Lincoln 1860

Lincoln 1860

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Book Review: "The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln"

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 and at 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.)

My rating:

5.0 Log Cabins out of 5.0 - An outstanding and important Lincoln work


Rebecca said...

I was awakened to the fact of Lincoln's unpopularity by reading Battle Cry of Freedom. Then when I visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, I was especially struck by all the political cartoons on display that mocked him. It makes me wonder how he became such a legend in history. I'll have to be on the lookout for this!

Geoff Elliott said...

Hi Rebecca!

Thanks for dropping by. I think the main reason Lincoln became such a legend is almost entirely due to his assassination. The myths about him began immediately upon his death. Shot on Good Friday, just as he was about to lead the nation out of the war. Almost Biblical, if you will.

This book I reviewed is excellent. It's well known by many people that Lincoln was despised, but the author explains *why*. Plus, I can't think of any other Lincoln book which focuses entirely on the hatred for Lincoln.

The author, Larry Tagg, is a Lincoln fan, by the way.

Anonymous said...

I have had the privilege of working for the company that published "The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln." I appreciate your review and especially agree with your comment about how beautifully the book is written. This quality is not always found in "history" books.

Signed copies are still available. You can call us at (916)941-6896, fax us at (916)941-6895, write to PO Box 4527, El Dorado Hills, CA 95762 or email me at

Thank you again for your review and for giving this very worthy book the attention it deserves.

Tammy Hall
Savas Beatie LLC

Abigail said...

We have went to pick this up so many times and where unsure if it would be a good read.

Larry Tagg said...

Huge thanks to Mr. Elliott for taking the time to read my book and comment on it with such thoroughness and thoughtfulness. I was delighted to get such an excellent review from such a respected observer. I wrote _The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln_ to show how much more amazing Lincoln's achievements are when one fully realizes how little political capital he had to work with. We are fortunate to have Mr. Elliott's Abraham Lincoln Blog as a listening post for new ideas in the Lincoln conversation.

Larry Tagg

Carol Tiffin James said...

Geoff, your reviews are always thoughtful and articulate, written by someone who has a passion for the subject and is able to share that passion with the reading public. Many thanks!

Dan Walker said...

Great blog!

Im not sure if even you know this -- I never saw it mentioned, but Im sure Lincoln knew of it -- and knew of the sentiment involved.

Its a quote from the Congression record in 1863, where a Northern Congressmn named Richardson was calling for the literal "arrest and execution" of anyone who stated the war was about slavery, instead of the union.

Let me repeat that -- Northern Congressmen on the floor of Congress were calling for the execution of those who wanted slavery to be the goal of the war.

We today 150 years later have almost no clue what LIncoln faced from the NORTH. Not only was he unpopular to many - they were calling for the execution of abolitionist even after the war started.

You think Lincoln didn't know that? He surely knew it, and bent over backwards to say he was for the Union. But he also bent over backwards in ACTION to ensure freedom for all Americans.

The quote, by the way, can be found on page 37 of a book available on google books.

"The record of Hon. C. L. Vallandigham on abolition, the Union, and the Civil War" By Clement Laird Vallandigham

Dan Walker said...

Lincoln was not despised by everyone. Those who profited or got status by slavery sure did. Remember -- many people in the North were connected in various was to the slavery.

Did you ever read Davis' speech when he heard of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation?

Davis' hatred of Lincoln went through the roof, and its visible in the several of his speeches around that time.

Davis was clearly livid that Lincoln was going to use black troop. I think this shocked Davis - a move he did not expect, and for the first time, Davis realized the South could lose because of this.

Davis declared all freed blacks re-enslaved as of that moment. Funny but I've never see than mentioned -- yet it's one of the most astonishing events of the war- re-enslaving (at least saying so) probably a half million freed blacks.

Plus of course Davis promised famously that blacks fighting for the North would be executed on the spot, as would their white officers.

That quote can be found here

Marilyn Jess said...

I just put a copy of the book in my Amazon cart. The exhibit at the Lincoln Museum in Springfield that villifies Lincoln using political cartoons and voices of the past really got my attention.

After seeing and hearing this exhibit I was looking for a book that explains more about public opinion while Lincoln was alive. Larry Tagg has given us a valuable addition to Lincoln scholarship.

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