Thursday, April 16, 2009

New Lincoln Books This Week

There are a couple of Lincoln books being released this week, though neither of them should be classified  as new.  The first is the 50th anniversary edition of a classic book about the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, and the second is yet another collection of Lincoln quotations.

Releasing April 15

Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 50th Anniversary Edition by Harry V. Jaffa (University of Chicago Press, 2009, paperback, 472 pages)

As the bicentennial celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birth continues, it can be difficult to imagine that the Abraham Lincoln currently being described had a different reputation even fifty years ago.  Where Lincoln is now seen as the master politician, who mastered both  issues and people and expressed his ideas eloquently, in the 1940s and 1950s he was seen as the unlikely frontier lawyer turned president.  He might be recognized for his common sense, but he was seen as a careful orator who conformed to the expectations of his audience, rather than as a shaper of ideas.

In this light, the Lincoln-Douglas debates took on a far different meaning in Lincoln's life story.  Rather than an example of Lincoln arguing significant ideas with the incumbent senator Stephen Douglas, the debates were often seen as an example of Lincoln the wily politician seeking to trap Douglas.  Such thinking led many writers of the time, including some famous Lincoln scholars, to suggest that the Civil War could have been avoided if Lincoln (and others) had just toned down their rhetoric, allowing cooler heads to prevail.

Jaffa's study of the debates confronted this attitude, suggesting that there were very real philosophical issues at the core of the debates.  As Merrill Peterson writes in his 1994 survey of the shifting interpretation of Lincoln through the years Lincoln in American Memory:
In 1959 a young student of classical political theory, Harry V. Jaffa,  not only assailed revisionism but restored the central importance of the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration of Independence -- "this grand pertinacity," as Charles Sumner had called it -- in Lincoln's politics.  His book Crisis of the House Divided focused on the issues in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  Beveridge and Randall, it may be recalled, had dismissed the debates as little more than curious folklore and narrowed the differences between the candidates to the vanishing point.  Jaffa pronounced this treatment "shocking."  The issue between free soil and popular sovereignty in Kansas was crucial because the free states could not abandon their position "without losing the root of the conviction which was the foundation of their freedom."  That root was the Declaration of Independence, which Lincoln transformed from a charter of individual liberty into something "organic and sacramental -- a kind of political religion."  It was prophetic and progressive, looking to the realization of freedom and equality for all.  Jaffa came to this interpretation not through American history but through the study of Plato's Republic under the natural law theorist and scholar Leo Strauss, at the University of Chicago.

As might be guess from Peterson's description, Jaffa's book was highly controversial, both in its conclusions and in its philosophy, particularly in the 1960s.  However, it was also extremely influential, and in the years since most scholars have accepted Jaffa's underlying argument -- the Lincoln-Douglas debates were not just a show, but were quite substantive.

Jaffa's influence can be quite clearly traced to a more recent scholar like Allen Guelzo, whose writings focus on the development -- and especially the consistency -- of Lincoln's political philosophy.  This idea also informs the work of Harold Holzer, though Holzer also includes aspects of Lincoln's careful cultivation of his audience -- both are key parts to Holzer's argument in Lincoln at Cooper Union, for example.

For this 50th anniversary edition, Jaffa has written a new introduction.  I would imagine, though I have not seen the text, that it will comment on the controversies of the 1960s and also the recent controversies that arose from Thomas DiLorenzo and his ilk after Jaffa published a sequel, A New Birth of Freedom, in 2000.  While I have never read the book, I certainly know its reputation; it belongs in any serious Lincoln library.

The Words of Abraham Lincoln edited by Larry Shapiro (Newmarket Press, 2009, paperback, 128 pages)

On the other end of the spectrum is a book that will appeal to a much larger audience, a collection of Lincoln quotations, selected by History Book Club editorial director Larry Shapiro, who also penned an introduction.  According to the publisher information, all of the quotes are drawn from Lincoln's speeches and writings (probably The Collected Works), which at least should minimize the likelihood of doubtful Lincoln "quotations" being included.

Unlike other similar books, this one is actually part of an ongoing -- and small -- series of quotation books Newmarket has published over the last 20+ years, featuring such people as Martin Luther King, Albert Schweitzer, Desmond Tutu, and Ghandi.  As such, it probably is not a bad volume.  

No comments: