Unlike the usual run of politicians then and now, Abraham Lincoln devoted a lot of time to thinking about questions of right and wrong, questions that lie at the heart of this “ethical biography” by the author of the splendid Arguing About Slavery (1996).
What is an ethical biography? The sort of book that young Abe Lincoln might have read on the Indiana/Illinois frontier, seeking models worthy of emulation in a place that boasted none. “It is striking,” writes Miller (Political and Social Thought/Univ. of Virginia), “when one examines what Lincoln himself would write as an adult, that he does not look back in piety and gratitude to any mentors and examples from those days of his youth.” Instead, he found them in books such as Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. No mere policy wonk, Lincoln used books not only as a mine of information by which to teach himself, say, battlefield tactics so that he could talk to his generals, but as a way of acquiring and perfecting moral structure. Indeed, as Miller capably shows, an overriding concern for morality and ethics characterized Lincoln the small-town lawyer, Lincoln the congressman (though during his unremarkable term he launched what was for him an unusually intemperate attack on President James Polk), Lincoln the presidential candidate, and Lincoln the president. His abiding sense of fairness, for instance, led Lincoln to call slavery not a Southern vice, but the responsibility of the entire nation, a source of shame to all Americans, and a matter that “had to be settled on the basis of principle.” Miller guides his readers through the steady evolution of Lincoln’s bookish ideas and ideals, convincingly if sometimes impatiently defending him against latter-day charges of paternalism and, worse, racism.
Scholars won’t find much new here, but Miller deserves an audience among those who seek meaning in politics—and, like Lincoln, worthy models to follow.