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A. Lincoln. By Ronald C. White Jr. Where does the time go?

July 10, 2017

lincoln

I finally got around to reading this one, first published in 2009.  Any single volume biography of Lincoln, inevitably offers an overwhelming reading experience of frenetic haste.  Before you know it, it’s done, and there’s a sense that an extraordinary life has barely been excavated.  As Abe and Mary arrive at Ford’s Theatre and you realise that only 674 pages have slipped by, there’s an deep sense of frustration as well as of loss.

The final few months of Lincoln’s life seem especially accelerated by White.  The struggle to pass get the 13th Amendment through Congress – the struggle that Spielberg made a whole film about – is permitted just two pages in this book.

I am grateful to Ronald C. White for three reasons, however,  Firstly, the book is beautifully written  A lucid work of history will always feel too short and the brevity of the experience is, I must confess, due to the simple maxim that time flies when you’re having fun.

Secondly, White is superb at analyzing rhetoric.  No politician ever used language more carefully than Lincoln.  He was always precise when he needed to be precise and vague when he needed to be vague.  It would be easy to compare Lincoln’s majestic paragraphs with the degraded squeaks of the age of twitter.  But in all honesty, if Lincoln had had access to Twitter – his would have been the best tweets ever.  He would have taken those 140 characters and composed witty and wise epigrams worthy of Martial with them.

White takes us inside the writing process, stressing the editorial labour that went into his public letters as well as his formal addresses.   Many scraps of paper were sacrificed to create a Lincoln speech.  Fortunately, in Lincoln’s day trees were plentiful (although young musclebound Lincoln was adept at splitting them).  White is equally adept at identifying the distinctive features of the product as well as the process – illustrating how and why a particular sentence is so memorable – how and why Lincoln eschews modifiers or admits digressions.

Finally, White will challenge or at least inform your view of Lincoln’s idea of religion.  It is well known that for most of his life he belonged to no church, refusing to ally himself with the doctrines of any particular church.  However, White makes clear that Lincoln was no Jeffersonian Deist, and that Lincoln’s view of Providence was not the fatalism of a blind mechanistic “First Cause”, but rather a sense of deliberate interventionist purpose.  As president, Lincoln attended Presbyterian worship and his respect for the preaching of Rev. Phineas Gurley is especially noted by White.

The faith of someone like Lincoln, according to White, emerges as something active and dialectical – forged by doubt rather than disabled by it.  Famously, Lincoln observed that if people of radically opposed view both claim divine authority then both sets may and one set must be mistaken.  Lincoln did not treat feuding true believers cynically, but instead thoughtfully.  White’s Lincoln emerges as someone who treats rational non-committal as a species of prayerful humility.  Groping towards truth, Lincoln was at all times a “work in process”.   While others appeared very confident as to the will of the Almighty, Lincoln’s very skepticism and self doubt creates its own sense of the numinous.

Lincoln had always been anti-slavery.  He was not an abolitionist until 1862, because his sense of constitutional law did not permit him to believe that he was in any position to interfere with slavery where it was already established.  He was a Free Soiler, who believed that an elected federal government had the authority to check the growth of slavery, and to enact policies that might be conducive to its eventual extinction (round about 1900).  Lincoln never imposed a creed or a manifesto upon events because he freely admitted that he was constantly being shaped by them.

The book ends very abruptly.  An overall evaluation of Lincoln needs to be extrapolated from commentaries in each of the preceding chapters.  From a rhetorical point of view, this refusal to “sum up” Lincoln only adds to the strange sense of loss that the reader experiences.  Having finished A. Lincoln, I miss Abraham Lincoln all the more – cut off – truncated – in the middle of a guffaw (“you sockdologizing old mantrap!”) and without a last word.

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