Most Active Stories
Books News & Features
Tue April 10, 2012
Best Books (And Surprising Insights) On Lincoln
In a 24-hour, Internet-fueled news cycle, political campaign reporters often seem to be focused on what just happened, and only what just happened. But presidential candidates profess to take a longer view: They consciously link their critiques and promises to the influential figures and debates of the past.
In a new series, Morning Edition will take a fresh look at American political history, beginning with the figure who loomed over the 2008 and 2012 campaign — that tall, well-spoken senator from Illinois, often hailed for his significance in the history of American race relations. No, not President Obama. We're talking about Abraham Lincoln.
President Obama and presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum each have put forward their own narratives of the life of Lincoln, fine-tuned to their own political purposes. But their versions of Lincoln are just drops in a veritable ocean of books — almost 15,000, to be precise — that assay Lincoln's legacy.
Where should a reader begin? Perhaps the most well-known biography is Lincoln, by the late historian David Herbert Donald. Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University and author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, recommends Donald's book as the best one-volume account of Lincoln's life.
"[Donald] avoided the two pitfalls that people fall into. One is just hagiography — you know, [Lincoln] was born with a pen in his hand ready to sign the Emancipation Proclamation; and the other is the opposite, of course — [he was] just a racist or didn't really care about slavery at all. Donald sort of navigates between them," Foner says.
Foner notes, however, that the book is not without its flaws — notably that Donald's portrayal of Lincoln may have been influenced by current events in the mid-'90s, particularly by President Clinton.
"[Donald] sort of sees Lincoln as a person without any deep convictions," Foner says. "I think he sort of saw Lincoln as a Clinton figure — buffeted by events, not clear what he stood for. I don't think that's a very persuasive picture of Lincoln."
Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian and author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, recommends a book that shows how Lincoln prevailed under pressure during the Civil War: Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson.
"He is such a narrative genius, McPherson ... what he's done is to mix together the battles, Lincoln's leadership, the home front, the finances, the Cabinet, all together, but it drives forward as a story, and you don't know until finally, perhaps, Atlanta, whether the North is really going to win this war," Goodwin says.
Lincoln's strategically brilliant decisions were gambles at the time, she says.
"We know the ending — we know that he was martyred, we know that the war was won. But the people living then certainly didn't know that, and I think that's what McPherson's pace allows us to see," Goodwin says.
But Lincoln's political persona is but one dimension of the man. Andy Ferguson, senior editor of The Weekly Standard and author of Land of Lincoln, recommends an out of print book, In the Footsteps of the Lincolns. The book's author, Ida Tarbell, the iconic muckraking journalist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, exposes Lincoln's roots in the frontier culture of the Midwest.
Ferguson says Tarbell was obsessed with Lincoln throughout her life. "After World War I, she went and sort of fulfilled a part of her obsession that she had always wanted to, which was to retrace Lincoln's movements with his family since he was a little boy, from Kentucky to Indiana and into Illinois. And as she did this, there were still people alive who knew the Lincolns. It's a part of time that we can't really get access to any other way," Ferguson says.
In the days when Lincoln was growing up, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois were remote areas struggling to develop. "It was just a couple of steps up from the Bronze Age, really," Ferguson says.
But rather than embracing his hardscrabble background, Foner says, Lincoln distanced himself from frontier culture.
"He doesn't like hunting, he's not a violent person, he doesn't hate Indians, he doesn't drink. And he understands very early — and where this comes from, who knows — that the way to get ahead is through your mind, not through just hard physical labor, which is what his father does. [Lincoln] gets as far away from the frontier as he can, pretty early," Foner says.
As often as political candidates today employ Lincoln's name for their own purposes, there are certain aspects to Lincoln that modern-day candidates won't adopt. For instance, Foner says he would love to see a political candidate of any party forthrightly say, "I have changed my mind," because that's what Lincoln did over and over again during the Civil War.
"Lincoln was a flip-flopper, if you want to use the terminology of modern politics. We don't seem to allow our politicians to do that anymore," Foner says.
Ferguson says that even when politicians do change their minds, political speechwriters are tasked with making it seem like the politician's views remained consistent.
