Monday, January 26, 2015

Book Write-Up: Lincoln in the World

Kevin Peraino.  Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power.  New York: Broadway Books, 2013.  See here to purchase the book.

Lincoln in the World, by Kevin Peraino, is about Abraham Lincoln’s approach to foreign policy, both as a Congressman and also as a President.  As a Congressman, Lincoln was critical of the United States going to war against Mexico as part of an expansionist crusade.  As President, Lincoln dealt with significant challenges.  He did not want for Europe to assist the Confederacy because that could contribute to a Confederate victory in the American Civil War.  When Captain Charles Wilkes was trying to protect the Union’s blockade against the Confederacy by firing on a British ship and capturing two Confederate envoys who were about to assume diplomatic posts in Britain and France, Wilkes was acclaimed as a hero in the Union, but Britain was upset, thinking that Lincoln may have ordered Wilkes’ action.  There was also Napoleon III of France, who was seeking to make incursions into Mexico.  Peraino details how Lincoln successfully addressed these delicate challenges: in a smart, low-key manner.

Peraino includes in his book a lot of anecdotes about the figures whom he discusses, and this humanizes them and gives the reader a sense of their motivations and peculiarities, as well as makes the book more interesting.  Peraino also addresses other topics, such as the negative foreign views about Abraham Lincoln and how they became more positive over time, and also the intersection between Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx.  Peraino is speculative about whether Lincoln was familiar with Marx’s work, but Marx definitely had opinions about Lincoln and the American Civil War.  Marx supported the Civil War as a way to end slavery and promote revolution, but he did not agree with Lincoln entirely.

What comes across in Peraino’s book is tension, and this is not just because the titles of Peraino’s chapters present Lincoln as “vs.” somebody else (Herndon, Seward, Palmerston, Marx, Napoleon, and himself).  There seemed to be tension within Lincoln’s position, and also within other people’s positions.  Lincoln criticized the U.S. going to war with Mexico, yet he and his Secretary of State were open to some level of expansionism.  Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was expected to win the heart of Europe, which ended slavery before the U.S. did, and yet Europe had a negative reaction to the end of slavery because of its dependence on cotton from the American south.  Peraino navigates his way through these tensions, as when he discusses Lincoln’s philosophy on foreign policy in his second inaugural address, and in an endnote, where he refers the reader to literature on Europe’s reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation.

I have one criticism of the book.  In reading Peraino, I could understand the perspective of the crusading expansionists: they wanted foreign resources for the United States, and they sought to promote war under the cover of some specious moral high ground (i.e., Mexico attacked us).  I did not entirely understand the views of those who were critical of crusading expansionists, including Lincoln.  Lincoln did oppose crusading expansionism on moral grounds, for he said that the U.S. going to war against Mexico violated the Golden Rule.  But what were the practical grounds for Lincoln’s position?  Peraino often referred to a desire to maintain a sectional balance or the balance of power, but I wish that he expanded on what that meant specifically, and what exactly was at stake.  I do not suspect Lincoln of having an ulterior motive in his moral stance against crusading expansionism, for plenty of people base their views on moral reasons.  But Lincoln had practical reasons for his stance as well, for he was a pragmatic person.  Peraino should have gone into more detail about that.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

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