I recently read And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle, by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham. The book is a comprehensive biography of Abraham Lincoln, examining how and why he refused to accept secession, attacks on democracy, and the tragedy of slavery in order to bring about his vision for America.
Meacham starts with Lincoln’s journey from his early years as a farm boy in Kentucky. He goes on to describe his move from law to politics, and then to the presidency and his assassination in 1865. He pays close attention to the influences on Lincoln’s ideas and values, and how he aligned his views with the emerging Republican Party, an administration that at the time brought welfare to a persecuted and disadvantaged minority.
He depicts Lincoln as a president with a sense of integrity and strong principles who governed a divided nation, offering valuable lessons for our own society. His presidency was marked by intense opposition and admiration, as he navigated a clash of visions encompassing money, race, identity, and faith.
Meacham presents a portrait of Lincoln that is nuanced and human rather than iconic. He highlights his love for reading, and how the books he read shaped his thinking and influenced his famous speeches. As Meacham writes, “Once, when a Republican congressman from Massachusetts accused Lincoln of having changed his mind, Lincoln replied, “Yes, I have; and I don’t think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.”
The text delves into his self-education, personal relationships, deepening faith, and unwavering moral belief in the necessity of ending slavery. It places Lincoln’s development within the context of the growing crisis of the Civil War, his thoughts on the struggle of African Americans throughout the war, and the Union victory.
Meacham acknowledges the significance of Lincoln’s assassination and the subsequent leadership of Andrew Johnson, who did not share Lincoln’s experiences or vision.
I highly recommend this terrific and extremely readable book. It’s a valuable resource for anyone interested in one of America’s greatest leaders, and those who care to reflect on our present moment of polarization. Lincoln’s story serves as a testament to the workings of politics in a democracy and the transformative power of conscience in shaping historical events.