This weekend I finished reading Dr. Joshua Zeitz’ book Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image. First let me say, the book is incredible. It’s detailed, well researched, and beautifully written. It’s also remarkably timely. Having watched, over the past year, the most divisive political campaign in recent memory, it’s no stretch of the imagination to see the similarities between our current political climate and the tension of the late 1850’s. Reading Lincoln’s Boys, you will see it’s quite scary at times.
From the title, you might conclude that the book is about Abraham Lincoln. However, rather than “about” Lincoln, I would say more accurately that the book is “around” Lincoln. The narrative is told through the eyes of Lincoln’s two young aides John Hay and John Nikolay, and presents a vivid account of life and politics in the antebellum era.
The book begins with Lincoln’s run for the Illinois State Senate and the infamous Lincoln-Douglas debates. The debates, and the accompanying socio-political atmosphere are artfully described in a way that is a touch too familiar.
Douglas is described as an aggressive personality who would routinely misrepresent Lincoln’s positions and who had little regard for facts or truth. Lincoln, on the other hand, is described as the stately leader, taking the higher ground and campaigning for the limitation of slavery – the very same issue that would ultimately define his presidency.
The debates were tenacious. There were ugly personal attacks, exaggerations, and lies.
At one point Zeitz notes of the Lincoln-Douglas debates that, “Public opinion in this country is everything, and Douglas was manipulating it in a vicious and highly immoral way.”
On the weekend of President Trump’s inauguration, it’s impossible to ignore the topical relevance of this material.
The book has also reminded me that we can’t forget what happened in the middle of the 19th century. There was a civil war. 600,000 people died fighting for control of a deeply divided country. Just because it was a long time ago doesn’t mean it’s not relevant today.
As we begin the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, my plea is that both sides of our currently divided nation take a nod to the past. For the common good of our country we should all spend more time searching for things that unite us than harping on the things that divide us.