Friday, January 30, 2009

Lincoln Bicentennial Articles

The obligatory articles about the meaning of Abraham Lincoln in American history have started appearing. The next is in this weekends USA Weekend supplement. Featuring the hyperbole that USA Today (McNews) is famous for -- here calling Presidential historian Michael Beschloss "America's foremost historian"* -- the cover article (whatever that's worth in USA Weekend) is still worth a look.

All seven of Beschloss' points is accurate, and I'm not sure what I would add. But I was most intrigued by #4 "[Lincoln] helped pioneer modern race relations." This is a very interesting way to put it. While Beschloss points to the legacy of emancipation, perhaps Lincoln should also be recognized for the way that his own treatment of African-Americans developed, especially during his presidency. Here was a man who was uncomfortable about the race issue, as opposed to the slavery issue, but who refused to allow his discomfort to prevent him from dealing with African-Americans (like Frederick Douglass) face-to-face. Part of this was political savvy -- he needed Douglass' standing among freed Blacks -- but part of it, I think, was his recognition that separating the races (via colonization) would never occur, and that he, just as a person, needed to learn how to live beside freed Blacks. Lincoln didn't always say the right things; he never completely lost his white supremacist viewpoint (a relic of his upbringing). But he refused to be a prisoner of his past, and he acted more often with charity towards others than with fear. In some ways, that could describe race relations in the United States for the last fifty years.

*By the way, I'm not sure who America's foremost historian is currently. Until his death, it was probably Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Popularly speaking, it might be David McCullough -- might be. But by any yardstick, Beschloss, respected historian that he is, should never be described as America's foremost historian.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lincoln's Faith

Today, the Religion News Service syndicated a new article about Abraham Lincoln's faith. As with many articles, it draws the contrast of the Lincoln who wrote and delivered the Second Inaugural Address, considered the most religiously sophisticated presidential inaugural address of all time, and the Lincoln who never joined and church or professed his own personal beliefs.

The article does not break new ground on the issue, but it is a solid summary of some of the key considerations when thinking about Lincoln's faith. It also has pictures of the two Lincoln stained glass windows in New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where Lincoln attended services while he was president.

After reading this article, I did a quick search for other things about Lincoln's faith online, and recommend two (of course, there are lots) without recommendation. Here is a column by Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek and bestselling historian, hosted by BeliefNet. And here is a chronological presentation of the high points of "Abraham Lincoln's Faith," at a site created by the Lincoln Institute and the Lehrman Institute.

It is difficult to comment on this issue briefly because the evidence is not easily put together in a neat package. Lincoln was never a member of a church, but it seems clear that he was always a religious seeker, reading the Bible and sometimes theology and thinking about issues of faith. The specifics of his beliefs, at any particular point in his life, are difficult to state with certainty. Others have argued that Jesus was everything from an orthodox Christian -- of several different denominations -- to a passionate atheist, from a Deist to a spiritualist, from a staunch critic of organized faith to a quiet, but sure, supporter of the church.

There are several books on the subject of Lincoln's faith, a few of which can be recommended: The Soul of Abraham Lincoln by Congregationalist minister William E. Barton (first published in 1920, reissued in 2006); The Almost Chosen People: A Study of the Religion of Abraham Lincoln by William J. Wolf (first published in 1959; almost released as Lincoln's Religion around 1970); and the hard-to-find Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet by Wayne Temple (published in 1995 by a small press).

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

New Lincoln Books This Week

The spate of new Lincoln books continues with two important titles this week, both companions to bicentennial Lincoln exhibits in Washington, DC. While companion books are not always brimming with new scholarship, they usually have lots of high quality photos, and as such are to be recommended.

On January 27

Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2009, paperback, 128 pages)

This is the companion volume one of several Lincoln-related exhibits sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution this year. Unlike some of the other exhibits, the Smithsonian is clear that all of the artifacts in this are from the Smithsonian collection, including one of the few authentic stovepipe hats that can be proved to have been worn by Lincoln.

Here is the website for the exhibition, "Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life." This exhibit at the National Museum of American History opened earlier in January and is tentatively scheduled to be open until January 2011.

I'm looking forward to visiting this exhibit when I'm in DC next. And I imagine I will have to pick up a copy of the book, if only for the photos, as a memento.

In Lincoln's Hand: His Original Manuscripts with Commentary by Distinguished Americans, edited by Harold Holzer and Joshua Wolf Shenk (Bantam, 2009, hardcover, 208 pages)

This book is the companion of the Library of Congress upcoming exhibit: "With Malice Toward None": The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition, which is scheduled to open on Lincoln's birthday. (Exhibit website not available; here's the Library of Congress press release.)

