Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 706
Lincoln surprised some readers, who expected Vidal to turn his iconoclastic wit on the Great Emancipator, as he had Washington and Jefferson. Instead, Vidal draws an admiring portrait of the Civil War president. In this long, rich study of Lincoln during the Civil War, Vidal describes the interwoven lives of a variety of people surrounding Lincoln in the war-besieged capital: Young John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary (and later one of the greatest American secretaries of state); Lincoln’s rivals for power in the Republican party, including wily Secretary of State William Seward and staid Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase; arrogant generals such as George McClellan, who struts prettily in his uniform but never gets around to fighting battles; and plotters determined to kill Lincoln, including young David Herold and actor John Wilkes Booth, who finally does assassinate the president.
Vidal shows deep sympathy for the president’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, so often portrayed as a horrible shrew, another burden for the beleaguered president to carry. Vidal presents Mary Lincoln as an intelligent and decent woman going insane. Lincoln is the mystery. Vidal does not take the novelist’s liberty of getting inside Lincoln’s mind to show what he was thinking; he presents Lincoln only from an exterior viewpoint, as described and interpreted by those around him. Vidal emphatically rejects the popular view of Lincoln, the view largely shaped by poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg. The folksy, man-of-the-people figure presented by Sandburg was only a mask created by Lincoln, Vidal believes, to hide his real self. The real Lincoln was a cold, brilliant, ruthlessly determined man, a man who did not shrink from exercising dictatorial power during the Civil War crisis, becoming the most powerful president in American history.
In Lincoln, William Seward, another master of power and of masks, most clearly understands the president. Seward knows what later generations tended to forget: Lincoln did not step out of a log cabin directly into the White House. He had served in Congress and had been a successful railroad lawyer. Lincoln heads the Republican Party, which Seward has helped create. This is not a party of backwoods farmers but of industrial capitalism. After the war starts, Seward tells Lincoln that he has a chance to re-create the republic and to achieve greatness. Lincoln, startled, freezes with attention.
Seward says that he had looked at an old Lincoln speech, given when he was twenty-eight years old. Lincoln had mentioned Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon. The Founding Fathers had gotten all the glory of great deeds, Lincoln said in his speech; those who came afterward, such as Lincoln himself, would be mere office holders. The Founding Fathers had left little room for an eagle or lion. Now, Seward implies, the war crisis gives Lincoln a chance to soar, to achieve greatness.
Lincoln understands one terrible fact. Despite the squabbling of Republican politicians and the incompetence of northern military leaders, if he can hold the nation together, the North will inevitably win. Because it has more people than the South, the South will run out of men before the Union does. Seward finally fully understands that “there had been, from the beginning, a single-minded dictator in the White House . . . by whose will alone the war had been prosecuted.” Seward understands Lincoln’s political genius: “He had been able to make himself absolute dictator without ever letting anyone suspect that he was anything more than a joking, timid backwoods lawyer.”
Lincoln achieves his destiny. He leads the nation to victory and, like a hero in an ancient myth, is swept away at his moment of success. In 1867, while in France, John Hay meets Charles Schuyler, the narrator of Burr, who has not returned from overseas since 1837. Hay tries to explain to the curious Schuyler Lincoln’s place in history. Lincoln had superseded Washington, Hay said, because he had led the greatest war in human history and had put the Union back together. More than that, he had created a new country not envisioned by the Founding Fathers, a unified, centralized power. He was the American Bismarck, Hay and Schuyler agree, referring to Otto von Bismarck, who was at that time creating a unified Germany.