I just read James M. McPherson's 2009 biography of Abraham Lincoln. The book, Abraham Lincoln, is very short. Excluding the preface and notes, it's about 66 small pages of generously spaced text. That's my kind of book!
Because it is so short, it might be thought that it isn't worth the trouble to take any notes. One could easily re-read during a lunch break, say. But surely that only makes taking notes that much easier. So here they are.
All page numbers refer to the 2009 Oxford University Press hardcover edition (in case there are others).
Lincoln may have learned an early hatred of slavery (and uncompensated labor generally) when his father insisted he turn over his wages to him until li'l Abe was 21 (3).
Lincoln began his political life in 1836 with election to the state legislature. He was a whig "and a devotee of Henry Clay ... Clay's American System, with its emphasis on government support for education, internal improvements, banking, economic legislation to promote growth and opportunity, and a tariff to protect American industries, attracted him" (8).
Even as early as the 1830s, in the state legislature, Lincoln was an opponent of slavery (9).
Lincoln met Mary Todd in 1840, but broke off their courtship shortly thereafter. Two possible reasons are known. First, that he doubted his suitability for marriage. Second, that he became attracted instead to a newcomer, Matilda Edwards (10).
Lincoln served in the U.S. House from 1847-1849 and took an unpopular stance against the Mexican-American War. He also supported the Wilmot Proviso, which would've banned slavery from any territory gained in the war (13-14).
Lincoln left politics after making his unpopular stands, but returned in 1854 because of his anger over the Kansas-Nebraska act, which repealed the ban on slavery in northern parts of the Louisiana Purchase (which had been enacted in the Missouri Compromise in 1820). Over the next six years, Lincoln made "175 speeches whose 'central message' was the necessity to exclude slavery from the territories as a first step toward its ultimate extinction everywhere" (15-16).
He called slavery a "monstrous injustice" in a speech in Peoria on October 16, 1854 (17).
In his famous "House Divided" speech, Lincoln said that the U.S. could not last half-slave, half-free, and that it would either be all-free or all-slave (19).
It was in the context of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, where Douglas wasted no chance to inflame crowds with racist demagoguery, that Lincoln famously stated that "I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races." But he also said that "Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man, this race and ... the other race being inferior ... and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal" (20-21).
Even though Lincoln lost the election to Douglas, he posed a question at the Freeport debate, which Douglas replied to with his "Freeport Doctrine." This "doctrine" declared that free states could contravene Dred Scott by refusing to enact and enforce a fugitive slave code. This infuriated Southern Democrats, who wanted a nationally enforced slave code, and split the party in 1860. There was therefore a Northern and Southern Democratic ticket, and a border state Constitutional Union party made up of former whigs. This allowed Lincoln and the Republicans to win the election even though they only had 40% of the popular vote (22, 26).
Lincoln spoke at Cooper Union in February 1860. In New York. Party leaders weren't expecting much from this shabby frontiersman, but in the end his speech was met with an "ovation that went on and on" (23).
Lincoln and indeed probably all Republican opposition to Slavery had more to do with a deep ideological commitment to "free labor," i.e., the free market, than a hatred of exploitation. They saw slavery as wrong because it limited a person's ability to advance and to keep the proceeds of his labor (24). Now to make a point that McPherson doesn't: Lincoln and the Republicans were not "radicals" in any sense of the modern word. They were out and out capitalists. The modern Republican Party is their descendant in all ways. Free labor was a "progressive" cause in 1850, but already deeply reactionary by the 20th century.
After his election, when the slave states went out of the Union, Lincoln tried to assure them that he wouldn't interfere. He famously wrote to Alexander Stephens of Georgia that "You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub" (28).
The main effort to get the slave states back was the Crittenden Compromise, which would allow slavery, forever, south of any territory below the old Missouri Compromise line. Lincoln balked, recognizing that if this was accepted then the U.S. would forever be forced to add more and more slave territory, probably starting with Cuba (28-29).
Lincoln's Fort Sumter strategy was smart. By letting the rebels know he was sending food to the garrison, he forced their hand: they either had to accept it, which would keep a Union flag flying in Charleston harbor, or they had to open fire and start the war themselves. Contrast this with Seward, who assured others that he was in charge, Lincoln being incompetent, and would evacuate the garrison (32-33).
Union war effort goes well in summer of 1862. Grant wins many victories in the west, McClellan pushes to within 6 miles of Richmond. But then the Confederates counterattack and northern morale suffers. But Lincoln proved able to make good appointments and understand military strategy (37-41).
Lincoln suspends Habeas corpus to combat pro-Confederate elements. McPherson notes that this was much gentler than the government's domestic policies during World Wars I and II (44).
When Lincoln famously said that he do anything to save the union (even if that meant freeing none or only some of the slaves), he also added that this was his official view, and that his personal view was that slavery was wrong (46). McPherson doesn't mention that often neoconfederates quote the first part but not the second part.
Criticism of the Emancipation Proclamation is kind of weak. First, even though it was written so as to exempt some areas under Union control, there were other areas under Union control where it did apply. This freed tens of thousands of slaves. It also applied to the areas still under rebel control, which meant that the Union army was an "army of liberation" wherever it went (49). Lincoln also fought to make sure that slavery was abolished even in states that the emancipation proclamation didn't apply to (e.g., by having loyal state legislates pass bills abolishing it).
In 1864, when the carnage was at its peak and victory seemed far away, Lincoln was receptive to peace talks -- with conditions. Union and abolition were not negotiable. Some people, even Republicans, believed that his intransigent position on slavery would be a sticking point ("durh durh the civil war wasn't about slavery durh"), but Lincoln refused to budge, saying that he could never tell the blacks who were fighting for the Union that he had broken his word to them. "I should be damned in time and eternity for doing so" (56-57).
Lincoln was prepared for defeat in the 1864 election, but Sherman's capture of Atlanta and Sheridan's victories in the Shenandoah Valley turned things around.
Good books on Lincoln are
- Stephen B. Oates - With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln
- Richard Striner - Father Abraham: Lincoln's Relentless Struggle to End Slavery
- David Herbert Donald - Lincoln
- Michael Burlingame - Abraham Lincoln: A Life
- Ronald C. White - A. Lincoln: A Biography