Review of Eric Foner, Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World

I just finished reading Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, a collection of essays on Abraham Lincoln edited by Eric Foner. I assigned this book to my Civil War students this fall. Since some of the essays deal with Lincoln in the Early Republic period, I’m offering my assessment of those chapters here, setting aside the other chapters that primarily focus on the post-1860 period.

It is easy to forget that Lincoln’s life didn’t start with the Civil War, or the 1860 presidential election, or even the 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas. Catherine Clinton’s essay, “Abraham Lincoln: The Family That Made Him, The Family He Made,” would have made a better introduction to the collection than James McPherson’s essay on Lincoln as commander-in-chief. Clinton outlines in brief Lincoln’s family background, examining his relationship with his father and mother, his step-mother, his wife, and other family members. One might be surprised to find out, as I was, that some people think John C. Calhoun was Lincoln’s biological father (p. 316, fn. 6). If you are looking for a short overview of Lincoln’s family to assign to students, then you should consider this essay.

Sean Wilentz’s “Abraham Lincoln and Jacksonian Democracy” examines Lincoln’s ties to some (though by no means all) of the principles of the party of Andrew Jackson. He underscores the point that, economically, “Lincoln remained an orthodox Old Northwest, Henry Clay Whig all his life” (64). On other issues, however, the Illinois politician was less discriminating. Beginning in 1854, Lincoln embraced Jackson’s forceful response to sectionalism in the 1832-33 nullification crisis. He recognized, Wilentz argues, that whatever his differences with Jackson’s economic policies, Old Hickory had outlined a plan of action that Lincoln could follow to oppose the burgeoning Slave Power that was threatening to destroy the nation.

Taken together, James Oakes’ “Natural Rights, Citizenship Rights, and Black Rights: Another Look at Lincoln and Race” and Eric Foner’s “Lincoln and Colonization” outline the development of Lincoln’s views on race and the place of African Americans in the United States. Oakes contends that Lincoln “believed that race relations were regulated at three different levels”: natural rights, citizenship rights, and states’ rights (p. 110). In terms of natural rights, Oakes is convinced that Lincoln “favored the equality of blacks and whites” (p. 110). When it came to the rights of citizenship, Lincoln “was cautiously egalitarian during the 1850s and unambiguously so during his presidency” (p. 110). As for states’ rights, according to Oakes, “[v]irtually every concession Lincoln made to racial prejudice concerned this third level” (p. 111). Foner’s essay on colonization argues that Lincoln embraced “the government-promoted settlement of black Americans in Africa or some other location” not as a pragmatic policy once president but as a long-term conviction that colonization was “a middle ground between the radicalism of the abolitionists and the prospect of a United States’ existing permanently half slave and half free” (p. 137, 145).

David Blight’s essay, “The Theft of Lincoln in Scholarship, Politics, and Public Memory,” places Lincoln in the context of modern memory. Many students and members of the general public should find useful his assessment of scholarly critics of Lincoln, such as Thomas DiLorenzo and Lerone Bennett, Jr. One minor criticism of Blight’s essay: His jab at the “inarticulate” former president George W. Bush was unnecessary (p. 270). While the comment may have pleased Democratic-leaning scholars and readers, Blight would have been better served sticking to his critique of the Republican Party’s rhetorical gymnastics to claim itself as the heir to Lincoln’s GOP, which is much more important than whether such a word as “strategery” exists (my example, not his).

In short, this essay collection seems best-suited for undergraduate and graduate students and the general public. It challenges assumptions about Lincoln, which those knowledgeable in the period will find useful, yet it is a text accessible to those who just want to learn something about who Lincoln was.

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One Reply to “Review of Eric Foner, Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World

  1. The idea that anybody can emulate Lincoln today given his times, his wit, his political genius, and still get elected is self inflating and wishful thinking. Lincoln wouldn’t get elected anyway today because his humor would be offensive and he was too honest. I am not cynical about politicians’ honesty as much as that some honesty is too forward in the same way Lincoln himself chastised Seward for his extreme comments on slavery. His blunder in voting against the Mexican War when elected to the the US Senate is a case in point and I think he would have done the same thing at the end of his life. He was not wrong in today’s sense of thinking but he was then in that scenario, and he knew that himself. Lincoln also had a homespun upbringing that would make him appear as even more of a rube than he did then. He was right for his times and had the moderate approach to deal with the radical views of both sides of the slavery issue. Frankly I think he would be a great Cabinet member and particularly Sec of State in today’s world. As a leader he would appear too simple even though he was “dumb like a fox”.

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