February 2008

The virtues of Lincoln as president

By William Lee Miller
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In the widely praised Lincoln's Virtues, historian William Lee Miller explored Abraham Lincoln's moral choices during his ascension to power. Miller's splendid new book, President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, is about, as he says, "statesmanship and moral choice in the American presidency, through an examination of the most remarkable occupant of that office."

Miller notes that Lincoln received the nomination for president due solely to his "effective presentation of the moral-political argument for the Republican position." He brought two contrasting qualities to the presidency—"profound clarity and coercive action"—that Miller views as coming from the same root, "a moral indignation that saw the immense impact on human life of these decisions and events."

Among other attributes, Lincoln's life experience led him to develop "intellectual and moral self-confidence . . . and an unusual sympathy for those in distress." This meant using deft political and military strategy that, depending on the issue at hand, alienated, at least temporarily, his own supporters. It meant, for example, that he refused to accept the views or actions of such national heroes as Gen. Winfield Scott, who saw no alternative but to surrender at Fort Sumter, or Gen. John McClellan, who had repeatedly failed to act as directed. Gen. John C. Fremont's declaration of instant emancipation of slaves belonging to disloyal Missourians was problematic because Freemont failed to consider its effect on Kentucky's position on secession.

Miller strongly disagrees with those who see the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation as the only morally significant aspect of the Civil War. Rather than a power-political struggle before that, he says, Lincoln saw "an undertaking with vast and universal moral significance—showing that free, popular, constitutional government could maintain itself, a project that, as Lincoln said, goes down about as deep as anything." This rich and rewarding book should be enjoyed by all those interested in Lincoln or the presidency in general.

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President Lincoln

President Lincoln

By William Lee Miller
ISBN 9781400041039

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