For The Someday Book

Book Review: With Malice Toward None

Posted on: September 1, 2012

Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, HarperPerennial, 1977, 492 pp.

This biography of Lincoln has been sitting on my shelf for at least five years. I’ve always wanted to read it, but never found myself in the mood to reach for it. I think the experience of reading Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter demanded a palate cleanse and a reboot of my knowledge and understanding of Lincoln. Stephen Oates’ classic on Lincoln was just the thing.

Oates is a gifted storyteller, who crafts this biography as one of the most engaging I’ve read in a long time. He blends the right mix of historical background, quotations from speeches and letters, and researched reporting. He includes enough detail and a wide enough cast of characters to keep it interesting without becoming overwhelming. Most of all, he manages to create suspense in a story we all already know.

Oates’ Lincoln is a driven, driving force. Young Lincoln is ambitious from the start, which belies his reputation as someone who was plucked from relative obscurity. While he did not openly campaign for any office, which was considered too aggressive in his day, he was always angling for position and trying to make his way in the world. He was angry and hurt when he lost or got passed over. His depression haunted his internal life, but he also reveled in being the center of attention in a group.

During his presidency and the war years, Oates’ portrays Lincoln as a guiding, forceful leader. He carried the future of the Union on his shoulders, and felt its weight heavily and personally. He saw the only future in bringing people together across divisions, and so he assembled a team of Cabinet members and generals he thought could get the job done. Oates portrays the ways in which Lincoln grew as a leader during his presidency. At first, he was hesitant to make and enforce a decision, preferring instead to gain consensus. As the war wears on, he still listens and encourages input from those around him, but he is willing to assert himself and give orders when needed when he sees that inaction will do harm.  The Emancipation Proclamation issues from Lincoln’s understanding that sometimes a leader must act boldly, taking unpopular action to force forward movement.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this biography was the way Oates created suspense. We all know that Lincoln grows up to be president, that the Civil War is won by the Union, that Lincoln is assassinated—but Lincoln and his compatriots did not. In all the decisions they made, they did not know if history would prove them right. Oates captures that tension, the way Lincoln discerned the course of action he ought to take at every turn. I appreciated the reminder that even those who are recognized among the greatest of leaders do not act with the confidence and surety of hindsight.

While it’s now 35 years old, I think Oates’ biography withstands the test of time, and it provides an engaging read for anyone who wishes to know Abraham Lincoln better. He has written a follow-up book, Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths (1994), which clarifies some issues from the first biography, but does not replace it. I’ve added that second volume to my list of things to read, and hope it doesn’t take five more years to get there.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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