Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography
by William Lee Miller

I have not yet decided if this book was worth the effort. There is good information, and it is clearly presented, but overall Lincoln's Virtues is a bit of a slog. It's not at all gripping, and took me about 2 weeks to read. It's also quite repetitive. As the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln approaches in 2009, historians and biographers are cranking out a ton of new books about him. There are several out there that I still want to read, but am not sure this was the place to start.

Miller does not present us with a linear bio of our 16th president, and that is probably a good thing (no doubt there are plenty of those available). What he does instead is trace Lincoln's development as a moral being. There is a chronological order to the book, but it takes a back seat to skipping around within Lincoln's career to examine how he evolved in faith, philosophy, and morality. Lots of snippets are pulled from Lincoln's speeches and other writings to illustrate Miller's points.

I enjoyed learning more about Lincoln's relationships with other politicians of the day - the process in which he chose his Cabinet was fascinating. He chose a couple of former rivals for the Republican nomination for key positions and even picked one fellow lawyer who had totally dismissed him as a rube when they were supposed to collaborate on a court case years before (can't remember the name offhand, but he is the one who supposedly coined the now famous phrase "Now he belongs to the ages." after Lincoln's assassination) to be his Secretary of War (to be fair, the guy did come around and came to understand what a unique spirit and splendid mind Lincoln had). Another of the book's great strengths is that it traces the evolution of the political parties that we know (and love?) today. At the beginning of Lincoln's career, he was a Whig. The Democrats were the big slavery proponents (ugh), and pretty much ruled the South. The Whigs were in favor of developing infrastructure (roads, railway lines, etc) in the territory that was already firmly part of the United States, whereas the Democrats favored expansionism of our territories - hoping to increase the number of slave states. The Republican party emerged from Whigs who were increasingly drawn to abolitionism and frustrated with Whig tentativeness over the slavery issue. Lincoln was the first Republican to run for President.

Miller is clearly an admirer of Lincoln, and well he should be. However, I feel like he spends a little too much time answering to those who would bring Lincoln down at this late date, and he (Miller) comes off sounding defensive on Lincoln's behalf. There may be some goods reason for this defensiveness - there are now Lincoln detractors who have pulled a few comments from his speeches to make a case that he was a "white supremacist." Miller also feels a need to defend Lincoln against charges that he was a "politician." Of course he was - there were times when he had to be pragmatic and cut deals just like they all do - the key question is can one maintain integrity while working within the political system? I like to hope that anyone reading history would have sense enough to know that Lincoln was a product of his time and his culture as we all are. No doubt there were things on which he had to compromise. He was not perfect, but he consistently pushed himself to learn more and evolve in understanding and compassion. I think his record speaks for itself on those issues, and that Miller belabors the point to the book's detriment.

Nevertheless, this book did fill in some of my gaps in pre-Civil War history and some of the major players of the time. It also prompted me to think about what virtues I personally believe are most important - not only in politicians, but in people in general. The two that really moved me about Lincoln were his humility and his compassion. When the Union won the war, he could have been vengeful and dictatorial with the secessionist states. He chose to move ahead instead "With malice toward none, with charity for all..." No doubt our country (and our world) could benefit from a page torn out of Lincoln's playbook now.

Reverent Reader


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