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Neely Jr. The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the
Promise of America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
1995. v + 214 pp., illustrations, notes, index.
Mark Neely's biography of Abraham Lincoln is an authoritative, well-written book, although it is not a balanced portrait. This is an intellectual, analytical study structured as a series of topical essays. It relies heavily on Lincoln's presidential writings and speeches that illustrate his political philosophy and career.
The resulting portrait is a narrowly defined political biography focused on the eventful presidential years, which Neely believes made Lincoln's life memorable; the brief period between the summer of 1860 and the spring of 1865 is developed in five of the seven chapters. "The text of this book treats Lincoln's presidency at length, and that is as it should be, surely," he writes in his preface (p. vi). Indeed, this crisis still inspires more books than almost any other in U.S. history. And Neely's book was the first of several new Lincoln biographies that correct the slight of those presidential years by more recent studies. Although Neely writes for the general reader, his work is an excellent synthesis of modern scholarship. Both scholar and general reader will profit from those portions of brilliant analysis with a modicum of verbiage. Neely's skillful characterization of Lincoln's career and the important issues he faced are set firmly in historical context, a product of Neely's dedication to academic excellence.
The first two chapters deal with Lincoln's life up to 1861. In the first chapter, "Peculiar Ambition," Neely briefly develops the life of Lincoln from birth through his congressional career, thus slighting the personal dimension and missing the opportunity to develop important aspects of Lincoln's career. Neely's explanation for such brevity is that "historians are forever doomed to ignorance about the early life of Abraham Lincoln" because of Lincoln's modesty, combined with his reluctance to recall the details of his impoverished youth. Indeed, Lincoln was reticent to share even with his own friends (p. 1). Although this may be more true than not, Page [End Page 17] Lincoln did share portions of his past with others on various occasions throughout his life when it served his purposes.
Neely includes little of Lincoln's private life here because, to the modern reader, "it makes rather dull reading" (p. 29). But in truth Neely's shared nuggets—albeit brief—of the impact of Lincoln's past on his growth and change make fascinating reading. Regarding slavery, he writes: "Slavery formed part of Lincoln's earliest youth" (p. 3). "But Lincoln retained for the whole of his life the family's early dislike of slave society" (p. 4), he adds. The controversial father-son relationship is very important to the later political Lincoln. "True, part of Abraham's ambition was to escape his father's lot," Neely writes, "but it would be wrong to make of his unsuccessful father a caricature, an amiably lazy southern poor white" (p. 4). Neely later declares that this son who wanted to leave his father and all he stood for—illiteracy, migration in search of economic security, and backbreaking agriculture—is the same father "who may have given his son an antislavery outlook and political leanings toward Whiggish views, though his son never said so" (p. 30). As with the example of slavery, this is another clear instance of the impact and importance of Lincoln's early life on his later political philosophy and career which Neely does not develop in his brief discussion.
Neely dismisses Lincoln's professional career as a lawyer because it "remains surprisingly inaccessible to the historian" (p. 32), although he admits that the problem is largely archival. Indeed, it is true that the documents from Lincoln's legal practice have in recent years been gathered from Illinois, Missouri, and even Indiana courthouses. Even with the newly assembled collection of Lincoln legal documents, Neely holds that without more specialized studies of the arcane legal practices of that day "it is not safe to hazard many conclusions about Lincoln's life as a lawyer" (p. 32). Nonetheless, the Lincoln Legal Papers project is certainly advanced with enough understanding and insight that Neely could have developed a more thorough portrait of Lincoln the lawyer. But his few comments certainly corroborate the newly emerging portrait of Lincoln as "a diligently successful lawyer" and highlight that his participation in over 330 cases before the Illinois Supreme Court merited Lincoln the title of "a lawyer's lawyer" (p. 32). The author believes that even the most interesting appellate work could not keep Lincoln from politics. But Lincoln himself wrote in 1859 that "from 1849 to 1854, both inclusive, [I] practiced law more assiduously than ever before." Lincoln's political career is entwined with Page [End Page 18] his legal practice, and both added to his later presidential character, a vital contribution to the very political career on which Neely places his primary focus.
Neely's development of Lincoln's political career, especially as an Illinois Whig, is indeed a masterful portrait. He notes that "Lincoln entered politics before he chose a profession or married." "It was his first love," Neely observes (p. 9). Lincoln's distinction as a political figure, for the author, is that he united vote-getting skills and canvassing energy with genuine political substance and vision (p. 17). But Lincoln recognized political realities without deriving ugly partisan prejudices from them, a noble position for him to take among more biased people. Neely properly develops a portrait of Lincoln the partisan Whig who believed in organizing for political victory, suggested those who should be turned out of office, and replaced them with "friends." Neely notes Lincoln's partisan shift from advocating internal improvements to his push for tariff increases that he believed would promise great benefits to the nation. In spite of Lincoln's loyal Whig position, the author believes that it is difficult to think of a "more thoroughgoing democrat than Abraham Lincoln, a man against whom charges of Whig elitist conservatism always had hollow ring" (pp. 18–19).
This is the very same ambitious politician whose artful skills carried him through the Civil War, enabled him to enhance his presidential power to preserve the Union, and led him to establish his emancipation policy. It was Lincoln the politician whose great ability helped him to withstand the challenges of politicians, both friend and foe, as well as the failures of inept generals. But it is this political skill, so admired by historians, that places Lincoln's beloved wife and children at a disadvantage, because his family members, except for Willie Lincoln, did not display his good judgment, open-mindedness, forgiveness, dedication, and superb good humor. Neely argues that Lincoln had political values that characterized his political life until his death in 1865. His antislavery record, Neely notes, remained consistent, but "the degree to which he acted upon his views varied with political circumstance" (p. 34). Lincoln's antislavery views may be unanswerable today, but the historic context of his declarations is essential to understand both his passion and his advanced position among many of his peers.
After 1854, Lincoln's personal passion, as well as his political savvy, filled his public and private statements. Neely believes that most of what Lincoln said about political questions arose not from reflection in his study but in speeches on the stump. However, Page [End Page 19] enough fragments from Lincoln's so-called study exist to prove that he did a great deal of thinking about political issues before he took to the stump. Certainly his ringing denunciation of slavery as a moral wrong was deeply felt and publicly declared, long before the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. It is true that Lincoln's views on slavery, race, the Constitution, and nationalism are not always easily described without the specific time in his life when he held these views. Neely is correct when he declares that Lincoln's racial policies, especially, changed dramatically in the space of just a few years, a fact that some historians have ignored at their academic peril. Lincoln had "a healthy practical respect for the seemingly ineradicable racial prejudices of ordinary white people, which no politician could afford to ignore" (p. 39). But Neely believes that all of Lincoln's ideas about the slavery controversy were already present in his Peoria speech on October 16, 1854, and that Lincoln did not "improve" on the combination of moral arguments and nationalism in any of his speeches later in the 1850s. What does Neely mean by "improve"? Although a strong judgment call here, Neely's statement may very well be right. But this must not suggest that Lincoln never again soared to moral heights as lofty as at Peoria in 1854. Certainly, his 1858 debates at Galesburg and Alton represent a mature declaration of his position that slavery was a moral wrong that continued to blight the republican example of the nation to the world.
