The solitary figure of President Abraham Lincoln forms a focal point for William Safire’s penetrating account of the first years of the Civil War. Caught between warring factions in the North--abolitionists who see the war as a way to demolish the “peculiar institution” in the South, and Unionists who want the country reunited even if slavery must be continued -- Lincoln spars with politicians in Washington while attempting to direct the military conflicts that threaten the Union’s capital. Within his own cabinet, he faces the open challenges and secret conspiracies of Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase and Secretary of State William Seward, who are opposed by the powerful Blair family of Washington. Others, too, try to sway Lincoln to move away from his middle course toward emancipation or reconciliation with the South.
Among those who share center stage with the president in FREEDOM are Anna Carroll, pamphleteer from Maryland; former Vice President John Breckenridge of Kentucky, who flees the North to become a Confederate general; Chase’s daughter Kate, ambitious to be first lady when her father succeeds to the presidency; and the Union generals, especially George McClellan, who, amid cries for a military dictator, vacillates before Southern forces clearly outnumbered by Union troops while he entertains thoughts of seeking the Democratic nomination for president in the next election. The initially pro-Union Lincoln moves inexorably toward emancipation, noting the ironies that abound as he conducts a war in which, in the name of freedom, he is forced to circumscribe or even trample upon the individual liberties of the American populace.
Safire has a sense of history and a flair for storytelling. His portrayal of several minor but important figures who influenced the action of the Civil War behind the scenes makes for engaging reading. Further, through careful construction of key scenes, he is able to suggest strong parallels between events of the 1860’s and those of the 1970’s and 1980’s, making FREEDOM more than simply an interesting diversion for history buffs.