Book Review - And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle

Author: Jon Meacham
Genre: History
Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

Link: Amazon  
ISBN: 0553393960
Page Count: 720
Run Time: 17 hrs, 49 min
Keywords: Lincoln, History, Civil War, Race, Democracy

There are biographies of the man and histories of his time, but there has never been a book about these for our time. Until now. Meacham presents an excellent telling of Lincoln’s life, ambition, pursuit, and service. None of them were easy, which is in itself something for us to think about. More than any history read in memory, this one speaks to us.

The volume is a telling of the full story of the man, including much that few will have heard before about his forebears. They, too, were people of their time, which was often hard and forced hard choices. We learn how their stories played out and how the lives of his generations influenced Lincoln’s own life and character. Sometimes, mistakes can lead, eventually, to great good.

There is much here aside from the backstory of his family, however, including his relationship with Mary Todd and her challenging personality, along with other family details. The book gets to the heart of the matter with the story of Lincoln’s campaigning and then governing in the toughest of times. It is what one expects from a master historian: deeply researched, illuminating in detail and fabric, full of contextual relevance, and broader in scope than just the man himself. Much broader, without which it would have been incomplete. The full story is told, including managing the war and its personalities, the complex dichotomies of the day, Lincoln’s inward debates (as much as we can know), and his beating heart for the people, nation, and principles he loved to the point of willful sacrifice.

Some personalities are given a fuller treatment than usual. For example, I learned more about Frederick Douglas and the relationship the two men shared than in any other volume. There are others as well. In one sense, it is this attention to the politics of relationship which sets this work apart.

Mr. Meacham has also done us the good service of bringing to our consciousness the many similarities between Lincoln’s campaigns and our most recent. The times were just as contentious, to say the least. It is hard to know if recent events such as the January 6th insurrection are shadows of what was planned in March 1865 or if it’s the other way around, but it is there. We also learn of the man’s integrity and loyalty to the constitution in response. There is a stark sameness in the reaction of the respective vice president’s as well. There is much wisdom for our time in these episodes, if we are willing to listen.

As for a recommendation, there is only one thing to say: most highly recommended in every sense.

Excerpts …

To blindly assert one’s own position, one’s own righteousness, and one’s own rectitude in the face of widely held opinion to the contrary was not democracy. It was an attempt at autocracy. – Jon Meacham

The danger to America came from within America, from wild and furious passion that might overwhelm the union and its constitutional order. Jon Meacham, Chapter Four

In frustration and fear, the slave owning interests caricatured their foes, affirmed their own virtue, and preached their own gospel. Jon Meacham, Chapter Thirteen

“The parties to this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slave holders, they are atheists, socialists, and communists on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other.” James Henry Thornton, Presbetyrian Minister, Chapter Thirteen

To blindly assert one’s own position, one’s own righteousness, and one’s own rectitude in the face of widely held opinion to the contrary was not democracy. It was an attempt at autocracy. Jon Meacham, Chapter Thirteen

In closed door hearings, the committee investigated whether a conspiracy had been formed to seize the capitol and treasury, to get possession of the archives of the government, and to prevent the counting of the electoral vote and the declaration of the election of Lincoln. Representative Henry Dawes of Massachusetts wrote, “thereby creating chaos and anarchy, out of which might come the establishment of the Confederacy, the government defacto, in the very halls of the national capitol.” Chapter Sixteen

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