Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Lincoln, Douglas and The Long Pursuit. . .

The Gettysburg Public Library is a frequent haunt of mine. . .

At least twice a week I take a short evening stroll up Carlisle and Baltimore Streets to scan the shelves and pick up a book or two. Upon entering the library--which served as Dwight Eisenhower's unofficial White House for a time in the mid-1950s while he recovered from a heart attack (or so the story goes)--I first check out the latest releases. A few weeks ago, I was simply stunned by the number of new Abraham Lincoln-related books. Holy Mackerel! With Old Abe's 200th birthday less than a year away, I only expect this number to grow and grow. . .and grow. What a perfect opportunity, I thought, to catch up on the latest trends in the vast, and I mean vast, annals of Lincoln historiography. I perused the newest titles and finally decided on The Long Pursuit: Abraham Lincoln's Thirty Year Struggle with Stephen Douglas for the Heart and Soul of America, by esteemed scholar Roy Morris, Jr.

And I must say, I was really happy with the choice. . .


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The Long Pursuit is an excellent read; the writing is fast-paced and lively. Quite frequently I found myself unable to put the book down. Morris offers, essentially, a dual biography of two pillars of the antebellum political world, Lincoln and Douglas. More specifically, it analyzes their political rise (and in Douglas's case, fall) from the 1830s through the Election of 1860. Both men were exceedingly ambitious, and, as Morris masterfully illustrates, both, including ol' Honest Abe, were wily, calculating, and shrewd politicians. Douglas's ascendancy was somewhat meteoric, while Lincoln's road to the top was paved with frustration and disappointment. The two men were rivals of long standing, but while their campaigning was often bitter, they shared a cordial relationship and a mutual respect for one another. Their political rivalry mirrored the growing national division between North and South, Free State and Slave. Lincoln fought hard to prevent the spread of slavery; Douglas became the champion of popular sovereignty, arguing that the people of the nation's new territories were free to chose whether their state would be admitted to the Union as either Free or Slave. It was the issue of slavery, or, rather, its extension that divided these two men, politically and morally, just as it did the nation. Morris, in charting the political careers of Lincoln and Douglas in the Antebellum Era, also expertly charts the inexorable path toward disunion and civil war. In the end, Lincoln and his anti-slavery stance prevailed; Douglas, who loved the Union and abhorred secession, but who failed to see slavery as anything but an economic institution, clung tenaciously to popular sovereignty, which cost him the support of southern slave owners, who were hell-bent on spreading human bondage into the new territories no matter what the people of those territories chose for themselves. The Democratic Party was divided between Douglas--favored by Northern Democrats--and John C. Breckinridge, old do-nothing James Buchanan's vice president. Lincoln's name was nowhere to be found on Southern ballots. Still, he won, carrying both the electoral and popular vote. And contrary to much popular thought, even if the Democrats were united and rallied behind a single candidate, Lincoln still would have won the election. . .by a substantial margin.
Morris's The Long Pursuit is a must read for anyone interested in the lives of Lincoln and Douglas, and for those interested in Antebellum American politics. And because those politics were dominated by the so-called "peculiar institution" of slavery, Morris also demonstrates how this issue led up to and caused America's fratricidal conflict, making this book a must for those ever dwindling few who still, somehow and quite incredulously, maintain that "slavery had absolutely nothing to do with the Civil War."

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