Gore Vidal, 1984
Modern Library Edition, 1998, signed by the author, rebound.
Abraham Lincoln was born in the backblocks in a log cabin in Kentucky. He learned his law lying on his back with his feet up a tree. This largely self-taught lawyer practised in Illinois and rode on horseback on circuit when he slept fully clothed head to toe with opposing counsel.
He had one supreme advantage over most of us. He was well educated and his mind was uncluttered by computers and his young mind was unsullied by trivia. He was brought up on the King James Bible and Shakespeare.
Lincoln may well be the most consummate politician who has ever lived, and he may also be one of the very few in all history who was not corrupted by power. He had, of course, no time for political theory. It was by the force of his character that the union that we know as the United States of America was held together and then defined afresh. Without Abraham Lincoln, our world in the West would be very different.
In his second inaugural address, Lincoln left no doubt that the Union was redeeming itself in the course of the Civil War. He said that at the start of the war, one eighth of the population were coloured slaves. He went on with some very direct statements about religion:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and prayed to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in bringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully.
Lincoln then went on to say that the ‘scourge of war’ would ‘continue until all of the wealth piled up by the bondsmen’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with a lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword …’. The nation that started with the Puritans was therefore redeeming itself from the sin of slavery with its own blood. Lincoln concluded that inaugural address with the famous passage that begins: ‘With malice toward none ….’
Less than four months before his re-inauguration, Abraham Lincoln had stated his vision for his nation at the dedication of a cemetery at the site of a three-day battle, one of the bloodiest of a very bloody war, the battle of Gettysburg. People who have seen the TV documentary, The Civil War, may recall that the late Shelby Foote said that after Lincoln had read his address ‘in his thin piping voice,’ he was worried about it. He said that it did not ‘scour’. For good reason, that address is now chiselled into the Lincoln Memorial at Washington, D.C., and it is an essential part of the fabric not just of the American nation, but of western civilization.
Lincoln had a well-oiled logical machine in his mind. He would as a matter of course build the premises of his argument into the structure of his prose. There is just one thing to note about that process here. He starts by referring to ‘a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’. We know that statement was false when it was first made. Lincoln goes on immediately to say that the Civil War is to test ‘whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure’. The Civil War was therefore being fought to make good the original declaration of equality. It is the same redemptive vision, almost a biblical redemptive vision. The great republic would redeem its original sin with its own blood.
The book Lincoln by Gore Vidal is an historical novel that starts only when Lincoln becomes president. It is remarkable for the grace of its style and for the reliability of its content. It is intensely political, so it is as well to remember that Vidal came from a family with a strong political and military involvement. He was born at West Point and served in the armed forces during World War II before taking up writing.
When the book starts, most Lincoln’s cabinet think that he is an idiot whose election was a mistake that one or another of them is bound to correct. Much of the book is about how they come to learn better, and much of it is told through the voices of his two young and impressionable secretaries (whose nick-names for their boss includes ‘the Tycoon.’) The manoeuvrings involving Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase make for gripping political history. The book carries conviction throughout, and it is what is called a page-turner, wonderful for the beach.
Early on, Seward says ‘To say what is true is to do a lot in politics. Not that I have had much experience along those lines.’ He also said: ‘It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.’ He may have been wrong there. During their revolution, the French produced a constitution that allowed for revolution.
When Seward questioned suspending habeas corpus, ‘the most ancient of all our liberties’, Lincoln responded:
Mr Seward, for the moment, all that matters is to keep Maryland in the Union, and there is nothing that I will not do to accomplish that.
Mr Seward, we are told, was more alarmed than amused.
There is a remarkable scene when Lincoln visits a hospital for Southern boys where the smell of flesh corrupting was overpowering. He made the visit over the pleas and protests of his staff.
When Lincoln spoke, the famous trumpet-voice was muted; even intimate. ‘I am Abraham Lincoln.’ There was a long collective sigh of wonder and of …? Washburne [Security] had never heard a sound quite like it. ‘I know that you have fought gallantly for what you believe in and for that I honor you, and for your wounds so honourably gained. I feel no anger in my heart towards you, and trust you feel none for me. That is why I am here. That is why I am willing to take the hand, in friendship of any man among you.’
The same long sigh, like a rising wind, began; and still no one spoke. Then a man on crutches approached the President, and in perfect silence, shook his hand. Others same forward….and to each he murmured something that the man alone could here.
At the end, as Lincoln made his way between the beds, stopping to talk to those who could not move, half of the men were in tears, as was Washburne himself.
In the last bed by the door, a young officer turned his back on the President, who touched his shoulder, and murmured, ‘My son, we shall all be the same at the end.’ Then the President was gone.
I don’t like historical novels, because I don’t trust them, but we have here writing that is as persuasive as it is powerful.
Lincoln put his foot down hard in another constitutional crisis that would break most people.
Seward felt an involuntary shudder in his limbs. He was also ravished by the irony of the moment. For nearly three years, a thousand voices, including his own, had called for a Cromwell, a dictator, a despot; and in all that time, no one suspected that there had been from the beginning, a single-minded dictator in the White House, a Lord Protector of the Union by whose will alone the war had been prosecuted. For the first time, Seward understood the nature of Lincoln’s political genius. He had been able to make himself absolute dictator without ever letting anyone suspect that he was anything more than a joking, timid, backwoods lawyer, given to fits of humility in the presence of all the strutting military and political peacocks that flocked about him.
That sounds just right, but Seward was not alone in underestimating the President. The London Times said that the ceremony at Gettysburg was ‘rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln’. The New York Times said ‘Anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce.’
This is a great book about a very great man, and it is one of those rarities – we feel sad and empty when it comes time to put it down.