Goodwin adds that she would like to see politicians emulate Lincoln's sense of humor. She tells a story about a time when Lincoln was accused of being two-faced, and he replied, "If I had two faces, do you think I'd be wearing this face?"
"That ability to laugh at yourself, to look at yourself from the outside in, means a certain kind of confidence — means taking the world seriously, but not taking yourself so seriously at every moment. It is in such short supply in our campaigns," Goodwin says.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Listen to a presidential candidate long enough, and there's an excellent chance he will mention Abraham Lincoln.
NEWT GINGRICH: I've already promised that if the president will agree to seven, three-hour debates in the Lincoln-Douglas tradition, he can use a teleprompter if he wants to.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And my message to all the candidates is, welcome to the land of Lincoln - because I'm thinking maybe some Lincoln will rub off on them while they are here.
RICK SANTORUM: It's only happened once in the history of this country where someone lost a race for the United States Senate, and then went on to get elected president.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Shouting) Lincoln! Lincoln!
SANTORUM: Abe's not a bad role model when it comes to those things.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Rick Santorum, President Obama and Newt Gingrich all make use of the 16th president, which does not surprise historian Eric Foner.
ERIC FONER: There's every possible way to interpret him. Every Lincoln you might want is out there in the literature. And every political movement, and every political group, has claimed Lincoln as their own - from communists to conservatives, from segregationists to civil rights activists. Everybody wants to get Lincoln on their side.
MONTAGNE: Lincoln is, in fact, the subject of more than 15,000 books. We've made him the first subject of an election year series of talks on political books.
INSKEEP: We've brought in authors of books about Lincoln. Eric Foner, of Columbia University, wrote "The Fiery Trial." Andy Ferguson, of the Weekly Standard, wrote "Land of Lincoln." Doris Kearns Goodwin is author of "Team of Rivals." And we started with this book: David Herbert Donald wrote what maybe is the standard biography of Lincoln, just called "Lincoln," a couple of decades ago. What approach does he take?
FONER: Well, if I can start - Eric Foner. You know, it's funny. I think it is the best one-volume biography of Lincoln. Oddly enough, I personally don't agree with his interpretation, and many people don't. He sort of sees Lincoln as a person without any deep convictions. You know, everyone who writes about Lincoln has one eye on the present. And I think Donald wrote this in the mid-'90s, sort of under the influence of Clinton. I think, you know, he sort of saw Lincoln as a Clinton figure - buffeted by events, not clear what he stood for. I don't think that's a very persuasive picture of Lincoln.
But nonetheless, Donald was a great historian, and I think he told the story of Lincoln's life in a way that avoided the two pitfalls that so many people fall into. One is just hagiography - you know, he was born with a pen in his hand, ready to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. And the other is the opposite, of course; you know, just a racist, or didn't really care about slavery at all. And Donald sort of navigates between them. So it's well worth reading, and I think it is still the best one-volume biography.
INSKEEP: Andrew Ferguson.
ANDY FERGUSON: Well, that's right. I think that Donald came up with this idea of Lincoln as sort of a passive character.
INSKEEP: A tactician.
FERGUSON: Really, yes. And kind of scheming and manipulative, but not particularly effective, and tossed and turned by events. But it's interesting, as you read through the book, even by the end, Donald loses faith in his own thesis, I think. The power of the Lincoln facts are so strong, that you have to concede that he was a giant in being able to manipulate events.
INSKEEP: Doris Kearns Goodwin, when we asked our panel here for recommendations of Lincoln books, you sent us one that is about more than that one man, "Battle Cry of Freedom," by James McPherson, which is a history of the Civil War.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think the reason that that one meant so much to me was that he is such a narrative genius, McPherson. And somehow when you read "Battle Cry of Freedom," what he's done is to mix together the battles, Lincoln's leadership, the home front, the finances, the Cabinet - all together. But it drives forward as a story and you don't know until finally, perhaps, Atlanta, whether the North is really going to win this war. And that's the way the people who lived in it felt it at the time.
