American original

More drivel has been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other American, including such literary marvels as Lincoln on the Coming of the Caterpillar Tractor and that stirring drama, Abe’s First Fish. Transcending all is the Lincoln legend: the poor, self-educated backwoods rail-splitter, who freed the slaves and became the tragic hero of the Civil War.

Yet, as William Lee Miller points out in his incisive Lincoln’s Virtues, there is much to be said for the legend, which in its main parts is truer than legends generally tend to be. What the legend leaves out—that Lincoln was a shrewd and ambitious party politician—makes him even more interesting and praiseworthy.

Unlike the New England transcendentalists such as Emerson or Thoreau, Lincoln did not choose the luxury of fashioning an abstract metaphysics that he hoped might apply to the world around him. And unlike the Abolitionists, with whom he shared an absolute abhorrence of slavery, Lincoln did not fight his battle from the press and pulpit. He engaged in earnest, moral, political debate against the powerful pro-slavery forces with all of the considerable logic and eloquence that he could command.

Lincoln, writes Miller, was morally as well as intellectually self-educated. In a rough-and-tumble frontier culture, where men were expected to drink, smoke, swear, fight and hunt, Lincoln did none of these (except, on a couple of occasions when literally forced into it, fight.) But he was never sanctimonious about his self-abstaining virtues, once startling a temperance gathering by arguing that drunks were often better people than teetotalers. Beyond these “negative virtues,” Miller argues, Lincoln cultivated the life of the mind, reading deeply, though not widely, in constitutional law, history, rhetoric and ethics.

Never a member of any religious denomination, he knew the Bible better than most preachers and Shakespeare better than most English professors. What Lincoln gained from his reading was a powerful sense of intellectual and ethical self-mastery that served him well in times of crisis. He came to see democratic politics as a noble calling, which held the potential of elevating the moral plane of the citizenry. And among his deepest-held convictions was that slavery was evil: “If slavery isn’t wrong, then nothing is wrong.”

Lincoln’s most appealing trait was his sense of humor. Like that other great American original, Mark Twain, he was hilariously funny, a yarn-spinner of epic proportions. And, like Twain, the tales he told were both apposite and timeless. Take the story about the young soldier, preparing to go to war, whose girlfriend had fashioned him a banner to wear across his uniform, emblazoned “Liberty or Death.” “Could this maybe be changed a mite,” the soldier asked, “to ‘Liberty or hurt real bad’?” Humor is never a virtue of the self-righteous.

As to the latest fashion in Lincoln revisionism, which seeks to portray him as a racist, on its face the charge is offensive to anyone who decries anachronistic moral judgments. To call Lincoln a racist is like branding Eleanor of Aquitaine elitist or criticizing Socrates for being un-Christian. Miller persuasively argues that the fight in which Lincoln was engaged was not the contemporary struggle over racial equality but the battle against the extension of the institution of human slavery. And while Lincoln did not argue for the social equality of black slaves, he made the most eloquent and powerful case ever advanced for their humanity.

Miller’s superb book dramatically demonstrates that thorough and reasoned contemplation of Lincoln’s virtues can speak as strongly as any “mystic chord of memory” to the “better angels of our nature.”