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Richard Carwardine

Lincoln and Providence

The bicentenary of Abraham Lincoln's birth approaches at a time of a remarkable renaissance in Lincoln scholarship. Biographies, specialist monographs, reprinted memoirs, and scholarly editions of the reminiscences of Lincoln's family, friends, and acquaintances have streamed from the press over the last few years. Efforts to reconstruct Lincoln's legal career are reaching their climax. Electronic versions of his collected works and private papers are well under way. What explains this hum of activity?

Interest in the Civil War goes in cycles, of course. A decade ago Ken Burns's television series helped reawaken public fascination in a subject neglected since the 1960s. Lincoln now commands attention as a model of political seriousness, in shining contrast to the sound-bite vacuity of contemporary public life. But disillusionment with political leadership can cut both ways. In the 1970s, when Watergate poisoned the appetite for political history and tainted the notion of political heroism, volumes of Lincolniana cluttered second-hand bookstores.

The rediscovery of Lincoln probably has less to do with current political attitudes than with deeper intellectual currents in the academy, not least a sense that the dominant social history of the last three decades has its limits as well as its rewards. Important as they may be, structures, cultures, non-contingent forces, and the disempowered are not the whole story. Some see in the study of political leadership an antidote to the centrifugal fashions of recent American historical writing. The return to Lincoln becomes all the more rewarding thanks to our deeper understanding of the world in which he moved. Ironically, this has been the achievement of social and cultural historians disenchanted by the narrowness of political history, traditionally understood.

What guarantees the enduring attraction of Lincoln studies is, naturally enough, the magnitude of the issues with which he grappled: the meaning of equality in a racially ...

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