Thursday, March 12, 2015

when the Railsplitter went foreign

I don't usually read non-fiction history books cover to cover, but when I do...

Here's the thing. I picked this book from the Blogging for Books website because, frankly, the selection at that time sucked, and this was the only one that struck me as having potential. I really wasn't in the mood for a presidential biography (I've never been in that mood; I'm not sure I'd even recognize it, if I did stumble across it). But the other options were downright dismal. So I selected this one, about Abe Lincoln.

The book is Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power, by Kevin Peraino. And yes, I received a review copy in order to do this review.

I've had good luck with the books I've chosen from Blogging for Books. Here's to hoping that continues. Lincoln in the World certainly didn't disappoint.

Maybe I should reword that. I was expecting to struggle through a dry accounting of treaties and dignitaries lists I'd never remember quit reading after a few paragraphs. Instead, I got sucked in by Peraino's humor and insight.  Who wouldn't smile knowing that the esteemed president was completely aware of and honest about his lack of preparation for his post as our leader in foreign affairs? "I will be very apt to make blunders," he said to an unnamed foreign dignitary.

I'm totally stealing that line, by the way.

But anyway.

I grew up thinking Lincoln was something of a romanticist; perhaps that is only because our history books remember him romantically. The truth is that Lincoln was a literalist. Peraino quotes Lincoln's friend as saying that Lincoln's mind "crushed the unreal, the inexact, the hollow, and the sham,... Everything came to him in its precise shape and color."

Here's something I don't think many people understand: why do we study history? Peraino says that "in the age of Lincoln, we see shadows of our modern global arena." And that is why we study history: to recognize ourselves and discern what is real in our present. Peraino's treatment of Lincoln provides the lens for any reader to do exactly that. He makes Lincoln real, reminding us - or perhaps telling us for the first time - that Lincoln was just as human as the rest of us.

We tend to think of History as a list of dates, names, and wars, but history is nothing more, or less, than our story. It is the story of humans. Rather than listing the minutia of all Lincoln's foreign politics, Peraino examines Lincoln's character via the hard choices he navigated, thus giving a complete picture of how personality and interpersonal conflicts affected our young country's foreign involvement.

To illustrate this picture, Peraino focused on five conflicts Lincoln faced:
1. with his friend and law partner, Billy Herndon, over the Mexican War
2. with his Secretary of State over which of them would control foreign policy
3. with the British Prime Minister, over a diplomatic crisis in the midst of the American Civil War
4. with Karl Marx, in a race for public opinion
5. with the emperor of France, over their short-lived occupation of Mexico.

In the last chapter, Peraino addresses another conflict brought about by Lincoln's foreign policy: the efforts of biographer John Hays to efforts to define Lincoln's foreign policy legacy. Peraino titled this chapter "Lincoln vs. Lincoln," a nod to the conflicting presentations of Lincoln's legacy by the several biographers, all contemporaries of Lincoln, and all seeing him differently. From this, we learn why Lincoln's foreign policy has traditionally been such a minefield for historians (and for some of us, we learn that is was a minefield, and why is was, all at the same time).

As any good biography, this book tells enough about the era that non-historians will get a clear picture of the setting and cultural climate, allowing the reader to grasp Lincoln's personal development. Peraino's analysis flows smoothly in the context, and will be easy for anyone to read. So, if you have even a passing interest in American history, check this one out. It won't disappoint.


Incidentally, Lincoln was really funny, though maybe not always the way he intended. From the text:

As for French, the nineteenth-century language of diplomacy, he did not understand enough to read a menu. ("Hold on there," the Railsplitter once told a waiter in a New York French restaurant. "Beans. I know beans.")
... In the White House, Lincoln's attempts at diplomatic finesse could seem comically inept. His efforts to bow elegantly to visiting diplomats were so "prodigiously violent" that they had "almost the effect of a smack" in their "rapidity and abruptness."
... "His conversation consists of vulgar anecdotes at which he himself laughs uproariously," the Dutch minister complained. 

Confession: I pictured something akin to the Beverly Hillbillies' shenanigans when I read that. 

No comments:

Post a Comment