In his acclaimed book Lincoln's Virtues, William Lee Miller explored Abraham Lincoln's intellectual and moral development. Now he completes his "ethical biography," showing how the amiable and inexperienced backcountry politician was transformed by constitutional alchemy into an oath-bound head of state. Faced with a radical moral contradiction left by the nation's Founders, Lincoln struggled to find a balance between the universal ideals of Equality and Liberty and the monstrous injustice of human slavery.
With wit and penetrating sensitivity, Miller brings together the great themes that have become Lincoln's legacy—preserving the United States of America while ending the odious institution that corrupted the nation's meaning—and illuminates his remarkable presidential combination: indomitable resolve and supreme magnanimity.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
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About the Author
William Lee Miller has taught at Yale University, Smith College, Indiana University, and the University of Virginia, where he is currently Miller Center of Public Affairs Scholar in Ethics and Institutions. He has been an editor and writer on a political magazine, a speechwriter, and a three-term alderman. He is the author of numerous books. Arguing About Slavery won the D.B. Hardeman Prize for the best book on Congress.
Read an Excerpt
Introduction: Honest Abe Among the RulersAt noon on March 4, 1861, the moral situation of Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was abruptly transformed. That morning, arising in the Willard Hotel at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington, he had been a private citizen, making choices of right and wrong, better and worse, good and evil, as human beings do, in his own right, for himself, by his own lights, as an individual moral agent. That afternoon, standing on the steps of the East Portico of the Capitol, before thirty thousand of his fellow citizens, he became an oath-bound head of state.Although he had, in the previous two years, rather rapidly ascended from provincial obscurity to a certain national notice, and although he had in the morning the pendulant importance of a president-elect, he was as yet, so far as the law was concerned, one citizen alongside other citizens. At noon on that day he was transformed by the constitutional alchemy into something else–the “executive” of the federal government of the United States, the position that the framers in Philadelphia seventy-four years before had decided to call by the word “president.” There immediately settled upon his elongated frame an awesome new battery of powers and an immense new layer of responsibility, obligating, constraining, and empowering him.In that moment he was lifted to a dizzying new eminence. Before many days had passed the sometime backwoods rail-splitter would find himself sending greetings to his “great and good friend” Her Majesty Doña Isabel II, Queen of Spain; and to his “great and good friend” Her Majesty Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of England and Ireland; and to his “great and good friend” His Royal Majesty Francis Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, none of whom, of course, he had ever met.Perhaps you had not thought of Abraham Lincoln of Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana, addressing as his great and good friend “His Imperial Majesty Napoleon III, Emperor of the French,” or “His Majesty Alexander II, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias,” or “His Majesty Leopold, King of the Belgians.” But he did. In the years to come there would be many such messages. They would be drafted, to be sure, in the State Department with Secretary of State Seward’s name below that of the president, and they would be composed in diplomatic formulae of the utmost insincerity, compared to which U.S. senators calling each other “distinguished” is a beacon of truthfulness. But they would be signed by “your good friend” Abraham Lincoln, and sent to royal highnesses and imperial majesties and grand dukes and princes and queens and kings and an occasional president and at least one tycoon and one viceroy. The messages would express the president’s alleged delight with the marriage of a royal niece or the safe delivery of a prince, his supposedly deep sympathy at the melancholy tidings of the decease of a late majesty or the passing of a well-beloved royal cousin, his putative best wishes that a reign might be happy and prosperous. Abraham Lincoln was now a member of this exclusive worldwide circle; he had become, in the pompous formality of international diplomacy, the quite unlikely equal and “friend” of these august personages around the world because, like them, he was now a head of state.One can imagine that the lofty figures in high politics in Europe and around the world would find this new American leader a puzzle. He had no family heritage, no education, no languages, no exposure to the great world outside his own country, and he did not know that he should not wear black gloves to the opera. He was not accustomed to ordering people about. He did not insist on deference and did not receive much. He had never been in command of anything except a straggling company of volunteers in the state militia when he was twenty-three, who, it was reported, when he issued his first command told him to go to hell. His only service in national government had been one short and not impressive term as a congressman eleven years earlier. He had not been the “executive” of anything more than a two-man law firm; he had never in his life fired or dismissed anyone. One knew, because his party’s campaign had insisted upon it, that he had once upon a time split some rails, but rail splitting was scarcely a qualification for the role into which he entered in March 1861. He memorized and recited reams of poetry, mostly of a wistful-melancholy sort, which might make one wonder about his grip on practicality. He was reportedly a constant teller of humorous stories, and a man in whom humor was neither incidental nor decorative but integral, in a way that perhaps an emperor might believe should be left to the jester. Would he, on coming into ultimate responsibility, like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, turn on his own inner Falstaff and say, I