Clearly, Neely's last five chapters, focusing on Lincoln's role as president and commander in chief, are his finest. It is indeed difficult to imagine how war could have been avoided after Lincoln's election if the president-elect was determined to adhere to the Republican platform—which, of course, he did. The author notes that "the impulse to secession was the obverse of the political forces that had led to Republican success" (p. 60). He also notes that Lincoln thought challenges should be met and not avoided because any avoidance was mere procrastination. Lincoln did not change his view after secession. He was tired of southern blackmail and thus took an intransigent position at first. But Neely holds that in the end Lincoln adopted a more passive policy as the new incoming president. Once war began, he believes that Lincoln had many things to learn, especially after the Union disaster at the First Battle of Bull Run, when he allowed McClellan more time to reorganize the troops and train new ones. Neely argues that, in dealing with General McClellan, "Lincoln learned that certain factors in war affected friend and foe alike and that it was wrong to dwell Page [End Page 20] exclusively on their effects on one's own forces" (p. 70). The author writes: "Nothing in Lincoln's foolish and unrealistic orders, which ignored the intentions of the enemy, the weather and myriad factors any conscientious general would have to consider before advancing, was calculated to increase McClellan's confidence in the commander in chief" (p. 64). Is this Neely's evaluation of Lincoln's or of McClellan's failures—or both? Neely at times tantalizes the reader but fails to develop his charges. It is clear, however, that Lincoln despised avoiding rather than surmounting difficulties. He detested "procrastination."
Whatever Lincoln's mistakes, Neely says that he gained a profound grasp of war by the time of the Battle of Fredericksburg, although that battle left Lincoln "a little gun-shy" (p. 72). "Lincoln understood the essential nature of war as it had to be fought before the germ theory of disease" (p. 71), he writes. By the late summer of 1862 Lincoln had learned to state his military objectives simply. Neely believes that Lincoln the commander in chief made his fair share of mistakes in the first eighteen months of war, which the president was always willing to admit. At the same time, despite Lincoln's self-effacing statements, he had become a master of war—with "an instinct for the jugular" (p. 72). Lincoln "found it easier than other statesmen to sort out the essential and the unessential in war aims" (p. 72). As he grew more experienced, Lincoln successfully created a command structure, developed an understanding of military theory, as embodied in such ideas as "interior lines" and "concentration of force," and made more accurate judgments of the fighting abilities of the available northern generals. Neely notes that Lincoln did not neglect the western theater of war and attributes Lincoln's awareness of the importance of the Mississippi Valley to General Winfield Scott's strategic plan. However, Lincoln's own personal experience as a flatboatman on the Mississippi River was also an important factor here (p. 74), another instance of the role of his earlier private life on his success as president.
Despite Lincoln's initial insecurity about military matters, he never sought advice about war from either his cabinet or other politicians, according to Neely. "He was the commander in chief," the author writes, "and Lincoln seemed to interpret that title as meaning that war, even in a republic, required unitary control, and in this republic it was the President's duty to exercise it" (p. 79). Neely adds that Lincoln held "some rather antique notions of his duty," which included seeing his task as almost literally taking command in the field, as did the battlefield commander George Page [End Page 21] Washington (p. 79). Lincoln's clear-sighted unwillingness to allow partisan concerns to interfere with decisions critical to the army is, for Neely, an admirable trait that is crucial to winning a major war in a democracy. Lincoln seized every available partisan advantage, and the war did not alter his political savvy.
When scholars focus on the problems of peace during the Civil War, they should focus on Jefferson Davis rather than Abraham Lincoln. According to Neely, "at the end, as at the beginning, the decision for peace or war lay in the Confederate President's hands" (p.u 91). Neely believes that if not earlier, certainly by the summer of 1864, any realistic Confederate strategy for victory required the Democrats to win the presidential election in the North. The author declares firmly that "not surrendering in 1864 was the Confederate President's worst decision as commander in chief" (p. 92). That is it exactly! Then Neely declares boldly: "But as commander in chief, who must combine military perception with political vision and the skillful handling of personalities, Lincoln had no superior in American history"—a statement that exemplifies Neely's fearless scholarship.
According to the author, the duties of commander in chief proved the most absorbing of all of Lincoln's roles as president. The importance of that role was dictated by the fact that this war threatened the existence of the United States and the survival of the republican example in the world. Lincoln's expansive interpretation of the powers of commander in chief was closely tied to his determination to save the nation and its example of democracy to the world. But by Lincoln's use of the expansive powers of the presidential office, "he also greatly increased freedom for black Americans" (p. 93). For a nonmilitary historian, Neely reveals a clear perception of all aspects of the military portion of Lincoln's Civil War responsibility. Neely's analyses of Lincoln as commander in chief, his conscription policy and his enforcement of a very unpopular measure, as well as his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus are presented succinctly and very insightfully.
Neely's fourth chapter, "Emancipation," is one of the particularly noteworthy chapters in this work. He reveals just how Lincoln's positions on emancipation evolved over a period of time, from the 1861 Republican president-elect to the candidate who genuinely feared defeat in his bid for a second term as president. This is also the same period when Lincoln fomented black revolution in the South, somewhat like John Brown's original plan, according to Frederick Douglass.
Although Lincoln used the powers he found or "invented" exclusively at first to preserve the Union, raise armies, and combat Page [End Page 22] traitors, he was "neither an opportunistic dictator nor a closet abolitionist" (pp. 94–95), Neely declares. "He did not initially embrace the powers to maintain his own position in government or to attack slavery because he warned long before of the dangers of tyranny that lay in any attempt to free slaves" (p. 95). Lincoln was not a reformer by nature, observes the author. He consistently continued to minimize his own role in bringing social change to the nation, and he laid the responsibility for raising the slavery question at the door of the Democratic party. Neely cites Lincoln's famous phrase that he had been controlled more by events than by anything that emanated from himself (p. 95). Of course, there was some truth in his statement, but, at the same time, dramatic changes beyond Lincoln's control altered his outlook. Once he had changed his mind, Neely notes, Lincoln did everything himself—a bold and accurate appraisal. Neely then highlights Lincoln's accomplishments. The president resolved entirely on his own to issue the emancipation proclamation. He also secretly wrote the first draft of that document. Neely declares: "Nobody forced him to do it. Nobody persuaded him. Lincoln did it" (p. 96). Then the author provides a masterful review of Lincoln's growth and changing positions on the emancipation issue in the years 1861–62. Indeed, Lincoln was as far from deciding to free slaves in 1861 as he had been in 1838.
Lincoln was definitely not guided entirely by events, Neely posits. "For while events changed little," he writes, "he continued, if not to agitate the slave question, at least to experiment with proposals that would alter the status quo" (p. 103). On March 6, 1862, he urged Congress to give aid to any state that adopted gradual abolition of slavery. He even suggested that the hope of gaining the loyal border areas was all that sustained the rebellion and that abolition in the states of Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, and Missouri would "substantially" snuff out that hope. In fact, he says, Lincoln gave the government a bargain: the price of a prime field-hand was $1,500 in the New Orleans market in 1860 and in 1862 he would have Congress offer $400 per person. Lincoln noted that the cost of eighty-seven days of war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, and Missouri at the price of $400 per person. Although Lincoln fully realized that he risked "a total disruption of society in the South by interfering with the slavery institution," Neely says, he continued to consider the possibilities. But it was despair that accomplished what "hope might never have achieved" (p. 104). The fortunes of the Union had soured by July 1862. McClellan's Virginia Page [End Page 23] campaign had failed. Lincoln was forced to call for another 300,000 volunteers by the first of the month. If Lincoln could have had another 50,000 men, the president believed that he could "substantially close the war in two weeks" (p. 104). But they simply were not available.
