ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND THE UNION by Oscar & Lilian Handlin Handlin


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Of all our secular saints, Lincoln stands out, and biographers have a tough time setting the crown of thorns aside. The Handlins (he the Harvard historian) are no exception, though they do start out with a more realistic portrayal of Lincoln's early years than most (the facts are not in doubt, it's the manner of their presentation that counts). Lincoln is here shown as a shiftless young man who hung around with a rowdy bunch of similar types, and was distinguished by his taste for reading, talking, and, in the Handlins' rendering, bouts of sadness and low spirits. All saints have to suffer, and Lincoln's moods are the opening wedge in this interpretation: as the Handlins have it, Lincoln never thought, he agonized; he never considered, he suffered. As a young lawyer and congressman, they posit, Lincoln transformed his notion of God into an idea of Necessity; and it is this over which he suffered and agonized--especially in relation to blacks and slavery. For a long time, he simply avoided taking a stand on slavery; and, indeed, the Handlins effectively portray his early political career as one focused more on organizing and political routine than on big issues. The famous debates with Douglas marked the point at which Lincoln's views took shape; but, even there, moral opposition to the institution of slavery and opposition to its spread did not keep Lincoln, under the spell of Necessity, from opposing its abolition where it existed or from denying the superiority of the white race. Lincoln's subordination of slavery to the issue of the preservation of the Union, often noted, is thus given a moral gloss. The result is an interpretation which doesn't shy from presenting Lincoln's more human traits, and manages to preserve the saintliness too. Balanced views of Lincoln are hard to come by; so, despite its slants, this is a good--and readable--short biography.

Pub Date: Sept. 19th, 1980
ISBN: 0673393402
Publisher: Atlantic/Little, Brown