
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

A coda. Perhaps coincidences are, as GK Chesterton said, God’s spiritual puns. In 1965, exactly a century after Lincoln’s death, Churchill died. As a teenager, born after the war, I queued for six hours in a cold January to join the millions filing past his coffin in Westminster Hall. This was not meritorious; it was history and I wanted to be part of it. Now I ask myself: whom would one queue for today?

Francis Phillips, who is married with eight children, lives in Bucks, in the UK. Her reviews often appear in British Catholic publications.