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Stephen L. Carter
A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, by Harry V. Jaffa, Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, 750 pp.; $35
On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History, by John Patrick Diggins, Yale University Press, 2000, 330 pp.; $27.95
Most serious historians will insist that Abraham Lincoln was, on a wide variety of measures, America's greatest president. He was. The reason is not that he ended slavery, but that he roused the nation to fight for it to end. The "great civil war" of the Gettysburg Address remains, to this day, the bloodiest war the nation has ever fought. Hundreds of thousands of lives were sacrificed so that the Union might remain together and slavery might end. The exhaustion of that effort afflicted the nation for another century after the war ended, and some aches and pains are with us still.
Lincoln also remains a subject of mystery and controversy. Historians, both professional and amateur, battle over every aspect of the man. Was he for slavery or against it? Did he press for war or was war pressed upon him? Was he a schemer, a villain, an incompetent? Or a visionary, a hero, a genius? Back and forth rages the argument. In a curious way, our continued fascination with the man is a mark of his greatness: nobody (except John Updike, in a memorable play) writes about Lincoln's immediate predecessor, James Buchanan, under whose administration the Union began to dissolve.
A hot subject of historical debate has been the precise array of forces and personalities that led to the outbreak of the war—and, in particular, the role of the sixteenth president, not in the war's prosecution, but in its beginning. The historian Harry V. Jaffa of Claremont McKenna College has jumped into this fray with his recent volume, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, an earnest and persuasive effort to debunk recent revisionist history that has attacked Lincoln for purportedly not wanting to ...