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Lincoln and His Word

by Miller, Richard Lawrence
Publisher: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers
Retail Price: $45.00
Issue: Spring 2011
ISBN: 978-0-7864-5928-5

Examining Lincoln in His Own Perspective

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This, the third volume in Richard Lawrence Millerís Lincoln and His World series, represents the interest in Abraham Lincolnís personal life. As a study of the pre-presidential years, it is the authorís view on the growth and evolution of Abraham Lincoln.*

The authorís quest is in his preface,

Anyone who seeks to understand Lincolnís White House years is unlikely to achieve that goal without knowing what Lincoln was doing in the half century before he became president. Decades of experience shaped his response to Civil War challenges, and thereby Lincoln and His World contributes to [the] understanding of his presidency by illuminating his climb to that pinnacle. (1).

Early biographers of Abraham Lincoln including James G. Randall in 1936 have focused mainly on the public life y examining his political career and his presidential administration. But Randall was a product of his time and never concentrated on such topics as Lincolnís relationships with women, his melancholia and his troubled domestic life. This gives us important lessons about Lincoln.

Major biographies such as David Donaldís Lincoln (1995) illustrate that, as only about three percent of his text deals with the pre-Illinois legislative years of Lincoln. Similar minimal attention appears in earlier biographies by Benjamin Thomas (1951) and Stephen Oates (1977). Richard Carwardine (2007) covers this period in just two of more than three hundred pages. The exception is William Herndon and Jesse Weikís Life of Lincoln published in the late 1880s which relied extensively on interviews that Herndon had conducted in Indiana and Illinois shortly after Abraham Lincolnís death.

Sources potentially important for their Lincoln-related material are not always greeted warmly. The first two volumes of Richard Lawrence Millerís Lincoln and His World (2006, 2008) contain a mass of new Lincoln data, including Lincolnís entry into politics before becoming a lawyer. He excelled in both fields and, as such, Miller examines his rise to leadership. This information, while not new, is largely unrecognized. Millerís survey of Illinois newspapers for all three of his volumes is immense. Miller has also searched the political handbill collection in the Illinois State Historical Society which has remained largely overlooked until now.

Millerís first two large volumes have received mixed reviews Ė perhaps because he has, heretofore, not been considered a member of the Lincoln academy. Miller documents Lincolnís political world in all three volumes. It is all encompassing with a Charles Dickens cast of characters, small-time political work and rivalry, partisanship that would make Tea Party members blush, and (of course) the worse kind of race baiting. All of this is a valuable contribution to understanding Abraham Lincoln. Paul Simonís excellent account of Lincolnís years in the Illinois legislature (Lincolnís Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years (University of Oklahoma Press, 1965) takes on added luster with Millerís contributions.

All of Richard Lawrence Millerís volumes provide additional information in the notes. This does give the reader a sense of Millerís thoughts on the sources he cites.

The scope of Millerís project thus farĖ from 1809 to 1853Ė does reconstruct ďthe hidden world of Abraham LincolnĒ by sifting through ďa mass of verbal chunks left by Lincoln and persons around himĒ (xi).

As Miller said in his first volume covering 1809 through 1834, ďI offer a very personal portrait of what Lincoln was all about . . . . I present a world, not a point of view and not a dramaĒ (xi). Miller spends most of his time on this Lincoln in the context of American culture at the time. There is narrative here with character development as he creates this mostly through the memories of those surrounding Lincoln. The author possesses great courage by continually offering opinions.

Volume 3 is organized chronologically: The first two chapters (1843 and 1844) discuss Lincolnís failed pursuit for a congressional seat; finally in 1845 Lincoln maneuvers towards a seat in Congress winning, in chapter 4, Ė ď1846 - Victory at Last.Ē Lincolnís political rise continues in 1847 and 1848 in chapters 4 and 5, respectively, with his attendance at the 30th Congress, First Session and his attacks on President Polk and the need for the war with Mexico. In chapter 7, ď1848,Ē Lincoln does his best to insure the victory for Whig presidential candidate Zachary Taylor by campaigning for him in Illinois and Massachusetts. Chapter 8 (ď1848-1849Ē), shows Lincoln serving in the Second Session of this Congress.

His only term in Congress ends and Lincoln is forced, yet again, to deal with slavery in chapter 9, ď1850.Ē For chapters 10, 11, and 12, Lincoln practices law and contends with the slavery issue while he practices law and politics. The book ends on the cusp of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise with Lincolnís political nemesis, Stephen A. Douglas, ushering through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, causing Lincolnís major re-engagement in politics.

Not everyone will be enamored with Volume 3, The Rise to National Prominence 1843-1853. Some will object to Millerís use of sources as too plentiful and eccentric. Yet, they are helpful in understanding the man. Lincoln and His World is sui generis and goes hand-in-hand with Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davisís Herndonís Informants.

Millerís book has great value and is distinctive because it contributes to the Lincoln literature and sets this biography apart by offering new material with new perspectives. Those who do not like this book Ė just wait Ė there are always new Lincoln books in store. All in all, we should be grateful Miller has chosen to be so inclusive as this is a robust, exceedingly rich menu with something for every taste.

Frank J. Williams is founding Chair of The Lincoln Forum and co-author, with Harold Holzer and Edna Green Medford, of The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views-Social, Political, and Iconographic, and serves as contributing columnist for the Civil War Sesquicentennial, Civil War Book Review.

* In an effort at full disclosure, Michael Burkhimer and I are co-editors of a book of essays about Mary Lincoln scheduled to be published in 2012. This author is one of the contributors to that book. I have never met Mr. Miller and his chapter for the forthcoming book is unrelated to his book being reviewed.

Williams, Frank J., review of A LOOK AT LINCOLN:
Lincoln and His Word
, by Miller, Richard Lawrence, Civil War Book Review, (Spring 2011).