In the introduction to his latest book, Joe Wheeler relates this advice from his ad man son Greg: "No matter what the product, just tie [Abraham] Lincoln to it and it's guaranteed to sell." This perhaps explains why I've seen ads for everything from car insurance to sleeping pills featuring the celebrated 16th president of the United States. There's even a diner in my old neighborhood that features Lincoln's face prominently on its sign. Nothing says bacon and eggs like a stovepipe hat!
Books are no exception to Greg's rule. Wheeler contends that more books have been written about Lincoln than all the other presidents combined, and he enters the fray with ABRAHAM LINCOLN, A MAN OF FAITH AND COURAGE. "While I admire and revere Washington, it stops there. He is a model for many fine qualities, but with me at least, he remains only a model to be venerated. Not so with the sixteenth president. There is something about Abraham Lincoln that makes me love him. I cannot explain it: I know only that it's there," he writes. Wheeler's love for Lincoln is both a strength and weakness of his book, which often straddles the line between biography and hagiography.
There is no doubt that Lincoln was an extraordinarily individual, and the stories here provide an entertaining survey of the moments --- large and small --- that made the man. The following story illustrates the combination of solid research and faith-filled speculation that characterizes Wheeler's book.
"One day, when he was around nine, he took a bag of corn, mounted the flea-bitten gray mare, and rode leisurely to Gordon's Mill. His turn didn't come until late afternoon. Since each man was expected to provide his own power, Abe hitched the mare to the arm. As the animal moved around, the machinery responded with proportional speed --- or lack of it. Abe, mounted on the arm, found it necessary to frequently use his whip, otherwise, the horse would stop. Each time the whip action took place, Abe would say, `Get up you old hussy.' Finally, resenting Abe's whip, just as the words, `Get up,' were said, the horse elevated a shoeless foot and kicked him in the forehead, sending him sprawling.
"Mr. Gordon, the miller, hurried into the ring, picked up the senseless boy (whom he took for dead), and sent for his father. His father came, loaded the body in the wagon, and took him home. Abe lay unconscious all night, but toward day there were signs of life. The blood began to flow normally, his tongue struggled to loosen itself, his body jerked for an instant and he awoke, blurting out the other three words interrupted at the mill, `you old hussy.'
"Lincoln would talk about this strange phenomenon for the rest of his life, this memorable experience that so easily could have been his last. God must certainly have had a reason for sparing his life."
This story comes from a biography of Lincoln written in 1925, and indeed Wheeler cites his "exhaustive scholarship" of reading 60 books about Lincoln in preparing to write his own. And yet there is clearly a healthy dose of speculation mixed in with the facts, especially when it comes to Lincoln's spiritual development and relationship with God. Wheeler is not shy about reading providence into Lincoln's life at almost every turn. This will leave some readers nodding in agreement, but will leave critical readers on edge.
That said, many of Lincoln's writings offer great spiritual insight that Wheeler is right to highlight. It's clear that while Lincoln was often careful about being inclusive when discussing faith from his public platform, he was involved in a serious and significant spiritual journey with the God of the Bible. And at no time was such a searching and faithful president needed than during the Civil War.
Wheeler uses a brush dipped in sepia tones to paint the picture of Lincoln's early years growing up on the frontiers of Kentucky and Indiana, which is somewhat ironic given that Lincoln himself is noted for having no such sentimentality in his regard for the hardscrabble lifestyle of those years. But the author does an excellent job of giving context to his years by explaining the cultural, religious, political, even ecological milieu in which he lived. Wheeler is able to move helpfully between a wide angle perspective and a closer focus on Lincoln, providing a cohesive and comprehensive narrative for those not already familiar with his life and even adding some interesting details for those who have read a book or two on him. I hear there are a few out there...
--- Reviewed by Lisa Ann Cockrel