In Jon Meacham’s Biography, Lincoln Is a Guiding Light for Our Times

From a Washington Post review by John Fabian Witt of the book by Jon Meacham titled “And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle”

Every generation gets its own Abraham Lincoln biography. But if time seems to move faster these days, then perhaps it is altogether fitting and proper that our generation should have so many. The latest — Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham’s “And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle” — offers an account of the life of the United States’ 16th president that is worldly and spiritual, and carefully tailored to suit our conflict-ridden times.

Meacham bids to be the redeemer in chief of the narrative of American exceptionalism: the venerable if now-shopworn story in which the United States has a providential and world-historic role as a nation distinctively dedicated to human liberty. He is almost certainly the most well-connected presidential biographer of the moment. His 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson, “American Lion,” won a Pulitzer Prize for balancing Jackson’s many faults, including his relentless efforts to destroy Native American Indian tribes, with his success in holding together a country whose “protections and promises,” as Meacham asserted, eventually extended to all. Meacham’s 2015 biography of George H.W. Bush, “Destiny and Power,” maintained a respectable critical distance while treating his subject with sufficient dignity that the Bush family asked him to deliver the eulogy at the National Cathedral. His 2018 book “The Soul of America,” a spirited defense of the promise of America for the Trump years, captured the attention of Joe Biden, who used the title as a catch phrase in his 2020 presidential campaign while relying on Meacham for speechwriting counsel. Biden gave Meacham a coveted four-minute slot on the final evening of the Democratic National Convention. Since Biden’s election, Meacham has been something of an insider historian for the White House, helping to organize occasional dinners with historians at which the president seeks to take stock of the historical moment.

Meacham’s new Lincoln is not just a text; it is an event. The book aims to recraft a usable mythology of Lincoln for political leaders in the 21st century, when dissension and loose talk of civil war have returned. It is thoroughly researched and highly readable, written with all the artful craftsmanship of a veteran writer and editor. The book is not especially long for a contemporary biography; it clocks in at just over 400 pages of text. But it boasts more than 200 additional pages of endnotes and bibliography in support of an interpretation of Lincoln that focuses on the moral life of the politician and statesman. Lincoln’s hardscrabble log-cabin childhood and his marriage to the oft-troubled Mary Todd appear. So do scars from the childhood deaths of two of their four sons. But in Meacham’s treatment, such personal details function as supporting pieces in a story designed around high-stakes campaign speeches, the constitutive ritual of inaugurations and grave moments of statesmanship.

Two big ideas about Lincoln and politics animate the book. The first is that statecraft, when practiced as Lincoln practiced it, is a noble art. For all the sordid pettiness of modern partisanship, and for all the venal corruptions of political life, Meacham’s account of the life of Lincoln aims to persuade us that leadership in a democracy is a distinctive and indispensable moral enterprise — a kind of high-wire act of pragmatic compromise on the one hand and moral principle on the other. The practice redeems itself, Meacham contends, when the moral calculus nets out positive.

Consider the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which Lincoln, as the anti-slavery Republican candidate for an Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate in 1858, challenged the incumbent Democrat, Stephen Douglas, to a series of seven debates. Douglas, who would soon be the Democratic Party’s nominee for the presidency, disparaged Black people as inferior and treated them as mere property rather than people. He insisted that new Western states should be open to slavery if White voters in those states so chose, a view he called “popular sovereignty.”

Lincoln, by contrast, was implacable in his resistance to the spread of slavery into Western territories. He insisted that Black people were “entitled to all the natural rights” of the Declaration of Independence. But as Meacham painstakingly describes, Lincoln was “not a full-time reformer but an office-seeker,” not “a preacher but a politician.” What that meant in practice was that he leavened his moral commitments with the prejudices of those he hoped to represent. On speaker’s platforms in Illinois, Lincoln renounced the idea of “political and social equality between the white and the black races.” When he described slavery’s wrongfulness, he focused on its threat to White voters and their families. “It is far easier to convince the multitude that Slavery is a baleful evil to them,” he later explained, “than to possess them with the idea that it is a cruel wrong to the enslaved.”

From early in his life, to be sure, Lincoln believed that slavery was wrong. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” he wrote in 1864, adding, “I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” But Lincoln disappointed abolitionists time and again. He deferred emancipation until the third year of the war, and even then he relied on military necessity rather than the justice of the thing as the basis for his decision. Lincoln doubted that White and Black communities could live together; he endorsed what he called “separation of the races.” He pursued cruel and desperate colonization schemes to send the country’s Black population to Liberia, the West Indies or South America. In December 1862, Lincoln even proposed a settlement of the Civil War that would have guaranteed slavery’s persistence in the South until the 20th century.

Lincoln’s compromises with evil were so grave that prominent abolitionists — the Black leader Frederick Douglass, women’s movement advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Massachusetts orator Wendell Phillips among them — endorsed John Fremont as a rival presidential candidate in the 1864 election. Meacham is impatient with such radicals. Lincoln, he contends, could not both lead sinners to a better world and live apart from them.

