LINCOLN IN THE WORLD: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power. By Kevin Peraino. Crown. 310 pages. $26.
Abraham Lincoln is one of the most studied public figures of history. Every angle of his political rise, his conduct during the Civil War and his personal life have been examined in detail many times over. Thus, it is likely that only a fully accredited Lincoln scholar could fairly assess the value and originality of journalist Kevin Peraino's investigation of Lincoln's foreign policy.
That said, for readers with an interest in the 16th president and the times in which he lived, Peraino's "Lincoln in the World" will add depth to their understanding of Lincoln, ignite new questions about a much-interpreted figure and widen their appreciation of how the U.S. approaches the world today.
In order to pull off this not insubstantial feat, Peraino has broken down his book into chapters on the gradual development of Lincoln's foreign policies centered on his relationships with pivotal figures, beginning with his law partner, William Herndon, and continuing on through Secretary of State William Seward, British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, Karl Marx (rather surprisingly) and Emperor Napoleon III.
Each chapter becomes the foundation of the next, as concepts alternate with vivid portraits of the individuals involved. Thus, Lincoln's struggle as a congressman over his position on the Mexican War meshes into his conflict with Seward over who will have the final say in foreign affairs.
This, in turn, leads to a discussion of the delicate negotiatons surrounding the Trent Affair, which placed us in contention with Great Britain. That topic is a natural precursor to a description of Karl Marx's activities in Europe and Lincoln's efforts to win the support of the anti-slavery English working class, for whom the loss of cotton from the American South threatened livelihoods.
Finally, Peraino takes on France's attempt to re-establish a foothold in the Americas via conquest of Mexico.
The technique works brilliantly, and helps illustrate Peraino's main point: Lincoln's major foreign policy achievement was thwarting European intervention in the Civil War, a move that would have been the death knell of the Union.
Yet Lincoln has not been remembered as a great foreign policy president, despite a personality and worldview forged early in his life that indicated the potential for achievement, according to Peraino. Though he spoke no foreign language and never traveled outside the U.S., Lincoln, thanks to his famously prodigious reading, was always interested in what lay beyond his narrow upbringing. In addition, he was an accomplished chess player, loved mathematics and believed in the importance of cold, hard reasoning when evaluating issues that affected his country. He was constitutionally incapable of hot-blooded moral crusades.
Lincoln's political life may have been dominated by the Civil War and his faith in the Union's cause, but he also believed that winning would prove to those overseas that "popular government is not an absurdity," and that the U.S. deserved a position on the world stage. Destroying slavery would obviously make us more credible, but so would furthering the kind of commercial ventures that John Quincy Adams had advocated. It could be argued that many of Lincoln's policies helped ignite late-19th century American imperialism, a development of which Lincoln may or may not have approved.
Peraino's depiction of the shrewd, often ruthless Lincoln intermittently descending into depression and guilt over the war intertwines with snapshots of the cagey executive manipulating European politicians and his own Congress.
Lincoln also had an enormous amount of patience and would often simply wait for things to fall into place the way he intended. Ultimately, though, he was driven by George Washington's instructions to pursue the country's best interests guided by justice. Walking that tightrope gave Abraham Lincoln many sleepless nights.
Peraino has produced a well-written, finely researched and provocative study of what, to many, is a lesser-known aspect of the Civil War period and Lincoln's presidency.
Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.