An award-winning historian assembles 12 essays from distinguished scholars commenting on Lincoln—the man, the emancipator and the chief executive.
Taking full advantage of the current “golden age of Lincoln scholarship,” Foner (History/Columbia Univ.; Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction, 2005, etc.) commissions contributions both from Lincoln specialists and from historians who’ve helped reshape our understanding of 19th-century America. With a few exceptions—David Blight’s piece on the modern Republican Party’s mangling of Lincoln’s legacy is a bit overheated, and Catherine Clinton’s commentary on Lincoln’s family attempts too much in too little space—this cross-pollination succeeds. The essays are highly readable, mercifully free of academic cant and at least hint at new Lincoln discoveries, large and small. Harold Holzer makes a minor but intriguing point with his discussion of the influence of artists, painters and sculptures on famous photographic images of Lincoln. Manisha Sinha usefully recovers the names of black abolitionists—Frederick Douglass was not alone—who helped push Lincoln toward emancipation. Mark Neely takes a timely look at the fate of civil liberties under Lincoln during wartime. Especially strong contributions come from James McPherson, who reminds us of the centrality of Lincoln’s role as commander in chief; Foner, who examines the controversial and surprisingly vibrant movement for colonization of black Americans in Africa or elsewhere; and Richard Carwardine, who incisively discusses Lincoln’s evolving religious beliefs. The most notable essays are Andrew Delbanco’s beautiful discussion of Lincoln’s pioneering use of American English; James Oakes’s brilliant analysis of the various rights Lincoln believed governed race relations; and Sean Wilentz’s explication of the influence of Jacksonian democracy on Lincoln’s politics, as promising a vein as any for new assessments of our 16th president.
As the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth approaches, these provocative essays constitute a perfect sneak preview of the likely scholarly agenda.