Preface - Abraham Lincoln - James M. McPherson

Abraham Lincoln - James M. McPherson (2009)


During my first year in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, a local radio station telephoned the Department of History to ask if it could recommend someone to answer questions about Abraham Lincoln from listeners to a call-in show scheduled for Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1959. I had recently completed a research paper on Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, so the department suggested me. Being young and foolish, I took on the task. It was a sobering learning experience. What I mainly learned was how much I did not know about Abraham Lincoln.

In the half century since that day, I have learned a great deal about Abraham Lincoln, but I continue to encounter new information and new insights. My own perspective has also changed during that half century. I wrote my doctoral dissertation, which became my first book, on the abolitionists during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Like many young historians, I tended to adopt the viewpoints and attitudes of the people about whom I was writing. Most abolitionists were sharply critical of Lincoln in the early years of the Civil War for what they perceived as his slowness to move against slavery and his apparent deference to the border states and Northern conservatives on questions of emancipation and race relations. Lincoln never fully caught up with the abolitionist and radical Republican positions on these questions, and my own attitudes reflected their continuing criticisms of him.

Only after years of studying the powerful crosscurrents of political and military pressures on Lincoln did I come to appreciate the skill with which he steered between the numerous shoals of conservatism and radicalism, free states and slave states, abolitionists, Republicans, Democrats, and border-state Unionists to maintain a steady course that brought the nation to victory—and the abolition of slavery—in the end. If he had moved decisively against slavery in the war’s first year, as radicals pressed him to do, he might well have fractured his war coalition, driven border-state Unionists over to the Confederacy, lost the war, and witnessed the survival of slavery for at least another generation.

I have written a lot about Abraham Lincoln in my career. Others have written more. During this bicentennial commemoration of his birth, a large number of excellent biographies and other books about Lincoln have appeared and continue to appear. Most of these are substantial works; one definitive multivolume biography runs well over a half million words. Amid this cascade of information, I believe there is room for a brief biography that captures the essential events and meaning of Lincoln’s life without oversimplification or overgeneralization. This is what I have tried to do in the following pages.

J. M. M.