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Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography
Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography
William E. Gienapp
Oxford University Press, 2002
256 pp., $29.95

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This Fiery Trial: The Speeches and Writings of Abraham Lincoln
This Fiery Trial: The Speeches and Writings of Abraham Lincoln

Oxford University Press, 2002
256 pp., $26.00

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Richard Carwardine


The Wisest Radical of Them All

Two Views of Lincoln

Few historical figures can rival Abraham Lincoln's constant ability to prompt interesting and first-rate scholarship. The paucity of the record for his early life, his enigmatic personality and lifelong reluctance to reveal himself even to intimates, and the profundity of the public issues that he faced: all encourage speculative analysis and have worked in recent years to attract the attention of some of the very best American historians. Though as a young man Lincoln mournfully judged that he had "done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived," he would later recognize, during the second year of an increasingly brutal conflict, that the "fiery trial" of war meant that the Union's leaders "will be remembered in spite of ourselves … , in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation." But he would scarcely have credited that he should become a subject of historical attention second only to Jesus Christ.

Lincoln was himself suspicious of the biographical form, a caution shared by many—perhaps most—academic historians writing in recent times, at least as far as the lives of "great men" are concerned. For much of the period since the 1960s, attention to social structures, political cultures and processes, ideological tides, popular movements and voting behavior has widely taken precedence over the study of individual leaders: "bottom-up," not "top-down," approaches have been much more in vogue. With the exception of Stephen Oates's With Malice Toward None (1977), no biography of Lincoln worthy of note appeared during the 1970s and 1980s. Yet over the last decade several justly acclaimed lives of the Union president have played their part in an extraordinary and more general renaissance in American Civil War studies. Both David Herbert Donald, with Lincoln (1995), and Allen C. Guelzo, with Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999), have produced prizewinning, distinctive, and highly readable biographies, the one emphasizing Lincoln's "passivity," the other ...

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