Getting Right with Lincoln
by Patricia Allen '13 (M.A.)
In his introductory essay to Lincoln and Leadership: Military, Political and Religious Decision Making (Fordham University Press, 2012), Civil War historian and Professor of History Randall M. Miller, Ph.D., notes that as biographer David Donald observed, Americans have been trying to “get right with Lincoln” since his death, and predicted that the attempt to do so would continue thereafter.
A collection of essays about the 16th president edited by Miller, the book grew out of a conference on Lincoln as leader held in Philadelphia in 2009 to celebrate the bicentennial of his birth. In it, Miller writes, five historians wrestle with the great man’s “conduct, character and consequence as president during the ‘ordeal by fire’ that was the Civil War.”
As historians like Miller continue to grapple with the man and his time, Lincoln has taken up a renewed prominence in popular culture, if not the American consciousness, with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War being commemorated on historic battlegrounds, in cities both north and south, in best-selling books, and even by Hollywood, with the release late last year of an award-winning feature film.
Miller, who holds the William Dirk Warren ‘50 Sesquicentennial Chair at Saint Joseph’s, says that while many consider Lincoln our greatest president — perhaps even the greatest American — others feel he compromised the Constitution by prosecuting a brutal war and using executive authority to excess. As such, Lincoln is still a controversial figure, thus the need for every generation to “get right” with him, or come to understand him.
“Understanding Lincoln is not simply understanding ‘then’ — our past and our shared history — it’s understanding who we are, now,” Miller says. “The fundamental questions he raised — who is free and who is ‘unfree’ — are still timely. Not in terms of the institution of slavery, of course, but certainly in terms of those who struggle under poverty’s yoke.”
As a historian, Miller finds it exciting that the sesquicentennial gives us the opportunity to think about our identity in the context of the Civil War, and to encounter Lincoln from a 21st century vantage point. The author or editor of more than 20 books on the Civil War, slavery, the American South, Reconstruction, religion and a host of other topics, he cautions against getting caught up in the era’s size and emotion.
“Fought on our own soil, the Civil War was cataclysmic,” says Miller. “At its end, more than 750,000 Americans had died, though not in vain. It was the right-of-passage we underwent to abolish slavery, and its conclusion preserved the Union, allowing us to take our place on the world stage as a nation.”
The war’s overwhelming scope makes it essential to bring the Civil War down to scale, which is accomplished by looking at individual people and circumstances, and is what Miller and his collaborators have done with Lincoln and Leadership.
The book adds color and nuance to this man who has achieved mythical status in our national imagination. With the fresh perspectives inspired by the lively conversations at the 2009 conference, the authors offer subtler, more human versions of Lincoln than the great father figure ensconced in marble at the Lincoln Memorial. He emerges as an unabashed political operative; as a by-his-bootstraps commander-in-chief; and as a healing theologian, binding up the nation’s wounds with the Second Inaugural’s powerful oratory, while also reminding the people about our collective complicity in slavery and the need to pay the costs of such a sin.
But beyond the scholar’s charge to keep re-examining this complicated man, Miller acknowledges “a kind of magnetism about Lincoln that’s hard to explain,” which continues to keep historians and the general public intrigued.
“It’s not just because he was assassinated, or martyred, as some characterize it,” Miller says. “He did something that all his contemporaries said was impossible: He summoned and mustered the resources to keep this unwieldy thing called the Republic together, and put down a massive rebellion at the same time. It’s really quite remarkable. But through it all, Lincoln was not a god; he was a man. And if we look at him as such, we can ‘get right with him,’ and perhaps come to appreciate him all the more.”