Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Trials of a President Elect

Harold Holzer is a remarkable scholar with more than forty books to his credit, the majority to do with Lincoln. Of his earlier books, I particularly enjoyed Lincoln at Cooper Union, which won him the Lincoln Prize, though that's just one of the many awards his work has won.  

Holzer's new book, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860 - 1861, is a meticulous survey of one of the most difficult and controversial periods in Lincoln's life. At the time of his election, the 16th President of the United States was faced with a divided nation. He had received a substantial majority in the North, but in the South, and the West, Lincoln had no such mandate, in many Southern states his name had not even appeared on the ballot! Many secessionists were waiting for Lincoln's election to provide the final straw that would break the Union apart. As a result, even Lincoln's personal safety was to become an issue before he'd ever taken the Oath. Additionally, there was the curious custom, not to be abolished until FDR, that delayed the transition for months after the election was decided. All of these factors contributed to perhaps the worst presidential transition in the nation's history.

And then there was Abraham Lincoln himself. Holzer examines the historical consensus on this period, and Lincoln's performance as President Elect, and takes issue with much that has been written and assumed to date. In a genuinely fascinating account of what Lincoln and his contemporaries actually said and did during ridiculously difficult and mutable circumstances, the historian reconstructs both the period and the man in light of recent scholarship and the historical record. Holzer's conclusions can be startling as well as reassuring, and more importantly, they are never arbitrary. His portrait therefore is a careful one, of a very careful man in an all but impossible position. Holzer's Lincoln is still untried, not yet "Father Abraham," and that makes this one of the most interesting biographical studies to have seen print in this new season of Lincoln abundance.

1 comment:

  1. "I've actually seen this because my assistant scans every morning for mentions, blogs, etc., and this one was one of the nicest and most beautifully presented."
    - Harold Holzer


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