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Abraham Lincoln and a Nation Worth Fighting For.

If, as has been said, the Civil War was fought over a verb, then this book details how President and Commander in Chief Abraham Lincoln assumed "unprecedented" war powers and turned the verb in the phrase "the United States are" into an is. As Rawley contends, Lincoln achieved his goal of preserving the Union by suspending habeas corpus, raising armies, making war, commanding egotistical generals, recommending strategy, emancipating slaves, arming African American soldiers, and instituting reconstruction policies. But these extraordinary actions, Rawley argues, were not undertaken by Lincoln to establish an "imperial presidency." They were necessitated by the exigencies of a civil war that Lincoln was determined to win. And Lincoln, aware that he was usurping some significant congressional powers, limited his "expansive concept" of presidential war powers by assuring Congress that executive power "'would be greatly diminished'" after the war. So, while Lincoln forcefully led the war effort that limited "states rights" and vested effective sovereignty in the national government, he was not a dictator bent on centralizing perpetual power in the presidency.

Complementing his impressive rendition of Lincoln's bold and increasingly competent administration of the government, Rawley offers a brief background and succinct opinions on virtually every significant incident and issue in Lincoln's public and private life, including some that earlier biographies have occasionally overlooked. And, while his interpretation of many incidents veers sharply toward hagiography, he subjects Lincoln to scrutiny and criticism, on one occasion, for muddling the military chain of command and, more frequently, for his displays of racism. These criticisms, however, are usually softened by Rawley's observations that Lincoln either rectified his errors or was trapped by the mitigating circumstances of his era or politics. Thus, where harsher critics of Lincoln such as Melvin E. Bradford or Lerone Bennett might not acknowledge Lincoln's incredible capacity for intellectual evolution, Rawley, in Richard Current's school of thought, demonstrates how Lincoln moved from his 1862 stance which held that emancipated African Americans should be colonized abroad to his 1864 position which held that "some of the colored people" be enfranchised.

In depicting Lincoln's evolving mastery over his own prejudices and over the administration of wartime policy, Rawley structures his chapters so that they open with the challenges faced by Lincoln and end with the results of those challenges. Unfortunately, this helpful practice is not matched by the use of citations. And Rawley's substitution of an up-to-date, useful, bibliographical essay only partly compensates for that omission.

Still, by concentrating his attention on Lincoln's wartime readiness to create and expand presidential authority, Rawley has written a valuable study. His fine book may not be as provocative as some of the treatments of Lincoln by Bradford, Current, George B. Forgie, or J. G. Randall, but it provokes us to contemplate the unique historical context and actions of a democratic-minded president who, albeit a bold and forceful commander in chief, probably would be appalled at our current practice of treating presidential executive orders as if they had the force of law and horrified at our post-World War II willingness to let presidents wage war with no more than a fig leaf of congressional approval.

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Author:Stevenson, James A.
Publication:Civil War History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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