With a nod to comedian Jeff Foxworthy, let me suggest a test for what Thomas Sowell might call "Liberal Rednecks."
If the discussion is about a president who:
- Fought an unpopular war with unwavering goals, despite the fact that many citizens thought the casualties were out of proportion with the objective;
- Won re-election with the votes from the military going wildly in his favor even though his opponent was a decorated military veteran, while the president merely had been a member of the state militia;
- Probably waited a little too long to replace a general who was content with a stalemate because of his aversion to casualties; and
- Was roundly condemned for the use of executive powers in a manner some protested was unconstitutional in order to further his war aims;
...and your first thought is "Barack Obama," you might be a member of the mainstream media or the Democratic Campaign Committee.
While the contemporary-minded might assume the above references are to George W. Bush, they apply to Abraham Lincoln, America's secular saint and savior of the Union. It's Obama who has been striving to link himself to his celebrated fellow Illinoian ever since announcing his presidential bid in 2007, and he's been getting lots of help.
As The Weekly Standard's Andrew Ferguson expounded in last year's wonderfully entertaining Land of Lincoln, books, traveling exhibits, museums, magazine articles, and TV shows about Lincoln are a thriving cottage industry in the United States. The combination of the bicentennial of Abe's birth and the media and Obama campaign team's determination to compare Obama to the last president from Illinois has raised this to a fever pitch. Lincolnmania is at its height.
Much of the hype centers around Team of Rivals, the best-selling book by historian/TV talking head Doris Kearns Goodwin. The clichéd treatment of the title of this gushy hagiography is used to push bipartisanship and promote Obama as a post-partisan messiah who will deliver us from petty squabbling over such things as whether the federal government should take over health care or confiscate more of your earnings.
But if your taste runs to biographical history with an approach that is about reality instead of advocacy — not to mention graced with a compelling narrative drive — let me suggest what is likely to be the best of the flood of Lincoln titles this year: historian Charles Bracelen Flood's 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History.
Flood's earlier works include the magnificent Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the Civil War; Lee: The Last Years; and Hitler: The Path to Power.
He has another winner here.
In 1864, Flood employs the ingenious device of intimately following Lincoln through this most tumultuous and pivotal year. He begins with the traditional New Year Day's open house at the White House in 1864, where a weary president greets well-wishers with the Civil War still very much in doubt — to Lincoln's second inaugural address in 1865, when he delivers the greatest such address in American history and the war is all but won.
The effect is startling and emotionally draining at times, as the reader experiences the crushing effects of Lincoln's day-to-day duties and the incredible burdens he bore.
While Flood is clearly a fan of the 16th and second-most consequential president, he takes a clear-eyed look at Lincoln in 1864 that will give ammunition to both sides of the raging debate over whether Lincoln was a great president or the source of all of today's federal overreach.
"Abe-phobes," as Ferguson calls them, who devour books like Thomas Dilorenzo's Lincoln Unmasked will point to Flood's recounting of Lincoln's appointment of clearly incompetent generals for political reasons. They also can cite Lincoln's blatant use of patronage and federal contracts that might call to mind a more recent Illinois politician if viewed cynically.
Flood also charges an "arbitrary" use of arrest powers against political opponents, including newspaper reporters, and even the misuse of the Army to influence the 1864 election (though Lincoln personally put a stop to the most egregious case of the latter).
But it is the "Abe-philes" who will be the most pleased with Flood's portrait as the reader virtually lives with Lincoln through the crushing burden of a year when the survival of the Union — much less his own presidency — was very much in doubt.
When the "surge" in Iraq began in 2007, the press mostly reported that "violence was up," as though the beginning of offensive operations could lead to anything else. But Lincoln's bold move of replacing the popular but combat-averse General George McClellan with Ulysses S. Grant began with a genuine disaster.
At Cold Harbor, 7,000 Union troops were killed in 20 minutes, giving some pause as to whether Lincoln should even be re-nominated by the Republicans. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, one of Goodwin's daunted "team of rivals," maneuvered to place himself in nomination.
Confederate General Jubal Early's army threatened Washington, and the government was forced to take shelter. The year also would mark the spectacular and grisly debacle of the Battle of the Crater, where an attempt to blow up Confederate lines led to Union troops being stuck in a deep hole as fire rained down on them from above.
Meanwhile, "Peace Democrats" campaigned against the war; "Copperheads" plotted sabotage and assassination; and secret peace delegations offered the temptation to end the slaughter — but not slavery. And Radical Republicans charged that Lincoln planned to go too easy on the South.
By the end of the year, however, Grant and Sherman had made Union victory all but inevitable. A president who considered himself unelectable in the summer finally received a majority of the popular vote.
Flood shows it was Lincoln himself who engineered the turnaround, and the cliché "learned" in Vietnam — politicians should not second-guess military commanders — really depends on the politicians and the commanders.
The story of the turnaround is dramatic and thrilling. 1864 is a triumph and a must-read for anyone even vaguely interested in the subject. It also is a perfect companion to my favorite book of this genre, Jay Winik's inestimable April 1865: The Month That Saved America. Taken together, these two books provide an experience that a hundred bigger-picture histories of the Civil War cannot match.