Monday, February 16, 2009

Lincoln Articles at US News and World Report Online

The flurry of events related to the bicentennial celebration of the birth of Abraham Lincoln should end today, on this President's Day holiday. However, with so much Lincoln-related information last week (and I'm still discovering things), it will take a few days for Lincolniana to catch up.

Several news organizations had special features on Lincoln last week, but it took a while to realize that US News and World Report had a week-long series of online articles on the sixteenth president, culminating with one by Harold Holzer. Altogether the articles are strong overviews of significant topics about Lincoln -- his evolving slavery position, issues about civil liberties, his religious views. Additionally, Holzer's piece is an excellent summary of his own expertise on Lincoln's ability to carefully tweak his public image through visual artists. In order of online publication, the articles are:

  • "Abraham Lincoln's Great Awakening: From Moderate to Abolitionist" by Justin Ewers, a senior editor at US News. In this piece, Ewers gives a solid presentation of Lincoln's shift in his policy toward slavery over the months between his inauguration and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Ewers position, which better takes recent criticism of Lincoln's attitude toward slavery into account, suggests that Lincoln himself needed to be convinced to shift policy. Such a shift gives implies a personal overtone to part of Lincoln's coda to his 1862 Message to Congress, which Ewers sites near the end of his article: "As our case is new, we must think anew, and act anew."

  • "Revoking Civil Liberties: Lincoln's Constitutional Dilemma" by Justin Ewers. Attempting to wade through the even thornier issue of Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeus corpus, Ewers focuses on the war-time experience the bitterly divided state of Missouri. For decades, historians have criticized Lincoln's handling of this issue; even those who agree with its necessity and legality often believe there were problems in execution. Ewers ably shows that the suspension of habeus corpus probably was taken furthest in Missouri, in ways that were difficult for Lincoln to comprehend or control. But this unique example is a poor representative of the entire policy, which was mostly successful and well handled. Indeed, it shows the irony of the historical arguments against Lincoln in this case -- Lincoln was fighting a war about the authority of the central government in a republic where state governments probably had more real authority. So Lincoln's suspension of habeus corpus required either the military or state authorities to be carried out; in Missouri, these entities had conflicting opinions on how the policy should be carried out, with the state authorities gaining the upper hand, despite Lincoln's efforts to the contrary. (Interestingly, a much stronger question about Lincoln and civil liberties is mentioned by Ewers in the second paragraph and then ignored: Lincoln directly countermanding a Supreme Court decision with which he disagreed.)

  • "Abraham Lincoln: A Technology Leader of His Time" by Henry J. Reske, a frequent contributor to US News. Reske, in this brief overview, points to the aspect of Lincoln's personality that is perhaps the least recognized, his scientific curiosity. Lincoln is still the only president to hold a patent, for a device to raise boats off of shoals and sandbars. (The impact of this invention is perhaps overstated in the quotations by Jason Emerson, author of a recent book on Lincoln the Inventor.) This curiosity had one odd consequence -- Lincoln's attempt to become a paid lecturer with his address on "Discoveries and Inventions." But it had significant impact on Lincoln as commander-in-chief, owing to his interest in weapons technology and his embrace of the telegraph.

  • "Abraham Lincoln, an Everyman Who Saved a Nation" by John C. Waugh, an author with several Civil War books to his credit, including two on Lincoln: One Man Great Enough: Abraham Lincoln's Road to Civil War and Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency. In this essay, Waugh argues that the secret to Lincoln's greatness lies in his overwhelming ambition and determination to prepare himself for greatness. When the opportunity arrived, in 1854, for Lincoln, he took center stage as a giant ready for battle, writes Waugh, suggesting that by 1861 Lincoln was "a complete package." While I don't necessarily disagree with the general argument -- even if it doesn't quite answer the question of how Lincoln was unique -- I think that Waugh goes too far. Lincoln, it seems, never regarded himself as "a complete package," such that he was always thinking and working to improve himself, regardless of the circumstances he found himself in.

  • "Abraham Lincoln's Religious Uncertainty" by Dan Gilgoff, a senior writer at US News who focuses of religion and politics. This is a strong, though brief, summary of the development of Lincoln's religious views, mentioning all of the significant points of consideration (except perhaps the odd evidence that Lincoln's rejection of his parent's faith began not in adulthood, but earlier, given there is no indication he was ever baptized). Lincoln's beliefs about faith evolved, likely in some ways alongside those of his wife (it seems that she too was a strong-tongued religious skeptic, which I think might have been part of the mutual attraction), as they both matured and experienced the hardships of life, particularly the death of two of their sons. It is very difficult, though, to strongly argue what those beliefs were at the end of Lincoln's life, which is why Gilgoff, I think, settles for the defensible 'religious uncertainty.'

  • "Abraham Lincoln: From Homely to Heroic" by Harold Holzer. Holzer, an expert on graphic depictions of Lincoln, details Lincoln's willing participation with photographers, painters, and sculptors. Lincoln somehow recognized, from an early point in his career, but especially after his 1860 trip to Cooper Union, the power of these images to shape the public's perception of him, despite his poor physical appearance. At the end, Holzer describes Lincoln's careful encouragement of these distributed images as "savvy, disarming, diversionary, occasionally even disingenuous," which seems to me accurate and to the point.
These articles are solid overviews, though there's very little groundbreaking information here. For those unfamiliar with Holzer's The Lincoln Image and similar pieces, however, this essay is a must-read.

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