This is an intriguing volume, pairing photographs of actual Lincoln documents, personally written by Lincoln, with reflections from a mixture of famous Americans and Lincoln/Civil War scholars. And it is edited by Lincoln editor extraordinaire, Harold Holzer, which means that it should be good (most of his edited stuff is). And, while I haven't seen the book, I'm sure the photographs are high quality and well lit, meaning that these items will probably be easier to read than if you were looking at them directly.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Resources by Smithsonian Magazine

With the Bicentennial month of Lincoln's birth fast-approaching, even more Lincoln-related items are being published, now in periodicals. Lincoln appears on the cover of the February 2009 edition of Smithsonian Magazine, alongside Charles Darwin (who was also born on February 12, 1809).

The cover article, about the legacy of Lincoln, is written by Philip B. Kunhardt III (co-author of the recent book Looking for Lincoln: The Making of an American Icon). It is a good overview of the 150 year history of Lincoln's impact on American culture.

But online, Smithsonian has several articles about Lincoln, all recommended, at their special bicentennial Lincoln page, 200 Years of Abraham Lincoln. The articles, some new and others previously published, feature analysis of Lincoln's life and career, in particular the development of his military leadership, the influence of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and the enduring value of Lincoln's speeches.

There is a wealth of Lincoln material online, and this new collection by Smithsonian is a worthy addition to it.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Book Review: President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman

President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman
by William Lee Miller
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2008) hardcover, 512 pages

William Lee Miller, who was widely praised for his previous book, Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography, which focused on Lincoln's pre-presidential life, considers the presidential years of Abraham Lincoln in this companion volume, President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman. At the outset, Miller is clear on the study of this book, which "examines the moral performance of Abraham Lincoln in the office of president of the United States" (ix).

To do so, Miller explores the decisions made by Lincoln as president ethically. His moral standard, as evidenced by the opening chapters of the book, is the Constitutional oath of office which Lincoln swore to upon becoming president. However, this moral standard shifts for Miller, as he thinks it did for Lincoln, as Lincoln considers emancipating the slaves, an act which Lincoln himself recognized seemed to go against his responsibilities as laid out by the Constitution. At that point in his study, it becomes less clear what ethical standard Miller uses to judge President Lincoln.

During his presidency, George W. Bush famously remarked that he was "the decider"; in this book, Miller seeks to describe Lincoln's presidency by moving from big decision to big decision. In doing so, Miller focuses almost exclusively on Lincoln's war-related decisions, covering the typical events of Lincoln Civil War biography: Fort Sumter, cries for quick victory, dealing with McClellan, the Trent affair, emancipation and its long-term effects, planning for the post-war reunion of north and south. Lincoln's decisions concerning other issues, such as his far-reaching territorial policy, including the construction of the transcontinental railroad and federal regulations for homesteading and land grant universities are never mentioned. Worse, some key war-related decisions, especially as dealt with the economics of the war, are not considered.

It quickly becomes clear that Miller, despite including a chapter on Lincoln's "big mistake" trying to dispatch the USS Powhatan to help with the situations at either Fort Sumter or Fort Pickens, that he is writing a hagiography of Lincoln. The moral standard Miller seems to use is Lincoln himself. As someone who believes that Lincoln was a man of great integrity, I admit one could choose a worse moral compass. However, the inherent problem with using Lincoln to judge Lincoln is clear in the following example: imagine someone wrote an ethical biography of Richard Nixon's presidency using Nixon's moral standard. And if you've never heard of the USS Powhatan, or thought that it was a mere footnote to history, you'll be amazed at Miller's pointing to it as "show[ing] the president making a big mistake" (72).

It is difficult to find other examples in Miller's analysis of Lincoln making a mistake or making a less than desirable decision. Evidently, Lincoln could virtually do no wrong, especially after learning his lesson from the Powhatan mistake. Such one-sided presentation, even when honoring an acknowledged great leader like Lincoln, reflects poorly on a historian of Miller's stature. This is surprising, given Miller's standing as a scholar, long affiliated with the University of Virginia, and the delicate analysis of Lincoln's Virtues, a book which I very much liked, especially its insightful opening chapters. But regardless of Miller's academic use and citation of sources, the book sadly is not an even-handed treatment of Lincoln.

