REVIEWSrnFather Abrahamrnby Brenan R. MermanrnThe Last Best Hope of Earth:rnAbraham Lincoln and thernPromise of Americarnby Mark E. Neely, ]r.rnCambridge: Harvard University Press;rn214 pp., $24.95rnI t now appears that the safest way forrnscholars to treat Abraham Lincohi isrnin discrete segments of his life, leaving itrnto other, perhaps braver, souls to drawrnthe appropriate conclusions. This meansrnthat, as in this book which focuses on thernpresidential years, modern Lincolnrnscholarship seems to miss the essence ofrnthe man in all his complexity. A manrnand his actions are of course inseparable,rnbut the significance of the clues to Lincoln’srncharacter that Mark Neely offersrnus seems to escape the author’s ownrnrecognition. For instance, Neely makesrnnote of Lincoln’s Enlightenment-ladenrnrationalism, so evident in his 1838 YoungrnMen’s Lyceum address, but leaves thernquestion as to what we may infer fromrnthe fact largely unexplored. Given thernrevolutionary zeal with which some ofrnLincoln’s later allies would prosecute hisrnwar of empire and Utopia, however, thernconnections beg to be made.rnFor all that, this book is over a centuryrnlate; had it been made available tornthe disenfranchised and defeated Confederatesrnof the Reconstruction South,rndoubtless much of the pain of losingrntheir homes, their land, and their culturernwould have been eased by the knowledgernthat their fortunes had been entrustedrnto the “last best hope of earth.”rnAnd if Father Abraham’s current intellectualrnheirs, panting at the chance tornproclaim democracy unto all the world,rnhave their way, soon other peoples willrnhave the experience of joy and peacernthat once so pervaded Dixie.rnPerhaps the greatest flaw of MarkrnNeely’s biography is that it is a remarkablyrnflat portrait of one of the most perplexingrnand talented men of any age.rnThat is not to say, of course, that Lincolnrnwas a great statesman. Robert Johannsenrnhas shown, in his Lincoln, the South, andrnSlavery, just how much Lincoln manipulatedrnthe sharpest issue of his time forrnhis own political benefit. The consequence,rnof course, was not just an ambitiousrnlawyer in the catbird seat, but ourrnbloodiest war. Neely’s words make thernpoint:rnIt would be very difficult to characterizernthe Republican party asrnanything but a sectional party, offeringrnnothing to the white Southrnand, in the speeches of most partyrnmembers, making political capitalrnout of antisouthernism. AbrahamrnLincoln was a good Republican,rnand his ideal of nationalismrnlooked forward to an Americanrnnation based entirely on northernrnfree-soil principles.rnLincoln’s vagueness about therneventual “extinction” of slaveryrn. .. was perhaps the most intellectuallyrndishonest part of hisrnplatform. Neither he nor anyrnother anti-Nebraska politicianrnmuch wanted to deal with thernquestion of race.rnSo Lincoln ran for President, saidrnnothing to allay the fears of an alreadyalarmedrnSouth during the summerrnmonths of 1860, was elected, and found,rnto his surprise and dismay, that thernSouth was prepared to take some of hisrnmore vocal supporters at their word. Ifrnlimiting slavery was the key, as Lincolnrnsaid it was, to its eventual abolition, thenrneven this would be too much. For slaveryrnin the South was part of the larger culturalrncomplex of Old Whig-Jeffersonianrnrepublicanism that insisted on the necessityrnof the agrarian life to shape thernfree, self-controlled, virtuous men so vitalrnto the life of the Republic. If thernagrarian life were threatened, this beliefrnheld, then the Old Republic would be inrnmortal danger. Lincoln was the focalrnpoint of that threat in I860; and, surernenough, time has proved that the menrnwho bade a fond farewell to union were,rnin their analysis of the problem, essentiallyrncorrect. Lincoln destroyed a culturalrnsystem upon which the finer pointsrnof the Old Republic depended, substitutingrnin its stead the rationalistic cashrnnexus, the atomistic individual, and thernimperial presidency.rnIn the process, the old concept ofrnvirtue as self-disciplined adherence tornthe ideals of the moral imagination, personifiedrnin General Robert E. Lee, graduallyrngave way to an aggressive new orderrnof idyllic self-righteousness, in whichrnvirtue is pursued in the collective worshiprnof an abstract, rootless humanity.rnWe can detect the tones of this distortedrnpiety in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Addressrnand Second Inaugural. The results ofrnthese rhetorical morality binges are yetrnunfolding before our eyes in the dailyrnpaper. It was, of course, all done (and isrnstill being done) in the name of democracy;rnand it is, as I have said, a greatrnshame that Lincoln’s soothing words ofrnsecularized religiosity were not morernwidely known to the victims of his messianicrnlargesse.rnLincoln was a master of many things.rnHe was a good lawyer, a fine politician,rnand a resolute Commander-in-Chief. Asrnhis legacy to his countrymen, however,rnAbraham Lincoln left not just thernhonied vision of a Crolier-than-thou Progressivism,rnbut the promise of a futurernCaesar who, in his pursuit of the mainrnchance, would imitate his predecessorrnby stopping at nothing to win his placernon a marble throne in Washington, D.C.rnLincoln’s rhetoric guaranteed that, for asrnlong as his Union of force continues,rnpaeans will be sung to equality, varyingrnin both tone and melody but growingrnever more shrill. Those brilliant hightonedrnnotes of immanentized eschatology,rncloaked as they were in a Kentuckyfriedrncoating of biblical prose, serve now,rnas they served then, as the rallying cry forrnevery new generation of ignoramusesrnwho seek with starry eyes to begin anewrnand who invoke the name—the nowrnmagical name—of Father Abraham.rnBrenan R. Merman recently earned hisrnPh.D. in government at GeorgetownrnUniversity.rnSEPTEMBER 1994/31rnrnrn