Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President
by Allen C. Guelzo
A review by Benjamin Schwarz
"There have been ten thousand attempts at the life of Abraham Lincoln,"
Horace Greeley remarked, "whereof that of Wilkes Booth was perhaps the most
atrocious; yet it stands by no means alone." For more than 130 years what
is sometimes called the "Lincoln industry" has churned out title after
title about our sixteenth President. Since 1934, when the Lincoln scholar James
G. Randall addressed the American Historical Association on the question "Has
the Lincoln Theme Been Exhausted?," thousands of books have been written.
Most volumes in this crowded field aren't worth reading. But Guelzo's is quite
simply the best book on Lincoln to be published in a generation. It treats every
aspect of its subject's public and private life with intelligence and penetration
(its portrait of the tortured courtship and marriage of Lincoln and the mercurial
Mary Todd is among the most nuanced and discerning and is certainly the most
trenchant I've read), but this is primarily a study of Lincoln's ideas and
outlook. Guelzo precisely traces and explicates the roots and development of Lincoln's
anti-Jeffersonian public philosophy and political economy (rightly emphasizing
the far-reaching importance of his centralizing, nationalist economic policies
a subject most previous biographers have woefully neglected) and of his views
on slavery and race relations. Most important, however, Guelzo subtly examines
Lincoln's personal struggles over religion and the complex ramifications of his
deeply ingrained Calvinistic determinism. This book will forever change historians'
understanding of Lincoln's view of the Civil War, and is essential if we are to
apprehend how this despairing nonbeliever came to see the conflict (to quote Edmund
Wilson) "in a light more and more religious, in more and more Scriptural
terms, under a more and more apocalyptic aspect" a process that culminated,
of course, in his Second Inaugural Address, the most spiritually profound of our
state papers. Redeemer President, which has just been released in paperback,
won the 2000 Lincoln Prize and has been almost universally praised by academics
but was unconscionably ignored by all the major review outlets, perhaps because
it was published by a firm specializing in scholarly theological titles. I hope
that in this inexpensive and accessible format Guelzo's masterpiece will gain
the wide attention it warrants.
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