President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman
by William Lee Miller, Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, $30
The vast amount of Lincoln literature seems to grow more enormous every year, but there are very few well-done examinations of Abraham Lincoln as president. In President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, historian William Lee Miller has provided one— a soundly argued and thorough narrative that will earn a high place in Civil War literature.
Written in a chronological order yet broken into themes as appropriate, Miller’s book offers a witty and incisive account of Lincoln’s conduct as president—especially the moral choices he made. Miller, scholar in ethics and institutions at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, is also the author of Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography, which examined Lincoln’s pre-presidential life. His newest work could be considered a sequel to that highly lauded book.
In the nearly 150 years since his death, Lincoln has become an icon and the realities of his life have become blurred. But Lincoln was truly human, and that is what makes his story so compelling and relevant. It is also one of the strengths of this book: It is no mere act of hero-worship, but a fair and balanced accounting of Lincoln’s moral performance in office.
The core of the argument, Miller shows, is that Lincoln, a kindly but shrewd man, was no mere politician with self-aggrandizing ambitions, a narrow worldview or a simplified outlook of victory. The way this inexperienced back-country politician evolved and transformed into an oath-bound head of state, Miller argues, is the story of intellectual power, moral courage, indomitable resolve and discriminating judgment.
Lincoln’s great objective throughout the war was to preserve and defend the Constitution, as well as to maintain and extend the founding principles of equality and liberty. If he failed to keep the country united, the great experiment of democracy would be proven a failure, and Lincoln was determined not to allow that to happen.
Lincoln’s remarkable success, Miller argues, was above all in his great intellectual power. The largely self-taught Lincoln had the ability to see the transcendent issues, to make decisions—often difficult and unpopular—and to move public opinion in the way he wanted and needed it to go. One stark example is the Emancipation Proclamation, which Miller calls “one of the central moral decisions of American history.”
But as Miller shows, Lincoln did not undertake this act for moral purposes alone. He acted on a dispassionate legal and constitutional basis; he wrote a directive issued as a war measure, as a way to assist and enhance the Union cause.
The politicians around Lincoln such as Salmon P. Chase and Charles Sumner, who considered themselves the president’s superior, urged him to free the slaves immediately on a moral basis. But Lincoln saw the greater picture and knew that such a basis and timing could not sustain the act and therefore would not have helped to preserve the Union. When he did act, the consequences were far-reaching and permanent.
As Miller writes, “Critics would say that the Emancipation Proclamation freed no one—that it applied where the Union had no power and did not apply where it did. But it turned the Union armies into armies of liberation wherever they advanced. . . . Rarely in history can there have been a document whose moral reach so far exceeded its legal grasp.”
Applying his discerning historian’s eye to every aspect of Lincoln’s administration— pardons, policy, civil liberties, reconstruction—Miller offers a unique exploration of presidential leadership during America’s most desperate hour.
Originally published in the September 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.