Saturday, July 19, 2014

Lincoln's Gamble

So often when people are pivotal in the accomplishment of something great they end up becoming something mythical in our imaginations.  We begin to see them as caricatures, good or bad, and very often miss the fact that they are people.  If this is true of anyone in American history, it is especially true of Abraham Lincoln.  The Western world has become inundated with Lincoln material from the time he stepped into office.  As Todd Brewster points out, we have seen,

Lincoln books on every conceivable aspect of his life and career, many of them setting out, Parson Weems style, to create the Lincoln legend: “Honest Abe,” “Abe, the Redeemer,” “Lincoln: Man of the People,” “Master of Men,” and, of course, “The Great Emancipator.” Thankfully, the trend long ago abated. A tempering of the Lincoln myth occurred in the post–World War II era, with some authors going too far in the other direction, laying him out to be racist, incompetent, devious, and certainly no subject for national reverence. Still, the cascade of Lincoln volumes has continued unabated, and a glance through the entire list shows just how inventive the researching mind can be. In addition to traditional biographies and histories there is The Life of Abraham Lincoln for Young People: Told in Words of One Syllable; The Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln; Abraham Lincoln on the Coming of the Caterpillar Tractor; and, first published only a decade ago, The Physical Lincoln, including the following chapters: “Lips,” “Gut,” “Skull,” “Muscles,” “Skin,” “Eyes,” “Height,” and “Joints.” According to World Cat, the global online library catalog, 23,274 books and updated and new editions of books, have been written on Lincoln. (So how original am I? As you read this, you are holding the 23,275th.)

I will have to be honest, like the subject of this book, and point out that I fall just a bit short of having read 23,000+ books on Abraham Lincoln.  I feel safe in saying that Lincoln’s Gamble by Brewster, however, is one of the good ones.  Taking “one slice of Lincoln’s life”, the greatest slice, Brewster dives into the very real world that this very real person played the pivotal role in this very great event.

Brewster takes a focused look at the pivotal time of Lincoln’s presidency, the leading up to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.  This “in-between moment” for Lincoln would end up cementing his mythical, hero, untouchable status in the minds of many, if not most.  This time, wrought with life, politics, war, fear, human frailties, human emotions, human prejudice, pragmatism, shortsightedness, grand vision, support, criticism, success, and failure—this was the time of Lincoln’s Gamble and this was the moment that the man Abe became the hero, the emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.

Brewster does a great job setting the stage for Lincoln’s Gamble. He shows the world: cultural, political, and economic in which Lincoln found himself living.  He shows the men: generals, politicians, and friends that Lincoln found himself leading.  He shows the hardships: war, death, marriage, and parenting, that Lincoln found himself enduring.  All of this to set the scene for the greatest decision Lincoln would ever have to make—a decision that would affect millions for generations.  Maybe we elevate Lincoln as we do simply because he was able to persevere through all of this and actually make a decision, or even just keep going!  For a man to take an action like this in a cultural and personal vacuum would have been difficult enough, to do it in the midst of all that he did was nothing short of amazing.  And Brewster takes the reader on a tour Lincoln’s struggles and helps the reader to feel a bit of what Lincoln had to have felt during this time.

What do we find in all of this?  Abraham Lincoln was not perfect!  Don’t let pennies and $5 bills fool you, he was a real person with real flaws and real struggles.  For instance, would Lincoln be considered a racist today?  He was not an abolitionist, he favored colonization of the slaves, and saw white man as superior to “Negroes”.  But does that make him a terrible person, or simply a person.  One great benefit of this work is to see that Lincoln was a sinner, just like the rest of us.  Not only that, but it helps the reader to see that to impose 21st century norms on a 19th century figure is anachronistic and utterly unfair.  The caricature of Honest Abe the altruistic abolitionist is naïve and inaccurate.  But the fact that this crooked stick was used to draw a mighty straight line should give us pause and bring praise to our mouths for as long as we remember!  By the end of this book we should be able to say with W.E.B. Dubois that, “I love Lincoln.  Not because he was perfect, but because he was not and yet triumphed.”

*I received a review copy of this book from the publisher to offer a review.
*Quotes are from an ARC from the publisher.