Wednesday, November 09, 2005

RAIL-SPLITTING: Two opposite approaches to Honest Abe

RAIL-SPLITTING: Two opposite approaches to Honest Abe. This is a review by Caleb Crain of two books dealing with President Lincoln. This article originally appeared in the New Yorker.

The reviewed books are Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk and Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

From the site:

At the age of seven, Abraham Lincoln poked his rifle through a crack in the family’s log cabin and shot a turkey. It was the high point of his career as a hunter, and also the end of it. By his own account, he never afterward “pulled a trigger on any larger game.” He was later seen returning baby birds to their nests and defending turtles from boys with hot coals. When he was twenty-three, he captained a militia to fight Indians in Illinois but never saw action. “I had a good many bloody struggles with the musquetoes,” he recalled. Three decades later, he presided over a war that killed more Americans than any other, before or since. “Doesn’t it strike you as queer,” he asked an Indiana congressman, “that I, who couldn’t cut the head off of a chicken, and who was sick at the sight of blood, should be cast into the middle of a great war, with blood flowing all about me?”

The paradox is at the heart of Lincoln’s appeal. Nothing about his personality was simple, and questions of state were involved in its complexities. Did he lie about why he went to war? Did he need to be so aggressive—more so than many of his generals—about winning? Was the Civil War worth it? Lincoln was a man of many doubts, but not about these questions. Despite an unassuming manner, he fought with startling conviction. “I am a patient man—always willing to forgive on the Christian terms of repentance,” he told a Maryland legislator in 1862, adding, however, that “it may as well be understood, once for all, that I shall not surrender this game leaving any available card unplayed.”

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