know thee not, old man? Or would he keep on telling jokes? The characteristics that would lead his stepmother and his law partner and his friends to call him an unusually good, kind, conscientious man might have added to the world rulers’ bewilderment, had they known about them. His friends had given him the sobriquet Honest Abe, which might indicate a handicap at the highest level of politics, where a certain amount of patriotic lying is usually thought to be required. Those in Illinois who knew him before he became president said he was an unusually generous human being. He was reported to have more sympathy with the suffering of his fellow creatures than was really advantageous in a ruler– not only for lost cats, mired-down hogs, birds fallen out of the nest, but also for his fellow human beings. Stories were told of his springing to the defense of an old Indian who wandered into camp during the Black Hawk War and whom his company wanted to shoot. But a national leader must deal in the hundreds and the thousands and in the realities of the world as it is.The great mentors of statecraft would say that there are many human beings who may be filled to the brim with personal moral graces but who in spite of that–actually they might say because of that–would not make great statesmen. Great command may require actions that would be morally objectionable if done in a personal capacity and foreclose many acts that are possible in a private capacity.A great captain, a ruler, a prince (so the mentors of rulers would say) needs to command and instill respect. It would be written that “one ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”But this new American leader was showing a quite perverse disinclination to make himself feared. He did not mark down the names of those who had not supported him, or nurse grudges, or hold resentments, or retaliate against “enemies”–indeed, he tried not to have enemies, not to “plant thorns.” He had gracefully waited his turn in the competition with two others for the nomination for U.S. congressman from his district, and he had gone out of his way to tell his followers not to blame one rival for a whispering campaign against him. Although he had twice been defeated for the post he really wanted–senator from Illinois–and although those two contests left scars and resentments among his supporters, despite his deep disappointment, they did not leave scars and resentments in him; he would work amiably and productively with men who had blocked him. He had turned around and invited his four chief rivals for his party’s nomination to serve with him in his cabinet. The question might have been asked about him, Is he too lacking in the assertion of will and the ruthlessness that the exercise of great power is said to require to serve as a commander and a head of state in a giant war? Should not tenderheartedness be reserved to those who do not propose to exercise ultimate authority? Magnanimity, in Aristotle, is a virtue of the high-souled aristocrat, a noble condescending from his secure aboveness to exhibit his liberality; this man seemed to have presumed to exercise magnanimity without having an ounce of noble blood.A great commander is not supposed to be amiably self-deprecating, continually using the word “humble” to describe himself and his background, and insisting that others could do the work of commanding as well as, or better than, he. (One was not sure that this man really believed that, but he said it more than once.) He did not seem unduly pious, and rumor had it that in his youth he had produced a critical paper about religion so scandalous that his friends burned it–but one might occasionally suspect there was a hint, in his deeds and his words, of the utterly impractical parts of that religion common to most of the new great and good friends on both sides of the Atlantic, the religion that was invoked in the closing lines of those formulaic international communications with his sudden new friends. This was the religion into which those royal nieces had been brought by sacred baptism, and by which those archduchesses had entered into holy matrimony, and in which the sadly departed majesties had been buried. But surely those ceremonial exercises were all the religion one needed as a practitioner of statecraft at the highest level, along with, of course, God’s support for one’s own side in any warfare. Other elements, about blessed meekness and blessed peacemaking and loving neighbors and other-cheek-turning and extra-mile-walking, and particularly about forgiveness and judging not that one be not judged–surely those should be confined to the monastery or at most to private life.If his new “friends” or their advisers had read again the central chapters of Machiavelli’s The Prince, and if they had then learned more about this new American leader, they would surely have said: This man will never do.
Table of ContentsAbout this Book ix
Introduction: Honest Abe Among the Rulers 3
A Solemn Oath Registered in Heaven 7
Act Well Your Part, There All the Honor Lies 31
On Mastering the Situation: The Drama of Sumter 48
On Not Mastering the Situation: The Comedy of the Powhatan 72
Days of Choices: Two April Sundays 91
Realism Right at the Border 110
The Moral Meaning of the Union and the War 140
Bull Run and Other Defeats: Lincoln's Resolve 155
On Holding McClellan's Horse 169
The Trent and a Decent Respect for the Opinions of Mankind 193
Too Vast for Malicious Dealing 212
A Second Introduction: Lincoln's Nation Among the Nations 231
I Felt It My Duty to Refuse 235
In Giving Freedom to the Slave, We Assure Freedom to the Free 254
The Prompt Vindication of His Honor 273
And the Promise Being Made, Must Be Kept 289
The Benign Prerogative to Pardon Unfortunate Guilt 314
Must I Shoot a Simple Soldier Boy? 327
A Hard War Without Hatred 351
Temptation in August 370
The Almighty Has His Own Purposes 396
A Conclusion: Abraham Lincoln Among the Immortals 417
What People are Saying About This
"One of the most insightful accounts of Lincoln published in recent years." -Publishers Weekly Starred Review
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have read a great deal about Lincoln, especially during this anniversary year. For that reason, I was hesitant to purchase another biography. I was delighted to find new information and insights into the life of this great man.
