Perhaps no American in history is surrounded by more mythology than Abraham Lincoln. The "Great Emancipator" who freed the slaves actually freed not a single one. The man who supposedly put himself above politics to serve the good of the country was in reality a masterful politician who was not above playing hardball to get what and where he wanted. The most lingering and powerful myth of all for most Americans might be the belief that Lincoln was adored while he was alive, seen as the savior of the Union. Nothing could be further from the truth.
An important new book has been released in the past few months which reveals just how despised Abraham Lincoln was by his opponents, the press, the intelligentsia, and abolitionists. The book, written by Larry Tagg, is titled "The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln" with the subtitle of "The Story of America's Most Reviled President." I've had the great pleasure to read the book and have decided to post a review of it here in my blog.
(Before I begin the review, I want to make it clear that Larry Tagg is a Lincoln enthusiast. The book discusses the hatred felt for Lincoln by people in the 1860's. It is not a revisionist history or modern-day "hatchet job" on Lincoln.)
Lincoln was obviously the target of fanatical hatred throughout the South, where he received not a single electoral vote in the election of 1860. He was branded an usurper, a tyrant, a bigot, a king, and a gorilla. He was called ugly, foolish, stupid, and other names not fit to print even by today's standards.
What is more surprising, though, is how much Lincoln was detested by many in the North. The rival Democrat press savaged him from the moment he was nominated. Most Northerners felt this backwoods country lawyer from what was then the frontier was not up to the challenge of leading the country at the most critical point in its history. Abolitionists hated him because of his foot-dragging about slavery. His political rivals targeted him from the beginning as well, his new Secretary of State William Seward attempting a bit of a "coup" against him. The intelligentsia laughed at his appearance, mocked his lack of formal education, and were repulsed by his accent. "Proper society" was shocked by the stories of his crass, even vulgar jokes (at least by the standards of the day), and his awkward manners. Even George B. McClellan, the commanding general of the Army Of The Potomac detested Lincoln, was insubordinate to him, and called him an "idiot" in writing.
"The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln" goes into great depth relating how much Lincoln was assailed from the time of his nomination, during the election campaign, and throughout his presidency. The author relates how Lincoln was mocked throughout the country when he was sneaked into Washington in the dead of night prior to his inauguration, thanks to credible threats of violence against him during his journey from Springfield.
Where "The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln" excels is when the author presents the reasons *why* Lincoln was so hated. It wasn't simply because he was a Republican, for members of his own party detested him. Tagg describes clearly the various reasons, including an inherent distrust of leaders by Americans; a series of weak presidents who preceded Lincoln; the party system which had produced those weak presidents; the spoils system which had caused a serious corruption of politicians (sound familiar?); and of course the great debate over slavery. This analysis over the course of a few chapters is outstanding and helps the reader to understand what Lincoln faced as soon as he was nominated.
In the book's epilogue, Tagg discusses the almost instant deification of Abraham Lincoln after the assassination. Newspaper editors who had hurled the most vile of invectives against Lincoln for the previous 4 1/2 years now sang his praises in print. They followed the theme of "Just when Lincoln was finally getting this thing right, he was killed." Preachers who had attacked him for either not being enough of a Christian or being too slow about slavery, now compared him to Christ, for Lincoln was of course shot on Good Friday just as he was leading his country to the "Promised Land." Even papers in the defeated Confederacy now felt compelled to offer him the kind words in death that he was denied in life. Of course, the Union Armies might have something to do with "winning over" the Southern Press. The epilogue to this book is poignant and even moving.
"The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln" is beautifully written, with an almost rhythmic cadence at times. Even though it totals 473 pages, it does not seem overly long, because the story and the writing hold the reader's attention. There is generous use of reprinted cartoons and sketches of the era vilifying Lincoln, including many I had never before seen.
Mr. Tagg obviously did an incredible amount of research for this book, much of it from the original sources. It is thoroughly footnoted and Tagg provides a helpful bibliography for the reader who wishes to learn more about the subject matter.
I would have liked to have seen a little more about the press reactions to The Gettysburg Address, because many editors thought it was undignified, too short, and some didn't bother to even reprint it in entirety. The book discusses this in just a couple of pages. But this observation is only a personal opinion and it is the only quibble I had while reading the book.
In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed "The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln." Along the way, I learned a great deal more about this under-represented area of Lincoln history than I previously knew.
The best books on Lincoln (David Donald's "Lincoln" and recent biographies by Michael Burlingame and Ronald White) help us understand the real Lincoln, the man behind the myths, the man who was not universally loved as we all seem to want to believe. And I am very happy to report that "The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln" fits that description perfectly. This book is important and it deserves a lofty place in the pantheon of Lincoln literature. Well done, Mr. Tagg.
("The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln" was published in early 2009 by Savas Beattie LLC. It is available on Amazon.com and at LarryTagg.com plus bookstores nationwide. If you don't see it at your local store, ask them to order it for you. You will not be sorry you did.)
5.0 Log Cabins out of 5.0 - An outstanding and important Lincoln work
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Posted by Geoff Elliott at 8:04 PM