Reading With Lincoln. By Robert Bray. (Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, 2010). Pp. ix, 219, Appendix, Notes, Index. Cloth $27.95.
Marching to the Drumbeat of Abolitionism: Wheaton College in the Civil War. By David E. Maas. (Wheaton College Press, 2010 ). Pp. 162, Aftermath, Epilogue, Appendices, Abbreviations, Endnotes, Index, Acknowledgments) Paper $
Captives in Gray: The Civil War Prisons of the Union. By Roger Pickenpaugh. (The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa. 2009). Pp. ix, 237, Notes, Bibliography, Index. Cloth $29.95
The Civil War is a seminal moment in the history of the United States, and the three books in this review each touch on some aspect of that great conflict. Reading with Lincoln by Robert Bray, for example, asks two questions about the man at the center of the nation's ordeal. First, what books did Lincoln read, and second, what was their influence on him?
Divided into a preface and five chapters, Bray explores Lincoln from his days in Indiana as a voracious, youthful reader devouring every book that came his way to a mature man, a lawyer and politician, who read with specificity and purpose.
As essentially self-taught, Lincoln ranged widely in his literary choices. He loved lyric poetry - particularly that of Robert Burns. He read the political and philosophical treatises of men like Thomas Paine, JeanJacques Rousseau and other Enlightenment figures. His profession demanded that he familiarize himself with William Blackstone's Commentaries and a variety of other volumes on or about the law. His inclinations led him to contemporary works on religion, mathematics, and the natural sciences. His melancholia made him an appreciative audience for humorists such as Artemus Ward, Petroleum V. Nasby and Joseph Glover Baldwin. Finally, as the bedrock for his other reading lay the King James version of the Bible and the plays of William Shakespeare. Yet, the reconstruction of the books and plays, the poetry and pamphlets that Lincoln read requires a certain amount of speculation. Lincoln did not keep an annotated record of his readings. Much of the knowledge of what he read relies on the memories of his family, friends, and acquaintances.
The answer to Bray's second question depends on even more speculation. The cadences of his prose reflect those of both the Bible and Shakespeare. The care he took in parsing his words and the clean logic of his state papers reflect the impact of a legal education. Yet, speculation is also required to answer this question. How much of who Lincoln was was innate and how much was the result of reading?
Calling Lincoln a "political artist," Bray concludes that books provided Lincoln with a glass through which to view the world as well as a means of revealing himself to himself. His readings created a vehicle which allowed a tall, self-educated, small-town lawyer to guide the nation through a time of crisis.
Both of the other books in this review are institutional histories. David E. Maas's Marching to the Drumbeat of Abolitionism: Wheaton College and the Civil War traces the history of Wheaton College from its founding in 1853 as the Illinois Institute to the aftermath of the Civil War. Maas's twin foci, however, are on a man, Jonathan Blanchard, and on an idea, abolitionism. The former, the first president of the re-christened co-educational institution, determined not only to rescue it from its financial woes, but to imbue the college and its students with his own sense of rectitude and righteousness. For Blanchard,"... a sound and thorough education is of priceless value. . . [but] an education without moral and religious excellence, an enlightened intellect with a corrupt heart, is but a cold gas-light over a sepulcher, revealing, but not warming the dead." (p. 12) Thus, Wheaton was to be a place of Christian morality and intellectual distinction.
While Blanchard did not believe in human perfectibility, he did believe "strand after strand must be singled and drawn out from human wickedness. …