Lincoln's appeal to the border states' representatives on July 12, 1862, was the last chance for the border state slaveowners before the president created a public policy that would most likely ruin all of them. The Border State Men, which included some twenty representatives and senators from Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, Tennessee, and West Virginia, rejected Lincoln's appeal, 20 to 8, on July 14. The day before, during a carriage ride, Lincoln had revealed to Secretaries Welles and Seward his resolve to free the slaves if the war did not end. Emancipation was to be based on military necessity. Neely notes that Lincoln read a brief paper on the subject of emancipation to the assembled cabinet on July 22 and received important suggestions. Lincoln rejected the first suggestion offered by Postmaster General Montgomery Blair who objected to issuing the document on the grounds that it would damage Republican chances in that fall's off-year election. This was a decision that Neely believes "should forever silence those who criticize the proclamation for being somehow 'politically' inspired" (p. 107), an insightful declaration.
The author notes that, while he waited, Lincoln chose, without actually lying, to give the American public the impression that he was unlikely to free the slaves. Neely points out that the most famous instance of this came in August 1862 when the editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, published his editorial, "The Prayer of Twenty Millions." Greeley wrote that Lincoln was being kept from attacking this "inciting cause" of the rebellion, slavery, because of the influence of "fossil" politicians from the border states. Lincoln's answer, of course, is well known—a response that many historians have used incorrectly to declare Lincoln's indifference to the issue at hand. Lincoln wrote:
Lincoln addressed a group of African American men brought to him by an Interior Department official who was in charge of colonization. Lincoln spoke of them as being a race different from whites. He told them:
The author does not develop Lincoln's intent here, other than to point out the timing of his statement to the black assembly and to add that he was misleading them.
On another occasion, Neely notes, Lincoln used the technique of the misleading question again. This time it was in answer to a petition from a mass meeting of Chicago Christians who urged emancipation. Neely declares that this political tactic was a habit of Lincoln's.
In his report to the Chicago Christians, Lincoln declared his new-found constitutional justification for such emancipation action "and an altogether new consideration of the social consequences of such a proclamation," Neely observes. Lincoln stated:
The Chicago ministers argued with him and Lincoln replied that he was fully aware that slavery was the "root of the rebellion, or Page [End Page 25] at least its sine qua non." He even conceded that emancipation would help the North in Europe and convince Europeans that the North was incited by something more than ambition. He granted further that it would help somewhat in the North, though he did not think it would do so as much as the Chicagoans assumed. And certainly it would weaken the rebels by drawing off their black labor, which was of great importance. Then Lincoln added: "But I am not so sure we could do much with the blacks. If we were to arm them, I fear that in a few weeks the arms would be in the hands of the rebels" (p. 109). This is a rather harsh statement that of course was intended to mislead them, as far as Lincoln was concerned. Again, Neely does not develop Lincoln's meaning and use—which would strengthen his case. The author simply points out that "four days later McClellan turned Lee back at Antietam, and five days after that Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation" (p. 110). Lincoln's purpose, Neely says, was "to calm fears, anticipate critics, and frustrate those who might doubt its constitutionality" (p. 113). He is correct that Lincoln's focus was narrowly and sincerely on military success. He was looking for "tangible advantages over the enemy, and he was rather impatient in his quest" (p. 110).
Neely posits that Lincoln's arguments regarding blacks and emancipation had hardened by the summer of 1864. Lincoln embraced the practical argument of using African Americans for force, which did not deny his moral argument or the sincerity of his antislavery feelings that "were never better revealed than in the trying August of 1864" (p. 118). Lincoln summoned Frederick Douglass to the White House and told him that the slaves were not coming over as rapidly and as numerously as he had hoped. Douglass responded that slaveholders knew how to keep such things from their slaves and that probably very few knew of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Neely says Douglass was right and that Lincoln proposed a daring remedy to the problem. It was even revolutionary, Neely declares. It was a scheme that Douglass identified as "somewhat after the original plan of John Brown" (p. 118). Most of the slaves who had already come over to the Union line had been living near the front lines. They were not from the interior. Douglass was to send scouts to conduct squads of slaves safely within the loyal lines. According to the author, Lincoln figured he was going to lose the 1864 election, and he thus initiated a scheme to get as many slaves to freedom as he could before McClellan and the Democrats Page [End Page 26] got into power. Douglass fully understood the importance of this Lincoln-Douglass venture. After the fall of Atlanta in September 1864, Lincoln and Douglass shelved their unnecessary scheme. Northern public opinion regarding Lincoln's handling of the war effort had changed, as election returns confirmed. Neely declares that "the consequent promise of reelection more or less guaranteed freedom to the slaves without such risky measures" (p. 119).
Lincoln pressed for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the lame-duck session of Congress immediately following the election. Neely notes that it might have been easier to have waited for a Republican Congress with a larger representation, which would follow the one seated at the time (elected in 1862), "but waiting would have delayed the assurance of freedom" (p. 119). He appraises Lincoln's contribution in the battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which would constitutionally end the institution of slavery in the United States after ratification by the requisite number of states. Neely writes:
Neely is at his best in chapter 5, "A Free People Conduct a Long War." He points out that throughout his administration, Lincoln was preoccupied with two problems: military victory and racial slavery. After the summer of 1862, Neely says that Lincoln maintained that the two issues were so closely related that they came directly under his presidential powers as commander in chief. "He rarely focused long or hard on other problems of policy" (p. 121), he writes. The author holds that it is "difficult to describe Lincoln's handling of the home front during the Civil War" (p. 121). Only the home-front issues that related directly to mobilizing the military forces attracted much of the president's attention. Such issues as enlistments, conscription, desertion, and public opinion brought forth unprecedented and revolutionary policies from both Lincoln and Congress. These were carefully explained, Neely believes. He also points out that Lincoln did not think of the North as the "home front" because that term, coined during World War I, was not a concept for Lincoln or his generation of political leaders. The North Page [End Page 27] was simply what Lincoln and his generals protected from occasional Confederate invasion, from sabotage, or from arson. The Constitution required that the northern public should be safely protected under the Constitution by the president. There was no separate front for Lincoln. In fact, Neely points out that Republican programs during the war were not so much prompted by the needs of a society and economy at war as by "the golden political opportunity afforded by the minority status of the Democratic party" (p. 122). Thus, Lincoln drew on the North for men and material but did not mold or rearrange it.
