Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume 2, by Michael Burlingame

Nine stars

Returning for the second volume of Michael Burlingame’s monstrous biography of Abraham Lincoln, the reader is presented with a much shorter period of time. These presidential years, 1861-65, were perhaps some of the most important of the overall biography, both in Lincoln’s history and that of America. This second volume synthesises all the reader learned from the previous tome and moves forward into the most influential decisions that shaped a country in turmoil. Like its predecessor, this volume is chock full of stories and anecdotes, but also offers the patient and attentive reader three themes Burlingame uses to define the 16th President of the United States. Abraham Lincoln was an atypical politician, the Great Emancipator, and a hands-off Commander-in-Chief during wartime. Pairing the two volumes, the reader has a thorough and fairly all-encompassing view of the man whose humble upbringing led to one of America’s defining political figures. A stellar piece of biographic material that offers a truly educational and entertaining view for those with significant patience and a passion to learn.

Abraham Lincoln’s life up to the point of his presidency could not be described as normal or even typical, even for those who lived at the time. That he continued this atypical living is one thing, but that he also extended these oddities while wearing a political hat is even more baffling in an profession where one is always in the proverbial spotlight. Burlingame presents a man who, though a strong believer in the democratic process and allowing the public to lead the country at the ballot box, would not simply pander to majority opinion when making decisions. While some may have felt it a great shock that Lincoln could earn the right to sit in the Oval Office, he used this ascendancy to push forward with his strong views on slavery and the upcoming skirmishes with the secessionists in the South. Lincoln sought not to woo them with grandiose promises or bow to their demands, even if it would have curried favour with leaders and the general public. He looked above and beyond, forcing those who wanted his attention to follow his lead, as if his opinion mattered more than large segments of the populace, which Burlingame elucidates throughout the narrative. As his presidency ran parallel to the Civil War, Lincoln’s decisions were primarily made with the conflict in mind. As shall be seen below, while he did not engaged in the military campaign minutiae, he held firm to his views on man’s equality and did push presidential edicts to move the country away from racial servitude and towards a levelled field. While this might have been noble, it contradicted what many, even in the North, sought from their political leaders. Lincoln’s decision to offer compensated emancipation for the border states raised the ire of many, seen as a means of bribing some state governments to push through controversial legislation and yet spitting in the faces of those who voluntarily chose black emancipation in the past. From there, it was a collection of views, including complete emancipation, that pushed Lincoln into a re-election campaign that saw his strongest supporters seek to dethrone him. How a man who was so well-versed in the political process, as seen extensively in Volume One, could have snubbed the process to woo an electorate or supporters does not appear lost on Burlingame, who offers extensive narratives on this atypical behaviour. Lincoln did not seem to mind, though, as he would shrug and put the decision in the hands of those who wield the power, be they party leaders, state officials, or the electorate. What Burlingame subtly injects into both volumes in the selfless nature of Lincoln, a man who checked his ego at the door, which is perhaps his most atypical characteristic when lumped generally amongst the political masses. Lincoln’s atypical behaviour became not only the norm, but the expected behaviour of a man who thrived on leading from his own rule book, but was happy to cede the reins of power if that be the desire of the majority, if only they would take the legal action to assume control.

The moniker “The Great Emancipator” has been given to Lincoln throughout history, though Burlingame exemplifies just how deeply these sentiments ran in Lincoln’s presidential years. While some readers will remember from Volume One, Lincoln had a passion for banishing slavery and offered his personal views on this extensively and to anyone who would listen. Some might wonder if it cost him the 1858 senatorial election in Illinois, while others remain baffled as to how this gangly man ever made it as the Republican candidate, let alone tenant of the White House. However, it seems as though Lincoln used his presidency as a soap box to continue the slavery debate and pushed emancipation to the extreme, making it a cornerstone of his impetus to continue the Civil War. While some historians debate whether the War was fought to regain (or obtain) territory over a political stance on freeing slaves throughout America, one thing is clear in Burlingame’s biographical piece; Lincoln would not drop the issue of freeing all men. Using Thomas Jefferson’s words from the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln pushed ideas of emancipation at every turn, citing the need for all men, ALL MEN, to be equal under the eyes of the law. Dred Scott was incorrectly adjudicated by the US Supreme Court, laws promoting a racial caste system were problematic, and any means by which he could ensure states would pass laws to free slaves proved to be the only solution. As mentioned above, Burlingame shows how Lincoln stirred up trouble within his own party by offering financial incentives to those border states that would pass laws that favoured his sentiments. Lincoln would eventually go so far as to toss down the gauntlet and present the Emancipation Proclamation, ordering all slaves to be free under the federal powers he possessed. Lincoln would not let go of this belief and did jeopardise his chances at re-election in 1864, but felt it more important to hold onto his beliefs than pander to the will of the majority. Going one further, Lincoln orchestrated the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, the first of the Reconstructionist Amendments, to codify emancipation and enshrine it as a core American belief. However, the attentive reader and those with a great understanding of history will remember, his views on emancipation would not immediately remedy the situation, as they permeate the political sphere even today. Lincoln was surely the man who formally opened the emancipation discussion in the American political banter, though his greatness cannot extend to solving it completely.

