Ronald C. White on Lincoln

3 05 2009

I’ve just finished reading Ronald C. White’s recent biography of Abraham Lincoln. (Random House, 2009). I was left feeling disappointed. To my mind, it is nearly as good as David Herbert Donald’s 1995 biography. Donald gives us a better understanding of Lincoln’s various contexts, his times as well as his life. Moreover, I detected a definite right-wing agenda in White’s account of Lincoln’s life. White presents us with a version of Lincoln that is calculated to please Republican social conservatives. For instance, the book stresses that Lincoln’s deep religious faith shaped his view of politics. The problem with this is that other authors have argued, quite convincingly, that Lincoln was a religious free-thinker, more of a Deist than anything else. Lincoln never joined a religious denomination. White gets around this inconvenient truth through various sleights of hand. For instance, Lincoln’s attendance at a services at a particular church to hear a sermon by an influential minister is described by White as Lincoln’s worshipping at a church. Every occasion when Lincoln used language reminiscent of the Bible is pointed out by White. (We all use expressions taken from Shakespeare and the King James Bible, so this is a weak argument on White’s part). The religious leanings of Lincoln’s neighbours are also pointed out, as if living next to religious people makes one religious.