Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Review: Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is regarded as the greatest or second greatest President of the United States of America when newspapers poll historians and pundits. Because he died a martyr to the cause of union and freedom, much of his life is wrapped in myth and legend. There is textbook Lincoln who always does what is right and is the beacon of stability and leadership during the Civil War who rose from a humble birth. There is TV Lincoln with the deep voice, long build, beard and giant hat. Read Lincoln by David Herbert Donald and sweep away those cliche images of Lincoln.

Donald uses primary sources only to take you on a journey from birth to death. You read Lincoln's words, read reports and contemporary accounts of his actions and deeds, and read how he handled the problems of secession and the civil war. Lincoln comes across as a good guy who sweeps into the White House because of a split in the Democrats and just happens to be devoted to the Union to preserve it at all costs. Donald traces Lincoln's rambling ways as a young man, and his aversion to manual labor which lead him to law. The build up of young man to young politician is wonderful, and some of the qualities that would help him later in life were displayed in his younger days.

Readers also get to see that Lincoln was bothered by constipation. Abe also had a squeaky high voice, was always looking too thin, and was a bit weird when it came to whether he should marry or not. So much for the deep voiced savior. He was a loser in multiple elections, and was a lawyer for corporations as well as the little guy. Abe had some peculiar habits and traits. One thing that shines through is that despite his limited formal education, he constantly read and worked to understand the world around him.

Old Abe's time in the White House is tremendous. Donald does a great job of showcasing how Lincoln ran the WH, and how he handled multiple wildly different personalities in his cabinet. Lincoln was a bit of an aloof dictator in how he handled the presidency. Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus is shown as truly tough, and one must remember that Lincoln was working to preserve the union. yes he trampled on some rights, but it was to save the entire system. A world with a victorious Confederacy or a Confederacy negotiated with would be far scarier to imagine. Lincoln would not stand for such a world, and in the end, he would give his life for it. Lincoln also recognized the changing way of war, far sooner than European leaders. Lincoln cursed Gen. Meade for not pursuiting the Confederates as they retreated after losing, and made the hard as nails Ulysses Grant leader of the Army of the Potomac. This was not about showmanship, but about attrition and making the Confederates submit to the will of the union.

Please read this book, as it is a touching biography of one of the most celebrated Americans of our young history. Reading this book, you get a glimpse of the stress and responsibility of the office of the president of the United States. Lincoln is human. Lincoln seems a little goofy at times. He also grows, learns and leads. David Herbert Donald brushes away that film of sweet romanticism and inserts in its place a powerful picture of a historical heavyweight.

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