Review of “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” by David Von Drehle

Von Drehle argues that 1862 was the most important year in the history of our nation, and he does so quite persuasively.

Rooftop Lincoln Rise to Greatness

Many of Lincoln’s tasks after the onset of the Civil War involved appeasement: he had to make sure the touchy border states remained in the Union (ergo he could not speak out too forcefully for emancipation); he had to make sure Britain and France did not join the war on the side of the South (thus his capitulation on the so-called “Trent Affair”) and he had to ensure that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney (author of the notorious Dred Scott decision declaring that African Americans could never be considered U.S. citizens) did not thwart his military plans to protect the North by using what could be considered extra-Constitutional actions. Moreover, the Army, which numbered only 16,000 men before the war (and these men were spread out all over the continent), had been rapidly increased to nearly five times that number. But none of them knew how to fight! Nor did most of the men picked to lead them. Somehow Lincoln had to figure out which of these novices had the makings of generals who could lead the North to victory.

Needless to say, it took Lincoln a while to accomplish this last, especially since he had to take great care not to alienate all the supporters (among whom numbered many soldiers) of the infuriating and perhaps even treasonous George McClellan. But Lincoln was one of the few men in a leadership position at the time who was willing and able to take the long view, and to keep his eye on the prize, which was preservation of the Union.

Excerpt of Letter to Horace Greeley printed August 22, 1862

Excerpt of Letter to Horace Greeley printed August 22, 1862

Why was this so important? Lincoln believed the American nation, with its bestowal of power upon ordinary people to elect its government (i.e., the doctrine of self government), was “absolutely and eternally right.” Furthermore, he could conceive of no government more noble than one “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He could find no moral right in the despotism of men not only governing themselves but governing other men. But he knew a critical factor determining the success of this experiment was assurance to the citizenry that losing voters would not and could not destroy the system just because they lost. Like a marriage, any union won’t work when the parties say “I’m getting a divorce” every time something doesn’t go their way. Compromise is the key to maintaining any union worth having, and Lincoln believed firmly that the United States – this great experiment – should not perish from the earth.

[And yes, there was a slight problem with the reality of the nation as it was then constituted not living up to the promise, since some men were more equal than other men, and certainly more equal than women.] Lincoln begged his audience, in an 1858 debate against Stephen Douglas:

Now, my countrymen . . . if you have been taught doctrines conflicting with the great landmarks of the Declaration of Independence; if you have listened to suggestions which would take away from its grandeur, and mutilate the fair symmetry of its proportions; if you have been inclined to believe that all men are not created equal in those inalienable rights enumerated by our chart of liberty, let me entreat you to come back. Return to the fountain whose waters spring close by the blood of the Revolution. Think nothing of me—take no thought for the political fate of any man whomsoever—but come back to the truths that are in the Declaration of Independence. … I am nothing; Judge Douglas is nothing. But do not destroy that immortal emblem of Humanity—the Declaration of American Independence.”

Lincoln intended to help the nation “heed these sacred principles.” But he could not do it unless the “nation so conceived and so dedicated” were still in existence. This concern dictated all of his strategy, all of his decisions, all of his tactics, and it is this long-term vision that so many others in the government were unable to imagine.

They also were not nearly as savvy as Lincoln about realpolitik. Lincoln felt he couldn’t just get rid of Simon Cameron, his corrupt and incompetent Secretary of War, or he would create a dangerous enemy and hopelessly alienate Pennsylvanians; nor could he just get rid of Samuel Chase, whose over-the-top politicking for Lincoln’s job outraged everyone but Lincoln – he needed Chase’s financial prowess to raise the money to fight the war. Nor could Lincoln satisfy Congress by firing George McClellan, the do-nothing general who consistently snubbed, insulted, and disrespected Lincoln. McClellan was far too popular among the troops; Lincoln knew better than to lose the loyalty of the army. He could not even appease the abolitionists by outlawing slavery just yet – the preservation of the union had to take precedence.

Lincoln with McClellan at Antietam, 1862

Lincoln with McClellan at Antietam, 1862

Again and again, Lincoln was able to push aside and rise above personal snubs, Congressional pressure, embarrassment over his wife’s questionable friendships with Confederates, and all the rest, to save the Union. Lincoln said:

Perhaps I have too little [resentment], but I never thought it paid.”

This remarkable man had a remarkable year in 1862. As Drehle writes:

…when the first day of January [1863] came around again, Lincoln’s greatness was no longer raw. Even as he had redefined American society, he had invented the modern presidency. He had steered himself and the nation from its darkest New Year’s Day to its proudest, and in the process Lincoln had become the towering leader who forever looms over the rebirth of the American experiment.”

Evaluation: You have to admire the author for undertaking this book. As he observed in his Note on Sources, “the sheer volume of material, both primary and secondary… is so vast that dropping into the subject as a writer is like falling into the sea.” Yet he succeeds admirably, providing a month-by-month account of Lincoln’s life in 1862 that puts us right into the thick of the times with a welcome lack of turgidity and tedium. Obviously the author could not include everything; new students of Lincoln may want to start with a more comprehensive biography. But for those who know even the bare outlines of Lincoln’s life and the politics surrounding it, this book provides a lively and always-interesting focused look at one of the most important years in America’s history.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2012


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