After slavery and race, the most momentous issue for Lincoln's administration was conscription. He handled it no differently from the way he handled other controversial issues that impinged on northern society. Neely points out that Lincoln was "the first President to embrace extreme curtailment of civil liberties in wartime" (p. 124). This was natural because the threat to the very existence of the republic was without parallel before that time or since. The Constitution clearly justifies Lincoln's action, despite the fact that he was criticized by those who believed at the time that he did not have the power to do so. According to his critics then and since, the Constitution is not explicit on the point in time of civil war as to who has the power. Neely declares, "Lincoln simply seized the doubtful power" (p. 131). Just after the firing on Fort Sumter, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus. Neely clearly posits that Lincoln acted to curtail civil liberties for reasons of military necessity and tried to avoid any restrictions that would influence political events or decisions (p. 132). Lincoln's reputation on this issue has unfortunately been damaged, Neely says, by the president's "rare public letter," which was his first pronouncement on that subject after his special message to Congress on July 4, 1861. Neely believes that Lincoln's letter to Erastus Corning and the New York Democrats has distorted the president's views of civil liberties under his administration. In order to defend the military arrest of Clement Vallandigham in Ohio on May 1, 1863, Lincoln took the "broadest ground for restricting political speech, and he had to endorse the use of the military tribunal that condemned the Ohioan" (p. 133). In fact, Neely declares, Lincoln defended the military's restraint of an active politician of the opposing Democratic party who had been arrested for words he had spoken in a political speech.
Lincoln believed that "public safety" and not proximity to the front was the criterion set by the nation's founders for suspend- Page [End Page 28] ing the writ of habeas corpus. The author says that Lincoln was "technically correct about that" (p. 134). Tens of thousands of civilians were arrested at one time or another and usually placed in northern military prisons for brief periods of time. "The overt purpose of the arrests was not to stifle dissent," he writes, "and indeed dissent was anything but stifled" (p. 135). Thus, Lincoln's internal security program was not conducted for any partisan political advantage, according to Neely. The portrait of Lincoln the tyrant is undeserved and certainly would not have been a way to win elections in the nation. Neely points out that "rancorous partisan abuse continued in the press and on the hustings" after that time (p. 135). The author strengthens his case by citing that "newspaper coverage of the Union armies was so thorough that even Robert E. Lee made a point of reading northern papers to gain intelligence about the enemy" (p. 135).
"The Civil War was not a war that demanded elaborate economic mobilization" (p. 138). In fact, Neely declares, it was a "modern war" fought by mass armies motivated less by harsh discipline than by national feeling and armed with the product of the industrial revolution or machine age. Then he boldly declares: "It was not a 'total' war" (p. 138). And he uses railroads to illustrate his statement. As a war president, Lincoln interrupted normal economic development in order to divert millions of dollars of resources a day, the president calculated, to military forces requiring food, uniforms, shoes, harnesses, weapons, horses, flags, wagons, ships, and fifes and drums. But the astonishing point, Neely declares, is that this did not greatly impede or distort American economic growth; in fact, "Lincoln himself marveled at how little retarding effect the war was having on economic growth and pointed to it as proof that the rebellion was doomed to failure" (p. 139). The simple armies of Lincoln's day needed more of what was already being produced rather than any new categories of "hefty goods not ordinarily produced in peacetime, like tanks or military aircraft" (p. 139). Because the Civil War had so little effect on economic development, the Democratic party was robbed of a familiar issue of complaining about the economy (which went back to the Bank War of the 1830s).
Neely courageously declares that "the role of technology in the war has been exaggerated" (p. 139). The application of scientific knowledge in industry was indeed important in the 1860s, but Neely points out that "terrain was much more important" (p. 139). However, people at the time, according to Neely, did not recognize Page [End Page 29] the importance of industrial technology to any "surprising degree" (p. 140), because mid-nineteenth-century people associated military prowess with an agrarian lifestyle. The ability to walk long distances, ride horses, and shoot was naturally cultivated and "old fashioned republicanism lingered in widespread American suspicions of the weakening effects of cities and the lifestyles of bureaucratic capitalism" (p. 140). The army, on the whole, he believes, assumed that no innovation "could be developed and mass-produced quickly enough to influence the outcome of the war," no matter how potent (p. 140). Most generals thought the war could be won in the next season's campaign.
Although Lincoln was just as optimistic as his generals, he was interested in technological innovation—in fact, he was fascinated by it. Neely observes: "Interest in technology was a crotchet of the President's, unrelated to his strategic ideas" (p. 140). "Like his sense of humor," he notes, "it was something Lincoln could not help indulging," a rare reference in this work to this important facet of Lincoln's personality. Inventors quickly came to understand that they could often get a hearing from the president, who might also test their devices, even if the army displayed little interest in their inventions. But Neely believes the army was "ultimately correct" (p. 141). "Taken all in all, technological innovations devised during the war had little impact on the outcome of land battles or campaigns, though breech-loading carbines improved the performance of the Union cavalry by the end of the war," he declares (p. 141).
Neely believes that technologically the American Civil War remained in the Napoleonic era and the American economy was not dramatically transformed by the Union war effort. He notes that the increases in government purchasing invited corruption that was an economic problem that the president dealt with directly and frequently—so much so that the Democratic opposition was unable to pin the label of corruption on his administration. Neely astutely observes that "Lincoln's own character pointed the administration toward financial rectitude, but his political background held potential for sordid plunder" (p. 142). Lincoln could have led the nation either back to the idealistic republican virtue of the founders or forward to the disgraceful "Great Barbecue" of America's post-war Gilded Age, the author believes. There was no question that Lincoln was personally ethical, especially on money matters, a quality that his wife thought him "almost a monomaniac on the subject of honesty." "Honest Abe," contends the author, was no myth concocted for a political campaign. Lincoln understood the Page [End Page 30] temptations of pecuniary gain as a politician, and he was inclined to compromise and seek practical solutions to the various problems—private gain ahead of interest (p. 142). Lincoln was always ready to take responsibility and not let discredited administrators, like his Secretary of War Simon Cameron, bear the burden for his administration.
Neely next focuses on Lincoln's treatment of women, Indians, and Jews. The president held a conventional male attitude toward women—yet he mentioned women's suffrage in his 1836 campaign statement, and Mary Lincoln took an extraordinary interest in politics for a woman of her era. She was better educated than most women of her day. In fact, Neely says that Lincoln's wife is qualified to be termed by some historians a "domestic feminist" because of the amount of control she exerted within their marriage and home (p. 147). Indian policy was hardly a primary focus for Lincoln. He left policy to Indian Commissioner William P. Dole and to the Interior Department in which Dole labored, as well as to the army. The problem of anti-Semitism also surfaced during the war and Lincoln was clearly more tolerant than the professional officer class of the U.S. military. Congressional tolerance that passed a law permitting Jews to serve as army chaplains and Lincoln's appointment on September 18, 1862, resulted in the first Jewish chaplain in American history (p. 149).
Neely briefly develops the impact of these myriad problems on Lincoln's personal life and family. Life in the White House became even more depressing after the death of their son Willie on February 20, 1862. Lincoln's strenuous work schedule interfered with any close family life, Neely observes. With Lincoln working from seven in the morning until eleven every night, with time out for brief meals, Mary Lincoln said that there was a great deal of separation. Lincoln worked even on holidays. The only privileges he enjoyed involved his summer retreat at the Anderson Cottage on the Maryland side of the District to escape the oppressive Washington summers.
