Lincoln — A Very Short Introduction
When Americans — including many students — hear the name Abraham Lincoln, the first things that come to mind is his effort to free the slaves, his Gettysburg Address, his Emancipation Proclamation, and the untimely assassination of Lincoln. But there are sources of worthy and even fascinating background biographical information available about the 16th president of the United States, and one of the best contemporary sources is the book by noted historian Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction. The book is not organized in a logical, time-line format; instead the chapter titles clearly show that the book is written about Lincoln’s ideas that shaped his approach to leadership and government: Equality, Advancement, Law, Liberty, Debate, Emancipation, and Reunion. This paper summarizes and reviews the book, which is well-written prose, highly appropriate for young readers.
Summary of Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction
After reading the beginning of Guelzo’s book — in which he claimed that no man ” … could have loved fame more than Abraham Lincoln” — one can only imagine how prolific Lincoln’s use of the 24-hour cable news cycle and social media would be if he were president in 2016. And Guelzo carries the notion of Lincoln’s fame further, quoting the president after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation: “The name which is connected with this act will never be forgotten.” Lincoln was absolutely correct in saying that, but there is much more to know about the man, and Guelzo, notwithstanding his title that suggests this is a “very short” book, has provided 160 pages packed with new and worthy information.
The author bemoans the fact that Lincoln never kept a journal, nor did he write any kind of a memoir (he died too soon to pen a biography), even though in his era many leaders were “compulsive” in their “diary-keeping.” Guelzo notes that author Roy P. Basler published eight volumes (called Collected Works) referencing Lincoln’s life in 1953, but those pages contain “day-to-day ephemera” and readers glean little as to what actually shaped Lincoln’s “thinking and values.” All the information Guelzo has gathered indicates Lincoln was generally secretive, difficult to approach and hard to understand — albeit the president loved to read aloud to staffers from joke books — but on the other hand Lincoln was in “heaven” talking about politics and liberalism.
Meanwhile, the background into Lincoln’s family is well represented by Guelzo. Lincoln’s ancestors arrived in the New World in the 1630s and by the late 18th century Thomas Lincoln, son of the elder Abraham and thought of as a “lazy and worthless” cabinet maker in Indiana by neighbors, had a son named Abraham, born on February 12, 1809.
In Chapter 1 (Equality) Guelzo offers a picture of Lincoln as a good politician but one whose use of the English language needed an upgrade. Guelzo recalls that Lincoln (approaching his second run to win a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives in 1834) turned his attention to reading political biographies and newspapers. And his advisor at that time, William Mentor Graham, suggested that he would “never be able to induce people to vote for him” if he couldn’t master the rules of grammar to make impressive speeches.”
Meanwhile, in Chapter 4 (Liberty), readers delve into Lincoln’s views on slavery well before his presidency. Guelzo finds it worth noting that although Lincoln never joined a church or signed on with any denomination, he was a product of the Enlightenment with its faith in progress, human reason and liberalism. Hence, though he had not shown an interest in slavery during the first 45 years of his life, as he approached his later life Lincoln insisted that “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel.”
Lincoln ultimately came to the belief that vis-a-vis slavery issue, Americans were “proclaiming ourselves political hypocrites before the world, by thus fostering Human Slavery and proclaiming ourselves, at the same time, the sole friends of Human Freedom.” Lincoln showed his literary side when he used the ant as a metaphor: “The ant, who has toiled and dragged a crumb to his nest, will furiously defend the fruit of his labor” against any robber that would assail him. Likewise, the “most dumb and stupid slave” that was ever in bondage in America, ” … does constantly know that he is wronged.”
In his Epilogue, the author summarizes the salient moments and the actual nature of Lincoln’s achievements; clearly what Guelzo puts forth is what today’s reader should understand about Lincoln the man and Lincoln the president. For example, why is Lincoln considered “The great American Man and the grand central figure in American history,” as John Locke Scripps wrote after the assassination took Lincoln’s life? First of all, Guelzo believes Lincoln is the great American man because he “saved the American Union”; moreover, he is seen as great because he made certain than in the next one hundred years, the “concentrated power of that unity” would be able to “intervene in worldwide crises” and build an economic giant that would be “unmatched by any other great nation.”
Lincoln, who admitted he was “a hired laborer” at one time before he rose to national prominence, said in 1860 that the “humblest man” should have a “chance to get rich with everybody else.” Guelzo points out that for Lincoln, the greatest “danger to democracy” was not some kind of “insurrection of discontented laborers”; but rather (these are Guelzo’s words) it might be “the sly maneuverings of a pig-eyed aristocracy” that could create a “dark alliance” with working class people. That might include whipping up “racial fear to bind poor Southern whites to its cause,” Guelzo wrote, which certainly sounds like what happened in the South during the dark Jim Crow period.
Another of Lincoln’s great achievements was the way he was able to link “political and moral considerations in a liberal democracy,” Guelzo asserted. The president knew that a liberal democracy was “not an end in itself,” and he knew evil must be confronted, and though to some evil may seem reasonable, evil manufactures “like a squid’s cloud of ink.”
In conclusion, this is a book that offers readers a deeper understanding of how Lincoln thought, from an iconic author and professor of American history who clearly admired this great man, and has a unique perspective on Lincoln’s leadership.
Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University
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