cover image LINCOLN'S VIRTUES: An Ethical Biography

LINCOLN'S VIRTUES: An Ethical Biography

William Lee Miller, . . Knopf, $30 (544pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40158-9

In a narrative that positions a careful analysis of Lincoln's life against his popular legend and "ritual celebration," University of Virginia historian Miller (Arguing About Slavery) provides an incisive and shrewd discussion of Lincoln's development as a person and a politician. If it is assumed from the outset that Lincoln was "a spectacularly wonderful man," Miller argues, it "may diminish our appreciation of the ways in which he may actually have become one." Thus Miller's project—to chronicle man rather than myth—is explicitly concerned with the evolution of Lincoln's character, motivations and ideals. Chronicling his rise from an Appalachian boyhood to the corridors of power, the author makes a host of wise observations about this "ungainly westerner" that are informed as much by Miller's considerable knowledge of human nature as by his study of Lincoln's utterances over the years. According to Miller, Lincoln's life was motivated by the desire to distance himself from his humble origins; though he may have begun as a young man of the people, he quickly sought a place among the intellectual and cultural elite that Thomas Jefferson had dubbed the "natural aristocracy." He never introduced his sons to his father and stepmother. He harbored an intense dislike for all forms of menial labor, and was displeased when campaign posters positioned him as a rail-splitter. In this same spirit, he despised the simple, petty bigotries common among the working classes of his day and eschewed the Know-Nothingism popular in the United States of the 1850s as being beneath him. It is this—Lincoln's studied and cultivated aloofness from the banal—Miller argues, that positioned him for greatness. (Jan. 22)

Forecast:This brings a fresh and refreshing perspective that Lincoln devotees will appreciate.