Waugh (On the Brink of Civil War: The Compromise of 1850 and How It Changed the Course of American History, 2003, etc.), a Civil War historian and former bureau chief of the Christian Science Monitor, offers a lively biography of the Great Emancipator, from birth to first inauguration.
Where Julie M. Fenster’s recent The Case of Abraham Lincoln: A Story of Adultery, Murder and the Making of a Great President (2007) considered the personal, legal and political life of Lincoln through the prism of a single criminal case, Waugh’s more conventional treatment offers nothing new either in approach or content. Still, his judicious use of the historical record and his dramatic prose make for an enjoyable read. He provides sufficient detail about Lincoln the impoverished youth, the striving young clerk, the busy lawyer and the harried family man, and he pauses frequently to analyze Lincoln’s character and mind. But the emphasis here is on Lincoln the political animal, particularly his evolution from a little-known Illinois legislator to a one-term U.S. congressman, to a marginalized Whig Party operator, to national spokesman for and eventual nominee of the newly emerging Republican Party. Waugh presents Lincoln as a special product of mid-century Illinois, that critical swing state, a peculiar amalgam of sophistication and rusticity, of Northern and Southern sensibilities. By 1856, the state had produced only one universally recognized statesman—Stephen A. Douglas, too often portrayed as Lincoln’s evil twin, but here rightly regarded as brilliantly able, caught in the same historical vise that held Lincoln fast: how to succeed politically in the face of a single explosive issue, slavery, that threatened to sunder the union. The author is especially good on the Lincoln/Douglas dynamic, following their parallel careers from their battles as young lawyers in Springfield to their epic 1858 senate race, to the presidential contest of 1860. In the end, Lincoln’s sometimes slow but always careful reasoning, his eloquence and, above all, his ceaseless ambition brought him to power where his talent proved, indeed, great enough to ensure the republic’s survival.
Unlikely to impress jaded Lincoln devotees, but sure to charm newcomers.