The greatness and imperfections of America’s 16th president, captured by a former Democratic nominee for the White House.
With considerable skill and insight, McGovern (Social Security and the Golden Age, 2005, etc.) crafts a biography snappy, clear and comprehensive enough to please general readers, students and scholars alike. In eight short chapters, six of which deal with Lincoln’s presidency, he nails the essential strengths, flaws, failures and achievements of America’s most revered leader. Born in a Kentucky log cabin, Lincoln was a melancholic who suffered more than his fair share of misfortune. According to McGovern, he nevertheless earned success through his ceaseless hard work, powerful intellect and incomparable abilities as a speechwriter. Lincoln began his political career as a member of the Whig Party. After serving in the Illinois state legislature, he won election to the U.S. Congress in 1846, but lost support by challenging President James Polk on the origins of the Mexican War and lasted only one term. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, sponsored by Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas, reinvigorated Lincoln’s political ambitions. While he believed the Constitution did not allow for abolition in the South, he staunchly opposed the westward expansion of slavery. With the Whig Party split, he joined the new Republican Party in 1856 and ran against Douglas for a Senate seat in 1858. Although he lost this race, Lincoln gained national prominence as a result of his famous debates with Douglas. Two years later, he won the 1860 presidential election, a victory that angered the South and brought about secession and war. What was he like as a wartime president? In three core chapters, McGovern astutely assesses Lincoln’s emergence as a commander in chief committed to “total war.” The author does not shy away from criticizing his subject, particularly for suspending habeas corpus and censoring the press. Still McGovern’s overall depiction is one of a complex, tolerant and extraordinary man who simultaneously preserved the Union and transformed the nation.
Compact and commanding.