Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Book Review: Lincoln for President

Lincoln for President: An Unlikely Candidate, An Audacious Strategy, and the Victory No One Saw Coming by Bruce Chadwick (Soucebooks, 2010), paperback, 416 pages

Prolific author Bruce Chadwick turns his attention to the climactic 1860 election in "Lincoln for President." As the title suggests, Abraham Lincoln is the primary focus, although the book offers a fairly comprehensive look at that decisive campaign which featured four main candidates. Like modern movie trailers that give away most of a film's surprises, Chadwick does not conceal his argument, succinctly given in the book's subtitle, "an unlikely candidate, an audacious strategy, and the victory no one saw coming."

Still, Chadwick offers an engaging narrative of the dramatic campaign, particularly relishing some of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering. He especially enjoys the wheeling and dealing, and even outright fraud, engaged in by Lincoln's unofficial campaign managers. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding the Republican convention draw much of Chadwick's attention, from the stacks of counterfeit entry tickets given to Lincoln supporters to the apparent promises made in return for the support of various delegations. In stark contrast to Doris Kearns Goodwin's famous argument, Chadwick believes that Lincoln's cabinet was the direct result of these convention deals, rather than the result of a governing philosophy. Although Goodwin is probably more correct, there is certain compelling evidence to support this alternate claim, such as Lincoln's ability to list his likely cabinet officers on election night.

The story of the general election in 1860 is perhaps less exciting than that summer's Republican convention, in part because of the anti-climactic conclusion. Despite Chadwick's attempts to contextualize the uncertainty of the fall campaign, Lincoln's election never seems in doubt. Still, the account is worth reading, particularly for those unfamiliar with the consequential election. Aside from offering a clear retelling, Chadwick excels at offering portraits of the four main candidates and, notably, the motivations of those voters most likely to support them. As such, the Constitutional Union Party, usually an afterthought, has a compelling, if somewhat melancholic, presence in this narrative. On the other hand, the story of the split in the Democratic Party is only adequately told here.

As the title suggests, though, the ascendancy of Abraham Lincoln is the focus. Much as Harold Holzer in "Lincoln President-Elect," Chadwick describes candidate Lincoln as engaged and quietly active behind-the-scenes. In particular, Lincoln seems consistently worried about maintaining cohesion among the disparate parts of the Republican Party and responding to any perceived threats, which is largely why the Constitutional Union Party has a larger role in this book. He writes letters and, more importantly, dispatches personal confidants to deal with key Republicans throughout the North. Further, the political animal in Lincoln possesses an intimate knowledge of the electoral calculus necessary for victory, which is apparent in some of his correspondence.

This book is a pleasant addition to the bulging Lincoln library. Engagingly written, with a wonderful appreciation for the personalities of several of the key players, it will enlighten and entertain those seeking to learn more about the 1860 election than is covered in a history class. On the other hand, Chadwick hardly breaks new ground in any of the narrative, which is regrettable because he hints at potential analyses, such as a social history that focuses as much on the voters as on the candidates in the history-changing election.

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