“And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle” | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Presidential historian Jon Meacham considers Abraham Lincoln the most consequential of 45 men who have held the highest political office in the land. More than 15,000 books have been written about this son of Illinois, so it seemed unlikely that there was need for another book about this commander-in-chief, but Meacham's intention in “And There Was Light” is to capture the soul of Lincoln.
In order to relate how Lincoln's spiritual proclivities affected his mood and his policies throughout his life, the author and his staff combed the archives for newspaper articles, diaries, and previous biographies. They learned that Lincoln never joined a church but he knew the Bible well and implemented Judeo-Christian principles in his personal and political decisions.
In this refined and nuanced work, the author captures Lincoln’s “struggle to do right as he defined it within the political universe he and his country inhabited.” Lincoln labored to live with Biblical mandates like the one found in the Book of Micah “to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with their God.” Meacham describes him as “an example of how even the most imperfect of people, leading the most imperfect of people” can still bend the world toward justice.
The book does not overlook Lincoln’s failures. It includes depictions of the president’s half-hearted effort to abolish slavery in Washington D.C. in 1849. He also captures Lincoln’s “theological quest” to understand God and the concept of providence as he wrestles with the tragic loss of his son Willie and the complexities of the slavery issue.
Meacham's biography vividly depicts Lincoln’s varied life settings and moods. He portrays Lincoln’s personal life, especially the relationship between Abraham and Mary Lincoln with its coyness and tension. This research presents Mary Lincoln as more mentally stable than in other biographies. Vice-president Andrew Johnson's drunkenness and racism are disturbingly portrayed.
This contribution to the Lincoln canon is unique in its emphasis on Lincoln’s religious beliefs at every stage of his life and in the humorous anecdotes Meacham discovered through his deep research. The many captioned maps, cartoons, pictures, and colored photographs add to the richly painted narrative.
Subtly, Meacham relates the divided nation, which Lincoln governed in the 19th Century, to the division in the United States in this century. Political dissension and loose talk of civil war are common in both eras. He purports that excellent leadership in a democracy requires a style of leadership that balances reasonable compromise and moral principles. Lincoln insisted that Black people were “entitled to all the natural rights” of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln was both revered and castigated for taking this position, saluted by some and loathed by others, but he held to his conviction and vision of a nation dedicated to human liberty and justice for all.
Presented with all the craftsmanship of an experienced, artful writer, Meacham‘s book on Lincoln will unquestionably become widely read and referenced. This 421-page stirring narrative with 255 additional pages of endnotes and bibliography takes many hours to read and savor but anyone interested in Lincoln will find this book a most worthwhile read.
About the Author: Jon Meacham won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2009 for “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.” He holds The Rogers Chair in the American Presidency at Vanderbilt University and is the author of six additional books on political subjects. Meacham is the Canon Historian for the Washington National Cathedral and a frequent guest commentator on election night and political talk shows. Random House is his publisher.