Neely describes Lincoln's health as "excellent," a fact that "gave him an edge over Jefferson Davis, who suffered from numerous maladies" (p. 150). Lincoln abstained from the use of alcohol and tobacco and thus eliminated threats to his health from so-called diseases of choice (p. 151). It is true that the president avoided most diseases, except in the case of varioloid, a mild form of smallpox, that struck him on the train ride home from Gettysburg in November 1863. Lincoln was in and out of bed for two weeks, and the Page [End Page 31] White House was quarantined for a while. Neely makes the comparison that, although the strains on Lincoln and Davis, as commanders in chief, "did not equal the rigors of a military campaign with travel on horseback and sleeping on the ground, they were nevertheless great just the same, and Jefferson Davis especially often appeared gaunt and under stress—and Lincoln less so" (p. 150). Neely paints an excellent personal picture of Lincoln in this chapter and, although very brief, it is refreshing when he does so.
Lincoln's task was to define the political side of war in such a way that northern people would support the war effort. Neely declares that Lincoln's "forte lay not in invoking the traditional image of military glory or ruin, like the retreat from Moscow, but in creating redeeming political images" (p. 152). The two best examples are the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. Neely rightly declares that Lincoln's words at Gettysburg were not the result of some last-minute inspiration but in fact the product of his longtime thinking about the political meaning of the war. Thus when the invitation to speak came, it gave him an opportunity "to distill his ideas into a formal and public prose" (p. 152).
Neely believes that Lincoln was a poor extemporaneous speaker and claims that he knew it. It was not that Lincoln was a poor speaker, because his many public addresses belie such evaluation. His friend David Davis had once concluded that young Lincoln was "the best stump speaker in the state." And he certainly proved that he could speak extemporaneously on some occasions, as in the famous Lost Speech delivered on May 29, 1856, in Bloomington, Illinois. The author writes on another occasion that this speech was "so captivating, apparently that no one even took full notes on it." It was an extemporaneous speech. During the summer and fall of 1858, Lincoln made over one hundred speeches across Illinois, most of them extemporaneous. The following year, 1859, he traveled more than four thousand miles and faced audiences in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Kansas. After delivering his famous Cooper Institute speech (which he had very carefully prepared) in New York City, Lincoln delivered eleven addresses in ten days—not a small feat—before critical New England audiences.
Lincoln "jotted down ideas on stray pieces of paper, which found a lodgement in his hat," according to William H. Herndon, his law partner of many years. Lincoln used these slips of paper, rather than manuscripts, and filled his messages with his humor. He could scan his notebooks, select and memorize portions he wished to use, head for the speaker's platform with empty hands, and begin Page [End Page 32] speaking. Lincoln was a powerful public speaker. The logic of his presentation gave him much of his speaking power. His Cooper Institute audience discovered that directly for themselves. It seemed to observers at the time that the moment he began to speak, he was often transformed. As president, he preferred to speak with preparation so that his words would be properly measured and understood by the press and his audience and thus would not say anything he might later regret (except on occasions when he wanted to be evasive, as on the emancipation question). It must be remembered that Lincoln was conducting a war, bore a weighty responsibility, and thus had a valid concern not to say "something indiscreet." Neely's attack on Lincoln as a speaker is therefore unwarranted.
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address contains his refined idea of soldierly sacrifice—"the ultimate meaning of the war"—as Neely perceives it. Neely humbly observes that "the speech is so eloquent and economical of language that any attempt at summary would be humiliatingly inadequate" (p. 153). Although a valid concern, readers may regret that Neely did not develop his own understanding of the depth of this address. But he did observe that Lincoln had consistently defined the war's purpose as saving the "Union," and "he never deviated from that" (p. 154). Neely notes also that Lincoln never deviated from defining the Union, or describing it, so that there could be no mistaking its identification with freedom more than with geographical boundaries. He believes the most important line in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is the first one, which dates the country's founding not from the Constitution of 1787 but from the Declaration of Independence of 1776 (p. 155).
The Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865, contains Lincoln's statement of the ultimate meaning and purpose of the war. Neely correctly notes that this is a less characteristic speech because it sounds more like a sermon than a secular political appeal, as evidenced by the many quotations and paraphrases of scripture. Neely brilliantly analyzes the Second Inaugural Address more thoroughly than his feeble attempt with Lincoln's speech at Gettysburg. Here Neely declares: "Lincoln ... exercised in the [Second Inaugural] address one of his greatest powers as a speaker; he was willing and able to tell people what they did not want to hear" (p. 154). He then quotes Lincoln's preachments that "both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."
Neely fails to evaluate Lincoln's Christian pronouncements on the nation and the president's belief that "the Almighty has His Page [End Page 33] own purposes." The "blistering appraisal of the war's cost," which Neely refers to, is none other than God's judgment upon the nation—both North and South—for the sin of slavery. Using the severe language of scripture, Lincoln held the entire nation under judgment: "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." A just God was in the process of using the judgment of war to bring about a "just peace" through the efforts of men. The God of history was indeed at work. Lincoln's paraphrase and use of scripture was intended to show the American people that there "had been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them." "To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world," Lincoln wrote shortly after the delivery. "It is a truth which I thought needed to be told"—a truth that Neely should have developed.
Neely charts "Politics as Usual" in his sixth chapter. Here he superbly analyzes Lincoln the politician, pointing out that if Lincoln did not have a systematic policy to meet every national crisis, he nonetheless possessed the political skills to deal with them when they arose. "In this realm, both friend and foe, sanctifier and critic, have agreed that Lincoln was truly gifted," he notes (p. 157). Lincoln's critics usually portray him as "only a politician," which Neely says is a tacit acknowledgment that Lincoln had mastered the American party system, where Lincoln's admirers argue that he could only win the war and emancipate a race of Americans by his constant attention to politics. Well said! Lincoln believed in the two-party system. Thus, he was willing to use partisan techniques to realize his own ambitions, but he consciously sought to continue the robust two-party politics in the North throughout the war. Neely posits: "The political achievements of the era can be properly appreciated only by recognizing the genuine tension caused by issues of dissent and loyalty played out in an era of sharp partisan confrontation" (p. 158). Neely is particularly strong on such controversial issues as Lincoln's handling of civil liberties during the war years. And then he develops his careful research on habeas corpus suspension.
Although Lincoln's policies on civil liberties were formulated with a view to end the war in victory, Neely admits that his civil liberty policies were not logically consistent. Lincoln occasionally believed "the rumors of plots to overthrow the nation, but only when [he was] under great stress and especially aggravated," Neely believes (p. 161). Lincoln had no set policy on many of the emergencies he faced during the war but reacted to such emergencies Page [End Page 34] in various ways that were always calculated to win the war without at the same time destroying the rights for which the conflict was fought. Neely effectively challenges one modern view that the president punished critics by locking them up before elections. Those usually arrested before elections were Confederate refugees or blockade runners from England who could not vote in any case. Thus, Lincoln did not use his internal security for any partisan political advantage, Neely boldly declares.