Of all the wartime presidents with whom I am familiar (some of whom through biographical pieces alone), Lincoln proved to be the most hands-off Commander-in-Chief when it came to military progress or strategy. While he did visit the troops and had a general understanding of movement across the country, he appeared more focussed on emancipation issues than political clashes with the likes of Jefferson Davis or those on the other side of the North-South divide. Burlingame does offer up a few stories of Lincoln engaging in some of the general information gathering meetings with top generals, especially Grant, whom he promoted to Lieutenant-General in an extremely awkward event for both men, but little of substantive strategy planning or extensive battle plotting. Allowing strategies to be handled by military personnel and his Secretary of War, Lincoln focussed his attention on social leadership and let his constitutional military role become more a figurehead position. Lincoln knew what he wanted done and chose to let those in better positions of power bring it to fruition, keeping troop movements and garrison capturing to those in uniform. He did his best to have men ready for the War with conscription decisions, a contentious issue that Burlingame discusses, making parallels to the efforts for both the Revolutionary War and that of 1812. Lincoln did profess a need to keep the number of Union troops high in order to repel the Confederates, though he wanted to keep the blood of the many lost on the battlefield from staining his hands. While at the helm during America’s most important military conflict, Lincoln was not a military president, even if historians will label him as one of the ‘war’ variety.

The review would be remiss without discussing at least a few other aspects of Lincoln’s life that did not fit easily into the aforementioned themes. Those readers who have read Volume One or at least perused my review, will remember that Mary Todd Lincoln was one of the oddest individuals of the time, albeit she was married to a man who could never be called ‘mainstream’. Burlingame’s mention of Mary is sporadic, but concentrated when she does grace the pages of the biography. Both early and later in this volume, Madam Lincoln was involved in a campaign to pad White House expenses to cover her exorbitant personal purchases, which President Lincoln did not condone whatsoever. She also tried to make a name for herself by operating a kickback scheme whereby she would take monies for lobbying her husband to appoint certain men to positions within the purview of presidential decision-making. This scandalous and scoundrel behaviour only goes to exemplify the horrid woman Mary Todd Lincoln may have been. It was only the death of Willie Lincoln that helped personify this woman, whose agony over the loss of her son paralleled that of her husband and could be seen as somewhat in line with what any parent might do. Burlingame does not make mention of her for large portions of the biography, even after laying the groundwork for a wonderful clash within the White House as her family chose to fight for the Confederates. The other item that comes up (and is an extension of the previous volume) is Lincoln’s extensive use of parables. Burlingame offers many vignettes in which Lincoln uses these parables to explore events in his life, developing them at the drop of a (stovepipe?) hat and yet always on point. Always succinct and sometimes lewd, Lincoln could offer a ‘teachable moment’ to anyone who needed it and would always leave his audiences shaking their heads, but better understanding his rationale. Burlingame does a masterful job in highlighting these within the biography and showing just how versatile Lincoln could be.

Burlingame has expended so much time in putting this biography together that it bears mentioning the attention to detail and wonderful narrative that act as pillars for this piece. Both volumes offer such a wonderful portrait and give the reader a better understanding of Lincoln and his life, shorted by an assassin’s bullet. Even in death, Lincoln’s greatness lives on, so much so that Burlingame posits that the true greatness of the 16th President will not be properly felt for a few centuries more, as time ferments his decisions against the backdrop of the civil and racial unrest that infiltrated the republic. What makes the biography even stronger is how seamlessly the volumes seem to fit together. There is so much information on offer that Burlingame was forced to split the pieces, though the end of one chapter flows so easily into the next, even as the volumes bridge. The narrative is so captivating that the long chapters are not daunting in the least, supported by scores of academic references and peppered with direct quotations from those who interacted with Honest Abe. Burlingame should be praised for his dedication to the significant effort he has put in to developing this stellar political biography. I have not been treated to such a detailed account of a presidential figure, complete with so many minor facts and vignettes, in years. Pairing both volumes will prove to be a feat that only the most dedicated of political biography readers will undertake, if only because of the crippling pain (either in holding the tome, electronically flipping pages, or spending hours with earbuds lodged in the canal) sure to ensue. That said, it is well worth any agony, as its pay-off is an impressive final product. Lincoln’s place beside Washington and FDR as one of the three greatest presidents of all-time, at least according to many historians, seems not to be displaced after reading this. Perhaps other readers will have new and insightful ideas to share, which I welcome. 

Kudos proves to be too diluted a statement to offer the praise I have for you, Mr. Burlingame. You have taken some of the darkest days of America’s history and injected such passion and controversy. It is that which makes a wonderful biography, where contrasting views can flourish.