A Community for Abraham Lincoln & American History — For Collectors, By Collectors. More About Us.

Book Reviews

Duty of a Statesman

July 3, 2021

William Lee Miller. President Lincoln: the Duty of a Statesman. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008, 497p., $30.

The subject of this new work is described by its author: “Statecraft at the highest level is a most exacting human activity, one that presents distinctive moral dilemmas. This book examines the moral performances of Abraham Lincoln in the office of president of the United States. It is therefore indirectly a book about statesmanship and moral choice in the American presidency, through an examination of the conduct of the most remarkable occupant of that office. I wrote an earlier book, Lincoln’s Virtue: An Ethical Biography, which dealt primarily with Lincoln before he became president. Of course a wit said the next book should be Lincoln’s Vices. I offer this instead.”

Besides the above mentioned “prequel” published in 2002, Mr. Miller has written Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the American Congress (1996), The First Liberty: America’s Foundation in Religious Liberty (1986), The Fifteenth Ward and the Great Society (1966) and Piety Along the Potomac (1964). He has worked as a magazine writer and editor, a speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson in 1956, a three-term New Haven alderman, and a professor at Yale, the University of Virginia, Smith College and Indiana University. He is currently “Scholar in Ethics and Institutions” at the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He is on the boards of the Abraham Lincoln Institute, the Lincoln Studies Group and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

Miller did not write a book on Lincoln’s vices apparently because he feels he didn’t have any. If he had written it, it would have been like those clever antebellum campaign biographies (“The Life and Services of the [opposition candidate n with blank pages inside. He feels that Lincoln was, to quote another Civil War era usage, “The Right Man in the Right Place.” He emphasizes Lincoln’s meager qualifications and the negative image he projected, in stark contrast to his performance in office. The qualifications of previous presidents are briefly discussed, as well as their accomplishments, or lack thereof. Miller sees Lincoln as a man who had a moral anchor, prudence in the execution of his duties, an abiding belief in the United States and the ideals of its founding, an ability to discern priorities and act on them, and a tenacious adherence to maintaining both the Union and the oath of office he took to uphold it.

Various aspects of the Lincoln presidency are presented chronologically. How he dealt with these issues, as well as the multiple crises that surfaced from the outset, is explored in depth. Each episode tends to reinforce the author’s admiration for Lincoln and his executive abilities. The subjects presented include: the decision to reinforce Forts Sumter and Pickens, Bull Run and other Union defeats, dealing with Fremont and Hunter’s unauthorized emancipation proclamations, keeping border states within the Union, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the “Trent” Affair and its ramifications, McClellan’s checkered career as commander, the slavery issue, finding moral meaning to the War and significance beyond-the-moment, dealing with the opposition, the use of pardons in courts-martial under review, and dealing with issues of reconstruction.

The challenges for Lincoln were unprecedented. “Could he discern objectively, not deceiving himself with wishes, the actual shape of the concrete reality in which he would make decisions? Could he connect the great moral principles to which he had given voice to the severely limiting realities of the actual complicated world he faced? Having made that discernment and that connection, could he decide? Or would he, like Buchanan, postpone, procrastinate, and waver? Having decided, could he persuade others? Could he lead? Having decided and persuaded, could he hold to his course through vicissitudes? But could he then change – admit mistakes, alter course – when circumstances would warrant?” Miller answers these questions most emphatically in the affirmative. Many of the actions Lincoln took were controversial, then and now, and went counter to the advice of colleagues. In some cases, their very legality was open to question. “Lincoln, operating at the moral as well as the geographical border, had condoned if not instituted the arrest and imprisonment of state legislators as they were about to legislate, and of police commissioners, a police chief, and a mayor; had suspended habeas corpus and declined to honor an order by the chief justice of the United States; had sent troops to occupy a state not in rebellion and to provide the presence of force as voters went to the polls; had recognized as a governor a man appointed by delegates from less than a quarter of the counties of a state; had acquiesced in the division of an existing state on the thinnest of rationalizations; had surreptitiously sent arms to sympathetic civilians in a state that was not in rebellion; had insisted that a general’s order emancipating slaves be canceled, thereby infuriating his antislavery supporters; had acquiesced in the mustering of civilians directly into the federals’ service, skipping the state militia; had jumped a captain all the way to a brigadier general, ahead of a lifetime army man; and had condoned making war on an elected governor, driving him into exile. These and like acts to come would set terrible precedents for later chief executives, but they could be defended in their own time and place not only by the necessity but by the unique necessity of civil war, in which the physical and moral essence of the nation was at risk – uniquely at risk. These actions were made necessary by a profound and original irregularity; that the rebels sought to overthrow by force of arms the government that Lincoln was sworn to defend.”

