Book Review: One Man Great Enough

One Man Great Enough: Abraham Lincoln’s Road To Civil War, by John C. Waugh

The thesis of this book, one of many which seeks to find something distinctive to say about Abraham Lincoln and the origin of his greatness, is that the long and troubled and largely unsuccessful career, with its frustrated longings for honor and dignity and high office, with the origins of Lincoln’s life in poverty and a dysfunctional family background, with a long and immensely difficult period of courtships in his young adulthood, was the cauldron of trouble and trial that formed the character of greatness that made Abraham Lincoln the one man great enough to win the Civil War and redeem the United States, with help from others, from the scourge and dishonor of slavery and rebellion. As a one-volume biography of about 400 pages, this book is both too long to be read by those with only a casual interest in Lincoln and too short for those who wish to read everything that would be worth knowing about Lincoln. Nevertheless, the book has a lot of worthwhile citations, presents Lincoln in a human fashion but also as worthy of respect and appreciation, appreciation that the author himself showers in those who helped him along the way.

In terms of its contents, this book is written with a variety of short chapters that cover the period between Lincoln’s birth and the beginning of the Civil War after the unprovoked attack on Fort Sumter by the rebel force in Charleston in April of 1861. In many ways, this book serves as a comparative biography between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, largely written in such a way that the greatness of Lincoln is shown in relief when compared to an able politician who was Lincoln’s greatest rival, and who was long more successful politically if less great from a moral and philosophical level. Surprisingly, the book adopts a similar technique, albeit from a historical rather than philosophical perspective, to the writings of Harry Jaffa, and with a similar appreciation for Lincoln’s greatness, but without attribution in the main body of the text itself. The book is divided into nine parts and thirty-one chapters, in addition to a prologue and an epilogue that seeks to capture Lincoln in his own words as well as in the words of his contemporaries.

Although there are many books about Abraham Lincoln that I have read and many that are worth reading [1], what this book has to offer consists largely of two elements. One is a focus on what Lincoln’s contemporaries thought of him, as a way of grounding our understanding in Lincoln in the contrast that often exists between the greatness of Lincoln that we see in retrospect from the long period of obscurity and a lack of honor that Lincoln knew in his own lifetime until very late in his career. The ability of Lincoln to develop his rhetoric and moral philosophy in the hurly-burly of partisan politics in a period of great crisis while seeking elective office is possibly unprecedented in American history. It is quite possible that there was not a single other man who combined such moral greatness with such admirable restraint in pursuing concern for others and in a deep and abiding concern for resources and repercussions who could have done what Lincoln did at the time of the Civil War. The book, although it does not directly say this, implies that greatness is inseparable from great trials and difficulties, and that in appreciating the greatness of Lincoln, we need to remember that greatness is not an enjoyable set of complicated and interrelated qualities to obtain.

[1] See, for example, this small sample:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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13 Responses to Book Review: One Man Great Enough

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