Title Reviewed:
Abraham Lincoln and the American Political Tradition

Author Reviewed:
John L. Thomas

Lloyd A. Hunter


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 084, Issue 2, pp 188-189

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

Abraham Lincoln and the American Political Tradition. Edited by John L. Thomas. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986. Pp. 162. Illustration, notes, tables. $20.00.)

The frontispiece of this revealing collection of essays must have been carefully chosen. It is a Thomas Nast drawing of "Lincoln in the House of Representatives," and it depicts the sixteenth president surrounded by the nation's legislators, shaking the hands of those with whom he must lead a war-torn country. Nast's sketch thus takes Lincoln out of the melancholic loneliness of the White House and sets him in the broader context of the political culture of his age—precisely where the historians in this volume place him. As editor John L. Thomas indicates, these historians portray Lincoln as an actor and molder of the American political scene, an inheritor of a "rich lore of democratic popular culture," out of which he shaped "a national liberal tradition" (pp. 3-4).

Fittingly, in the book's initial offering, Robert H. Wiebe searches for the roots of Lincoln's characteristic compassion and finds them in the predominantly male realm of his era's political life. "Lincoln's democracy," Wiebe writes, "was a fraternity, rooted in the man's world of law and politics" (p. 19). In his most revealing contribution, Wiebe shows that Lincoln, along with his fellow politicians, eschewed the domain of women and family, rejecting its sensibilities as "incurably romantic" (p. 26). Rather, he clung to the masculine comradeship which undergirded the political culture of his age. From that attachment, then, flowed his tears of compassion for the martyred soldiers, North and South.

Other essays concentrate on facets of Lincoln's career, namely the nature of his constituency and of his exercise of party leadership. William E. Gienapp, in a carefully documented and quantified account, examines the sources of Lincoln's support in the election of 1860. While stressing the diversity of voter response in the campaign, Gienapp points to two particularly crucial elements: the Republican success in gaining youth support, especially seen in the colorful Wide-Awakes; and the central role of nativism in gleaning votes from former Know-Nothings. In fact, Gienapp concludes, the latter group constituted "the most important shift that produced his victory" (p. 77).

Stephen B. Oates and Michael F. Holt provide the only genuine debate in the volume. Oates attacks David Donald's contention that Lincoln was a "Whig in the White House," arguing instead that he was a "principled and dedicated Republican" (p. 107) who worked closely with Congress. Unfortunately, Oates fails to define "Republican" carefully and, at times, seems to echo rather than contradict Donald. Though masterfully written, Oates's case thus lacks cogent evidence. On the other hand, Holt reasons persuasively that Lincoln and congressional Republicans differed vehemently over how to respond to Democratic challenges, a conflict which led to the president's efforts to form a "new coalition" more in keeping with his old Whig principles. Holt therefore concludes that Lincoln "acted like a good Whig" (p. 118).

The remaining articles, by Don E. Fehrenbacher and James M. McPherson, are less compelling. Fehrenbacher analyzes Lincoln's mastery of political discourse and shows how he used words to shape the political moment. The real value of Fehrenbacher's treatment, however, stems from his insights into the use of oral sources rather than anything he reveals about Lincoln. McPherson views the Civil War as the "Second American Revolution" (hardly a fresh interpretation) during which Lincoln was a "pragmatic revolutionary" (p. 157) bent on conserving the Union by destroying slavery and thereby fulfilling the promise of the first Revolution. Like their fellow essayists, Fehrenbacher and McPherson use primary sources effectively and plow some new historiographical ground. Consequently, Lincoln scholars should find the whole volume refreshing.

LLOYD A. HUNTER, professor of history at Franklin College of Indiana, recently directed the "Pathways to the Old Northwest" conference at Franklin College and has contributed to the Indiana Historical Society's publication, The Northwest Ordinance: A Bicentennial Handbook. A specialist in American religious history, he has co-authored with Professor Herman Hattaway an article on the spiritual legacy of the Civil War which appeared in Civil War Times Illustrated in January, 1988.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.