history · Non-Fiction

Book Notes : Abraham Lincoln by James McPherson

Those already well read on the subject are not going to find anything new or riveting about James McPherson’s slim book on Abraham Lincoln.  However, I read it hoping for a refresher, a framework of facts, a springboard to a more in depth look into the life of Lincoln and into that period of American history.  The book accomplished that purpose quite well.

Lincoln was born in 1809 in Kentucky to illiterate parents.  His early education was completed in a one room frontier schoolhouse in Indiana after his parents moved there when he was about 7 years old.  This may have been the extent of his education were it not for his stepmother who instilled in him a desire for knowledge.  His biological mother died in 1818 of a condition called “milk sick.” Lincoln’s father never understood his thirst for knowledge and his preference for reading over working was a cause of irritation.  That irritation apparently went both ways as Lincoln was not present at his dying father’s bedside and also refused to attend his funeral when he died in 1851.

In addition to the early details of Lincoln’s life, McPherson also provides a brief introduction into his personality, his brooding nature, his tendency towards depression, his awkwardness with women, and also his love for debate, and for William Shakespeare, and Robert Burns.

He worked a smattering of odd jobs from store clerk to mill hand, postmaster to surveyor and entered law in 1836.  He became known for lulling the other side into complacency by letting them win the arguments on small matters while he held out for victory on the major points of the case.   His path in politics began when he ran for the legislature and won in 1834 as well as in the three following elections.

Lincoln served in Congress from 1847-1849 during the height of the Mexican War.  It was a tumultuous time for Lincoln which would cause him to forgo politics until 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act which was put forth to reverse a ban on slavery in a portion of the Louisiana Purchase.  Over the next six years he would deliver approximately 175 speeches urging the prohibition of slavery in these territories.  He claimed that the Kansas Nebraska Act was a reverse course of the direction set by the founding fathers, as it “deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world — enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites.” 

After his election as president, Lincoln provided assurances that he intended to keep slavery out of the territories but it would go no further than that.  The slaveholding south, however, still felt threatened by Lincoln’s belief that this would serve as a first step toward the end of slavery, as put forth in his famous House Divided speech.

States seceded and the nation was threatened ultimately, of course, leading to the Civil War.  During this time, many were pushing Lincoln towards emancipation before he felt he could deliver it, and in response to an article to that effect published in the New York Tribune, Lincoln said this:

My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

Lincoln goes on to contrast his “official duty,” that of preserving the Union, and his “personal wish” for the freedom of all men.  In the end Lincoln would get his wish and achieve his responsibility, though he would not live to see its ultimate fulfillment.

It was Lincoln’s wish that he not die until he had done something he would be remembered for, and on January 1, 1863 he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper…If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.” 

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