Richard Striner’s Lincoln

I recently finished Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln book. Even with all of the controversy surrounding her previous work, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I did not expect an analytical reinterpretation of any aspect of Lincoln’s public career and my guess is that Goodwin did not intend to write such a book. What we have is a well-written (at times beautifully written) study of Lincoln’s relationship with his Cabinet. We need writers like Goodwin who can capture a time and place for a nation that is woefully ignorant of its own past. Notice all the commentary on Reconstruction in Iraq with little to no reference to how we handled our own Reconstruction following the Civil War. I place Goodwin squarely in a camp with David McCullough who can write well and convey an interesting and ultimately meaningful interpretation of our past.

On the other hand Richard Striner sets out to take on Lincoln historiography in his new book, Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery (Oxford University Press, 2006). Striner is convinced that Lincoln’s stance and intention to end slavery during the war was consistent throughout his presidency. Such an interpretation conflicts with other Lincoln scholars who interpret his slavery stance along “moderate” or pragmatic lines. According to Striner, “The heart of Lincoln’s strategy was simple and stunning:

having capture the White House on terms that plunged the slave states into secession, Lincoln used the battle cry of saving the Unionas a method for building a political and military power colation that would break the power of the slaveholding states forever. The coalition extended necessarily beyond the Republican Party. It included white supremacist Democrats who would only support the Republican administration in a war over principles of Union.”

Whether Striner proves his thesis will have to wait, but I have trouble interpreting Lincoln as consistent on the issue of slavery, especially during the war. Striner wants us to believe that Lincoln’s battle cry of saving the Union should be understood on two levels. On the highest level, according to Striner, “Lincoln’s mission to save the Union was a heartfelt imperative” easily reduced to the sentiment expressed in the Declaration of Independence. On a lower level, Lincoln employed “Machiavellian” tactics that emphasized Unionism in order to manipulate political opponents “into limited cooperation by dint of a patriotic cause that transcended their bigotry.” This is a tall order for Striner. The trick will be to interpret the evidence in such a way that clearly shows a distinction between Union and emancipation. The danger, of course, is that sometimes our conceptual analysis goes beyond what we are able to prove with the evidence. Did Lincoln have such a distinction clearly in mind and over time? We shall see.

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