Book Review: Abraham Lincoln: Great American Historians On Our Sixteenth President

Abraham Lincoln:  Great American Historians On Our Sixteenth President:  A C-Span Book, edited by Brian Lamb and Susan Swain

Before you read this book, you should be aware that this is not a book about Abraham Lincoln by historians, not all of whom are great (more on that later), but rather a book collected of excerpts, some of them exceedingly short, from people who are mostly known as writers of books about Abraham Lincoln, many of which I have read and reviewed [1].  To be sure, these people talk about Abraham Lincoln, but mostly as a way of burnishing their own reputation.  Rather than being seen as historians, these people should be seen either as salesmen trying to peddle their books to a midbrow audience or as politicians looking for others to believe in their partial and biased perspective of Abraham Lincoln.  One is not getting Lincoln direct, for the most part at least, but rather filtered through the research and commercial interests of the various people interviewed by C-Span, and one also gets the sense of how so much political discourse corrupts history as well as our understanding of it.

The contents of this book are varied in size and quality to a remarkable degree.  The various excerpts from interviews have been lightly edited (sometimes not nearly enough) and divided into several different categories:  Lincoln’s road from the log cabin to the White House, Lincoln as a wartime president, Lincoln’s character, Lincoln in historical memory, and then Lincoln’s words.  It is only in this last section that we get to read Lincoln in his own words, as it includes his House Divided speech, a particularly controversial excerpt from the debate in Charleston with Douglas, as well as the Cooper Union address, his First and Second Inaugurals, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and his last address.  The size of the excerpts included from various people ranges from short paragraphs for many to sprawling and rambling rants for the worst among them, a “historian” named Lerone Bennet, Jr and an equally ersatz historian, the repugnant Thomas DiLorenzo.  Fortunately, most of the historians are far better than these, even if they get far less time to talk about Lincoln.  For the most part, everyone here is using Lincoln as a way to burnish their own reputation, rather than appreciating Lincoln for who he was, using Lincoln’s biography and writings and speeches as proof texts in some sort of civic religious context rather than in order to better understand him and his time on their own terms.

It is interesting, despite the flaws of this book, to see what these writers think about Lincoln, the sort of causes they wish to enlist Lincoln in, the way they wish to attack a supposed Lincoln cult or say that people are bored by Lincoln and most Lincoln defenders, who apparently have little passion in what they say.  The editors of the book appear to have a somewhat cynical aim in that they wish to capitalize on the interest in Lincoln books while also subtly wishing to undermine what it was that Lincoln actually said in the their own self-promotion efforts and those of the historians they select, some of whom made repeat appearances.  The book also includes a few very egregious errors that are not corrected in this book’s shoddy editing, such as when one historian claims that Chase was a former Whig governor of New York, when that was Seward (81), and that Lincoln sat with photographer Alexander Gardner in February 1865 after having visited Richmond in April 1865 (162).  Someone forgot to tell Abraham Lincoln he was a timelord, apparently.  This sort of shoddy work shows that the book was a cash grab for everyone involved, from C-Span to the writers included in it.  One wonders why they couldn’t invite the wonderful political historian Harry Jaffa, given the hacks and no-names included here, even though some of the writers talk about him in absentia.  Fortunately, this is a book about a worthwhile enough subject that not even C-Span can ruin it.

[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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