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Wednesday, February 20th, 2002


Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography

by William Lee Miller

Abe Lincoln, Thinker-in-Chief

A review by Adrienne Miller

GIST: A captivating study by ethicist William Lee Miller of Abe Lincoln's moral development.

DETAILS: How did the utterly self-made Lincoln become the most admired human being ever? (Miller quotes Edmund Wilson as saying that Lincoln was, perhaps next to Edgar Allan Poe, the most-written about American ever. With all due respect, Mr. Wilson: Poe?) Lincoln in his formative years had few mentors, familial, scholastic, religious or otherwise. So where did his moral training come from? Lincoln's "values" (as we like to say today) were essentially, deeply Christian. And although he subscribed to no particular denomination, his biblical knowledge surpassed that of most members of the clergy. "Lincoln," Miller writes, "was a man of ideas, but a man of his own ideas." He was, as a youth, above and beyond perhaps all else, a reader. An autodidact, a fierce intellect, and like Churchill one of the great writers of his century—oh hell, ever -- Lincoln became, in large part due to his desire for book-learning, a man of tremendous empathy, respect, dignity and honesty.

A very minor, but nonetheless illuminating example of Lincoln's honesty: When delivering a eulogy for Zachary Taylor, Lincoln praised him for his "sterling, but unobtrusive, qualities" (Abe didn't have all that much to work with) and, more interestingly, given the way it relates to Lincoln's own character, "he pursued no man with revenge." His first great speech, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, was in large part great because he achieved in it something which became a pattern in his later speeches: "He links the principle here implied about slavery to the moral meaning of America in the history of the world." What's fascinating here is that his moral intelligence possessed the systematic rigor of a trained philosopher. One of the interesting questions Miller's book raises is this: Can a great person be formed simply with access to the right books, so long as he has the energy, the hunger and the quality of mind to actually read them? How wonderful, and how beautifully American, that would be.

Adrienne Miller is Esquire's literary editor.

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