I liked this book perhaps more than 'Lincoln's Virtues'. I enjoy Lincoln books that focus on specific events and discuss those events in detail, and this book does just that. I think I still enjoyed 'Honor's Voice' more, but this is a worthy read, and an excellent follow-up to Miller's first book. I highly recommend this.
Miller endeavors to examine ¿the moral performance of Abraham Lincoln¿ as president. Therefore, as the author explains, the book is only indirectly about Lincoln¿s statesmanship and more about his moral conduct in office. He is also careful to distinguish (as Lincoln himself did) choices Lincoln made in fulfillment of his oath of office from those he might have made based on his personal predispositions.It¿s an interesting perspective in one sense, because, as Miller observes, many politicians have had more political experience than Lincoln but ¿A fool or knave can rise through many eminent positions and still be a fool or knave.¿ So Miller wants to show how Lincoln excelled in spite of his lack of experience, because he had such a strong moral fiber. My biggest criticism with this book is that it reads more like a billet doux than a history. It is overly reverential: Lincoln may have taken an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, but Miller seems to have taken the same oath vis-a-vis Lincoln. He repeatedly characterizes Lincoln as ¿decisive,¿ ¿steadfast¿ tenderhearted,¿ ¿resilient,¿ ¿resolute¿ ¿ a lot of adjectives making the basic point of ¿strong yet gentle.¿ On the other hand, the author lashes out at McClellan, who treated Lincoln with contempt. [But how could one not appreciate the line ¿Vanity, rudeness, and malice were not, however, McClellan¿s most distinctive vices as a commander¿¿]My other complaint is that the prose is anachronistically florid. Not only does Miller hijack and recycle many of Lincoln¿s own familiar phrases (¿mystic chords,¿ ¿mighty scourge¿ and so on), but he also interjects his own overly dramatic prose. He refers to ¿the golden thread of magnanimity and generosity that would wind its way through his presidency.¿ He makes reference to events that ¿would ring forever thereafter in American memory¿ and provide ¿stories forever.¿Those criticisms aside, the book contains some interesting observations and analyses. In attempting to justify Lincoln¿s very hesitant stance on the abolition of slavery, Miller does a thorough job of detailing the tenuous positions of the border states, and how essential it was for the viability of the Union for Lincoln to hold on to them. He also includes an interesting theory of how the Emancipation Proclamation ¿ so legalistic and even exclusionary ¿ came to be seen as a great document of liberation. The Proclamation did not set all the slaves free, but only those in the Confederacy, over whom Lincoln did not have any control. In fact, Miller charges, it was white Southerners who, greatly exaggerating the document¿s import out of fear and hyperbole, conveyed a much more momentous significance to this decree. Their indiscriminate condemnations reached into the slave community, convincing blacks that northerners wanted them liberated. Great waves of escaped slaves thus attached themselves to invading northern armies, much to the chagrin of the latter who then had to care for them.Lincoln, for his part, continually protested that if he could save the Union without freeing any slaves he would do so. However, when he thought the North was losing the war and that he would not be re-elected, he encouraged the great black freed man Frederick Douglass to familiarize slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation. Slaves who had made their way behind Union lines by war¿s end could stay out of bondage.Immense changes took place during Lincoln¿s time in office. When he began as President, the U.S. Army totaled just over 17,000 men and just over 1,000 officers. When war was declared, one-third of the officers promptly resigned and joined the Confederacy. There were significant defections in civilian departments as well; ninety employees in the War Department alone resigned. Confusion and corruption characterized the early days of the Administration. Lincoln¿s generals in the field made their own policies, sometimes in direct contradiction to Lincoln¿
It sounds interesting to me because i love reading about history and the presidents.
This may be better to read than to listen to. Several passages seemed to go on for an eternity. We got the point, move on. The sections on his relationship with Civil War generals, pardoning prisoners and plotting re-election are engaging. The parts that other reviewers call "nuanced" were, to me, overbearing. Do people proofread/prooflisten these? President Martin Van Buren was called Warren Van Buren.