President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman

By WILLIAM LEE MILLER

Abraham Lincoln?s performance as president earned him immortality, so it?s easy to forget how ill suited the uneducated backcountry politician initially seemed for the job. William Lee Miller?s reverential new biography, which follows 2002?s Lincoln?s Virtues and covers Lincoln?s years in the White House, argues that our 16th president?s inexperience was never a liability, for his greatness resided in the uncommon moral conviction with which he steered the Union through the Civil War and brought an end to slavery. Lincoln felt certain that the secession of the Southern states would not just diminish the nation but would destroy it altogether, and he was always mindful of the significance that the success of the United States, as a popular, republican government, would have to the rest of the world. Through a wealth of fascinating examples, Miller establishes that the leader?s reputation for kindness and charity was well earned, but he reveals another side of Lincoln, a relentless commander-in-chief willing to suffer inconceivable losses in a devastating war precisely because he saw it as a righteous undertaking. He was also willing to risk his political future: in a display of principle difficult to imagine today, Lincoln refused to sacrifice emancipation or otherwise compromise his beliefs on prosecuting the war in order to rescue his flailing 1864 reelection bid (?What is the presidency to me if I have no country?? he responded when urged by his party to postpone a military draft until after the election). We of course know from the outset how this insightful, compelling book will end, but by the time Miller reaches that April 1865 night at Ford?s Theater, the loss feels more crushing than ever. -