Abraham Lincoln, American history, biographies, book reviews, Jon Meacham, presidential biographies, Presidents
Published last fall, “And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle” is Jon Meacham’s review of the 16th president’s antislavery commitment. Meacham is a presidential historian and author who has written biographies of Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush and earned a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Andrew Jackson.
Jon Meacham’s most recent book is implicitly, if not quite explicitly, marketed as a biography. And because its narrative incorporates all the major events in Lincoln’s life, that label is not entirely inappropriate. But this book is far better described as an intellectual exploration of Lincoln’s moral, religious and political views and the evolution of his attitude toward slavery.
Readers familiar with Meacham’s previous books will quickly recognize his unique literary voice which infuses the narrative. Soaring rhetoric, grand declarations and astute observations all appear in abundance. And clever one-liners, though occasionally too grandiloquent, punctuate the landscape liberally.
Immediately obvious is that Meacham’s book is impressively researched. With more than 1,000 sources, few stones remain unturned in his search for insight into Lincoln’s moral evolution, religious conviction and political philosophies. The narrative’s 421 pages are fortified with more than 200 pages of end notes and bibliography. But one consequence is that as much as half the narrative consists of embedded quotes – from the diaries of Lincoln and his contemporaries, letters, speeches and a wide variety of periodicals. As a result, the narrative is less mellifluous than it would have been if Meacham’s own verse dominated.
What results, though, is a deeply thoughtful and perceptive analysis of Lincoln’s moral tenets and actions. While Meacham doesn’t feel the need to rescue his subject’s reputation, he does explore the apparent contradictions in some of Lincoln’s thoughts, words and efforts relating to Black Americans. And, in the end, Meacham demonstrates how Lincoln maintained a firm anti-slavery resolve, refused to compromise in critical moments and still held onto support from the most radical sympathizers of his cause.
But much of Lincoln’s life consisted of experiences that did not involve the issue of slavery or “equal rights.” And Meacham can be quick to pass over events that do not directly support his thesis. Lincoln’s childhood, legal career and early legislative service, for example, receive relatively little attention and his political campaigns are generally dispatched with regrettable efficiency. And important supporting characters, including several whose testimony helps shape much of the narrative, are never animated in a meaningful way.
As a result, readers in search of a traditional biography are likely to find this book more ponderous and philosophical than expected. Its twenty-eight chapters do closely follow the contours of Lincoln’s life, but its mission is far less sweeping than one might expect for a book which purportedly “chronicles the life of Abraham Lincoln.”
Overall, though, Jon Meacham’s “And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle” is a marvelous exploration of Lincoln’s moral evolution and actions on behalf of Black Americans. Combining Meacham’s own analysis with wisdom gleaned from a wide range of sources, it proves perceptive, thought-provoking and deeply insightful. While excellent for experienced fans of Lincoln, this book is not ideal for readers seeking a comprehensive introduction to Lincoln’s life and legacy.
Overall Rating: “Unrated” as Biography
N.B. Readers with significant exposure to Lincoln will find this book has more in common with Eric Foner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” than traditional biographies such as David Herbert Donald’s excellent “Lincoln” or Ronald White’s equally good “A. Lincoln: A Biography.”
Russ Robinson said:
I enjoyed this book immensely. But like Steve said in his review, it’s not a traditional bio such as David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln”. I would suggest anyone reading this one, to take their time. There is a lot in this book to be absorbed, but it’s worth it.
Deb Bowers said:
Thanks for this. Didn’t know about this book. Helpful review!
Deb Bowers said:
I have been reading several books about slavery and the kidnapping of free blacks for the last year or so, trying to improve my knowledge of the whole atrocity. So this review is timely for me. Thanks again.
Terry H said:
While I’ve enjoyed Meacham’s work in the past (especially his books on Jefferson and Jackson), I felt this one was a bit tainted by the current academic atmosphere. In fact, I had a hard time getting through it for that reason.