“A. Lincoln” (Random House, 796 pages, $35), by Ronald C. White Jr., is the first comprehensive, single-volume biography of Lincoln since David Herbert Donald’s in 1996. Taking advantage of newly available resources, such as the recent publication of the voluminous Lincoln Legal Papers, Mr. White delivers a strong narrative that moves neatly from Lincoln’s boyhood in Kentucky and legal career in Illinois to his rise within the Whig Party, his defeat in the 1858 Senate race to Stephen A. Douglas and his election, in 1860, as the first presidential standard-bearer for the new Republican Party and, as it turned out, the country’s leader in a time of war.
Mr. White aims at the general reader, not the specialist, and pauses helpfully to define terms (“doughfaces,” for instance, are Northerners with Southern sympathies). As Mr. White notes, Lincoln could not have been more unlike most of today’s lawyer-politicians, few of whom have spent much time trying cases. He was a grizzled trial veteran who handled contested wills, railroad tax tangles and even murder cases. The experience taught him, Mr. White argues, an appreciation for the other fellow’s point of view. Until the Civil War, Lincoln subscribed to Southern newspapers, and he kept reading them in the White House whenever they became available. He refused to lay the blame for slavery exclusively at the feet of Southerners, saying that Northerners would feel the same about the practice if the two populations changed places.
For Lincoln, facts and argument were the keys to winning people over to his point of view. Wary of extemporaneous speaking, he “mastered his brief” instead, assembling his speeches ahead of time and taking care with his choice of words. His first great speech was his address at Peoria, Ill., in 1854 attacking Stephen A. Douglas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed slavery to take hold again in the territories. He wrote the speech himself after doing the considerable investigation into the provisions the act. Unlike most public men today, he had no “researchers” to do his work form him.
Facts might win men’s minds; their hearts were another matter. Here Mr. White argues against the common policy of pigeonholing Lincoln as merely an Enlightenment deist. Lincoln’s “Meditation on the Divine Will,” a memorandum written after the carnage of the summer of 1862 and discovered only after Lincoln’s death, shows a man grappling to find divine purpose in the war’s violence. Somewhere between the lawyer’s brief of the First Inaugural Address and the soaring biblical cadences of the Second, Lincoln discovered that a blend of reason and faith was more likely to persuade his listeners than reason alone.
To read the full text of the WSJ review, click here. You can read more reviews of A. Lincoln here.