The second theme of Meacham’s biography is the vitality of religious faith as a guiding force in politics, even and perhaps especially in moments of acute pressure. Many a past biographer has observed that Lincoln understood himself as an actor in a providential drama. Meacham agrees. Douglass’s searing 1852 address on the contradictory legacies of the Declaration of Independence for Black America invoked the Book of Genesis. Douglass resolved that God’s edict “Let there be Light” had “not yet spent its force.” In Meacham’s telling, “It fell to Abraham Lincoln to shed that light in the darkest of hours.”

Meacham’s lucid account nicely captures the religious framework with which Lincoln approached the most difficult decisions of his presidency. Deciding on emancipation in the summer of 1862, Lincoln resolved that he would do “whatever shall appear to be God’s will.” But how to discern the will of God? “These are not … the days of miracles,” he told two pastors from Chicago. Religious leaders, he pointed out, urged him down divergent paths. Some insisted that Christianity’s ethic of love required the immediate abolition of slavery. Others cited the Bible’s story of original sin and observed that Christianity had coexisted with slavery for 2,000 years. Ultimately, Lincoln found worldly evidence of God’s plan on the battlefield at Antietam in Maryland. The president, recalled Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, “made a vow — a covenant — that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, he would consider it an indication of Divine will.” When Union forces repelled Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North, in a battle that killed or wounded 23,000 men in a single day, Lincoln read the grim victory as a sign. His Emancipation Proclamation, issued five days later, decisively turned the war for the Union into a war against slavery.

But Meacham is not content to rest at a description of Lincoln’s psychology. He takes the point a step further. “To Lincoln,” he writes, “God whispered His will through conscience, calling humankind to live in accord with the laws of love.” There is no endnote for this, no bibliographical support, because how could there be? Meacham offers us a Lincoln who is a modern Moses, a prophet carrying out in mysterious ways the inscrutable will of God and leading a New Testament Israel through the wilderness to rescue an “experiment in liberty under law.” Meacham is a man of faith as much as his subject.

The belief that God has chosen a nation to carry forward the plan of history has been a dangerous tenet for millennia. The Old Testament’s genocides illustrate the point, as do those of the New World (in which Lincoln himself played a modest part), not to mention the many religiously inflected crises of violence around the world today. The conceit of “manifest destiny” helped produce an American empire whose structure remains today at odds with basic ideals of liberty and equality. Meacham’s contention nonetheless is that in the right dose, and with the appropriately humble human agents, faith supplies a moral framework adequate to our gravest moments. At the very least, faith offered Lincoln a language for communicating seriousness of purpose. It’s fair to say that it offers Meacham the same.

In the end, Meacham makes a good case for Lincoln’s calculus of noble compromise. Capitulation would have either preserved slavery in the United States for decades, or created a new and aggressive slaveholding empire in the Americas. After his death, even his erstwhile abolitionist critics came around: “I see now the wisdom of his course,” said Stanton. He was “the black man’s President,” decided Douglass. W.E.B. Du Bois would later call him the “greatest figure of the nineteenth century.”

Meacham’s pitch is that Lincoln’s politics of compromise and faith would serve us well today. As a biographer, he is exquisitely attuned to the resonances between 21st-century polarization and the life of “a president who led a divided country” a century and a half ago. He dwells on Vice President John Breckinridge’s courageous decision to carry out the electoral college count faithfully in February 1861, just as Vice President Mike Pence did in January 2021. With an eye toward the Trumpian “big lie” about the 2020 election results, Meacham observes that Lincoln pledged publicly to respect the outcome in 1864 even though success for Democrat George McClellan would have reversed emancipation. The entire book is about rebellion by a White national minority chafing against the Declaration of Independence’s commitment to equality for all people. Lincoln’s experience reverberates into our own era of anxious White voters and new threats of insurrection.

Ultimately, “And There Was Light” stands for the claim that the demigods of American historical mythology, Lincoln foremost among them, can help us carve paths through our forbidding 21st-century wilderness. But can Lincoln do the work Meacham sets for him? Can a man who took part in the final genocidal clash of White settlers with Indians east of the Mississippi rally a multiethnic democracy to the flag? Can a man who opposed Black citizenship until the end of his life mobilize a diverse coalition of voters? What, moreover, does Lincoln’s moral North Star — the Declaration’s ringing promise of equality for all — mean today? Does it mean higher progressive tax rates for the 1 percent, or perhaps more student debt relief? Does it mean an end to race-based government action, or a rededication of the nation to the principle that Black lives matter? Is the next Lincoln a teenager who wants action on climate change — but is prepared to make compromises in bringing the world closer to carbon neutrality?

Faced with such challenges, we owe it to one another to pray we do our best. And that is Meacham’s deadly serious point.

John Fabian Witt teaches law and history at Yale and is the author, most recently, of “American Contagions: Epidemics and the Law From Smallpox to Covid-19.” He won the Bancroft Prize for “Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History.”

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