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‘And There Was Light’ Review: Lincoln’s Spiritual World

Jon Meacham is without doubt one of the nation’s most engaged, and interesting, public intellectuals. A Pulitzer Prize–successful presidential biographer, he possesses a uncommon skill to narrate the American previous to present circumstances within the service of knowledgeable, but light advocacy.

Having already written main works on, amongst others, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, Meacham’s flip to Abraham Lincoln looks as if a welcome inevitability. His And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle is an elegantly argued lifetime of our sixteenth president tailored for the modern second. 

While it might appear counterintuitive to counsel {that a} narrative of 421 pages is lean, that description fits And There Was Light. This just isn’t a biography to show to when delving into the machinations of Lincoln’s Cabinet, the intimacies of the Lincoln family, or his seek for a reliable army chief. Meacham has clearly made the calculation that others have lined these and different associated subjects in exhaustive element.

Instead, his e book “charts Lincoln’s struggle to do right as he defined it within the political universe he and his country inhabited.” A “morally imperfect” man, Lincoln nonetheless possessed “a pragmatic vision with a moral component” that offered a information star for his public life. Undeniably formidable, the long run president struck a political stability that lent him legit credentials as a reformer whereas sustaining a average tone that averted alienating potential supporters against radical abolitionists.

The place faith performs in our political life has lengthy been on Meacham’s radar, and he digs deeply right here into Lincoln’s inside religious world. Over time, he argues, Lincoln’s view of the divine developed from that of a distant deity to at least one certain up with the human drama. “The mature Lincoln,” he writes, “viewed the history of the American people and nation as mysteriously but inexorably intertwined with the will and the wishes…of a divine force beyond time and space.”

Despite his skepticism about human company within the face of such a power, Lincoln was decided to play a task. As the warfare progressed, the embattled president got here to consider that Providence had made him the Lord’s instrument to avoid wasting the Union and within the course of finish slavery. Willie’s dying in February 1862, Meacham suggests, solely deepened the grieving father’s engagement with the divine, resulting in a brand new stage of non-public spiritual inquiry.

But Lincoln’s considering would have felt alien to most of his conventionally spiritual contemporaries. “To Lincoln,” Meacham writes, “God whispered His will through conscience.” He refused the probabilities of compromising with slavery, first on the eve of his taking workplace after which in the course of the 1864 marketing campaign, “because he thought it was the right, just, and morally sound thing to do…. His insight on the wrongness of slavery,” the writer concludes, “came more from an intuitive moral sensibility and a conviction that there were universal goods to be discerned and acted upon” than from any embrace of conventional Christianity.

This article first appeared in America’s Civil War journal

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Any remedy of Lincoln should wrestle together with his views on slavery. “To chart Lincoln’s lifelong moral and political course on slavery and equality,” Meacham observes, “is not to sing his praises as if he were the hero of an epic poem.” He was not such a hero. But early within the e book, Meacham reminds readers that whereas a local southerner, Lincoln grew up amongst individuals who held antislavery beliefs and pursued an evangelical religion at a time when that meant embracing emancipationist impulses.

While his pursuit of emancipation was formed by his perception in what the Constitution did and didn’t allow him to do and moved at a tempo that annoyed most abolitionists, no much less a critic than William Lloyd Garrison got here to jot down: “Yet what long strides he has taken in the right direction, and never a backward step.” As a creature of his time and place, Meacham contends, Lincoln would come to argue eloquently that Black Americans possessed all of the pure rights outlined within the Declaration of Independence, and but probably went to his grave believing that White racial prejudice would forestall Whites and Blacks from residing amongst each other harmoniously.

Meacham makes a lot of Lincoln’s skill to develop throughout his presidency, together with examples of his contemporaries recognizing and applauding this trait. One week earlier than his dying, the activist and author Lydia Maria Child, heretofore a harsh critic, noticed: “With all his deficiencies, it must be admitted that he has grown continuously…[and] it was great good luck to have the people elect a man who was willing to grow.”

Meacham closes with an astute, and emotionally transferring, summation of Lincoln and his significance. “Lincoln was not all he might have been—vanishingly few human beings are—but he was more than many men have been.” No saint, he continues, Lincoln was “an imperfect man seeking to bring a more perfect Union into being.” That activity required “an understanding that politics divorced from conscience is fatal to the American experiment.”

This was a lesson for Lincoln’s time, and absolutely, Meacham insists, one for our personal.

And There Was Light

Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle

By Jon Meacham, Random House, 2022

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