Review of “President Lincoln: The Duty of A Statesman” by William Lee Miller

Miller endeavors to examine “the moral performance of Abraham Lincoln” as President. Therefore, as the author explains, the book is only indirectly about Lincoln’s statesmanship and more about his moral conduct in office. He is also careful to distinguish (as Lincoln himself did) choices Lincoln made in fulfillment of his oath of office from those he might have made based on his personal predispositions.

It’s an interesting perspective in one sense, because, as Miller observes, many politicians have had more political experience than Lincoln but “[a] fool or knave can rise through many eminent positions and still be a fool or knave.” So Miller wants to show how Lincoln excelled in spite of his lack of experience, because he had such a strong moral fiber.

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My biggest criticism with this book is that it reads more like a billet doux than a history. It is overly reverential: Lincoln may have taken an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, but Miller seems to have taken the same oath vis-a-vis Lincoln. He repeatedly characterizes Lincoln as “decisive,” “steadfast” tenderhearted,” “resilient,” “resolute” – a lot of adjectives making the basic point of “strong yet gentle.”

My other complaint is that the prose is anachronistically florid. Not only does Miller hijack and recycle many of Lincoln’s own familiar phrases (“mystic chords,” “mighty scourge” and so on), but he also interjects his own overly dramatic prose. He refers to “the golden thread of magnanimity and generosity that would wind its way through his presidency.” He makes reference to events that “would ring forever thereafter in American memory” and provide “stories forever.”

Those criticisms aside, the book contains some interesting observations and analyses. In attempting to justify Lincoln’s very hesitant stance on the abolition of slavery, Miller does a thorough job of detailing the tenuous positions of the border states, and how essential it was for the viability of the Union for Lincoln to hold on to them.

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He also includes an interesting theory of how the Emancipation Proclamation – so legalistic and even exclusionary – came to be seen as a great document of liberation. The Proclamation did not set all the slaves free, but only those in the Confederacy, over whom Lincoln did not have any control. In fact, Miller charges, it was white Southerners who, greatly exaggerating the document’s import out of fear and hyperbole, conveyed a much more momentous significance to this decree. Their indiscriminate condemnations reached into the slave community, convincing blacks that northerners wanted them liberated. Great waves of escaped slaves thus attached themselves to invading northern armies, much to the chagrin of the latter who then had to care for them.

Lincoln, for his part, continually protested that if he could save the Union without freeing any slaves he would do so. However, when he thought the North was losing the war and that he would not be re-elected, he encouraged Frederick Douglass to familiarize slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation. Slaves who had made their way behind Union lines by war’s end could stay out of bondage.

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Immense changes took place during Lincoln’s time in office. When he began as President, the U.S. Army totaled just over 17,000 men and just over 1,000 officers. When war was declared, one-third of the officers promptly resigned and joined the Confederacy. There were significant defections in civilian departments as well; ninety employees in the War Department alone resigned. Confusion and corruption characterized the early days of the Administration. Lincoln’s generals in the field made their own policies, sometimes in direct contradiction to Lincoln’s commands, threatening his fragile coalitions and alliances. Lincoln had not only to surmount all of these obstacles but to do it in such a way that minimized alienating his fragile governing coalition. He also had to exercise control over the war machine while resisting the excesses of wartime governance. By the war’s end, close to 3 million soldiers had served in both North and South. This number included 186,017 free blacks and freed slaves in the army and 10,000 in the navy. Some 620,000 soldiers were dead (one-third of those from battle; the rest succumbed to disease or the effects of hardship).

Company E, 4th United States Colored Troops

Company E, 4th United States Colored Troops

In Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he argued that both sides were complicitous in the war. Nevertheless, he noted: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.” Rather, he asked for “malice toward none, and charity towards all,” and then six weeks later he was dead. Many politicians in the victorious North had no such qualms about revenge, and Lincoln’s successor had no moral authority to temper their vengeance.

Evaluation: Lincoln’s policies and positions can easily be vindicated without couching them in an encomium. Although the book includes quite a bit of interesting primary source material, its value is diminished by its non-scholarly tone.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Knopf, 2008

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