Book Review: Harold Holzer’s Lincoln: President-Elect

Harold Holzer is one of America’s finest historians — a man celebrated for both his vast knowledge of Civil War-era events, as well as his fluid and readable writing style. His latest effort, Lincoln, President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-61, is perhaps his finest work of recent vintage. He focuses on the crucial four-month period between the Election of 1860 and the inauguration of the 16th President — four months that forever changed the fundamental fabric of America. Lincoln’s controversial decision to take a hard line with the Southern states, refusing to compromise on key issues such as states’ rights, secession, and the right to maintain the institution of slavery.

Holzer paints Lincoln as a strong-willed, decisive politician who has a clear vision of what he wants to accomplish and shrewdly manuevers support for his ambitions and objectives. Written in a fast-paced style that keeps the reader both informed and anticipating Lincoln’s next move, this is a book that both presents the facts as they are known from the historical record and, more importantly, interprets the decisions, deals, and moves Lincoln made as he prepared for his presidency during perhaps the most turbulent four-month period in U.S. history.

Divided into two major sections, Holzer’s book first deals with “the promise of something better,” a phrase that caught fire after the disappointments of the nearly impotent Buchanan Administration. Interspersed with Lincoln’s wry humor and stories are details of the political and social issues facing the President-Elect, issues that may have overwhelmed a weaker man. Some authors over the years have portrayed Lincoln as indecisive and full of self-doubt during the crisis, but Holzer, perhaps the best Lincoln scholar of modern times, takes no such position. Instead, his Lincoln is resolute, determined, and sure of himself. His confidence came from his quick grasp of the realities of the situation, coupled with his plans of action.

In the second part, Holzer examines “the momentous issue of civil war,” a daunting task that had been festering for a generation but had now boiled over with the election results and the Illinois rail-splitter’s non-majority victory. Lincoln weighs his options, forms his plans, and executes them as best he can before taking office. Holzer looks at Lincoln the man, the husband, and the politician turned president-elect, and evaluates him in the light of the times, as well as with the judgement of the known outcomes of his decisions.

All in all, this is without a doubt the best book specifically dealing with Lincoln’s four-month transition period where me moves from president-elect to chief executive of a divided United States. Holzer challenges the reader with ideas, concepts, and analysis that is fresh and vital, and, at times, controversial and open to debate and conjecture. Most importantly, Holzer makes the reader think and examine Lincoln for himself.

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