First, there were the circumstances of his birth. Moments after he was born, Lincoln was wrapped in animal fur and placed on a bed of corn husks on the mud floor of his parent's one-room cabin. "But Lincoln was able to lift himself from that mud floor to the most powerful position in the country," Von Drehle said. "He knew that couldn't happen anywhere else (other than America). It was an important story and worth preserving. He called America 'the last, best great hope of Earth.'"
Secondly, as a westerner Lincoln was keenly aware of the crucial role rivers played in the development of the nation. "Before the interstate highways, these rivers were the essential means of transportation in the United States," Von Drehle said. "Lincoln recognized that having a country with a slave economy on one side and having one without slavery on the other side of a river was impossible. There was going to be a conflict. He also realized that once secession got started there was no end to it."
"Because he came from the West, he knew the future of the country was in the West," he added. "Why was California going to stay in a Union with Philadelphia? What did they have in common? Lincoln realized that union was not just symbolically important, but the key to the nation."
If Southern secession succeeded and other areas followed, the United States would become a nation of petty powers with potentates fighting generation after generation. "He recognized the toll that would have to be paid to reunite the country, but he was convinced it was worth it. There really wasn't a choice. Something precious was going to be gone if the United States could not be saved," Von Drehle said, noting that Lincoln was firmly convinced that a truly united United States could be more powerful and prosperous than all the nations of Europe combined.
"And today, we live in that country that Abraham Lincoln envisioned and ennobled," Von Drehle maintained. "He arrived with a purpose to save the Union and said he would do anything to do that." Nowhere is that commitment more evident than in Lincoln's initial position on slavery. Pressed by abolitionists on that issue, Lincoln famously retorted that if he could save the union by freeing all the slaves he would do just that. But if he could save the Union by freeing none of the slaves he would do that. However, if he could save the union by freeing some of the slaves and not others, he would choose that action. Of course, as history notes, Lincoln decided it was necessary to free all the slaves and wrote the great Emancipation Proclamation.
Von Drehle's book focuses on just one year, 1862. In January of that year, officials feared that Lincoln didn't have the power or personality to lead the country, his main general refused to tell the president his plans, the North and its government was in serious financial jeopardy, and European powers were convinced that there was no way the North could force the South back into a union and were prepared to act to get cotton moving again. But, by the end of 1862, Lincoln had mastered the military, the Congress, and his cabinet, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and was recognized as a leader who could indeed restore the Union.
But how did he accomplish that feat? "He was able to adapt himself day by day to whipsawing conditions, but, at the same time, keep in mind where he was attempting to go," Von Drehle contended. "He transformed himself from a fairly ordinary man into the 1st great commander-in-chief and the greatest politician president of his time. He not only saved the Union, but gave it its new birth of freedom."
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