Peraino assembles an impressive amount of research to shed light on Lincoln through the lenses of his foreign policy and of impressions of him from abroad, both prior to and during his presidency. The book focuses on five key episodes the author feels best illustrates Lincoln’s diplomatic philosophy, including his objections to the 1846 American invasion of Mexico; his early sparring with Seward over control of foreign policy; the critical decision during the Trent crisis of 1861, which, had it been decided otherwise, might have brought Britain into the war; his competition with Karl Marx to influence the public; and his conflict with Napoleon III over the French occupation of Mexico. A sixth chapter looks at the enduring influence of Lincoln as embodied in his secretary and disciple, John Hay.
In the final analysis, this book is really another biography of Lincoln, but because it is organized around lesser-known aspects of his presidency, it adds very intriguing bits of information to the pool of the usual anecdotes commonly included in such books. I also appreciated learning so much about the points of view of foreign key players, such as Lord Palmerston, Karl Marx, and Napoleon.
I found it particularly interesting that both Lincoln and Palmerston believed in the study of geometry to strengthen one’s ability to reason. (Lincoln was also a skilled chess player. As other presidential biographers have noted, a facility with games of strategy and reason can often be associated with political prowess as well. Eisenhower, for example, was expert at bridge.)
I hadn’t realized that not only did Marx write as a correspondent from London for the New York Herald Tribune, but he penned over 350 articles. Lincoln read the Tribune faithfully; it is so interesting to contemplate Lincoln reading the words of Marx. And Marx was an amazingly astute observer of the American scene, including its President and its Civil War. Marx developed a respect for Lincoln; his assessment of Napoleon III, however, was not so generous, calling him:
“clumsily cunning, knavishly naive, doltishly sublime, a calculated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, a cleverly stupid anachronism, a world-historic piece of buffoonery and an undecipherable hieroglyphic.”
Peraino emphasizes Lincoln’s appreciation of the importance of public opinion, an awareness he shared with Karl Marx. Lincoln said in 1856:
“Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government.”
Later he added about the importance of public sentiment, “With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed.”
This phrase is key in understanding why Lincoln bided his time in getting rid of slavery, an institution he had always loathed.
Evaluation: While not stinting on research, the author manages to be quite entertaining, and adds background on aspects of Lincoln’s presidency and on his place in the world that often get short shrift in biographies. This is definitely a worthy addition to Lincolniana. I enjoyed it enough to be left wanting more at the end; a sure sign of a worthy book in my opinion!
Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., 2013