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Reviewed by:
  • Becoming Lincoln by William W. Freehling
  • Matthew Pinsker (bio)
Becoming Lincoln. By William W. Freehling. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018. Pp. 324. Cloth, $29.95.)

When one of the country's most distinguished historians of the antebellum American South sets out to explain how Abraham Lincoln became Abraham Lincoln, it's worth taking notice. But in this case, although William Freehling has produced a lively, thought-provoking rumination on a great subject, many readers will feel frustrated by this volume. Academic historians will have to wade through significant clutter to get to its sharpest insights, while general students will probably find the discursive tone and slapdash structure difficult to follow.

The book presents itself as a biography of a politician's most formative rises and falls, but the narrative weaves in and out of chronology and then wraps things up with a confusing burst, handling the entire war and destruction of slavery in a quick fifteen-page epilogue. This might have been effective if Freehling had been more deliberate about identifying [End Page 115] coherent themes for understanding Lincoln's evolution as a leader. Instead, the author writes in stubbornly romantic (and vague) terms, casting his subject as a classic heroic figure ("the supreme Alger," 34) who "suffered excruciating failures, yet scored historic triumphs" (1).

There are strong moments, however, when a discerning reader can relish some truly magisterial Freehling prose. And the scholar's main insight about the political Lincoln—that he became "an evolving connoisseur" of the "conservative tack," which proved essential for the success of the antislavery movement—is one that a number of historians embrace (165). Moreover, Freehling does offer original insights about key moments in Lincoln's complicated antislavery odyssey, such as the Illinois politician's tentative proposal in 1849 for abolition in the District of Columbia; or the pivotal 1854 Peoria speech, which first detailed his support for the containment of slavery; or the more famous (but in Freehling's opinion, poorly understood), "House Divided" speech from 1858.

Yet what Freehling does best in showing Lincoln's halting evolution toward what he terms a "coercive emancipator" is to situate his maturing subject within the political landscape of the border states—both North and South (207). The noted historian makes a litany of helpful connections between Lincoln's individual career choices and wider national issues, such as antebellum railroad development or southern fears about Republican patronage power.

Still, Freehling takes some regrettable shortcuts. The author claims, for example, that President Lincoln initially "ridiculed" the idea of emancipation. In May 1861, the new president allegedly dismissed those "bewildered and dazzled" northerners who seemed to believe that "the war is to result in the entire abolition of Slavery" (306). Yet the setup for this critical statement—which is so important to Freehling's central thesis—gets several things wrong. To begin with, the endnote points toward White House aide John Nicolay's private notes, but the awkwardly edited quotation comes instead from the diary of John Hay, Lincoln's other top assistant. Moreover, Hay's version of the exchange suggests no ridicule—that's pure interpretation. And, in fact, when combined with the information from Nicolay's notes, which did cover that same revealing moment on the morning of May 7, 1861, a reader might well be left with a much different impression.

Hay reported that Lincoln appeared calm and thoughtful, even as he described to his boss a wild new plan from Illinois conservative Orville Browning to "subjugate" the South by establishing "a black republic in lieu of the exterminated whites." That's when Lincoln made his observation (coolly?) about their "bewildered and dazzled" allies. The president then identified other Republican moderates, like Wisconsin senator James R. [End Page 116] Doolittle and New Yorker James A. Hamilton (one of Alexander Hamilton's sons), who were also making bold suggestions to him about war strategy. Doolittle specifically was the one talking to Lincoln about the "entire abolition of Slavery" (not just "some of our northerners," as Freehling suggests), while Hamilton (whom Freehling ignores) was "earnestly" endorsing the enlistment of black soldiers.1 In his own memoir, Hamilton claimed Lincoln had treated this proposal with...


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