Lincoln: Illuminated and Remembered. By William C. Harris. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2023. Paperback, 248 pp., $29.95.
Reviewed by Jonathan Noyalas
Each time I am in the nation’s capital and visit the Ford’s Theatre Society Center for Education and Leadership I am mesmerized by the massive tower of Lincoln books, thirty-four feet in height. The structure offers a powerful visual of how Lincoln’s life and legacy has inspired and continues to encourage generations of historians to investigate the nuances and complexities of arguably the republic’s greatest chief executive. One would think that with an estimated 16,000 volumes published about Lincoln that little remains to be said about the sixteenth president. William C. Harris’s latest volume offers a useful reminder that that perspective is folly.
Harris, professor emeritus of history at North Carolina State University and the author of numerous important works about Lincoln, draws on a wide array of primary sources, including new material, and the best scholarship to largely investigate the foundation of Lincoln’s remarkable leadership style and explore why Lincoln acted as he did during the Civil War.
Although an admirer of Lincoln, Harris rightfully points out that despite Lincoln’s possession of remarkable personal and political qualities, ones that compelled him to learn from past mistakes and embrace pragmatism, Lincoln made his fair share of mistakes and struggled at times, particularly in the Civil War’s infancy, as commander in chief. While an unsurprising conclusion as other historians have argued similarly, Harris’s deeply personal investigation of Lincoln challenges what some have regarded as gospel about Lincoln—that Lincoln incessantly shared humorous stories as relief for his depression. Although Harris does not entirely discount the emotional benefits, the author convincingly reveals that Lincoln frequently utilized his storytelling talents to “avoid satisfying demands of supplicants or making unwise promises.” (11)
All of the lessons Lincoln learned throughout his life shaped his presidency, but arguably none influenced Lincoln more, in Harris’s estimation, than the Mexican-American War. Lincoln, as so many other scholars have contended, detested “Mr. Polk’s War,” but nonetheless took valuable lessons from it. Beyond using war as a last resort to settle a dispute, Harris reveals that Lincoln learned much from the nation’s conflict with Mexico, including the importance of making clear to a nation the reason(s) for a conflict and the necessity for an administration to justify its actions to the public.
Harris’s exemplary volume offers more than a meditation on the numerous facets of Lincoln’s leadership. In addition to a thoughtful essay about Lincoln’s commitment to compensated emancipation, Harris utilizes Lincoln’s responses to the efforts of Confederate agents in the North to seek retribution for attacks on Confederate civilians in the South and destabilize life in the North to explore Lincoln’s thoughts about law. Covering somewhat familiar territory, Harris solidifies Lincoln’s affinity for the Constitution and disdain for anyone, including John Brown, who attempted to take the law into their own hands to correct what they perceived as an injustice. For anyone who violated the law and attempted to create chaos, such as Captain Robert Kennedy, part of a Confederate operation that carried out a firebomb attack in New York City on November 25, 1864, Lincoln believed execution the only just punishment. Although believed to be necessary, Harris, correctly so, illustrates how granting approval for such a dramatic penalty tormented Lincoln. Furthermore, Harris underscores Lincoln’s acknowledgement that such heavy-handedness at times could do more harm than good. For example, Harris offers a thoughtful examination about Lincoln’s refusal to use military force, despite the request from various state governors, to suppress pro-Confederate groups in the North such as the Knights of the Golden Circle and Sons of Liberty. Lincoln believed, as Harris asserts, doing so would only produce more violence and garner additional opposition.
While the first four essays focus exclusively on Lincoln, Harris’s concluding chapter explores the career of Senator James Doolittle, arguably one of Lincoln’s most consistent supporters and champions. Harris’s insightful examination of Doolittle, aside from offering a first-rate analysis of the Wisconsin senator’s unflinching efforts to support Lincoln, offers a valuable lens through which to examine white attitudes on race, federal policy toward Native Americans, and the divisions that existed within the Republican Party during Reconstruction.
There is much to admire and little to criticize about this important volume. Harris’s narrative style, cogent analysis, and impeccable research mark this an important and accessible contribution to Lincoln scholarship. Seasoned historians and novices alike will find Harris’s volume insightful and of extraordinary worth.
Jonathan A. Noyalas is director of Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute and a professor in the history department at Shenandoah. He is the author or editor of fifteen books including Slavery & Freedom in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War Era (University Press of Florida, 2021).