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.

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