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Lincoln's Hundred Days; Rise to Greatness; Seward

Though Hurricane Sandy hangs over us with power outages and flooding, we can’t forget we are in the final stages of a Presidential election, though we won’t know what variables played a role in the election until it is over. Meanwhile we, especially people in Ohio and other battleground states, are saturated with ads. We can retain our passion for public service and leadership if we look to history, where nothing is airbrushed. The richness of American history is captured in three recent books: two books on President Lincoln's leadership and a biography of Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward help me savor and appreciate the challenges of leadership and public service. These books grip the reader from beginning to end as they fully explore new about the Lincoln Presidency—why it inspires, what challenges it faced, the obstacles Lincoln overcame, and what ones he didn’t.

 

Lincoln's Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union - Louis P. Masur (Harvard Univ., $29.95)
Louis P. Masur's Lincoln's Hundred Days presents a gripping story of the hundred-day gap between when the decision was made to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and its effective date on January 1, 1863. Lincoln educated his cabinet about emancipation through story and parable. “Stand patters,” mostly Democrats, pulverized Lincoln’s decision. “Maximalists,” who were also Abolitionists, thought Lincoln was a hesitant and compromised leader. The African American leader Frederick Douglass understood the Proclamation's import even if it did not free slaves in the states that hadn't seceded, the reason—according to Masur—that Lincoln strongly supported a constitutional amendment banning slavery. Douglass, sagacious advocate that he was, began publicly addressing the question of what would happen to the slaves after freedom, even before the Proclamation took full effect. Masur’s book also covers the period before the end of the Civil War when Lincoln visited wounded troops. (Remember the troops were an important part of Lincoln's electoral margin over the fired General McClellan.) Lincoln felt the power of the Emancipation Proclamation decision even as he walked silently in Richmond during the war. One woman proclaimed, "I know I am free for I have seen Father Abraham and felt him."

Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year - David Von Drehle (Holt, $30)
David Von Drehle's Rise to Greatness opens on New Year's Day 1862 with Lincoln greeting hordes of citizens, and takes us through the whole year. Each chapter follows one month, and discusses the complexities of saving the Union from McClellan's imperious caution and disloyalty to his commander-in-chief; the challenge from the British as Charles Francis Adams, our Ambassador to Great Britain, pushes for emancipation; and the official declaration of the emancipation policy. Von Drehle closes the book with the birth of freedom. What Von Drehle does so brilliantly is capture Lincoln's sense of history and how change is created and sustained. Of Lincoln, Von Drehle writes, "to him, human history was an inexorable current that sometimes meandered, sometimes raged, but ultimately found its own course." In Lincoln’s view, change required working through "his options with the most cautious initiatives" because as volatile issues were taken on—especially slavery—there was no going back. Von Drehle shows us that at the start of 1862 the nation looked backward, not certain that the Union could be preserved, but as 1863 began with the Emancipation Proclamation in place, the nation could look forward.

Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man – Walter Stahr (Simon & Schuster, $32.50)
Carla and I once had the good fortune to visit the Seward home in Auburn, NY. Our interest was triggered by Gore Vidal's novel Lincoln (arguably his best work) and reinforced by Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. In Seward, Walter Stahr takes William Henry Seward to a deeper level with the story of a creative and forward looking political leader. Few politicians are themselves after a defeat yet Seward, in his mind assured the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860, loyally served Lincoln as Secretary of State. (Yes, Obama and Clinton appear to be a Lincoln and Seward parallel.) In this role, Seward had the courage to challenge the compromise Clay, Webster and Calhoun suggested of turning over fugitive slaves. When Seward is injured shortly before the war's end by a runaway horse and coach, he is visited by Lincoln. I wish the conversation had been recorded: Lincoln returning from a Richmond hospital after shaking hundreds of wounded soldiers’ hands and an ill Seward. Seward did not have the strength to speak at length but with the war at a near end you can imagine the discussion of the plans for the future—two politicians, two leaders, two patriots, looking ahead.

- David Cohen