"The national elections were never in question, and the story of Civil War politics was politics as usual," is a statement that is followed by the author's development of the undisciplined election schedule continued during the war—as it had before (p. 164). Only the presidential election came at the standard time in every state—the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Lincoln got no relief from challenges to the Republican party at the polls, either in odd or even years. Neely effectively points out that the Civil War lasted forty-eight months and in twenty-four of them—just half—major elections occurred in the North. He notes that the American political calendar remained inflexible during those war years and thus enjoyed a "big role" during that time. "Public confidence in the government could be high or low, but elections must be held at the prescribed time—even in wartime," he observes (p. 165). Of course, the most important example was the 1864 presidential election. Except for the rebellious states of the South, the 1864 election, Neely says, "proved to be a full-fledged political campaign of the freest sort, the kind of colorful party contest that could be found nowhere else in the world in the middle of the nineteenth century, let alone in the middle of a war" (p. 165). (There was the precedent, however, of the 1812 election in the middle of the war with Great Britain when James Madison ran for reelection in a free and open contest.)
Neely believes that Lincoln could not be certain of Republican political superiority during the war years and worked mainly to keep his party together as an effective vote-getting organization. For Lincoln, the Republican party was the principal organ to govern the nation. Lincoln recruited the most able members of the party to work for his administration. It did not matter if they had been potential rivals for party leadership—or even for the presidential nomination in 1864. "Lincoln enjoyed the deepest form of self-confidence: he knew no fear of the talents of others," writes Neely in a perceptive evaluation. Lincoln needed talent and sought unity (p. 166). Page [End Page 35]
The idea to form a Northwest Confederacy by conspiracy in 1864 "became a great northern bugbear, widely feared but advocated by almost no one," the author declares intrepidly (p. 171). Neely notes that in June General William S. Rosecrans published a report on secret societies in Missouri that were allegedly organized to bring about secession from the northern war effort and the formation of a Northwest Confederacy. Neely also mentions the published exposé by Joseph Holt, which reported on an organization called the Sons of Liberty, describing it as a vast disloyal network with tens of thousands of members in northern states like Missouri, Indiana, and Illinois, but Neely adds no comment. If there was no effort to form a Northwest Confederacy, as Neely posits, a well-financed Confederate mission did begin to operate in Canada in April 1864. Its principal objective was to defeat Lincoln's bid for reelection by buying up Democratic newspaper and magazine editors. In fact, much of the vicious propaganda against Lincoln in 1864 was paid for by the Confederate government in Richmond. The Confederate mission in Canada also sought to disrupt the northern war effort by making raids across the border and smuggling arms to the Copperhead organization, the Sons of Liberty. Its leadership convinced Confederate representatives that northerners were ready to revolt against President Lincoln's policies—particularly emancipation—and his tyranny. Neely argues that the Democrats were a loyal opposition but that "many Republicans feared otherwise and were prepared to act vigorously on their fears" (p. 173). Neely admits, however, that Indiana Governor Oliver Perry Morton ordered a raid on the office of Harrison Dodd, a leader of the Indiana Sons of Liberty in June 1864, and that Dodd had actually contacted Confederate agents in Canada about liberating Confederate prisoners of war. Clearly, there was talk of setting up a Northwest Confederacy—even if there was little realistic expectation of success. In fact, Neely acknowledges that Dodd's office held a cache of arms and correspondence with Democratic politicians in the state—so much for this "great northern bugbear, widely feared but advocated by almost no one" (p. 171) that Neely now admits existed as a proposal between the Indiana leader of the Sons of Liberty and the Confederate agents in Canada (p. 173).
Neither does Neely mention that a Confederate plan existed by the summer of 1864 to capture Lincoln at the Soldiers' Home outside Washington City and rush him through prosouthern territory in lower Maryland to a boat on the Potomac River and thence to the Confederate capital of Richmond. There Lincoln would be held Page [End Page 36] hostage until Confederate prisoners of war were released. At least, it is reported that two Confederate generals, Wade Hampton and Jubal Early, desired to carry out the plan themselves. Such Confederate officers could not have proceeded without the knowledge of General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate President Jefferson Davis. However, before the plan was implemented, General Ulysses S. Grant began his spring offensive and Confederate troops were needed to stop it. Early did, however, lead a raid that very nearly captured the northern capital city. Neely develops none of this—perhaps it is easier to ignore when the subject seems disagreeable or unimportant and thus does not deserve recognition.
Neely writes that Lincoln's role in setting the tone of the strategy for his 1864 reelection campaign is not easy to determine. Lincoln adhered to the traditional posture of a presidential candidate and simply avoided public pronouncements on issues. Because Lincoln was in Washington, it was not necessary to write letters to the Republican congressional leaders, documents that could later prove useful to historians in evaluating Lincoln's role in the campaign. Lacking centralized control, state party leaders made their own decisions about campaign procedure, and thus the different parts of the nation emphasized different aspects of the Union party political message. When the election was over on November 6, Lincoln was assured a second term as president of the United States. By the time of his annual message to Congress on December 6, Neely declares, Lincoln's description of the past presidential campaign "had already taken on mythical tones that ignored, in obeisance to republican values, the suspicion, strife, and anxiety of the previous months" (p. 175). Lincoln said that there had been "much impugning of motives, and much heated controversy as to the proper means and best mode of advancing the Union cause," but politicians had shown their instinctive knowledge that there was no diversity among the people on the distinct issue of Union or no Union (p. 175).
Although there was no unusual disorder or violence on election day, Neely, as a modern historian, does not quite agree with Lincoln's analysis of the 1864 election. The Republican and Democratic parties appealed to the idea of the Union, the author declares, and to liberty for that matter because both political parties shared the same republican values. But the two parties also shared basic anxieties (p. 175). Republicans and Democrats continued to participate in large numbers. In fact, despite the absence of thousands of potential voters in the armies on campaign in the South, voters participated in Page [End Page 37] large numbers—in some cases, in record numbers, Neely says. Lincoln received about 360,000 more votes in 1864 than in 1860. The unnaturally high totals for the Republicans may have been due to government control of certain disputed areas in the border states and to the unusually controlled circumstances for the soldier vote, which was recorded separately from that of the civilian.
The Union strategy in the war "failed to change many minds," Neely declares, because no dramatic voting realignment appeared in the 1864 election: "That had all been sorted out in 1856 and 1860, and the same kind of people—ethnic groups, economically motivated interest groups, religious groups—voted roughly the same way they had in the previous presidential election" (p. 176). Even the soldiers and sailors who were fighting the war at the time followed what Neely calls the "tribal" alignments of American voters. Soldiers overwhelmingly voted Republican, probably because they were first-time voters back in 1860 when they were attracted to the Republican party. Because sailors came from more varied backgrounds (many were foreign born and many were Roman Catholic), they tended to vote Democratic in 1864 (p. 176).
According to Neely, the electoral college voted overwhelmingly for Lincoln. The president carried every state except New Jersey, Kentucky, and Delaware. But the popular vote was much closer. General McClellan received nearly 45 percent of the vote. "A 2 percent change in key states would have given the election to McClellan," Neely writes (p. 176). But the 1864 election left "the Democrats a bruising legacy, from which it took the party literally generations to recover" (p. 176). Since 1864, Neely believes that there has hardly been any presidential campaign more successful in labeling opponents with a distorted image. "The notion that the Democrats harbored a gigantic fifth-column movement during the Civil War was to rally Republican voters for many elections to come, in what came to be called 'waving the bloody shirt'" (p. 177). Neely makes the critical point that almost everyone in the North, Democrats and Republicans, wanted the Union to survive.
