Lincoln's Virtues by William Lee Miller

miller_lincolns.jpgIt turns out that raising your first child, taking a bar exam, starting a new job, and moving into a new house can take a hefty chunk out of one's free time. Other than the month of May, when we moved, I have been able to keep up with my reading at a decent pace. But clearly the blogging has fallen completely by the wayside. I had harbored ambitions of going back and writing reviews of all the books read this year that have gone unreviewed, but reality has set in and compromises made.

In July, I read both volumes of William Lee Miller's unusual biography of Abraham Lincoln; Lincoln's Virtues taking its subject to the cusp of the presidency, with the aptly titled President Lincoln completing the story. Though there is ample justification for thinking that nothing new can be said of our greatest president, new titles continue to roll off the presses, with last year's bicentennial an especially prolific year. There is clearly a market that supports this Lincolnphilia (and occasional unhinged Lincolnphobia) and I have done my small part. In recent years I have read Lincoln biographies by David Herbert Donald and Richard Carwardine, as well as Doris Kearns Goodwin's history of Lincoln's Team of Rivals, with Donald's book the best of a very competitive field.

While Donald's Lincoln retains my recommendation for a single volume life of the Railsplitter, Miller's effort offers an interesting complement. Like Goodwin, who illuminates Lincoln's political skill through his relationship with his powerful cabinet, Miller offers a distinct lens through which Lincoln's life takes on greater dimension. His focus, telegraphed by subtitling Lincoln's Virtues as an "ethical biography," is on the moral aspect of Lincoln's character and its evolution:

The place and moment and lineage of his birth, and the events of his time, were given, beyond all choosing, as for any man or woman; but within those limits there were many choosings. There was, alongside the elements of necessity, the reality of freedom, and therefore of moral choice. It is the purpose of this book to examine some of the shaping moral choices made by Abraham Lincoln as he rose to power, and perhaps simultaneously to suggest something about moral life in the American democracy for which he would become such an eloquent spokesman, so worthy an exemplar, and so potent a symbol.

Miller is quite explicit in his admiration of Lincoln, but this is no mere hagiography. Instead, Lincoln's moral greatness is the thesis which Miller sets out to prove, through a close examination of Lincoln's life and writings. Miller leaves no stone unturned in analyzing Lincoln's childhood and the circumstances under which he met the world, as well as his budding legal and political career in the then-frontier state of Illinois. The young Lincoln faces moral choices on numerous fronts, and Miller explores everything from Lincoln's childhood sympathy for animals to his merciful sparing of an Indian chief during his brief tenure in the Illinois Militia. His opposition to the Mexican-American war (during his sole congressional term) proved a pivotal and controversial moment:

That this was a genuine conviction we may surely discern particularly from his earnest private letters, as we will see in a moment. He took the floor to challenge the president with an awareness of the bellicosity and eagle-screaming expansionism of his home district and state, bluntly express by the state's senior senator, Stephen A. Douglas. He must therefore have known that it would cost him politically. If all this be true, might we not begin to discern in Lincoln's speeches (for all their excess) the fain suggestion of the beginnings of a hint of something like a Profile in Courage?

But of course the abiding moral controversy of Lincoln's time was that of slavery, and the noxious web of disputes that the existence of slavery entailed. Miller provides a convincing presentation of Lincoln's longstanding fundamental opposition to slavery, but this only raises further questions about the morality of the practical compromises Lincoln would have to make throughout his career, and the ways in which he would square his opposition to slavery with the other values he held dear, such as the rule of law and the sanctity of the Union. How, for example, to understand Lincoln's lack of opposition to fugitive slave laws?

Because he believed in abiding by the law and the Constitution as he understood it, because there were obligations under the original agreement among the states, because the current objectionable law was the result of a bargain in which each side got something, because therefore it was, however distasteful, his duty, Lincoln did not oppose a Fugitive Slave Law. As an emerging political leader and shaper of opinion in 1854-1860, and as President of a war-torn nation in 1861-1865, he would always oppose slavery strongly--but within the law, under the Constitution, affirming the continuing bond of the Union.

Lincoln is an unusually excellent subject for this sort of analysis, not just for the monumental nature of the times in which he lived, but because of the tremendous written record he left behind. Lincoln was one of the few gifted writers to have graced the nation's highest office. Miller is at his best in textual analysis, particularly when parsing the variations in evolving drafts of a document and mining these changes for insight into the author's thinking. But if Miller can be complimented on the exhaustive nature of his examination, he can also be questioned for assuming a moral dimension to sometimes trivial occurrences.

This is a secondary biography, without doubt. The extended grappling with the moral dimension of Lincoln's life presumes a substantial familiarity with the underlying narrative, and one would be well-advised to start with David Donald's classic or Ronald White's latest. But once one knows that Lincoln lived in great times and did great things, it remains important to understand why he did those things, and why the doing of those things was worthy of admiration.

It is unsatisfying to simple presume some fundamental goodness on Lincoln's part; he was a man, not a god. He made choices, and it is those choices that bore moral weight. It was Lincoln's struggle to make the right choices that made his life truly great, and thus worth all the time and effort that we still devote to understanding him.

The Month in Books - August 2010

At the start of 2010, I set a goal to read 15,000 pages by year's end, including twelve books of greater than 650 pages. I am measuring progress in pages, rather than titles, to avoid any bias toward shorter books. Here's what I read in August:

  1. Oscar and Lucinda - Peter Carey
  2. Mystic River - Dennis Lehane
  3. Shutter Island - Dennis Lehane
  4. A Drink Before the War - Dennis Lehane
  5. Ghostwritten - David Mitchell

Pages Read: 1,952
Year-to-Date: 10,045
Books > 650 pages: 3