We’re at the season when the days are slowly beginning to lengthen. Perhaps this is a good time to review this book which I read in October. I did not finish the review then, even though I quoted the book in several sermons. This is my last review of the year! On the COVID front, I am still testing positive, but feel great although I do tire easily.
On Sunday (as I am not preaching this week), I will post the review of 53 books read during 2023. This is one of the best books I read during this year, the other being Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. It’s a hard pick between the two books. I recommend both. One enlarges our view of the world and our understanding on what is happening in Ukraine. This book provides insight into our own national challenge. Race is still the proverbial “elephant in the room,” in American politics.
Jon Meacham, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle
(New York: Random House, 2022), 713 pages (37-page prologue, 421 pages of text, 225 pages of notes on sources and bibliography, an index) plus 16 inserted color plates.
This is an excellent book that needs to be read and studied by Americans today. Meacham provides a biographical portrait of Lincoln, with an eye on the President’s struggle during the Civil War. He also delves, as much as one can, into Lincoln’s private faith that allowed him to continue in his position while the nation was being tested and as he endured personal tragedies including the loss of children and the challenges of an unstable wife. A politician who had served in the state house and one term at the Capitol in the House of Representatives, Lincoln seemed unsuited to lead the nation through our most trying hour. He also was a flawed man, hating slavery but not necessarily believing in equality of the races. But Lincoln was able to draw from his experiences and find the strength to become what many historians believe to be the best president in America’s history.
This book builds on Meacham’s earlier book, The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. In the Soul of America, the author drew heavily around Lincoln’s first inaugural address. In this book, he begins with Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which is often considered the most theological of all inaugural addresses and was given just weeks before Lincoln’s assassination. In both books, Meacham does more than write about the past. His writings provide insights for our nation to move forward, even when deeply divided. Meacham see’s Lincoln as a providing a path, one in which we hold tightly to what is good and nobly while also being gracious to our enemies.
The Election of 1860 and 2020
Meacham provides a detailed account of the events between Lincoln’s election in 1860 and his inauguration in March 1863. Some of the details are eerily familiar. Vice President John Breckinridge, who had just been defeated by Lincoln in the general election, oversaw the counting of the electoral votes on February 13 (this was before the inauguration was moved to January). As with January 6, secret forces gathered in Washington hoping for a coup and to make Washington the capitol for the Confederacy. Like Mike Pence, Breckinridge, who would later become a Confederate General, did his duty. Furthermore, General Winfield Scott, the hero of the Mexican War, ordered troops into Washington to quell any attempt to overthrow the government. The electoral college votes were counted without trouble. The next step was the inauguration itself. As Lincoln moved from Illinois to Washington by train, there were plans to assassinate him enroute. Secrecy and security prevented it from occurring.
I couldn’t read the accounts of what happened between the election in November 1860 and the inauguration without being reminded of January 6, 2020t. It has been shown that the events on that day were not spontaneous but planned. I found myself wondering if those behind January 6 had studied what had happened in 1861 and attempted to “correct” the mistakes of those who had attempted to keep Lincoln from the presidency.
This volume is steeped in theology. On the one hand, this seems strange as Lincoln never joined any church. His background was Baptist and Presbyterian, but he also read widely including the Unitarian Theodore Parker. It appears that as President, Lincoln became surer of his faith. His discussions and friendship with the Reverend Phineas Densmore Gurley of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church helped the President see God as an agent in the world. Gurley comforted the Lincolns at the death of their son, Willie, and was present at Lincoln’s own death. In seeing God as active in the world through humanity, yet God’s providential will being at times hidden, Lincoln developed a trust that helped him moved from one who attempted to keep the Union together to one who sought to end slavery.
I hope this book is widely read. As a nation, we should learn from Lincoln’s struggles.
I have come to appreciate Meacham’s writings over the past decade. Along with this book and The Soul of America, I have also read two other biographies by him: Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush and American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.