President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman

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Overview

The American president has come to be the most powerful figure in the world?and back in the nineteenth century, a great man held that office. William Lee Miller's new book closely examines that great man in that hugely important office: Abraham Lincoln as president.

Wars waged by American presidents have come to be pivotal historical events. Here Miller analyzes the commander in chief who coped with the profound moral dilemmas of America's ...

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President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman

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Overview

The American president has come to be the most powerful figure in the world—and back in the nineteenth century, a great man held that office. William Lee Miller's new book closely examines that great man in that hugely important office: Abraham Lincoln as president.

Wars waged by American presidents have come to be pivotal historical events. Here Miller analyzes the commander in chief who coped with the profound moral dilemmas of America's bloodiest war.

In his acclaimed book Lincoln's Virtues, Miller explored Abraham Lincoln's intellectual and moral development. Now he completes his "ethical biography," showing the amiable and inexperienced backcountry politician transformed by constitutional alchemy into an oath-bound head of state, slapped in the face from the first minute of his presidency by decisions of the utmost gravity and confronted by the radical moral contradiction left by the nation's Founders: universal ideals of Equality and Liberty and the monstrous injustice of human slavery.

With wit and penetrating sensitivity, Miller shows us a Lincoln with unusual intellectual power, as he brings together the great themes that will be his legend—preserving the United States of America while ending the odious institution that corrupted the nation's meaning. Miller finds in this superb politician a remarkable presidential combination: an indomitable resolve, combined with the judgment that keeps it from being mindless stubbornness; and a supreme magnanimity, combined with the discriminating judgment that keeps it from being sentimentality. Here is the realistic war leader persisting after multiple defeats, pressing his generals to take the battle to the enemy, insisting that the objective was the destruction of Lee's army and not the capture of territory, saying that breath alone kills no rebels, remarking that he regretted war does not admit of holy days, asking whether one could believe that he would strike lighter blows rather than heavier ones or leave any card unplayed. And here is the pardoner, finding every excuse to keep from shooting the simple soldier boy who deserts. Here too is the eloquent leader who describes the national task in matchless prose and who rises above vindictiveness and triumphalism as he guides the nation to a new birth of freedom.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Subtle and nuanced, this study is something of a sequel to Miller's Lincoln's Virtues. Here he examines Honest Abe's moral and intellectual life while in the White House, prosecuting a bloody war. Miller finds that early in his presidency, Lincoln balanced two strong ethical imperatives-his duty to preserve the union and his determination not to fire the first shots. Of course, Miller also addresses that other great moral challenge: slavery. In short, says Miller, Lincoln believed slavery was "not only profoundly wrong but profoundly wrong specifically as measured by this nation's moral essence," and he used a terrific amount of political savvy to push through emancipation. But more original is Miller's discussion of what Lincoln thought was at stake in the war. Through a close reading of the president's papers, Miller persuasively argues that Lincoln believed secession would not merely "diminish" or "damage" the United States but would destroy it. That, in turn, was an issue of global import, for if the American experiment failed, free government would not be secure anywhere. Miller has given us one of the most insightful accounts of Lincoln published in recent years. (Feb. 5)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

This thoughtful and elegantly written sequel to Miller's 2002 biography, Lincoln's Virtues, focuses on the decisions Lincoln faced as the Civil War threatened to destroy the Union-well-trodden ground. But Miller's book differs in that it pays closer attention to the moral issues at play, e.g., Lincoln's commuting of the sentences of court-martialed soldiers. Lloyd James's (www.lloydjames.com) narration is competent but lacks energy, and his timing is often off. Really only for dedicated Lincoln aficionados or libraries stocking up on Lincoln biographies to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his February 12 birth. [Audio clip available through www.tantor.com; for a roundup of Lincoln books in this issue, see p. 136; additional reviews of Lincoln audiobooks forthcoming.-Ed.]
—R. Kent Rasmussen

