My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Abraham Lincoln, the Sixteenth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White, Jr.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.
A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White, Jr.
It feels a little daunting beginning this look at Lincoln’s life. So much of what we “know” about this President comes from a kind of populist vision of him. Ronald C. White, Jr.’s book is a deep, cradle-to-grave look at the life of Lincoln that clued me in to much more about one of our country’s most famous persons.
Lincoln’s story is truly one of the small farm boy growing up to become President, the kind of story that seems almost quintessential to our rose-tinted look at history but a near impossibility in today’s politics. He grew up in poverty between Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. In his childhood his neighbors were miles away through dense forests, making it a fairly lonely life. He eventually educated himself by studying law by reading books. He became a rather renowned lawyer due to his success in a few cases, ultimately becoming a Representative from Illinois. It was these early years of his political life that formed his demeanor going forwards. First, he already demonstrated that he was an abolitionist, condemning slavery not merely with words, as so many previous leaders of the United States had done, but with deeds. Even when it was unpopular, he stood against slavery. Second, though he is often lauded as being an astute politician–which is true–perhaps not enough credit is given to his advisers and staff, whom he picked well. Third, he was willing to compromise on principles so long as they did not contradict his absolutes.
Lincoln was one of those who opposed war with Mexico when Polk was President, and he carefully made the distinction between supporting soldiers and supporting wars. This is a lesson that we can take into today–being against a specific war doesn’t make one anti-military. Lincoln, of course, was castigated for his stance, even to the point of one Illinois newspaper hoping his political epitaph would read “Died of Spotted Fever” (151-153). Lincoln supported Zachary Taylor for the presidential nomination not because he particularly favored Taylor’s stance on many issues but because he saw it as more politically expedient to support one who would win than to stand against them (154-156). Though this could be seen as a kind of callous political act, for Lincoln it seems that the choice was to try to go for a “lesser of two evils”–something popular in our own day.
Lincoln’s famous debates with Stephen Douglas is given due diligence by White, Jr. For one thing, Douglas is often dismissed as a nobody, when in reality he was a giant of political power at the time–and did win the election, ultimately. These debates help clarify Lincoln’s stance on a number of issues. White Jr. points out that these debates did not occur in a vacuum–they came successively. Douglas spent many of the early debates engaging in race baiting, for though abolition was relatively popular in some of Illinois, racism was quite strong. Douglas, therefore, went on the attack, saying Lincoln was a “Black Republican” who wished to have whites and blacks as total equals, voting, marrying, and the like. This incensed the racist elements in the crowds and became effective enough that Lincoln perhaps attempted to counter them by beginning later debates with a denial of these accusations. Intriguingly, it seems that in his private writings and reflections on the Constitution, Lincoln did indeed embrace a kind of overall equality before the Creator of white and black, though he seemed to deny that this would be a real possibility in his own lifetime.
Lincoln leveraged these famous debates–despite his loss to Douglas in the election–to get catapulted to the Presidency. Before he even managed to get inaugurated, South Carolina seceded, and others followed suit. Lincoln was immediately faced with a major crisis in which he had to try to use policy to sway border states towards Union rather than rebellion. This included a round condemnation of abolition of rebel slaves in Missouri, for example, even as Lincoln began drafting his own emancipation decree. Frederick Douglass, one of our nations greatest thinkers and staunch abolitionist, is a good foil for understanding Lincoln here. Early on in Lincoln’s Presidency, he was quite critical, but after meeting with Lincoln and seeing him carry out the Emancipation Proclamation, he became more favorable. The two stayed in correspondence. Lincoln’s attitude towards African Americans continued to develop through his life. It seems he favored colonization–the movement of freed slaves to other countries through colonies–a policy that had racist roots and perhaps reflected Lincoln’s own biases about whether African Americans and white people could live side by side. He made several disparaging remarks about the equality of black people in his life, though the author of this biography seems to couch them in his strategy for not totally alienating the support of those who felt that way. Nevertheless, such an act is itself capitulation to racism, and Lincoln’s record regarding African Americans, while certainly superior to many, is not unblemished.
Lincoln made it clear that he did not believe slavery could exist alongside the Union, but he also argued that if there were to be war, the South would have to be the aggressor. His actions surrounding Fort Sumter may have been intended to force the South into just that, hoping that when push came to shove, they’d be the ones who started it. Whatever the case, the first shots of the Civil War were fired and Lincoln quickly took the reins, becoming one of the most powerful Presidents in history.
The Civil War was as large a test as possible for any President of our country, and Lincoln made his share of mistakes. From the revolving door for the top General in the Union to his perhaps overly strong hand in the suspension of habeas corpus, Lincoln was not perfect. But his political genius did show in his choices for his cabinet, particularly in favoring people who were rivals before to sit as his Secretary of State and War. He chose based both on political appeal and ability, which gave him capable people in the most important places. His heavy hand in guiding the war effort is understandable and, arguably, helped the success of the Union.
One area that White, Jr. didn’t focus on much at all was how Lincoln impacted Native Americans. Though he condemned the kind of nationalism found in the Know Nothing Party, Lincoln enacted laws that helped set up for things like the Transcontinental Railroad. This would largely be seen as a positive by many, but it set up yet another excuse for violating treaty obligations with Native peoples. His administration continued to displace Native peoples in favor of “Americans” as well, causing further suffering, and he oversaw the largest mass execution in United States history when he allowed 38 Native Americans to be hanged as part of the Dakota War of 1862.
It is interesting to speculate what Lincoln’s policy for Reconstruction would have been, had he not been assassinated. It seems clear that Lincoln probably could have done better than what ended up happening, though in what ways we can only guess. What is clear, however, is that Lincoln, warts and all, was perhaps the best leader we could have asked for during the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln is certainly one of the most able, principled people we’ve had leading our country. He wasn’t flawless, by any stretch, but he was the leader we needed and one who defined our country to this day to come. A. Lincoln: A Biography is an excellent biography of this monumental man.
Abraham Lincoln’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)
Abraham Lincoln (16th President – Original Ranking #1)- Abraham Lincoln is certainly one of the best leaders our country has ever had. Though he was not perfect, he managed to lead our country through an incredibly difficult time and reunite what was torn asunder. His story of going from rural farmboy to President is about as much the American Dream as one could ask for. He helped to usher in the possibility of that American Dream through his anti-slavery actions, though it is not entirely clear how much he favored equality of all people. His fingerprints are on much of what our country is and has become to this day.
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