INSKEEP: And I guess that's a good thing to think about if we think about Abraham Lincoln. All of his decisions that seem so brilliant now could not be known as brilliant at the time.
GOODWIN: Absolutely. It took a while for the country itself to understand him. We know the ending. We know that he was martyred. We know that the war was won. But the people living then certainly didn't know that. And I think that's what McPherson's pace allows us to see.
MONTAGNE: Let's get in one more book here, which Andy Ferguson has sent us. The name: "In the Footsteps of the Lincolns." Hard one to find, but a famous name behind this, Ida Tarbell, the famous muckraking journalist from the late 19th, early 20th century.
FERGUSON: Yes. She was, first and foremost, a journalist. But she, all along, carried this obsession with Lincoln. After World War I, she went and sort of fulfilled a kind of part of her obsession that she'd always wanted to, which was to retrace Lincoln's movements with his family since he was a little boy - from Kentucky to Indiana and into Illinois. And as she did this, there were still people alive who knew the Lincolns. It's a part of time that we can't really get access to any other way.
INSKEEP: Although Tarbell's journey across Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois does underline something that's worth remembering about Lincoln, one of the reasons that he's so well-remembered today: He came from this frontier culture. This was a - these were very remote areas that were struggling to develop in the time he was...
FERGUSON: It was just a couple of steps up from the Bronze Age, really.
FONER: You know, Lincoln as the frontiersman, in a sense, is part of the - sort of imagery that we remember about him. But it's very interesting how Lincoln kind of separates himself in so many ways from the - what you call frontier culture. You know, he doesn't like hunting. He's not a violent person. He doesn't hate Indians. He doesn't drink, you know, which is pretty prominent out there. And he understands very early - and where this comes from, who knows - that the way to get ahead is through your mind, not through just, you know, hard, physical labor, which is what his father does. He gets as far away from the frontier as he can, pretty early.
INSKEEP: If it were up to you, each of you, if you were presidential speechwriters, how would you want candidates to think of Lincoln, deploy Lincoln when they're talking about him today?
FONER: You know, I would love to see a candidate - I don't care which party we're talking about - forthrightly say: I have changed my mind about this. That's what Lincoln did during the Civil War. He changed his mind over and over again. He didn't change his core beliefs. Lincoln was a flip-flopper, if you want to use the terminology of modern politics. But we don't seem to allow our politicians to do that anymore.
INSKEEP: Andrew Ferguson, you're smiling.
FERGUSON: It's partly because politicians won't let their speechwriters talk that way. I don't think that Dr. Foner should wait for a phone call from any political campaign because...
FONER: I'm not holding my breath.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FERGUSON: Yeah. Having actually done a little bit of that, I can tell you that the last thing a professional politician ever wants to do is admit that he either made a mistake, or that he's changed his mind.
INSKEEP: And if you do change your mind, the task of the speechwriter is to find a way to say that you actually did not change your mind, even as you did change your mind.
FERGUSON: It requires a great deal of ingenuity. Of course, Lincoln had the greatest speechwriter who ever lived.
INSKEEP: He wrote his own...
GOODWIN: Mr. Lincoln.
GOODWIN: But I think - just to follow on that, the one thing I wish politicians had today - more than anything - that Lincoln had, is a sense of humor. I mean, his ability to laugh at himself when he was said to be - you are two-faced, Mr. Lincoln. And he said: If I had two faces, do you think I'd be wearing this face?
That ability to laugh at yourself, to look at yourself from the outside in, means a certain kind of confidence, means taking your - you know, the world seriously, but not taking yourself so seriously at every moment. It is in such short supply in our campaigns.
INSKEEP: We're talking about political books. It's a series of discussions we'll have in this election year. We started with books about Abraham Lincoln. And our guides today were Andy Ferguson of the Weekly Standard. Thanks for coming by.
FERGUSON: Thank you for having me.
INSKEEP: Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Thanks to you.
GOODWIN: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: And historian Eric Foner. Thank you.
FONER: You're very welcome.
INSKEEP: You can listen for more talks on political books as we go through 2012, and you can find links to the Lincoln books at npr.org. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.