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Lincoln at 200

Our friends at the Claremont Institute take their bearings from the political thought of the American founding as understood preeminently by Abraham Lincoln. On their home page (linked above), they have posted links to some of the great essays exploring Lincoln’s life and works that are available in their archives.

The Winter issue of the Claremont Review of Books celebrates the bicentennial anniversary of Lincoln’s birth (tomorrow) with a collection of essays, reviews, and illustrations featuring Lincoln. The Winter issue is now available to subscribers in its entirety online, and it costs only $19.95 to subscribe for a year (subscribe here). This week we proudly present three reviews from the issue discussing aspects of Lincoln’s life and legacy.

At least until the presidency of George W. Bush, Abraham Lincoln was called a dictator more often than any other president. But, argues Professor Mackubin Thomas Owens of the Naval War College in his review of four books bearing on Lincoln’s wartime leadership, a dictator wouldn’t have shown Lincoln’s respect for the limits of politics and the law. A true dictator, for example, wouldn’t have submitted to a risky election in the middle of a civil war.

Lincoln was clearly motivated by something other than the dictator’s desire for power. During the Civil War, he sought to save the Constitution and the Union, but only because they were the means of preserving that most precious of goods, republican liberty. It is with this end in mind, and with an understanding of the nature of prudence, that we can properly understand Lincoln’s actions as commander-in-chief.

For all the thousands of biographies that have been written of him, little has been said of Lincoln’s role as war leader. Owens takes up the subject himself, showing that over the course of the war, Lincoln’s military strategy intertwined with his political strategy. At the root of both was a deep knowledge of how to choose the right action in changing circumstances.

Though Lincoln’s efficacy as a military commander has been questioned, historians are beginning to form a better opinion of his wartime deeds. And justly so, argues Owens:

In general, Lincoln performed effectively as a military leader. He understood what had to be done and insisted on it. Though the Union may have possessed a material edge over the Confederacy, a strategy was needed to translate this advantage into victory. This Lincoln supplied and saw through to the end.

Owens observes that in the sea of Lincoln books, there are by his count only four that examine his performance as war president — this, Owens quotes James McPherson, for “the only president in American history whose entire administration was bounded by war.” It should be noted that Professor Owens’s own monograph on Lincoln’s wartime leadership has just been published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute and is accessible online here.

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