The many biographers and curators pumping out material on Abraham Lincoln must be congratulating themselves on truly extraordinary timing. Not only is next month the 200th anniversary of the log-cabin birth of the Great Emancipator,but Barack Obama will also conspicuously carry the banner of his Illinois forebear into the White House on January 20th.
Mr Obama has asked to take his oath on the same Bible that Lincoln used at his 1861 swearing-in (pictured above). Other parallels are so persistent as to become almost tiresome. Mr Obama and Lincoln were both politician-lawyers from Springfield who outfoxed heavily favoured New York opponents during the party primaries,namely William Seward (then a senator from New York) and Hillary Clinton. Both owed their rise to masterful oratory; both brought (or bring) thin governing experience to the presidency.
To read any biography of Lincoln in the present context is a rich experience. Mr Obama is known to favour Team of Rivals,Doris Kearns Goodwin’s absorbing 2005 account of how Lincoln swept his political challengers into his cabinet. (Seward ended up as secretary of state,as presumably will Mrs Clinton.)
Still,the torrent of Lincoln books past and present-including over a dozen in the next few months alone-means that the bar is necessarily set high. A. Lincoln: A Biography,by Ronald White junior,an academic and established Lincoln historian,will be among the most substantial new entrants. Mr White sets out to chronicle Lincoln’s moral and intellectual evolution. Such territory has of course been substantially covered already. For some 150 years,virtually every paper and pronouncement by the 16th president has been pored over by historians,not least by Mr White,whose analysis of Lincoln’s second inaugural address in his 2002 book,Lincoln’s Greatest Speech,is well worth perusing. Indeed,Mr White’s particular passion is Lincoln’s rhetoric,and the biographical bulk of the new book is mashed together,sometimes awkwardly,with line-by-line analyses of Lincoln’s inaugurals and other major speeches.
In fact,the subject is entirely capable of speaking for himself. Lincoln was self-deprecating and funny in a way that will ring true for the Jon Stewart generation. Just as Mr Obama managed to call himself a black and white mutt on national television,so Lincoln good-humouredly adjusted to the consensus description of himself as one of the ungainliest men in politics. Matthew Brady,posing Lincoln for a photograph in New York just before his famed Cooper Union speech in 1860,suggested fixing his collar. Lincoln replied,to the amusement of both men,I see you want to shorten my neck. Another time,assuming a large debt upon the death of a former business partner in 1835,Lincoln began calling it his National Debt,due to its size and the geographic spread of his creditors.
To be sure,Lincoln also had plenty of miscues. Shortly before his 1861 inauguration,he told the Ohio legislature: It is a good thing that there is no more than anxiety,for there is nothing going wrong. Never mind that half a dozen states had just seceded from the Union. John McCain’s ill-fated assertion in September that the fundamentals of our economy are strong seems mild by comparison.
Ultimately,of course,Lincoln saved the Union,issued the Emancipation Proclamation and stood firmly by it,despite criticism. But the road to historical favour was long and complex,as Mr White shows. Until the promotion of Ulysses S. Grant,the North’s victory in the civil war was held back by a series of inept generals-to the exasperation of Lincoln,who liked to read up on military strategy.
As for slavery,Lincoln had long railed against this monstrous injustice. But one of the bitterest questions of the day was whether the federal government could ban slavery in new American territories,such as Kansas and Nebraska. Lincoln was firmly against extending slavery in the territories,but did not seek at first to eradicate the peculiar institution altogether.
In his first inaugural address,Lincoln quoted from an earlier speech,in which he had said: I have no purpose,directly or indirectly,to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so,and I have no inclination to do so.
Less than three years later at Gettysburg,Lincoln was speaking of a new birth of freedom for the nation,and shortly thereafter he backed the Thirteenth Amendment,fully outlawing slavery. Well,boys,your troubles are over now, Lincoln told his press pool (of sorts) the morning after being elected in 1860. Mine have just begun. As he places his hand on the Lincoln Bible,Mr Obama may feel much the same way.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008