Kirkus Reviews
A member of the board of the Abraham Lincoln Institute and the Lincoln Studies Group examines the moral reasoning at the heart of the president's statecraft. Lincoln's graceful and humane exercise of power remains exemplary, a startling assessment, perhaps, of the man who presided over the greatest slaughter in American history. But Lincoln was neither a prophet nor a saint, neither a reformer nor a revolutionary. Rather, he was an engaged, embattled politician who clearly understood the role of settled law and of government and who resisted the temptation to engage in moral posturing. Miller (Ethics and Institutions/Univ. of Virginia; Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography, 2002, etc.) focuses on Lincoln's moral reasoning, demonstrating how worthy statecraft requires the leader to attend to reality, to the objective situation, to achieve his goals, all the while hewing to certain principles that cannot be compromised. From the time he took the oath of office, the bedrock principle for Lincoln was the preservation of the Union, no mere political power struggle in his mind, but rather an undertaking with vast, universal moral significance: whether a free, constitutional government could sustain itself, whether a successful appeal from ballots to bullets would mean not just diminishing or damaging the American experiment, but rather destroying it. Through this lens, Miller examines Lincoln's leadership under the unique circumstances of civil war in a variety of cases large and small: the decision to resupply Fort Sumter, to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and to enroll freed slaves in the Union army; the exercise of the president's pardon power; the strategies to keep border statesfrom joining the rebellion and to keep foreign powers at bay. While enduring the criticism of opponents, the incompetence or, in George McClellan's case, insubordination of his generals, or horrible battlefield reversals, Lincoln remained a resolute and aggressive war leader, even as he displayed an uncommon charity and largeness of spirit. His remarkable success, Miller makes clear, was attributable not only to his powerful mind, but also to his moral clarity, a seemingly unerring instinct that allowed him to achieve his goals without losing his own or his country's soul. A creative thesis thoroughly explored and beautifully argued.
From the Publisher
"One of the most insightful accounts of Lincoln published in recent years." —-Publishers Weekly Starred Review
The Barnes & Noble Review
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 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. --Barbara Spindel
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400034161
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/6/2009
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 1,042,210
  • Product dimensions: 5.16 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author


William Lee Miller, Scholar in Ethics and Institutions at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, is the author of Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography.

Lloyd James has been narrating since 1996, has recorded over six hundred books in almost every genre, has earned six AudioFile Earphones Awards, and is a two-time nominee for the prestigious Audie Award.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction: Honest Abe Among the Rulers

At noon on March 4, 1861, the moral situation of Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was abruptly transformed. That morning, arising in the Willard Hotel at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington, he had been a private citizen, making choices of right and wrong, better and worse, good and evil, as human beings do, in his own right, for himself, by his own lights, as an individual moral agent. That afternoon, standing on the steps of the East Portico of the Capitol, before thirty thousand of his fellow citizens, he became an oath-bound head of state.

Although he had, in the previous two years, rather rapidly ascended from provincial obscurity to a certain national notice, and although he had in the morning the pendulant importance of a president-elect, he was as yet, so far as the law was concerned, one citizen alongside other citizens. At noon on that day he was transformed by the constitutional alchemy into something else–the “executive” of the federal government of the United States, the position that the framers in Philadelphia seventy-four years before had decided to call by the word “president.” There immediately settled upon his elongated frame an awesome new battery of powers and an immense new layer of responsibility, obligating, constraining, and empowering him.

In that moment he was lifted to a dizzying new eminence. Before many days had passed the sometime backwoods rail-splitter would find himself sending greetings to his “great and good friend” Her Majesty Doña Isabel II, Queen of Spain; and to his “great and good friend” Her Majesty Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of England and Ireland; and to his “great and good friend” His Royal Majesty Francis Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, none of whom, of course, he had ever met.

