This book’s subtitle, An Ethical Biography, describes very well what distinguishes William Miller’s approach from the hundreds of books that have been written on Abraham Lincoln since his assassination in April, 1865. His focus is not on Lincoln’s service as a war president but rather on Lincoln’s moral convictions, which many commentators have badly misunderstood. Miller argues persuasively that Abraham Lincoln is still the most admired American president for a variety of reasons. Lincoln combined political skill with strong ethical beliefs, but Miller also shows that his strong opposition to slavery and his commitment to complete equality between whites and African Americans began long before his election to the presidency in November, 1860, and his declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.
Miller points out that although Lincoln is held in incredible esteem not only in the United States but also in other countries, it is difficult to separate myth and reality. He succeeds admirably in presenting an objective and historically accurate description of Lincoln’s moral positions. Miller does not present Lincoln as an ideal person lacking character faults. He readily admits that Lincoln may have been somewhat harsh in his treatment of his father, whom he never forgave for his alcoholism, and perhaps somewhat too submissive to his wife, Mary Todd. He explains clearly that Lincoln never belonged to a specific church either in Illinois or in Washington, D.C., but indicates that Lincoln knew the Bible better than most clergymen and also accepted the core Christian beliefs of charity and forgiveness that transcend specific religious denominations. It is significant that both practicing believers and those who do not attend religious services on a regular basis have great admiration for Lincoln. He did not criticize any religion, and he never questioned the sincerity of others’s religious beliefs. Miller points out that such tolerance and respect for other religions was exceptional in the 1840’s and the 1850’s in the United States, when the powerful Know-Nothing Party argued that the United States should consist only of white Protestants, and that Catholics and Jews should be denied American citizenship. Lincoln had nothing to gain politically with white Protestant male voters in Illinois by arguing that Americans should respect the religious freedom of minorities such as Catholics and Jews, but he reaffirmed his commitment to religious tolerance even when he was speaking to prejudiced listeners. It is significant that Lincoln never tailored his message to his audience. He was totally consistent both in his support of full religious freedom for all Americans and in his opposition to slavery.
Miller shows that, even in personal matters, Lincoln adhered to a very strict moral code. He did not smoke, drink alcohol, or gamble, and he did not consider himself superior to others just because he chose not to smoke, drink alcohol, or gamble. In his 1842 speech to the Temperance Organization in Springfield, Illinois, he argued that abstainers like themselves should not condemn those who drank alcoholic beverages, but should rather encourage those who drank alcoholic beverages to recognize the destructive effects of alcohol on their lives and the lives of their family members. This clearly did not make a favorable impression on certain temperance advocates who considered themselves morally superior to those who saw no problem with the moderate consumption of alcohol.
Although Lincoln was consistent in his ethics, he was nevertheless a sensitive politician. He realized that the constituents in the seventh district of Illinois, whom he represented in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1847 to 1849, and the citizens of Illinois whom he wanted to represent as a U.S. senator were racially prejudiced against African Americans, but this did not stop him from arguing that slaves possessed the same constitutional rights as white Americans. Unlike Stephen Douglas, he did not curry favor with racists in order to win elections.
Some historians have claimed that Lincoln’s active opposition to slavery did not begin until shortly before his series of debates with Stephen Douglas during the 1858 senatorial campaign in Illinois, but Miller demonstrates that this is simply not true. In early 1849, as he was completing his term as a U.S....
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