Lincoln the President

By J. G. Randall
UNTIL twenty or twenty-five years ago, Lincoln biography was largely the concern of three kinds of writers: those who had known Lincoln in life, those who were impelled to produce a labor of love, and those who wrote history as an avocation. Then the “professional historians, trained in the technique of research and insistent upon objectivity and thorough documentation, got to work, added new facts, and in dozens, perhaps hundreds, of monographic studies challenged old conclusions.
Now, in Lincoln the President, by James G. Randall of the University of Illinois, comes the first synthesis, the first comprehensive biography, by an academician. These two volumes, which carry the story only through Gettysburg, — there are two more to come, treat Lincoln’s pre-Presidential career in considerable detail, and present most of the conclusions reached by a generation of critical scholars.
Randall’s Lincoln is essentially the same towering, compassionate democrat that the American people have made their great folk hero. But many episodes in his life, and many phases of the history of his times, appear here in versions materially different from the traditional. Randall considers, for example, that politics, rather than high principle, animated the Republicans in 1860, and that political maneuvering of the most practical kind brought about Lincoln’s nomination. The Civil War itself, in Randall’s view, was tragically unnecessary the result of a “whipped-up crisis” produced by relatively few agitators, North and South. Nevertheless, Randall does not see how Lincoln, in the situation that faced him when he took office, could have avoided the resort to arms.
As commander-in-chief, however, his course left much to be desired. Into the War Department he first put Cameron, who certainly condoned outrageous plunder, and then the “arrogant and intriguing Stanton,” who for three years “enjoyed more power than wisdom.”McClellan, whom Randall considers the North’s greatest commander, Lincoln sacrificed to the radicals of his own party. On the other hand, Lincoln influenced foreign affairs and handled domestic issues, particularly public opinion and the problem of slavery, with the wisdom which universal opinion has attributed to him.
These, of course, are only a few of the author’s conclusions. In arriving at them he argues the evidence pro and con, and then, contrary to general academic practice, states clearly his own opinions.
Any comprehensive biography of Lincoln must face comparison with Carl Sandburg’s The War Years. The Sandburg work is narrative and pictorial, a dark and gorgeous tapestry of a nation at war, with Lincoln its central figure; Randall’s study emphasizes the political, and is coolly analytical rather than colorful. It is unlikely that it will reach Sandburg’s huge audience, but for many years to come every serious student and many thoughtful readers will be grateful for it.