An Ethical Biography
By William Lee Miller
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9780375401589, 544pp.)
Publication Date: January 15, 2002
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How did an unschooled career politician named Abraham Lincoln, from the raw frontier villages of early-nineteenth-century Illinois, become one of the most revered of our national icons? This is the question that William Lee Miller explores and answers, in fascinating detail, in Lincoln’s Virtues.
Lincoln, Miller says, was a great man who was also a good man. It is the central thrust of this “ethical biography” to reveal how he became both, to trace his moral and intellectual development in the context of his times and in confrontation with the leading issues of the day—most notably, of course, that of slavery.
Following the rough chronology of Lincoln’s life up to the crucial decisions in the winter of secession, the narrative portrays his conscious shaping of himself as a writer, speaker, moral agent, politician, and statesman. Miller shows us a man who educated himself through reading, had a mind inclined to plow down to first principles and hold to them, and combined clarity of thought with firmness of will and power of expression, a man whose conduct rose to a higher moral standard the higher his office and the greater his power. The author takes us into the pivotal moments of “moral escalation” in Lincoln’s political life, allowing us to see him come gradually to the point at which he was compelled to say, “Hold fast with a chain of steel.” Miller makes clear throughout that Lincoln never left behind or “rose above” the role of “politician,” but rather fulfilled the highest possibilities of this peculiarly honorable democratic vocation.
Lincoln’s Virtues approaches this much-written-about figure from a wholly new standpoint. As a biography uniquely revealing of its subject’s heart and mind, it represents a major contribution to the current and perennial American discussion of national moral conduct, and of the relationship between politics and morality.
William Lee Miller has taught at Yale University, Smith College, Indiana University, and the University of Virginia, where he is currently Miller Center of Public Affairs Scholar in Ethics and Institutions. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Arguing About Slavery (1996), which won the D. B. Hardeman Prize for the best book on Congress.