Reconstructing this war-torn nation was a problem so vexing that it taxed "even Lincoln's political skills to their limit," Neely writes (p. 177). There were two fundamental problems. The first was white racism—which the war did not radically change. The second was that the federal government and the military had to coerce the South to change, something that seemed impossible in a constitutional democracy in peacetime (p. 177). Thus, only African American votes could ensure change in the South along democratic lines, Page [End Page 38] and the black vote was not compatible with white racism, northern or southern, during the nineteenth century. Even in its initial phases, Lincoln ran into problems on the issue of reconstruction in the South after the conclusion of hostilities. The great unknown in the reconstruction equation, Neely says, was the possibility of enfranchising African Americans in 1863. When Lincoln was inaugurated in March 1865, Louisiana had still not been readmitted to the Union. For the very first time on April 11, 1865, Lincoln publicly endorsed the franchise for "the very intelligent [Negroes], and ... those who serve our cause as soldiers." This was to be his last speech—and one that found him wed to no particular plan for reconstruction.
In Neely's seventh and last chapter, "Fate," Lincoln's personal safety and the consequences of failing to provide presidential security are briefly evaluated. It is a subject that Neely spends little time developing. "Fate began to stalk Lincoln even before he took the oath of office in 1861," he writes (p. 183). The so-called Baltimore plot against Lincoln's life in February 1861 left a lasting effect on the way Lincoln viewed his personal safety. From his point of view, and from that of the opposition press, the decision to sneak the president-elect into Washington was probably a mistake. Neely believes that the newspaper criticism surely stung Lincoln, and "he would ever after attempt to avoid any appearance of physical timidity; he did not swagger, but he refused to pay much heed to those who warned him of personal danger" (p. 185).
Neely is correct on this and notes that, for leaders of a country involved in a vast civil war, "the members of the Lincoln administration showed remarkable unconcern about assassination" (p. 185). "Even if Lincoln felt alarmed by the warnings he received—especially from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton—he was prevented from employing elaborate security by memories of his humiliating arrival in Washington," he observes (p. 185). Lincoln did not mention the Baltimore plot when Early's raid threatened Washington in 1864, but Neely notes that "the President conspicuously, and needlessly, exposed himself to gunfire" (p. 186). Again, months later, when Richmond fell to Grant's armies, Lincoln could not resist a visit to the fallen Confederate capital and took chances with his life in walking openly in the city's streets where anyone could have easily killed him. He had wired Stanton: "I will take care of myself."
On the subject of assassination theories, Neely believes there are four that merit consideration. First, Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was insane, a theory strengthened by the testimony of some Page [End Page 39] members of the Booth family. The power of this argument, Neely says, comes from "a species of backward logic" (p. 187). This "wrongheaded thinking" reasons back from Lincoln's unequaled reputation in modern times because some find it difficult to think of killing Lincoln as a rational scheme on the part of anyone (p. 188). Lincoln received many threatening letters and endured bitter attacks from an unrestrained partisan press. "Lincoln's secretaries threw threatening letters away," Neely declares. And "they did not turn them over to the War Department or local authorities for routine investigation" (p. 188). This was the view of William O. Stoddard, a member of Lincoln's secretarial staff during the war. However, Lincoln's private secretary, John G. Nicolay, argued that such materials were indeed shown to the president and were passed on to authorities, thus disputing Stoddard's position. Ignoring death threats would have been foolish, and the president was certainly not foolish.
The second theory was that Booth was the agent of Jefferson Davis or other members of the Confederate government. This theory was used by the prosecution at the trial of Booth's coconspirators in May 1865 and has been revived recently. The author admits that "it was natural to think at the time that the assassination was a plot concocted by the Richmond government" (p. 188). In fact, this was the very direction from which Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward had anticipated trouble. When Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles first heard of Lincoln's assassination, he exclaimed, "Damn the rebels. This is their work." The real tragedy, Neely says, is that "this mistaken assumption ... was held past the initial moment of shock" and became the prosecution theory at the trial of Booth's accomplices (p. 188). For Neely, this theory resulted in a lack of justice at the trial, and "history was poorly served by the skewed and flawed investigation." He observes that "genuinely suspicious characters went uninterrogated while the prosecutors fell for perjured testimony that fit their preconceptions of the crime." Then he adds: "Jefferson Davis was libeled, and seeds for a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Civil War were sown in the propagation of the belief that either side in this restrained civil war was likely to embrace methods condemned by international law—like assassination" (p. 188).
Neely confuses the ideal with the reality of desperation in times of war. "There should be less cause than ever to believe in a theory that could not be proved by the prosecution in 1865 and that fed off the residual hatred bred of war," he avers. By 1864–65, how- Page [End Page 40] ever, there were clear signs that this was no longer a "restrained civil war." Desperation for victory in war may often contribute to desperate measures and desperate action. The Confederate mission in Canada had sought to disrupt the northern war effort by making raids across the border, by smuggling arms to the Copperhead organization, the Sons of Liberty, and by arson and sabotage. In the last days of the war, Jefferson Davis's call to continue the southern war effort by way of guerrilla warfare, which Lee declined, is further evidence of this.
Neely's observation that the trial of the Lincoln conspirators was "flawed" is indeed true, especially the use of perjured testimony. But the failure of the trial does not deny the possibility that the Confederate government played a role in the conspiracy against the leaders of the northern government, especially the plot to kidnap the president. And Booth's role in the kidnapping plot can be easily understood to metamorphose into a desperate plan to save the southern war effort by the drastic act of killing the northern president, vice president, and secretary of state. The condemnation of any international law plays no role. That certainly has been true of other political assassinations. Neely refers to the "Confederate plot theory" without distinguishing the role of kidnapping or assassination. He assumes that it must include assassination because he declares that neither Robert E. Lee nor Jefferson Davis "seems likely to have embraced assassination as a method of war, even in retaliation" (p. 189). But there is strong evidence that Confederate authorities in Canada were interested in the plan to capture Lincoln, take him to Richmond, and hold him for ransom. Such a plan by nature includes the possibility of force and death. Neely dismisses the possibility of Confederate involvement in any plot against Lincoln, a likely scenario that still remains.
The third theory holds that Booth may have indeed been the assassin but there were conspirators higher up, perhaps even in Lincoln's own cabinet. Locating a conspiracy to murder Lincoln in the Washington government rather than Richmond is "a fantastic enterprise that has never been given credence by a professional historian." True, indeed! Neely correctly declares that this false theory libels conscientious men, like Secretary of War Stanton, and more importantly its theory of motivation "hides the white supremacist motivations of Lincoln's real killers" (p. 189). Neely points out that Booth and his Confederate-sympathizing fellow conspirators wanted to eliminate President Lincoln in part because they hated the Emancipation Proclamation and they certainly did not want blacks Page [End Page 41] to have the franchise. In this fanciful third theory, Lincoln became a victim because he would have protected southern whites from the Radical Republicans, like Stanton, who were bent on giving political power to the recently freed black men in the South. Neely positively declares that "disagreements over Reconstruction between Lincoln and Stanton were not deep enough to provide the latter a motive for assassination" (p. 189). In fact, Neely correctly observes that "Lincoln and Stanton agreed on the necessity of guaranteeing the liberty of the recently freed slaves in the South" (p. 190). Does Neely really believe this theory merits consideration?
