Lincoln: A Life Of Purpose And Power, by Richard Carwardine, read by Stefan Rudnicki
Abraham Lincoln is an interesting historical figure, especially because of the combination between the high moral tone of his approach as a leader and the shrewdness of his practical behavior. A contemporary of Lincoln’s, Otto von Bismarck, once said that people should not know how their laws and sausages are made, and this book is really about how it was that Lincoln’s life and presidency were made. Not all readers will find this to be a pleasant task, but this book certainly finds a worthwhile niche in the fourteen thousand or more books that have been written about Lincoln. This niche is in looking at the institutional strength that Lincoln drew on in his presidency and the continuity between his career as a Whig party loyalist and between his more high-toned behavior as a higher level Republican political office seeker. This continuity is compared with what appears to be a gradual, and controversial, shift between Lincoln’s early skepticism with regards to religion to a later and far more nuanced position where it is difficult to tell the difference between genuine belief and opportunistic political language. The author likes to explore the tension between Lincoln as a candid politician, within the bounds of being an effective politician, and his canniness and exploitation of the sources of power that were available to him.
This audiobook is twelve volumes long and most of it focuses on Lincoln’s presidency. It should be noted, though, that the author looks at the beginning of Lincoln’s life, including his personal background, to see how it was that Lincoln operated within the world of American politics, and he draws some notable conclusions about Lincoln’s political behavior as president by looking at the political system that Lincoln inhabited and his place within it. There is a great deal of discussion about Lincoln’s general personal and political reputation and the author spends a lot of time discussing the influence of religion on politics and looking at the nature of the Republican coalition that Lincoln led and how he managed to finesse the differences within that coalition by striking actions that were able to build a broad base of support. The author is, as the title helpfully notes, particularly keen on examining Lincoln’s purposes as well as his use of and search for power.
This is a fascinating book. The author is by no means someone who believes in Lincoln as an exceptional leader. In the author’s view, what was exceptional was the institutional strength of the political party as well as the American presidency and the supple flexibility of the Constitution in how it could be dealt with in times of war. The author notes both the daring nature of Lincoln’s theoretical justification as well as his restraint in the exercise of power as being important elements in his successful presidency, and also notes that he was not viewed as being a particularly notable or exceptional leader during his time as president. It is quite possible that the author himself believes too much like that of many of Lincoln’s peers and rivals that Lincoln was not quite as savvy as he was. Lincoln’s unprepossessing approach and humility as well as his ungainly appearance all tend to lead to him being underestimated and underappreciated by others. If the author gives proper praise to the context in which Lincoln operated, it is quite possible that he misses some of the man in looking at his surroundings. After all, Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, greatly missed out on opportunities for greatness given similar circumstances.