The Last Best Hope of Earth
Mark E. Neely, Jr.’s biography of Abraham Lincoln divides into two distinct portions dependent upon his methodology and approach. In approximately the first fourth of the book, following a traditional approach, he furnishes a straightforward chronological account of Lincoln’s life and career before his election to the presidency. In the second, Neely breaks the chronological pattern and devotes four chapters to issues and problems faced by Lincoln during his term of office and provides an additional chapter on the assassination. The resulting text places emphasis upon Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War, the time of the greatest crisis ever faced by the United States.
Even in the initial portion, Neely focuses upon Lincoln’s development as a leader, identifying his first love as politics. His Lincoln, a frontiersman, believes strongly in economic development and has confidence in the ability of ordinary Americans to prosper under appropriate conditions. A proponent of Henry Clay’s American System, he opposes slavery and maintains a strong sense of the importance of national unity. Even so, he occasionally advocates sectional politics, especially when his distaste of slavery is aroused. Lincoln’s character is portrayed as that of an ambitious but patient and honorable political leader, highly pragmatic in his attitudes. As a frontiersman, he views the role of government as assisting economic development through providing infrastructure. He is on the whole optimistic about human nature, and even in early life he inclines toward a long- rather than short-term perspective.
To a remarkable degree, Neely downplays myths and legends based on Lincoln’s early life. Myths surround Lincoln to an extraordinary degree and in part account for his stature as a national figure. More shrines and memorials exist to him than any similar national hero, but Neely carefully eschews this rich hagiographic tradition. Nowhere does he mention the story of Lincoln as a boy reading books on the hearth by firelight, an episode that once raised the spirits of struggling schoolboys. Nor does he recount other anecdotes of Lincoln’s youth and early manhood, tales calculated to inspire virtue and perseverance.
Although he acknowledges that Lincoln was born in a log cabin, split rails, and worked his way up from poverty, he believes that these facts matter little to the man Lincoln became or to the issues he confronted. Accordingly, Neely points out that Lincoln seemed intent on creating distance between himself and his rural origins, the source of many myths. When first affiliating with a political party, he chose the patrician Whigs over the Jacksonian Democrats-an incongruous choice for an impoverished rural frontiersman. He married into gentility, and his children never met the devoted stepmother who had helped rear him. Although he received little schooling and read for his lawyer’s license, he sent his son to Exeter School and Harvard University.
Nor does Neely entertain readers with accounts of Lincoln’s wit and humor. In his extensive use of Lincoln’s letters and official papers, he selects those that illuminate his role in settling important issues. While he depicts Lincoln’s basic honesty and judicious nature, Neely shows that he was not aloof from the realities of politics. This meant that he occasionally resorted to craftiness and guile in political speeches, not avoiding the degree of distortion typical of his times.
Once it reaches the presidential election of 1860, the narrative clarifies the back-grounds of the Civil War and concentrates upon Lincoln’s role as leader of the nation, primarily through exploring the major problems that faced the presidency. Of the five chapters in this section, the first concerns Lincoln’s role as commander in chief. The second and third explain his handling of the slavery issue and his management of domestic matters during the war. The chapter “Politics as Usual” traces partisan affairs during his term and especially during the 1864 election. The final chapter, “Fate,” explores matters relating to Lincoln’s assassination.
Although presidents before Lincoln had faced the perils of warfare, no other had dealt with a conflict so long or 50 destructive as the Civil War. Population growth, industrial development, and sectional rivalry had laid the groundwork for a bitter, prolonged, and costly engagement. In his approach to the role of commander in chief Neely recounts Lincoln’s difficulties with his generals, making clear what lay at the root of his numerous problems. Lincoln himself, eager to end the war quickly, was at times too much inclined to manage the army’s moves in detail. When his orders led to costly losses, he became somewhat less specific in his directives.
Yet he possessed a keen understanding of men and soon realized that General George B....
(The entire section is 1999 words.)