McPherson’s account isn’t a page turner, but the author carefully avoids military jargon and skillfully shows Lincoln as man, not myth. The president made mistakes and miscalculations. His frustration spilled out in depressed moods, sarcastic gibes, and red-hot anger. And he repeatedly failed to convince inept generals to act. But Lincoln still managed to succeed brilliantly, holding the North together and strategizing his way to victory.
Through the eyes of McPherson, readers learn how Lincoln got so smart: He read voraciously, carefully considered advice, charmed would-be enemies, and overlooked insults.
McPherson does stumble at the end of the book when he excuses Lincoln’s stunning decisions to curb free speech and other civil liberties. McPherson writes that the president’s actions were mild considering the Civil War was a bigger threat to the US than the 20th century’s world wars or today’s terrorism.
That’s a stretch. But McPherson’s link from the past to present does raise a fascinating question: What if a modern Lincoln had faced a modern war? Would his actions be acceptable today? One thing seems clear: He’d be a formidable foe.
One of Lincoln’s intellectual opponents (turned friend) was the remarkable Frederick Douglass. Born a slave, Douglass had a seemingly unquenchable intellect and spirit. As a young fieldworker, he chose to be severely beaten by a tyrannical white overseer rather than submit. At the age of 20 he escaped and went on to become a mighty warrior in the fight against slavery. His skills as a writer and orator, arguably, rivaled those of Lincoln.
Together, asserts prize-winning author and historian John Stauffer in Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln and Douglass were “the pre-eminent self-made men in American history.”