By A.M. Settineri.
The reference librarian must herself have shared the urge to finish Abraham Lincoln: A History before the year was over. The tenth and final volume arrived through the inter-library loan mail only a few days after she ordered it, and came this time from a college in Nebraska, since it was more immediately available. Disappointed as I was that it had evidently been rebound, differing from the green covers of the other volumes, it nonetheless appeared still to be a first edition volume of this massive biography.
The frontispiece is a drawing of Lincoln’s life mask, of which the real version, the footnote mentions, was in the possession of co-author John Hay back in 1890. Looking at this drawing, long before the melancholy chapter dedicated to April 14, 1865, I could feel a solemnity in the book which coupled well with the inexplicable sense of loss I felt. For nearly a year I had devoted more time and energy to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War than ever before in my life; while my interest in both shall always remain, when would there be another opportunity of such magnitude to pursue it?
Only 356 pages of the tenth volume consist of the work itself; the remaining one hundred or so pages are dedicated to a comprehensive index. It was, therefore, a quicker read than the others, and in just over three days I finished the book in time to return it to the library before they closed early for New Year’s Eve. I left the book on the reference librarians’ desk, along with a note thanking the two of them for all their vigor in obtaining the books, and for the enthusiasm they’ve shared with me this past year. Reading and education are tools to broaden our horizons. The mere absorption of knowledge is the crux of this broadening, but the relationships you make along the way are a not unimportant side effect.
The initial printing of the books, after the condensed, serialized version appeared in The Century magazine, only sold seven thousand copies of the complete set. While it was a critical and historical success immediately, it wasn’t until a highly condensed, single-volume edition came out many years later that sales reflected the keen national interest in John Nicolay and John Hay’s fifteen-year labor to secure Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.
The chief triumph—and frequently, chief criticism—of the work, is Nicolay and Hay’s blunt assessment of the cause of the Civil War: slavery. At the time of A History‘s publication, southern Confederate remembrance organizations had lobbied and campaigned and published with fervor in an effort to minimize slavery’s significance, instead shifting the blame for the war to the slightly nobler “states’ rights” context. This shift led some historians to view the war as a simple legal misunderstanding that could have been avoided if it hadn’t been for the hotheadedness of radical and reactionary politicians. Nicolay and Hay destroy that viewpoint using the South’s own words. Among others, they quote Alexander H. Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, whose “Cornerstone” speech declared that the United States Constitution “rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error.” Instead, he averred,
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
How anyone could, in the mere space of only two decades, forget or ignore the South’s intense and disturbing commitment to an inhumane, immoral, and evil institution, whitewashing slavery with the banner of states’ rights to explain the cleaving of our country in two, is beyond comprehension. Nicolay and Hay were disgusted by the short memories of their fellow citizens, and their reminder to the nation, though arguably ineffective in the face of Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, was essential to the national consciousness.
It’s a reminder whose significance has not faded. It may, in fact, be more important than ever. When Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency, rather than quieting forever the racial divide of our country, it seemed only to amplify it. Right-wing news stations and blogs rambled histrionically and inaccurately about the Islamification of America, or simply distilled their disapproval of his liberal policies into racial epithets. As an EMT, I often asked patients who the president was, in order to determine their orientation to reality. It was a depressing confirmation that they were not confused when they answered, “That damn n***** Democrat.” This happened more often than I care to remember. Now, under President Trump, these racial scars, opened up accidentally enough by Obama, bleed profusely with the President’s anti-immigration rhetoric. Additionally, the fact that he abstained from condemning the white power protestors in Charlottesville, taking care to say that counter-protestors were to blame as well, bears a disturbing resemblance to the southern revisionist history which Nicolay and Hay sought to combat.
In a sense, this is a large part of the loss I feel. I have spent ten months, ten volumes, nearly 4500 pages, and over a million and a half words with the greatest struggle, and the greatest president, our nation has ever seen. Our struggles now are different, and in a way incomparable with the struggles of the 1860s, yet they are in their own manner terrifying, depressing, divisive. That great contest was brought to an end by the guidance, magnanimity, patience, and compassion of a man more fitted to his time than any other. As for who shall bring our strife to an end… Let’s just say I miss Abraham Lincoln.