At the start of the Civil War, Lincoln, a commander in chief with little military experience, was in a vulnerable position as he faced Jefferson Davis, a graduate of West Point and colonel in the Mexican War. Lincoln had a brilliantly analytical mind, and, just as he had taught himself law and Euclidean geometry, he mastered military strategy. In Tried By War (Penguin Press, $35), Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson argues that Lincoln succeeded in becoming possibly the best war president in history—a hands-on commander, and a better strategist than his generals. Lincoln also had to manage public opinion, fickle in its support of the war. He needed to create a national consensus not only to restore the Union, but to abolish slavery. In actions with parallels today, Lincoln proclaimed his right in an emergency to suspend habeas corpus and create military tribunals. McPherson contends that Lincoln’s violation of civil liberties was a greater threat to the preservation of the Union than any civil liberties crisis since.
Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard and Lincoln Professor of History, has written five studies of the slave-holding South. Her new history, This Republic Of Suffering (Knopf, $27.95), examines the omnipresence of death throughout the country during the Civil War. Some 620,000 American soldiers died—roughly equal to the number of American combat deaths in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean War combined. By the end of the Civil War, this massive scale of shared suffering helped override any differences still standing between North and South. Faust notes that the Civil War determined how military deaths are handled today, as primary responsibility for recovering and identifying bodies passed from the family to the nation. Faust’s book is a finalist for the National Book Award in non-fiction.
Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek and author of Franklin and Winston, says of Jackson that “the virtues and vices of this single man tell us much about the virtues and vices of our country.” American Lion (Random House, $30) is Meacham’s portrait of Jackson’s years in power. He draws on previously unavailable letters of Jackson’s intimate circle. Jackson was born in the Carolina backwoods; his father died before his birth, and he was orphaned at 14. He received little formal schooling, and when Harvard bestowed an honorary degree on him in 1833, John Quincy Adams refused to attend Harvard’s “disgrace in conferring her highest honor upon a barbarian who would not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name.” Jackson assumed the presidency in 1829 amid ongoing secessionist crises. He advocated extending freedom and democracy to the poorest whites and he worked to expand the powers of the presidency in ways that Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt would follow. A champion of the common man, he was also the first president to insist upon deference due the chief executive.
As the roster of journalist-historians grows, the world of academic historians increasingly regards them as doctors see chiropractors. Although the academics may grumble, Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, demonstrates in American Lion (Random House, $18) that he knows how to research new primary sources and gather the fruits for a fresh assessment of Andrew Jackson’s presidency. Because Meacham heavily invokes character and setting, he is regarded as a “popular historian”; thus The New York Times described this biography as “enormously entertaining.” But Meacham finally received the respect he deserves for this monumental study: it won the Pulitzer Prize. The Jackson he describes was a rich contradiction of kind and brutal, populist and haughty—in short, a colorful character who defies easy definition.