Perhaps you had not thought of Abraham Lincoln of Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana, addressing as his great and good friend “His Imperial Majesty Napoleon III, Emperor of the French,” or “His Majesty Alexander II, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias,” or “His Majesty Leopold, King of the Belgians.” But he did. In the years to come there would be many such messages. They would be drafted, to be sure, in the State Department with Secretary of State Seward’s name below that of the president, and they would be composed in diplomatic formulae of the utmost insincerity, compared to which U.S. senators calling each other “distinguished” is a beacon of truthfulness. But they would be signed by “your good friend” Abraham Lincoln, and sent to royal highnesses and imperial majesties and grand dukes and princes and queens and kings and an occasional president and at least one tycoon and one viceroy. The messages would express the president’s alleged delight with the marriage of a royal niece or the safe delivery of a prince, his supposedly deep sympathy at the melancholy tidings of the decease of a late majesty or the passing of a well-beloved royal cousin, his putative best wishes that a reign might be happy and prosperous. Abraham Lincoln was now a member of this exclusive worldwide circle; he had become, in the pompous formality of international diplomacy, the quite unlikely equal and “friend” of these august personages around the world because, like them, he was now a head of state.

One can imagine that the lofty figures in high politics in Europe and around the world would find this new American leader a puzzle. He had no family heritage, no education, no languages, no exposure to the great world outside his own country, and he did not know that he should not wear black gloves to the opera. He was not accustomed to ordering people about. He did not insist on deference and did not receive much. He had never been in command of anything except a straggling company of volunteers in the state militia when he was twenty-three, who, it was reported, when he issued his first command told him to go to hell. His only service in national government had been one short and not impressive term as a congressman eleven years earlier. He had not been the “executive” of anything more than a two-man law firm; he had never in his life fired or dismissed anyone. One knew, because his party’s campaign had insisted upon it, that he had once upon a time split some rails, but rail splitting was scarcely a qualification for the role into which he entered in March 1861. He memorized and recited reams of poetry, mostly of a wistful-melancholy sort, which might make one wonder about his grip on practicality. He was reportedly a constant teller of humorous stories, and a man in whom humor was neither incidental nor decorative but integral, in a way that perhaps an emperor might believe should be left to the jester. Would he, on coming into ultimate responsibility, like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, turn on his own inner Falstaff and say, I know thee not, old man? Or would he keep on telling jokes?

The characteristics that would lead his stepmother and his law partner and his friends to call him an unusually good, kind, conscientious man might have added to the world rulers’ bewilderment, had they known about them. His friends had given him the sobriquet Honest Abe, which might indicate a handicap at the highest level of politics, where a certain amount of patriotic lying is usually thought to be required. Those in Illinois who knew him before he became president said he was an unusually generous human being. He was reported to have more sympathy with the suffering of his fellow creatures than was really advantageous in a ruler– not only for lost cats, mired-down hogs, birds fallen out of the nest, but also for his fellow human beings. Stories were told of his springing to the defense of an old Indian who wandered into camp during the Black Hawk War and whom his company wanted to shoot. But a national leader must deal in the hundreds and the thousands and in the realities of the world as it is.

The great mentors of statecraft would say that there are many human beings who may be filled to the brim with personal moral graces but who in spite of that–actually they might say because of that–would not make great statesmen. Great command may require actions that would be morally objectionable if done in a personal capacity and foreclose many acts that are possible in a private capacity.

