Tuesday, November 11, 2008

driving my lincoln

I saw it on the book table at Costco -- and nearly walked on by. Another Lincoln book? What more is there to say about the man?

But James McPherson hooked me and reeled me in with his claim that his was an entirely original approach: to view Lincoln's presidency solely through the prism of his role as commander-in-chief during the Civil War.

It sounded novel. Thus I bought and read Tried by War over this last weekend.

If I had given this impulse buy some serious thought, I would have realized that almost every biography of Lincoln deals with Lincoln as the commander of generals. The trick would have been if McPherson, a noted Lincoln scholar, had produced some original approach to understanding Lincoln. You will find none of that in this very small book. Every tale, every point appears in other Lincoln biographies.

Lincoln came to the White House with the reputation of a peacenik -- one of history's great ironies. Even though he had spent a few months as a soldier in the Black Hawk War in 1832, he was best known as an opponent of the war with Mexico when he was in Congress. When the Civil War began, he crammed to learn military policy, strategy, and tactics, and learned along with his generals.

In doing so, he invented the notion of an activist (some would say imperial) presidency where the executive branch became supreme over the other branches in the prosecution of the civil war and its termination of civil liberties -- for the betterment of other liberties.

This is where McPherson disappointed me. He is a very good writer, and he tells this tale well. But, the book is not so much a critique of Lincoln as commander-in-chief as it is a hagiography of America's greatest commander. Sadly, McPherson simply wants us to believe, and that leaves Lincoln sounding less like a mortal learning his lessons well, and more like a flawed demigod exiled from Olympus.

I give McPherson credit for not indulging in the anachronistic practice of continually trying to drag contemporary affairs into the context of 19th century history. And McPherson does a good job of acting as a professional historian almost all the way through the book.

Here is an example that would have caused most writers to slip into hackery.

In his role as commander of the Department of Ohio, General Burnside issued an order, based on a Lincoln executive order, that anyone who committed express or implied treason would be arrested and tried by a military tribunal.

Clement Vallandingham, an anti-war Democrat running for the Ohio governorship, put the order to the test challenging the constitutionality of the war, emancipation, the draft, suspension of habeas corpus, and Lincoln's tyranny. Burside arrested him, and a military court convicted him, and sentenced him to prison for the remainder of the war.

McPherson dispassionately described how Democrat leaders in Ohio and New York characterized Burnside's -- and Lincoln's actions:

Such action was "a palpable violation of the Constitution," which "abrogates the right of the people to assemble and discuss the affairs of government, the liberty of speech and of the press, the right of trial by jury and the privilege of habeas corpus . . . aimed at the rights of every citizen of the North."

A hack, of course, would have turned the traitorous Vallandingham into a noble civil libertarian campaigning against foreign invasions -- merely to score points with a modern reader.

But, having dodged that bullet, McPherson tacks on an entirely unnecessary epilogue with starts very professionally:

Whether these violations of civil liberties constitute a negative legacy that offsets the positive legacy of the Union and emancipation is a question everyone must decide for himself or herself.

And then trails off into anachronistic irrelevance:

The crisis of the 1860s represented a far greater threat to the survival of the United States than did World War I, World War II, Communism in the 1950s, or terrorism today. Yet compared with the draconian enforcement of espionage and sedition laws in World War I, the internment of more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans in the 1940s, McCarthyism in the 1950s, or the National Security State of our own time, the infringement of civil liberties from 1861 to 1865 seems mild indeed.

So much for professional detachment.

If you love Lincoln without blemishes, are willing to read anything published about the Civil War, or simply do not know anything about Lincoln as commander-in-chief, buy the book.

However, if you have something better to do with your life, don't bother.

I am happy to have read it, but it now goes into my pile of books that will find a new life at the used book store.


Cory said...

Maybe I'll trade you this Lincoln book for your "12 Steps for a Recovering Pharisee".

It just might fit in my Lincoln/Civil War Library.

Steve Cotton said...

Cory -- You may like it as part of a full library. There is just nothing new.