The author’s research included the standard sources, such as Collected Works , Herndon’s Lincoln, the diaries of Gideon Welles, Nicolay and Hay’s biography, as well as many Lincoln books published within the last decade or so. He tends to overly quote these recent works, as if to lend credence to the conclusion he advances. This practice can make one suspect that the author lacks independence or has anything new to offer. The relationship has an incestuous aspect. Having written a book, future authors will now read his work and quote his conclusions in their books. Like a Russian nesting-doll, there will be layerupon- layer of references, with a core of little substance. Obviously, he has a point-of-view or position which he is trying to establish. He does this primarily by discussing situations involving Lincoln – sometimes, like Lincoln, presenting opposing views. In each case, though, he ends up approving the course Lincoln took. He can certainly come off as an apologist for Lincoln, even though the evidence he presents is generally persuasive. Each historical figure seems to have someone willing to trumpet his virtues. Miller comes down hard on McClellan, for example, with nary a kind word for Little Napoleon. Yet, there have been persuasive books written in his defense. So, the question arises … how balanced are these books? How balanced is Miller’s? Each reader must decide this for himself, it seems.

There are some errors in the book. These include calling the hotel that Elmer Ellsworth was killed in the “Principal Hotel”, rather than the Marshall House. Another states that General Grant “was preparing the Army of Northern Virginia for its big push in the Wilderness Campaign.” (JVas Robert E. Lee aware of this?) Miller is not a particularly gifted writer, although his style is rather straightforward and conversational. Some of his sentences require a second or third reading to ascertain their meaning and proper flow. The editing of this book seems very poor indeed. Some examples of both: “Lincoln needed to slip the brandy of emancipation into the lemonade of Union-saving for reasons both of his formal moral and legal obligation and of political reality.” (this allusion closely following the Lincoln anecdote about the Irishman desiring his drink to be spiked “unbeknownst to him. “) Or, “On the evening of the very day the Union armies won their unfulfilled victory at Antietam, on September, Lincoln at Soldiers’ Home worked on the final draft of what would come to be called the preliminary emancipation proclamation.” How about ” … setting forth proposals that had already been multiply rejected.” Or, one final example of sloppy writing: “With the proclamation his objectives – saving the Union and ending slavery – implicitly linked but in tension with each other from the start, came now to be explicitly joined. He no longer needed to disguise the strong stuff of emancipation in the club soda of backward-looking Union-saving.”

Miller presents a coherent thesis which, for the most part, gets to the essence of Lincoln and, with minor exceptions, is supported by established facts. How balanced it is remains an unanswered question. We don’t feel the work provides much in the way of new insight. It pretty much covers much of the old ground. Any value it possesses rests with its focus. It would be unfair, however, to say that this work lacks any new information. Some examples of this include: the case of Dr. David M. Wright who was executed for killing a Union soldier in Norfolk (an entire chapter), a December 1861 report by Simon Cameron proposing! emancipation and arming of slaves that was sent to newspapers and published without Lincoln’s knowledge, a proposed peace bill tiative letter from Lincoln to Jeff Davis written in August 1864 at Henry Raymond’s behest, David Hunter’s hilarious letter read before the Senate dealing with his use of former slaves, and a White House practical joke played by Harry Truman on his mother, who had a lifelong and perhaps justified hatred of Abraham Lincoln.