This is especially evident given the narrative framing within which Miller places his analysis. He opens the book with a brief recounting of the international diplomatic responses to Lincoln's inauguration as president. Kings and queens and emperors sent notes of congratulations to the new ruler of the United States, who had once been a humble uneducated frontier boy. In the international community, Lincoln would now be an equal with these other rulers, and above his name appropriate tributes, salutations, congratulations, and condolences would be sent while he was president. It becomes clear, however, when Miller closes the book with a longer section of the international response to Lincoln's assassination, that he hasn't explained how Lincoln the statesman transformed world opinion about the humble frontier lawyer who became king/president. The only international incident really dealt with in the book concerns the Americans seizing two confederate agents off the British ship HMS Trent early in the war. Exactly how did these foreign people, who sent 837 pages worth of condolences after Lincoln's death, judge Lincoln? Miller's unstated point is that even they could recognize Lincoln's greatness, but his domestic focused account of Lincoln offers no explanation of how they recognized it.

More aggravating to me, but probably not to most readers, regards Miller's obviously intentional, but mostly unstated, answer to a recent book that consciously examined the morality of the Civil War, Harry Stout's Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Viking, 2006). Stout's analysis is an epic groundbreaking attempt to consider the ethics of the Civil War, but even for its significance and solid scholarship, it is not without its problems. Miller writes an entire chapter "A Hard War without Hatred" to counter one of Stout's main claims in which he finds the total war waged by the Union under Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman to be immoral. But Miller does not engage Stout's ideas explicitly in that chapter, but only briefly several chapters before; neither does he divulge the shape of his disagreement in the footnotes of that chapter. This is rather embarrassing for a scholar of Miller's reputation; if he wants to argue with Stout's conclusions, he owes Stout, and his general readership, the courtesy of at least pointing directly to this disagreement -- so deep that it requires an entire chapter -- in the footnotes. And I say this as someone who disagrees with Stout's argument as well.

Some readers will enjoy Miller's book. He has an obvious affinity for Lincoln and he writes extremely well; indeed, it is a pleasant experience to read his writing. But hagiography, regardless how well written, is not to be broadly recommended, particularly among the wealth of Lincoln books.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

TV Review: "The Real Abraham Lincoln" (National Geographic documentary)

Last night, National Geographic Channel premiered their new one-hour "docudrama" about Lincoln, called "The Real Abraham Lincoln." (National Geographic has several programs called "The Real..." -- last night they followed "The Real Abraham Lincoln" with "The Real George Washington.") The program attempts to bring Lincoln to life by using an actor to portray him in several reconstructed scenes and offering occasional first-person narration.

Overall, the program is disappointing. One hour, less commercials, is too little time to present Lincoln's full cradle-to-grave biography. There were erratic jumps, complete with several misaligned images/dramatizations that did not mesh with the biographical narration. Worse, there were several misrepresentations in the film. Not only were the scenes with Lincoln dramatized, but the first-person narration was not constructed from Lincoln's own words. And to my ear they failed to sound much like Lincoln's own voice, offering too much detail about certain things in the wrong ways in the interest of quick personal disclosure. (While such personal disclosure is common on reality television, it was a very rare thing with Lincoln.)

Unlike some dramatizations, the actor playing Lincoln is very similar facially, and sometimes looks eerily like Lincoln must have in close-up. However, this impact is quickly lessened by the inadequate use of these dramatizations. In most of them, Lincoln appears alone on screen, or at most, in one scene, with a photographer and photographer's assistant. Lincoln walks alone through the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Lincoln rides alone on a train. Lincoln rides alone on horseback. Lincoln stands alone and looks out the window. The more I read about Lincoln's life, the clearer it becomes that he rarely had time to himself without people around him. Dramatizing the business and noise around Lincoln, from the war effort, to the public, to his family would have been interesting -- evidently it also would have been too expensive for this production.

By now, it feels like I'm picking on the documentary. And I haven't even mentioned the specific historical errors that creep into the narration, such as the locomotive steam engine appearing in Lincoln's life a good ten years too early and the later rather absurd suggestion that the north won the Civil War because they used their superior (and growing) railroad mileage effectively. Given that the Confederacy proved much more adept at using the railroad to move men and supplies quickly, this is certainly a dubious claim.

In the film, three authors/scholars are interviewed: K. M. Kostyal (who evidently writes young adult books for National Geographic), Richard Norton Smith, and Allan Guelzo. Of these, only Guelzo comes across very well, despite some clear quick edits in his comments. By the end, it seemed like listening to him talk for an hour (less commercials) would have been more helpful than this "docudrama."

