One More Glance at Abe

I didn’t get in on the observances here of Lincoln’s birthday earlier in the week, though Scott had the beat well covered. But perhaps one last glance back. From time to time people ask me what I regard as the best Lincoln biography, and without hesitation I still always pick Lord Charnwood’s 1917 biography (though Allan Guelzo’s various books on Lincoln are equivalent in their quality). In fact I have assigned Charnwood in a course I taught at Berkeley—likely the only time the book has ever appeared on a course reading list there.

The main reason for this preference is that Lord Charnwood understood Lincoln as a statesman, showing prudence in the highest Aristotelian sense of the term, to an extent that amazingly eludes most other modern biographers, and rendered in that late Victorian/Edwardian prose style that is simply a delight to read. Here’s just one worthy sample from the middle of the book as Charnwood is about to take up Lincoln’s presidency:

We are to study how he acted when in power.  In almost every department of policy we shall see him watching and waiting while blood flows, suspending judgment, temporising, making trial of this expedient and of that, adopting in the end, quite unthanked, the measure of which most men will say, when it succeeds, “That is what we always said should be done.”  Above all, in that point of policy which most interests us, we shall witness the long postponement of the blow that killed negro slavery, the steady subordination of this particular issue to what will not at once appeal to us as a larger and a higher issue.  All this provoked at the time in many excellent and clever men dissatisfaction and deep suspicion; they longed for a leader whose heart visibly glowed with a sacred passion; they attributed his patience, the one quality of greatness which after a while everybody might have discerned in him, not to a self-mastery which almost passed belief, but to a tepid disposition and a mediocre if not a low level of desire.  We who read of him to-day shall not escape our moments of lively sympathy with these grumblers of the time; we shall wish that this man could ever plunge, that he could ever see red, ever commit some passionate injustice; we shall suspect him of being, in the phrase of a great philosopher, “a disgustingly well-regulated person,” lacking that indefinable quality akin to the honest passions of us ordinary men, but deeper and stronger, which alone could compel and could reward any true reverence for his memory.

These moments will recur but they cannot last.  A thousand little things, apparent on the surface but deeply significant; almost every trivial anecdote of his boyhood, his prime, or his closing years; his few recorded confidences; his equally few speeches made under strong emotion; the lineaments of his face described by observers whom photography corroborated; all these absolutely forbid any conception of Abraham Lincoln as a worthy commonplace person fortunately fitted to the requirements of his office at the moment, or as merely a “good man” in the negative and disparaging sense to which that term is often wrested.  It is really evident that there were no frigid perfections about him at all; indeed the weakness of some parts of his conduct is so unlike what seems to be required of a successful ruler that it is certain some almost unexampled quality of heart and mind went to the doing of what he did. There is no need to define that quality.  The general wisdom of his statesmanship will perhaps appear greater and its not infrequent errors less the more fully the circumstances are appreciated.  As to the man, perhaps the sense will grow upon us that this balanced and calculating person, with his finger on the pulse of the electorate while he cracked his uncensored jests with all comers, did of set purpose drink and refill and drink again as full and fiery a cup of sacrifice as ever was pressed to the lips of hero or of saint.