Home ➨ Slightly Foxed - Reaping the Whirlwind
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A warm summer day in 1987. A thump on my doorstep announces the arrival of a stout parcel with the familiar return address, BOMC, Book-of-the-Month Club. These were the pre-internet days, when BOMC worked exclusively by mail. You had to open the brochure that arrived every three or four weeks and return the postcard that proclaimed you didn’t want the next month’s selection, or else it would be sent automatically. Having neglected to return the postcard, I found myself holding Freedom by William Safire, a 1,000-page novel about Abraham Lincoln and the first two years of America’s four-year Civil War, this account ending with Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a book I did not want and had no interest in. Still, it was here. I was here. There was no harm in having a look before I sent it back. I sat down and began to read. Three hours later I was still reading. Freedom would alter the trajectory of my reading for the next twenty years.
Thomas Jefferson famously said that slavery was like holding a wolf by the ears. You didn’t like it much, but you didn’t dare let it go. Freedom is the story of how America let go of the wolf and came perilously close to committing suicide in the process. I have long been a fan of historical fiction, but I always find myself wondering, as I do when watching a movie or mini-series ‘inspired by actual events’, where the boundary comes in the shadowland that divides fiction and history. I read or watch and ask, ‘How do they know that? How much is reasonable conjecture, how much demonstrable fact, how much pure fabrication? What were their sources?’ Safire gives us a hint in his Note to the Reader.
In general, the credibility quotient is this: if the scene deals with war or politics, it is fact; if it has to do with romance, it is fiction; if it is outrageously and obviously fictional, it is fact.
Safire, to my knowledge, is unique among historical novelists in that he not only provides a superb, annotated bibliography but also exhaustive endnotes, which he calls the ‘Underbook’. In it, he guides the reader chapter by chapter through the original source material. Many of the participants kept diaries, wrote memoirs or had voluminous correspondence, so much of the dialogue in Freedom is lifted directly from primary sources. Where philosophical, political or historical controversy arises (and there are controversies aplenty) Safire gives us all sides of the issue and the evidence available to us, then tells us what he thinks and why.
The curtain rises on Washington DC, April 1861. Having snuck into the nation’s capitol in disguise because of threats to his life, Abraham Lincoln, a president with only two years of national political experience as a one-term congressman from Illinois, elected in a four-way race with fewer than four votes in ten, and having not carried a single slave-holding state, yet pledged by his party platform to protect the institution of slavery where it exists, finds himself the chief executive of only half a country, for the southern states are already equipping armies to defy the national authority and perhaps even sack Washington. Despite his often-repeated appeal for calm, the prospect of peace is slipping through his grasp like sand. As he has said to the southern states in his first inaugural address, yet again resorting to reason where reason will not be heard, his high, clear, twangy drawl carrying over the crowd in the shadow of the still unfinished US Capitol dome:
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so . . . In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it’.
And the war came.
It was this last idea, the preservation of the union and the idea that popular government was not an absurdity, to which Lincoln held fast with an almost mystical devotion, and for which he would accept any sacrifice as sectional conflict turned to war, and war to revolution. By war’s end that would mean more than 600,000 casualties.
A brief glance at the map on the endpapers will reveal the perilous situation the newly inaugurated president faced. Washington DC was surrounded by Virginia and Maryland, both slave-holding states with legislatures hostile to the incoming president. The Virginia legislature had already voted to secede from the union. The Maryland legislature was planning to convene and follow suit. What was the beleaguered president of an imperilled nation to do? Arrest the entire Maryland legislature for a crime they were going to commit. This is the recurring, timeless theme of Freedom: how much freedom should citizens of a free nation be willing to relinquish in the name of freedom’s preservation?
Alongside the timeless questions there are also wonderful vignettes, all documented fact, reminding us that we are in another world: the President of the United States walking down the street, alone, slopping through the mud of Pennsylvania Avenue in search of a newspaper to give him news of the war. Lincoln, careworn but vigorous, in his early fifties but still immensely strong, driven to such a state of exasperation by a visitor’s demands that he actually picks the man up by the belt and collar and throws him from his office, to the vast amusement of his secretaries. And my favourite, another visitor to the presidential residence, only then becoming known as the White House (it has recently been given a belated coat of fresh white paint), finds Lincoln in his office blacking his own boots. When the visitor expresses surprise, the president asks, ‘Whose boots should I be blacking?’
If America has a secular saint, that saint is most assuredly Abraham Lincoln. What Safire has done so brilliantly, like a sculptor adding clay in layers until a final likeness emerges, is reduce Lincoln to human scale and in doing so raise him to greater heights: a man unsure of himself, groping his way forward, struggling with a crippling depression from which he has suffered most of his life, hesitant but obstinate as a mule, ambitious and duplicitous yet altruistic. He is simple in his vulgar and coarse tastes but a canny reader of men and motives who will grow in the office of the presidency as no man has grown before or since. It is the burden of Lincoln’s all-too-flawed humanity, his sharp corners, that brings into high relief his quiet heroism. Yet Safire never gushes. As he opines through the voice of Francis Preston Blair, a close adviser of the president’s, ‘Oh, he’s a cunning bastard is Honest Abe.’ Indeed.
Safire can speak with some authority on how the wheels of power turn at the highest levels of government ‒ he was once a speechwriter in the White House under Nixon – but he never allows his personality to intrude on the narrative. Other portraits of Lincoln, notably Gore Vidal’s bestselling Lincoln, published two years before Safire’s book, tend to project the character of the author on to the subject. Safire manages to stay out of the way. Though he says in a final endnote that reverence is a barrier to appreciation, ultimately his portrait rings true, laced as it is with both authenticity and admiration, which is only fitting. Admiration is the proper response to greatness.
Since my first reading of Freedom I have read many of the highly acclaimed biographies of America’s sixteenth president. Now, returning to it thirty-five years later, I see very little in Safire’s portrait to quibble with. Mortimer Adler, the guiding spirit behind Columbia University’s Great Books programme, said Lincoln had not read a great many books, but he had read a few books really, really well. Anyone privileged to stand within the walls of the Lincoln Memorial, the pillared Grecian temple in Washington that enshrines Lincoln’s memory, may attest to this as they read aloud the exquisite prose of the Second Inaugural Address and the Gettysburg Address, both chiselled into the marble walls. I have stood there many times, and on each visit I have been moved to tears. It is a powerfully serene space, as awe-inspiring as a cathedral; a monument to an imperishable memory.
As I put Freedom down again, I am left with much the same feeling I have experienced at the Lincoln Memorial: I have been with the man who proved that democracy was not an absurdity, and I have basked in the presence of greatness.