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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, July 29th, 2003


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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