Book Review: President Lincoln: The Duty Of A Statesman

President Lincoln: The Duty Of A Statement, William Lee Miller

I happened to check this book out from the library before realizing it was the second part of a two-part “ethical biography” of Abraham Lincoln, this volume covering Lincoln as president. Although there are many books, many of them quite good [1], about Abraham Lincoln, the worth of his life and writing and political/moral thought has led many to write about him, most of them in praise and a few in fierce and usually unmerited criticism. This particular book, as might be expected, largely praises Lincoln as it judges Lincoln both from the perspective of idealism and practicality. To be sure, the author does not sugarcoat the record, commenting on some of Lincoln’s mistakes, including a long praise of colonization, but overall the author’s astute grasp of primary and secondary sources, which seems nearly encyclopedic in nature, including an unerring instinct to seek the best authors and books to buttress his points, authors like Jaffa and Randall and Wilson and Fahrenbacher, to name a few, demonstrates considerable praise for Lincoln’s action and morality, and his growth as a result of becoming more familiar with government and with the people of his nation.

In terms of its contents, the book looks both thematically and generally chronologically in over 400 pages of core material at the ethical aspects of Lincoln’s presidency, as well as his focus on both prudence and idealism. In terms of its elegant tension between Lincoln’s tying together of Union and emancipation, his desire to act in as restrained a manner as possible to avoid brutality and act in a constitutional manner while preserving central authority and overcoming the rebellion, the author demonstrates both Lincoln’s skill and the immensity of his task. The author also makes it a point of talking about those times where Abraham Lincoln, normally a person inclined to give mercy, both gave it (to many of the Sioux warriors of Minnesota in 1863, for example) and did not give it (to captured slave traders and the murderer of an officer leading black soldiers in Norfolk) in striking ways. The author’s friendship with Frederick Douglass comes in for exceptional praise for Lincoln’s fairmindedness. Many of the chapters have title headings that come from Lincoln’s writings, and the author pays close attention to material, like Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and annual addresses, that have seemed a bit dull and dry to many readers, pointing out the timing of various statements as a way of illuminating the silences and implications of his writings.

Above all, this book is unified by a few themes. One of them is the ironic deflation of the Southern view of honor that shows up time and time again as a malign force within the country, whether it is in the Confederates insulting the honor of “neutral” Kentucky by invading their territory first and pushing it further into the Union camp, or in Southern honor leading to the assassination of Lincoln as well as the aforementioned young lieutenant of a black regiment sent to patrol in Norfolk. Another unifying theme is the way that Lincoln’s origin served to make him far more beloved among common people, and those who took the time to get to know him well, than the elites of either American or European society, many of whom were nonetheless horrified at his assassination. The author comments some on his diplomatically insincere notes to European leaders or monarchies and aristocracies, but not to one of his few notes to a fellow republican regime [2]. Likewise, the author comments on the fact that for Lincoln union and liberty were deeply united, in ways that were better understood by the rebels and the slaves than by many northerners whose racism and emotional distance from slavery despite their complicity in it economically and socially did not connect the two issues. For those who want to see a praiseworthy and largely positive portrayal of Lincoln as a practical statesmen committed to his duty despite its challenges, this is an excellent book on those grounds. A book that combines an appreciation of grace and charity and justice in dealing with others, as well as avoiding the trap of supporting the lie that being a leader means being a macho poseur is a book that deserves appreciation merely on moral grounds alone. The fact that it is written with skill, has elegant footnotes, and is full of gentle irony makes it even better.

[1] See, for example:


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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