Archive for Sunday, February 8, 2009

‘Abraham Lincoln’ is brief, but packed with info

February 8, 2009

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Feb. 12 marks the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, and you could fill many a stovepipe hat with the bevy of books recently released in honor of that occasion. Among them is a slim little volume, titled simply “Abraham Lincoln” (Oxford University Press, $12.95) and penned by one of the country’s best Civil War historians, James McPherson, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for his work “Battle Cry of Freedom.”

In just 65 pages of text, McPherson presents a compelling, straightforward biography of our country’s 16th president, beginning with his legendary birth in a log cabin in Kentucky. There is an art to “writing short” — it requires knowing a great deal about a topic and then being able to precisely carve out the parts that are most salient.

McPherson proves himself to be a master carver, packing the pages with insightful detail.

The highlight of the book covers Lincoln’s ascendency into the presidency and then his short years at the nation’s helm. McPherson creates a sense of Lincoln’s character by showing readers the difficult choices at hand and then explaining why Lincoln made the decisions he did.

For example, we learn about Lincoln’s personal feelings toward slavery and how they were at odds with what he felt was his constitutional duty.

McPherson then shows how Lincoln figured out how to resolve those discrepancies and at the same time make a brilliant strategic military move by issuing the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln’s ability to manage crisis and move the country forward serves as a beacon of hope for contemporary readers: We are reminded by history that extreme challenges are excellent opportunities for great leaders to develop.

The biography also serves as a quick primer on the Civil War and American party politics. How did the Republican Party, represented by Lincoln, emerge to become one of four parties with presidential candidates in the 1860 election? What was Lincoln’s primary goal as the leader of the Union? What did he think about his Union generals, and what battle strategies did he push them to adopt?

Like any great historian, McPherson shakes the dust and cliches off his subject and gives us a fresh look at an icon. His prose is clear and concise. Readers who are looking for a great deal of information about Lincoln’s personal life won’t find it here, but they will find an inspiring, well-told story of a strong politician who kept his focus during turbulent times and yet led the nation with a refreshing dose of humility.

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