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Book Reviews

Lincoln’s Rise to the Presidency

July 3, 2021

Lincoln’s Rise to the Presidency.
by William C. Harris (Lawrence, KS. University Press of Kansas. 2007, 412p.) $34.95.

William C. Harris is professor emeritus of history at North Carolina State University and the author of nine other books, including at least two on Lincoln. This book’s press release reads: “Although most scholars have labeled Lincoln a moderate, Harris reveals that he was by his own admission a conservative who revered the Founders and advocated ‘adherence to the old and tried.’ By emphasizing the conservative bent that guided Lincoln’s political evolution – his background as a Henry Clay Whig, his rural ties, his cautious nature, and the racial and political realties of central Illinois – Harris provides fresh insight into Lincoln’s political ideas and activities and portrays him as morally opposed to slavery but fundamentally conservative in his political strategy against it. Interweaving aspects of Lincoln’s life and character that were an integral part of his rise to prominence, Harris provides indepth coverage of Lincoln’s controversial term in Congress, his reemergence as the leader of the antislavery coalition in Illinois, and his Senate campaign against Stephen A. Douglas. He particularly describes how Lincoln organized the antislavery coalition into the Republican Party while retaining the support of its diverse elements, and sheds new light on Lincoln’s ongoing efforts to bring Know Nothing nativists into the coalition without alienating ethnic groups. He also provides new information and analysis regarding Lincoln’s nomination and election to the presidency, the selection of his cabinet, and his important role as president-elect during the secession crisis of 1860-1861.”

As indicated, the book covers Lincoln’s life from his birth to the inauguration on March 4, 1861. The emphasis is on the period from 1854 to 1861, both for thematic reasons and as a consequence of the available resource material. The author is obviously versed in the wellspring of Lincoln historiography, which he selectively uses as a foundation to his own research. The book makes ample use of primary source material, such as newspaper editorials, correspondence, speeches, diaries, and selected quotes. We recognized some of the letters referred to as ones that have recently appeared “In the Marketplace” and reported on in our journal. Lincoln wrote a lot of letters in his time. Many of these reflect his ambition and concerns, as well as a desire to consult with his colleagues and, in some instances, seek their aid. Lincoln knew that he could not accomplish his goals in a vacuum. When appropriate, reference is sometimes made to the conclusions and observations of noted Lincoln biographers.

There are thirteen illustrations which consist almost exclusively of photographic portraits of the personalities discussed. The author is perhaps “material culture challenged” and may not have felt the need to embellish his work with images of locales, political cartoons, documents, etc. Not a big point of contention, but the period described is so dramatic and colorful, that the inclusion of more images could have only helped the reader to visualize the historical period.

The book reads well and reflects a high level of scholarship. As such, it may well merit a place as a definitive, key work. It is certainly one of the best Lincoln biographies we have read. The conclusions are all “right-on-the-money” and are substantiated by original source material. We are treated to many quotes of Lincoln that we are unfamiliar with, along with statements by contemporaries, favorable or not. Other unfamiliar events are discussed, such as a pre-presidential campaign strategy meeting held by Lincoln and his supporters in the winter of 1859-60.

The authors tries to be objective in his analysis and description of events, and succeeds admirably. Still, he is not adverse to critiques of Lincoln. These include Lincoln’s belief in repatriation or colonization for freed Blacks, his failure to issue reassurances and policy statements during the secession crisis, and his unrealistic hope that Civil War could be averted and that the majority of Southerners were opponents of secession. Harris’ views on the election of 1860 also occasionally run contrary to tradition. He disputes the notion that Lincoln gained the Republican nomination through deals made by his managers (notably with the Pennsylvania delegation loyal to Simon Cameron). He also
disputes the idea that the “packing of the galleries” of the Wigwam with Lincoln partisans affected the result of the convention, and that the “Rail Splitter” image introduced at the State Republican Convention in Decatur the preceding month had any appreciable affect on the outcome in Chicago. We do learn that some Southern and border state delegations were seated at the Wigwam event, despite some credential controversy, mainly as a politically expedient move (delegation flags or standards for Texas and Arkansas remain extant).

As stated, we can find little fault with any of the facts or conclusions that the book presents. In that regard, the book may be deemed definitive and authoritative. There is one exception, however, and that involves the contention that a key issue during the campaign of 1860 evolved around charges of corruption in the Buchanan administration. Harris bases this on a brief reference in James McPherson’s Battle City of Freedom. He quotes Iowa Republican Senator James Grimes as saying “Our triumph was achieved more because of Lincoln’s honesty & the corruption of the Democrats, than because of the Negro question.” August Belmont, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, declared “The country at large had become disgusted with the misrule of Mr. Buchanan, and the corruption which disgraced his administration. The Democratic party was made answerable for [Buchanan’s] misdeeds … This feeling was particularly strong in the rural districts.” Is it possible that the gentlemen referred to had an agenda, such as a desire to marginalize the slavery issue or overlook the weaknesses of Douglas? In any event, their comments constitute opinions. Harris brings up this corruption issue perhaps a half-dozen times. We have never seen a single campaign item (ribbon, ballot, cartoon, pamphlet, token or broadside) that deals with this so-called key issue. And, common sense tells you that charges of corruption against Buchanan constitute a moot point. The guy was not running for reelection. No matter who won in 1860, there was going to be a new administration installed come March 4th 1861.

We are also a little disconcerted over the assertion that the Wide Awakes were a quasi-military organization that provided security during Lincoln’s pre-inaugural trip and inauguration. We don’t necessarily dispute this, but would appreciate more details. Unfortunately, no footnotes are attached to these statements.

In reading Harris’ narrative, we come away with a renewed respect for Lincoln’s political acumen and communicative skills. He was the quintessential political animal with a mind like a steel trap. He knew the politics and personalities in all the key states. He had his “finger on the political pulse” of the body politic and knew how to navigate the political waters. While he made some mistakes in his career, his innate conservatism and understanding of people became sources of strength as he assumed the presidency. Fortunately for the country, the skills he honed and the experience he gained prior to being elected came to serve him well during our country’s greatest crisis.

Vol. 13, No. 1-2 (Fall/Winter 2007-8)