by Ronald C. White Jr.
For years I’ve wanted to read a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and I recently finally got around to it. There are so many that have been written, it’s difficult to choose which one to read. I ended up going with Ronald White’s biography, mainly because it was rated well, and it was the most recently written one I came across. Having now read it, I wonder if I would have appreciated a different one more.
That is not to say this is not well-written and informative; it is. However, what I had been hoping for was something that demystified that man, Abraham Lincoln. And while this biography does that to an extent, it is far more an exploration and recounting of the Civil War than an analysis of Lincoln himself. That said, it is an exhaustively researched volume, and I did come away having learned more about the Civil War than I ever knew before.
Some interesting things to note about Lincoln: according to this biography, at the outset of the Civil War – and indeed, of his political career – he was not determined to abolish slavery. While he was not in favor of slavery from a personal, moral perspective, his goal was only to stop the spread of slavery into territory beyond which it already existed. He was fine with leaving slavery alone where it already existed, and at the outset of the Civil War, his focus was on keeping the Union together. His views on slavery seem to have evolved over time (with the aid of pressure from anti-slavery factions in the North), and endeavoring to completeley abolish slavery came after a long process of rumination on Lincoln’s part. Even when he first began to propose the abolishment of slavery, he made clear that he did not believe that Blacks were the social equals of Whites, and he proposed “emancipation and colonization,” meaning, arranging for freed slaves to be relocated to Haiti and Nigeria.
Perhaps his views on the social equality of Blacks also evolved, however, as indicated by his (final) encounter with Frederick Douglass at the White House for Lincoln’s second inaugural reception, where Lincoln warmly received Douglass, saying, “Here comes my friend Douglass …. there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.” It is impossible, however, to know how far this would translate, practically speaking, had Lincoln not soon thereafter been assasinated. Would he have championed Black suffrage? Equal pay for Blacks? Blacks holding political office? Interracial relations and marriages? It’s impossible to know this, but given the widely-held views of that time period, it’s unlikely that Lincoln would have been enthusiatic to that extend, no matter how progressive he was for the times.
It’s worth knowing, too, that the lines that divided the North and the South did not dilineate sentiments about racial equality to the extent I think we would like to believe. Most Northerners at that time were deeply prejudice, and although many were against the institution of slavery, they still viewed black people as an inferior race, and wanted little or nothing to do with them.
I also found it interesting to learn of Lincoln’s supposed spiritual oddyssey. As a young man, and even by the time he first assumes the office of the President, he seemed to be verging on agnostic. Over the course of his presidency, however, he apparently underwent some kind of spiritual transformation and became almost pious in his views on god and providence.
In any case, White’s biography of Lincoln does offer a lot of fascinating information about Lincoln’s life, as well as the Civil War, and the generals and other important figures of the time. A bit on the dry side, and with a little too much comparative analysis with the bible for my taste, it’s nonetheless an informative volume. I’m not sure, however, that I feel that I understand Lincoln the man much better than I did before reading this book. But maybe Lincoln will always remain somewhat of an enigma, and understanding the workings of his mind is an impossiblity.