Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Best Book about Abraham Lincoln


In another example of the enduring value of classic books, Abraham Lincoln by Lord Charnwood published in 1916 just (!) received a review from essayist Joseph Epstein in The Wall Street Journal, calling this the best book about Abraham Lincoln.

Epstein writes:

"Born Godfrey Rathbone Benson (1864-1945), later a member of Parliament and an Oxford don, Lord Charnwood was something of an Americanophile, having also written a book on Theodore Roosevelt. He wrote his Lincoln biography in the middle of World War I, a time when the world seemed to be coming apart, as it had seemed to Americans during the Civil War some 60 years earlier. 

Lord Charnwood's Abraham Lincoln has a universal appeal, though it was originally written for an English audience. The English much admired Lincoln. True, at the time of the American Civil War, many aristocratic Englishmen sided with the South owing to the region's aristocratic pretensions, with Charles Darwin and Lord Tennyson being two notable exceptions. But workers in the English textile industry, feeling a kinship with the slaves of the South, sided with the North in the war, even though it was against their self-interest to do so. 

Lord Charnwood's main emphasis in Abraham Lincoln is on character analysis and political philosophy. His decision to place it there was a wise one, for it enlarges the biography's scope and lends it a Plutarchian gravity that helps give the book its standing as a masterpiece............"
Epstein continues:

"These words from the concluding paragraph of Lord Charnwood's masterly biography capture Abraham Lincoln better than any I know:

For he was a citizen of that far country where there is neither aristocrat nor democrat. No political theory stands out from his words or actions; but they show a most unusual sense of the possible dignity of common men and common things.… If he had a theory of democracy it was contained in this condensed note which he wrote, perhaps as an autograph, a year or two before his presidency: "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy."

Great men and women do not always get the biographers they deserve. In Lord Charnwood, Abraham Lincoln found his.", so Epstein ends his review.

For an older, but equally glowing review of this book, see Lord Charnwood's Lincoln by Frank M. Colby in 1916 in the liberal magazine The New Republic.

 Available from Cosimo Classics:

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