October 20, 2011

God did his best when he created Mr. Lincoln

I got so excited when I got to Lincoln. Lincoln! Lincoln after all those dopes! No more compromises, the new birth of freedom!

And then, first of all, I got sucked into George R.R. Martin, as one does. Then I went to Gettysburg, and needed a little break from the Civil War, and then I don't know, I just wasn't into it.

Part of it, I think, is that reading about Lincoln has less cache than reading about the unknowns. I'm probably the only person you know who's read a Millard Filmore biography (love him!). I'm probably the 900th person you know who's read a Lincoln biography.

There's also a sense that reading one book about Lincoln, even reading 10 books about Lincoln, will never make me understand what made him so right for America in the 1860s. Especially in the early chapters, when young Abe is reading and talking to his stepmom and deciding what he wants to do with his life, I was always looking for telltale signs that he would become the greatest American of all time. David Herbert Donald quite obviously has this lens as well, and writes about his life in Indiana and Illinois like he's writing a fable. He will never resists relating someone's impression of Lincoln that goes like this: "Lincoln showed up and he was so gangly! How embarrassing that his pants didn't cover his ankles! He dresses like a farmer! Then he started talking and now I love him more than I've ever loved anybody!"

There is at least one of these stories every 5 pages. They are, of course, enjoyable, and make heart your swell with pride every time someone else is won over by Abe's folksy charm and hidden depths. Even if he hadn't lead America through the war and freed the slaves, he'd still be one of the most likeable presidents of all time.

He was, however, an incredibly unpopular president for his first two years in office. He had so little experience in the federal government that he made stupid, embarrassing mistakes, like doing something that was actually his Secretary of State's job, and allowing a pack of dunderheads to lead the Army of the Potomac. And he had no military experience, so he was shaky in the main duty of his new job, which was leading a war. (He actually got books about military strategy out of the library! Can't you just picture him in the "military strategy" section, like that scene in Wet Hot American Summer? Again, so cute and so embarrassing.) Everybody was mad at him all the time, including his wife, who couldn't have been less helpful.

Then the summer of 1863 really magically turned his image around. First he manned up and fired General George McClellan (for the second time), truly the biggest military doofus since Alexander Hamilton, which gave the country some confidence in him. Then he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. Then he gave the Gettysburg Address. All of a sudden the country felt like it had a president. They couldn't wait to re-elect him. One guy wrote, "I think God tried his best when he created Mr. Lincoln."

So I'm not quite done with the book. We've currently got Petersburg under siege, but the hagiography has already started. What's gnawing at me is that with so many of his predecessors, when I finished a 500-page biography of them I was totally satisfied. I could close it and say, "Ok, I think I know everything I ever need to know about Franklin Pierce." But I'll never feel that way about Lincoln.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you're back. I was worried you had given up.

    While you're the only person I know of who has read a Millard Fillmore biography, you won't be for long. I just finished Harrison and am about to start Tyler.