If I could have a conversation with a historical figure, I’m not sure who I would choose, but Abraham Lincoln would be near the top of the list. He is an imposing figure in American history, the Great Emancipator, but he also sometimes seems like a legend, a canvas onto which many have projected their ideals and hopes for the greatness of a country that in his time was still caught in the moral quagmire of slavery. It was a problem that the founding fathers — despite the triumph and poetry of the Constitution and the declaration of independence — were unable, perhaps unwilling, to address. Lincoln’s vision alone did not solve it, but in keeping the Union together, it was his hope that all Americans together might. At least that’s what I like to think (see what I mean about projection).
So, Abe — can I call you Abe?
Did you really think you were up to it, running a fractured country?
Did you realize what was before you as you made your way to Washington from Springfield to take office?
Do you think Mount Rushmore captured your best side?
Was Stephen Douglas really that much shorter than you?
How did Douglas help shape you as a politician, as a thinker?
Did you think, on the day of his death, also the day of the first battle in the Civil War, that you could go on without him?
These last two questions are addressed in a book by Roy Morris Jr., The Long Pursuit, about Lincoln and Douglas’ famed rivalry and as the subtitle puts it, their 30-year “struggle for the heart and soul of America.” It’s an interesting historical analysis of two flawed, complicated men and how their political ambitions and ideas played out in the decades leading up to the Civil War. (If my high school history teachers had assigned this book or others like it, I might have been more interested in their subject.) Morris looks to their childhood, their personal lives, their acquaintances for clues as to what made these men.
Douglas, the Democrat, was “born into upper-middle-class privilege, the son of a Vermont physician with sturdy New England connections going back 200 years.” Lincoln, a Whig who would become the first president from the newly formed Republican Party, was the son of “an illiterate backwoodsman” from Kentucky. Both made their way to Illinois to find opportunity. Morris suggests that their disparate upbringings helped form their disparate views on slavery. The slave-state-born Lincoln understood of the plight of a man forced to work for nothing, but free-state-born Douglas remained aloof to the cause of a people he encountered only as a pawn in political machinations. Still, Lincoln was not an outright abolitionist (not publicly, anyway), nor one to consider the black man his equal, and before Lincoln took office, Douglas understood, perhaps more than his rival, that the future of the country was at stake; his efforts on behalf of the South in the years leading up to the Civil War were for the sake of keeping the Union together. His were delay tactics, though, and upon Douglas’ death, and Lincoln knew that the problem was his to face.
The Long Pursuit is incredibly well researched and annotated (the last quarter of the book is reserved for the author’s notes), but Morris doesn’t lose himself in historical minutiae. He doesn’t spend as much time on the legendary debates as I would like, but he approaches the rivals’ relationship through so many lenses (Douglas courted Mary Todd before she married Lincoln, apparently) that you come to understand that their rhetorical back-and-forth extended beyond the stages they shared in those seven encounters. Morris paints a picture of two real men. One would fail in his ambition to become his country’s president, but in his failure, he prodded his rival to greatness.