I first learned about Lord Charnwood’s 1916 masterpiece Abraham Lincoln while recently reading a book by the constitutional scholar Walter Berns. (Berns called it “the best of the Lincoln biographies.”) Then, early this year, the essayist Joseph Epstein wrote a review of it for the Wall Street Journal, calling it the best book about Lincoln ever written. And in a wonderful essay in National Affairs, Professor Diana Schaub refers to Lord Charnwood as Lincoln’s greatest biographer.
Those are three enthusiastic endorsements by three estimable sources. Having now read the book, I can report to you that it is as good as advertised: beautifully written, filled with piercing insights into Lincoln’s character and his political philosophy, and concisely capturing the situation and various actors in America before and during the Civil War.
“Salmon P. Chase must have really been a good man before he fell in love with his own goodness,” we read. Horace Greeley was “too opinionated to be quite honest.” And about John C. Calhoun, Lord Charnwood writes this: “His intellect must have been powerful enough, but it was that of a man who delights in arguing, and delights in elaborate deductions from principles which he is too proud to revise; a man, too, who is fearless in accepting conclusions which startle or repel the vulgar mind; who is undisturbed in his logical processes by good sense, healthy sentiment, or any vigorous appetite for truth. Such men have disciples who reap the disgrace which their masters are apt to somehow avoid; they give the prestige of wisdom and high thought to causes which could not otherwise earn them.”
For our purposes, though, I want to focus on some particular aspects of Lincoln that were brought to life by Lord Charnwood and which we moderns can learn plenty from.
Lord Charnwood, who was born during the Civil War, says this about Lincoln:
For perhaps not many conquerors, and certainly few successful statesmen, have escaped the tendency of power to harden or at least to narrow their human sympathies; but in this man a natural wealth of tender compassion became richer and more tender while in the stress of deadly conflict he developed an astounding strength.
In his review Mr. Epstein built on this theme. “He prosecuted a war in which 1/32nd of the nation’s population was killed without ever showing hatred for the other side,” he wrote. “It was not men but slavery he hated… Malice wasn’t available to Lincoln; mercy came naturally to him. His magnanimity in forgiveness was another sign of his superiority.”
There are many reasons Lincoln holds a special place in our public life and historical memory, but this quality of both mercy and strength ranks high among them. Lincoln combined a ferocious will to win the war with restraint in victory. He fully understood the moral stakes involved in the Civil War even as he resisted the temptation to treat Southerners as lacking in any human dignity or human worth.
There is something hopeful in seeing a great leader, having prevailed in a great struggle, show humanity and eschew casual cruelty; who was willing to concede that his side was not perfect and the other side was not unmitigated evil. Who else but Lincoln could say at the beginning of the war, “We are not enemies, but friends”–and by the end could say, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the wounds…”? And how much we could use those sensibilities in our time, when such grace and largeness of spirit are in such short supply, including among those who claim Lincoln as their role model.
One other thing. Lord Charnwood writes, “His own intense experience of the weakness of democracy did not sour him, nor would any similar experience of later times have been likely to do so.”
Abraham Lincoln lived in a much more riven and difficult time than ours, yet he refused to give up on his belief that politics could right certain wrongs. He didn’t withdraw from public life. He didn’t become consumed by hatred or cynicism. Neither should we.
“Beyond his own country,” Lord Charnwood wrote, “some of us recall his name as the greatest among those associated with the cause of popular government.”
It was true then; it remains true today.