A Glimpse of New Lincoln Documentary

This week, the National Park Service has released online clips of the new orientation film, "Abraham Lincoln: A Journey to Greatness," at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site. It is difficult to express how disappointing the previous orientation film was. Aside from looking VERY dated, it was basically just a video tour of the house without much additional context.

The new film looks very different. I'm not quite sure about the acting, but they've certainly found a Lincoln with appropriately big ears. And I think that the new film will provide much better context for visiting Lincoln's home. My only concern watching this is that it might provide too much context -- given that the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library is just blocks away, this film doesn't need to give the full Lincoln story. It would be better to focus specifically on the Springfield years.

Here are two clips. The first seems to be from the opening of the film. And the second seems to be three clips put together. And even though the official Lincoln Home website does not mention the new film, it is evidently on sale at the internet National Parks store.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Obama and Lincoln's Bible

Lots has been made of the explicit echoes of Lincoln made by Barack Obama leading up to his inauguration. Many of these have been prominent -- he is journeying to Washington by train, he will take the oath of office on the Lincoln Bible. Some have been quiet -- when he accepted the Democratic nomination, Obama said: "I accept your nomination for presidency of the United States," which has definite 19th century echoes.

One hopes that these echoes of Lincoln will not be strictly followed. It might be odd if the rhetorical punch line of Obama's inaugural address, echoing Lincoln's, is "In your hands, my dissatisfied countrymen, and not in mine is the momentous issue of civil war."

But might there be something more to these echoes than a lengthy tip of the hat to the legacy of Lincoln? Personally, I've always thought that Obama was just a Lincolnophile who's paying honor to someone he greatly admires, who hopes that some of Lincoln's greatness will rub off on him. But an opinion column from frequent Lincoln writer Ronald C. White, Jr. suggests there might be more going on here.

In this column, White intriguingly suggests that Obama may hint at a role for religion in his presidency similar to its radical role in Lincoln's administration. I'm not sure if I agree with White's analysis (I frequently don't), but it is certainly the most thoughtful thing I've read pertaining to Obama's use of the Lincoln Bible.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Signed Emancipation Proclamation on Display

There's a story here about a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, which has been loaned to the National Museum of American History for display in one of their two bicentennial Lincoln exhibitions.

There are several printed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln personally signed. These artifacts were created by Lincoln to be auctioned off at various fund-raisers that earned money for the war effort, often supporting wounded veterans.

In fact, Lincoln gave his personal copy of the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which is a combination of cuttings from the preliminary proclamation and Lincoln's handwritten additions to the text (with a few lines evidently hand-written by a secretary). This copy was purchased by the Chicago Historical Society, and was destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871. However, a photographic copy of the draft survives and can be viewed here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

New Lincoln Books This Week

January tends to be the prime month to release Lincoln-specific books, and the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth has quickened the pace of publishing. This week, there are several new books being released, including these two.

On January 13

A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White, Jr. (Random House, 2009, hardcover, 816 pages)

This is White's third book on Lincoln, following his well received books on Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address (Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural) and Lincoln's speeches in general (The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words). I have read the first, but not the second. While White seems to have been accepted by most of the prominent Lincoln scholars, I found the first book underwhelming -- I was disappointed because I just don't think White's analysis of Lincoln's Second Inaugural matched the depth of Lincoln's writing.
Perhaps this biography is a worthy addition to the Lincoln bookshelf, but I would be more likely to recommend other new biographies: long (2000+ pages) by Michael Burlingame or short (less than 100) by James McPherson.

On January 15

Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth Century America by Barry Schwartz (University of Chicago Press, 2009, hardcover, 410 pages)

This is the second volume of Schwartz' two-part look at the history of Lincoln's reputation since his assassination. The first book (Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory) covered the period from 1865-1920, while the new book documents the years from 1920 to the present.

I am excited to see Schwartz' new book. Currently, Merrill Peterson's Lincoln in American Memory is the standard about the impact and means of Lincoln's legacy since his assassination. Schwartz, who specializes in cultural memory, focuses his analysis more narrowly than Peterson by looking to see the meaning of Lincoln in American memory, rather than chronicling the manifestations of Lincoln's legacy.

Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory was an intriguing exploration of Lincoln's place in American cultural memory. While I think that Schwartz misrepresents Lincoln's reputation during his presidency (like many, he too easily buys into the argument that the unpopular Lincoln became a legend by being assassinated), the rest of his analysis is solid.