by Thomas L. Krannawitter, Rowman & Littlefield, 2008, $24.95
Although he is universally acknowledged as America’s greatest president—perhaps even its greatest icon— Abraham Lincoln generates just as much disagreement and resentment as reverence. Yes, he freed the slaves; yes, he preserved the Union; yes, he timelessly articulated this country’s greatest principles; but he also has been accused of being a tyrant, a constitutional usurper, a racist, a hack politician and even a spineless ignoramus.
In his new book, Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President, historian Thomas L. Krannawitter argues that Lincoln is nothing less than a messianic figure in American politics and American history, a model sorely lacking today. Krannawitter seeks to examine Lincoln’s teachings and remind today’s Americans of our own obligations and challenges in preserving freedom, to show us that Lincoln’s fight in defense of basic humanity is still our fight today. “The highest purpose of any Lincoln book is not to prattle about the past,” he writes. “It is, rather, to explain, based on Lincoln’s example, the principles and practices necessary for us to perpetuate our own freedom.” This defense and support of Lincoln is done with such inspiration that one cannot help but adjust the reading light to a better angle, ensconce oneself more perfectly in the chair and begin reading Vindicating Lincoln with great eagerness.
Krannawitter attacks head-on all of the biggest arguments against Lincoln’s greatness: Was he a racist? Was his goal to preserve the Union or end slavery? Was he the father of big government? Was he a tyrant? These questions are broken down one by one, and though each chapter involves one question—and could in fact be read as separate essays—the book holds together well.
Certain chapters and arguments are, of course, more compelling than others. In arguing against Lincoln as a racist, Krannawitter shows the speciousness of Lincoln’s critics who rely not on a critical examination of the Great Emancipator’s words or deeds but on their own preconceptions and vested interests. One of Krannawitter’s most interesting arguments is in examining not simply what Lincoln said or did, but whether his principles and beliefs were true.
Krannawitter is offering the first detailed and single-minded defense of Lincoln in the 21st century. The book focuses on Lincoln’s politics and is written mainly for Lincoln scholars, Civil War academics and serious students of history. Krannawitter has a clear understanding of the issues, and fulfills his goal of showing how Lincoln’s lessons are relevant to contemporary America. The book, however, contains that paradoxically simultaneous excitement and dullness redolent of a graduate-level textbook. Although this is sometimes necessary for certain topics, even an eager reader might find this one difficult to get through. It is certainly not a recreational read.
Originally published in the March 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.