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Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power

 by Kevin Peraino;  Crown

“There can be no new Lincoln stories,” one of the president’s former secretaries wrote in 1900, “the stories are all told.” And yet, as Kevin Peraino writes in this compelling book, “One of the unexpected joys of studying Lincoln in the 21st century is how much astonishing new material about him has come to light.” Lincoln in the World uses those resources to focus afresh on several distinct challenges that defined “Lincolnian foreign  policy.” It isn’t the first work to point  out Lincoln’s brilliance as a seminal foreign policy president, but it is the first to gather all the key episodes.

As a young congressman, Lincoln opposed President James K. Polk’s aggressive policy toward Mexico and the subsequent war; his enemies in Illinois dubbed him “the Benedict Arnold of our district.” For the first  two years of his administration, he struggled with his brilliant but irascible secretary of state, William Seward, to control the direction of U.S. foreign policy. His standoff with British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston over the Trent Affair, in which U.S. sailors forcibly boarded a British ship to remove Confederate agents, was his first major test by a  foreign power (wisely, he decided to appease the British, allowing them to save face). Throughout the Civil War, he also engaged in an ongoing chess match with Napoleon III over France’s invasion of Mexico and installation of a Hapsburg archduke as its monarch.

The thematic thread that runs through all this is Lincoln’s common sense, good judgment and, above all, patience. Considering that he never traveled beyond U.S. borders, the president and his Cabinet “managed to pull off one of the most breathtaking feats in the annals of American foreign policy” at a time when a single major mistake “could have changed the course of the Civil War.” The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, was more than a document that began the downfall of slavery; it was a shrewd political move that undermined the efforts of Confederate sympathizers in Europe by announcing that the Union was fighting to end the  South’s “peculiar institution.”

Peraino flashes an unexpected  left hook when he compares Lincoln and Karl Marx as both “raced to master the new art of molding public opinion.” Early on, Marx called Lincoln “a man without intellectual brilliance.” But as the war progressed, Lincoln’s shrewdness and moral sense impressed him. In fact, in 1864 Marx wrote to congratulate Lincoln on “the triumphant war cry of your reelection.” It makes you wonder what the president thought when he read Marx’s Civil War articles, which were published in Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune.


Originally published in the December 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.