Lincoln: A President for the Ages, a book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: February 6th, 2013 by bobmorris

Lincoln:AgesLincoln: A President for the Ages 
Karl Weber, Editor and Contributor
PublicAffairs/Participant Media (2012)

Even without Spielberg’s great film with which it is associated, this book would still be a stunning achievement.
Those who have already seen Steven Spielberg’s film may be surprised to learn that this “companion volume” is much less about the film’s portrayal of Lincoln than it is about the content within which Lincoln lived and worked during the last weeks of his life. The literally momentous events are viewed from several quite different perspectives in 13 chapters, the first contributed by Karl Weber who also edited the anthology of essays and selected the “Lincoln’s Words” head note section that introduces each of Chapters 2-13.

As Weber explains, the chapters “chapters produce, in a sense, a [begin italics] new [end italics] Lincoln; yet the cumulative effect, we think, will be to deepen your understanding of and appreciation for the politic al genius, spiritual wisdom, and profound integrity of the man so many consider the greatest and most representative American.” Weber later adds, we’ve also sought to give Lincoln the opportunity to speak for himself…excerpts from Lincoln’s own writings (which you’ll notice retain the original nineteenth-century spelling, punctuation, and grammar) and enjoy the opportunity to immerse yourself, at least a while, in the spiritually and intellectually invigorating currents of Lincoln’s mind.”

I am grateful to all of the 13 contributors for increasing my appreciation as well as my understanding of Lincoln’s efforts to secure what became Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. It was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, by the House on January 31, 1865. Lincoln died 74 days later. These are some of the questions about President Abraham Lincoln to which contributors responded:

o Karl Weber: What are the nature and extent of Lincoln’s legacy?
o Gloria Reuben: What are the unique challenges of portraying Mary Todd Lincoln in a film?
o Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Had Lincoln lived to serve out his second term, to what extent would the Reconstruction period been different?
o Jean Baker: What in fact did he think of “women’s rights”?
o Daniel Farber: What do he and Theodore Roosevelt share in common? In which ways do they differ?
o James Tackach: Had he — and not Harry Truman — made a decision about using atomic bombs, what would it have been? Why?
o Allen C. Guelzo: What would have been his opinions about global organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations?
o James Malanowski: To what extent could Lincoln be accurately characterized as an “outlaw”? Why?
o The Honorable Frank J. Williams: How would he (if president) have responded to 911 and the war on terror?
o Douglas L. Wilson: How effective was he as a communicator?
o Richard Carwardine: How would Lincoln have viewed — and interacted with — a fusion of conservative religion and conservative politics?
o “The Real Lincoln Is an Icon”: An interview/conversation in which Andrew Ferguson and Karl Weber participate
o Harold Holzer: By today’s standards, why would Lincoln be “the unlikely celebrity”?

Yes, several of the 13 contributors (e.g. Gates, Tackach, Guelzo, Williams, Carwardine, and Holzer) respond to “what if” questions about hypothetical situations but their observations are eminently plausible. Of course, Weber was well-aware this book project faced a daunting challenge: “…to offer a version of this familiar story. In an effort to meet this challenge — and to take seriously, even literally, [Edwin M.] Stanton’s encomium of Lincoln as a man who belongs to the ages” — we approached a collection of today’s most eminent historians, journalists, and students of Lincoln with a novel assignment: to offer their own best judgments, admittedly speculative but solidly in historical fact and generations of scholarship, as to how Lincoln might have responded to the political, social, economic, and military crises of times not his own.”

How well the contributors met that challenge is both obvious and compelling throughout the narrative. One man’s opinion, had neither Spielberg nor anyone else made the great firm with which this volume is associated, it would still be a stunning achievement wholly on its own merits.

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