A great captain, a ruler, a prince (so the mentors of rulers would say) needs to command and instill respect. It would be written that “one ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

But this new American leader was showing a quite perverse disinclination to make himself feared. He did not mark down the names of those who had not supported him, or nurse grudges, or hold resentments, or retaliate against “enemies”–indeed, he tried not to have enemies, not to “plant thorns.” He had gracefully waited his turn in the competition with two others for the nomination for U.S. congressman from his district, and he had gone out of his way to tell his followers not to blame one rival for a whispering campaign against him. Although he had twice been defeated for the post he really wanted–senator from Illinois–and although those two contests left scars and resentments among his supporters, despite his deep disappointment, they did not leave scars and resentments in him; he would work amiably and productively with men who had blocked him. He had turned around and invited his four chief rivals for his party’s nomination to serve with him in his cabinet. The question might have been asked about him, Is he too lacking in the assertion of will and the ruthlessness that the exercise of great power is said to require to serve as a commander and a head of state in a giant war? Should not tenderheartedness be reserved to those who do not propose to exercise ultimate authority? Magnanimity, in Aristotle, is a virtue of the high-souled aristocrat, a noble condescending from his secure aboveness to exhibit his liberality; this man seemed to have presumed to exercise magnanimity without having an ounce of noble blood.

A great commander is not supposed to be amiably self-deprecating, continually using the word “humble” to describe himself and his background, and insisting that others could do the work of commanding as well as, or better than, he. (One was not sure that this man really believed that, but he said it more than once.) He did not seem unduly pious, and rumor had it that in his youth he had produced a critical paper about religion so scandalous that his friends burned it–but one might occasionally suspect there was a hint, in his deeds and his words, of the utterly impractical parts of that religion common to most of the new great and good friends on both sides of the Atlantic, the religion that was invoked in the closing lines of those formulaic international communications with his sudden new friends. This was the religion into which those royal nieces had been brought by sacred baptism, and by which those archduchesses had entered into holy matrimony, and in which the sadly departed majesties had been buried. But surely those ceremonial exercises were all the religion one needed as a practitioner of statecraft at the highest level, along with, of course, God’s support for one’s own side in any warfare. Other elements, about blessed meekness and blessed peacemaking and loving neighbors and other-cheek-turning and extra-mile-walking, and particularly about forgiveness and judging not that one be not judged–surely those should be confined to the monastery or at most to private life.

If his new “friends” or their advisers had read again the central chapters of Machiavelli’s The Prince, and if they had then learned more about this new American leader, they would surely have said: This man will never do.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

About this Book     ix
Introduction: Honest Abe Among the Rulers     3
A Solemn Oath Registered in Heaven     7
Act Well Your Part, There All the Honor Lies     31
On Mastering the Situation: The Drama of Sumter     48
On Not Mastering the Situation: The Comedy of the Powhatan     72
Days of Choices: Two April Sundays     91
Realism Right at the Border     110
The Moral Meaning of the Union and the War     140
Bull Run and Other Defeats: Lincoln's Resolve     155
On Holding McClellan's Horse     169
The Trent and a Decent Respect for the Opinions of Mankind     193
Too Vast for Malicious Dealing     212
A Second Introduction: Lincoln's Nation Among the Nations     231
I Felt It My Duty to Refuse     235
In Giving Freedom to the Slave, We Assure Freedom to the Free     254
The Prompt Vindication of His Honor     273
And the Promise Being Made, Must Be Kept     289
The Benign Prerogative to Pardon Unfortunate Guilt     314
Must I Shoot a Simple Soldier Boy?     327
A Hard War Without Hatred     351
Temptation in August     370
The Almighty Has His Own Purposes     396
A Conclusion: Abraham Lincoln Among the Immortals     417
Notes     425
Acknowledgments     471
Index     473
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Excellent

    I have read a great deal about Lincoln, especially during this anniversary year. For that reason, I was hesitant to purchase another biography. I was delighted to find new information and insights into the life of this great man.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2013

    Great

    It sounds interesting to me because i love reading about history and the presidents.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2009

    Plodding, with a few high points

    This may be better to read than to listen to. Several passages seemed to go on for an eternity. We got the point, move on. The sections on his relationship with Civil War generals, pardoning prisoners and plotting re-election are engaging. The parts that other reviewers call "nuanced" were, to me, overbearing.

    Do people proofread/prooflisten these? President Martin Van Buren was called Warren Van Buren.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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