The fourth conspiracy theory holds that Booth plotted and committed a political crime quite like many other pre–World War I assassination attempts, from that of the Italian nationalist Orsini on Napoleon III in Paris in 1858, to the murder of Alexander II of Russia in 1881 by a group of anarchists, to the fateful 1914 shooting of the Austrian archduke and duchess in Sarajevo by the Bosnian nationalist Gavrilo Princip (who acted as an agent of the Serbian society Union or Death [the Black Hand], a terrorist organization founded in 1911 for agitation against Austria in behalf of Serbian aspirations). Neely favors this last theory—that Lincoln was easy to kill and that Booth attempted this "political crime." This was the first presidential assassination in America and few people thought a republic would be plagued with assassination like other monarchies and dictatorships. Indeed, Neely notes, Lincoln was clearly vulnerable to assault or capture when he rode out to the Soldiers' Home in those hot Washington summers. He believes Booth was "a Confederate, doing duty upon his own responsibility" (p. 191). Even Booth expressed a modicum of reservation about his method of winning the war for the South—a method to kidnap the president and then take him to Richmond and exchange him for Confederate prisoners of war. Booth gathered help from common Maryland men. But by the time he assembled his conspirators, he had lost the opportunity. It was winter and Lincoln no longer slept at the Soldiers' Home. Booth hoped to resurrect his kidnapping scheme, but a few of his helpers were finished with him and it. Booth could no longer capture Lincoln with so few men, and with the fall of Richmond, there was no place to take Lincoln. Very late, perhaps on the day of the crime, April 14, Booth decided to kill Lincoln, to have Atzerodt kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, and to send Powell to kill Secretary of State Seward. With Grant in the same box with Lincoln, Neely believes that "the actor could realistically hope to eliminate many of the government's Page [End Page 42] strong men in one evening of slaughter. Perhaps such a revolution would yet save the South," Neely muses (p. 192). Booth's hopes proved groundless and the Confederacy did not win the war. Thus, Neely holds that Booth's plan was his own. But this theory selects only part of the evidence on the role of John Wilkes Booth in the plot against the life of Abraham Lincoln.
"Fate began to stalk Lincoln"—so Neely begins that final chapter in his intellectual biography (p. 183). But he skirts a much deeper issue in Lincoln's political thought. Lincoln was indeed an ardent believer in the democratic political process and political parties, which Neely so brilliantly develops in his biography. Neely's strengths are in his deep knowledge of Lincoln's own writings and positions, along with a broad grasp of the major and minor issues and figures. But, at the same time, Neely fails to mine an important vein in Lincoln's political thought. Lincoln's moral outlook on life and his value structure were formed long before the age of fifty-one.
The Civil War raised the deepest questions of national meaning. Abraham Lincoln struggled throughout the bloody years of war to find a larger and deeper meaning to civil strife than that suggested by a simple alliance of providence with either the North or the South. He never questioned the ultimate justice of almighty God. But he struggled to read "the signs of the times," to learn what God's will actually demanded in the conflicting events of his own day. He sincerely believed that God was involved in the day-to-day process of history but that men were still personally responsible. He had warned in his annual message to Congress on December 1, 1862:
Lincoln questioned how to know the divine will in those day-to-day responsibilities of the nation that was at war with itself. He wished to avoid the futility and rebellion of opposing God's purposes in history. Many times he told callers that his greatest concern was not to get God on his side but to be sure that he and the nation were on God's side. In June 1862, an Iowa delegation led Page [End Page 43] by Congressman James Wilson interviewed the president at the White House. One member of the delegation pressed the president for more resolute action, saying, "Slavery must be stricken down wherever it exists. If we do not do right I believe God will let us go our own way to our ruin. But if we do right, I believe He will lead us safely out of this wilderness, crown our arms with victory, and restore our now dissevered Union." Lincoln agreed about the judgment of the God of history but added, with a sparkle in his eyes and with his right arm outstretched toward the speaker:
Among the president's papers after his death was discovered an undated document that Lincoln never intended for others to see, according to his secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. The document may have been associated with Lincoln's despair following the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). He wrote, "In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet."  Such were his private thoughts—but the very thoughts that influenced Lincoln's political thinking and presidential behavior. This is also the private Lincoln whom Neely deems unimportant. Page [End Page 44] But the spiritual Lincoln cannot be separated from the politically motivated president.
During the last year of his life, President Lincoln came to understand that the suffering of war was God's judgment upon the evil of slavery and a divine punishment to bring about its removal. In fact, his public declaration on sanguinary judgment, his Second Inaugural, delivered only weeks before his own martyrdom, must be juxtaposed with a call for reconciliation and mutual forgiveness. The destruction of slavery, although accomplished in God's appointed time by a bloody war, was now almost finished. Judgment, about to be terminated, must yield to forgiveness. Feeling this keenly, Lincoln himself wrote in a letter: "I am a patient man—always willing to forgive on the Christian terms of repentance" (Collected Works, 5:343). Writing to another correspondent, he declared, "I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing."
This is the preacher-politician-statesman addressing the nation in his Second Inaugural and the same man who gave the "blistering appraisal of the war's cost and suddenly concluded with a soothing appeal to Christian charity" (p. 155), according to Neely. "The Almighty has His own purposes," Lincoln had told the nation that March day. Lincoln the political thinker is the same Lincoln who wrestled with the spiritual aspects of the nation's crisis and boldly preached to the nation at war with itself, knowing his words would not be "immediately popular." "Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them," he wrote to Thurlow Weed. "To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world" (p. 156). Lincoln believed, "It is a truth which I thought needed to be told." Neely's failure to develop the spiritual aspect of Lincoln's political thought is a common failure among some of the more recent biographies of the president.
This work is lavishly illustrated with ninety-six unnumbered plates that the author has captioned well. Neely prepared this biography to accompany the Lincoln exhibition at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, in 1993. He intended his biography for the literate public. While the book has no footnotes, Neely's endnotes identify quotations and provide an excellent guide to Lincoln literature.
Neely's intellectual and analytical biography of President Abraham Lincoln may elicit disagreement among some of the experts, especially his apparent lack of interest in the young Lincoln, the Page [End Page 45] lawyer Lincoln, the private Lincoln, the spiritual Lincoln, and the Lincoln of assassination controversy. But the same experts must still come to grips with Neely's Lincoln portrait. As a brief portrayal of this complex man, this biography is a skillful explication of Lincoln the political figure—the president of the United States. At times, Neely's phrasing is memorable—even brilliant—and yet always succinct. Adept at discussing controversial and complicated issues, Neely has given us a carefully researched political portrait of the Lincoln who still belongs to the ages, a man for our own time as well—a Lincoln we need to know. Page [End Page 46]
- Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 5:404.