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The Lincoln Miracle

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Member Reviews

I've enjoyed reading several books about Abraham Lincoln the past two years, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to review this book.  The Lincoln Miracle is a close up and fascinating look at the 1860 nomination process for both the Republicans and to a lesser degree the Democrats.  We all learned Lincoln was nominated and elected in 1860 but probably didn't know the details--nor all the drama and suspense leading up to a party nomination.

Author Ed Achorn has done a marvelous job combining numerous sources from the 1860s to tell this story of how Lincoln, at best a dark horse candidate was able to secure the Republican nomination from the front-runner William Seward, known for service as former Governor and at the time Senator from New York.  There were other formidable foes including Salmon Chase from Ohio, Edward Bates of Missouri, and Senator Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania.  The Republican Convention was held in Chicago, so Lincoln was the "home" state candidate that proved essential to his winning the nomination on the third ballot,

Lincoln's campaign strategy was spearheaded by Illinois Senator/Judge David Davis and a host of other people introduced in the book who worked diligently to lobby, cajole, arm twist and offer patronage to delegates to support Lincoln.  The political strategies discussed in the book are very interesting to read.

If anything, the details offered by the author can be a bit tedious at times, but overall they put the reader there as the events unfolded, something that is very challenging to do as a writer.  This however is a minor criticism.

Once you read The Lincoln Miracle, and if you understand some history of his life and hard times, one can only surmise that Lincoln was elected by divine intervention.  He truly was the right man for the most difficult time in our nation's history and through his efforts was able to save the Union even though the Civil War was upon the horizon immediately after the 1860 election.

If you love history and enjoy reading about Lincoln this book is a must.

I want to thank NetGalley and Grove Atlantic for the opportunity to review this ARC.
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What "Team of Rivals" did in telling the stories of Abraham Lincoln and his opponents for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination, this book does in telling the stories of their handlers and supporters - the ones who did the wheeling and dealing at the convention on behalf of the candidates, and helped make “the Lincoln miracle” happen.

I have read dozens of Lincoln-related books, though I still wouldn’t presume to call myself an expert. But I can certainly appreciate the difference between a book written by a serious historian who has devoted a good deal of research to their subject, and a dilettante writer who decides to dabble in Lincoln but hasn’t really done enough homework to fully grasp what it is they’re writing about. I can cite plenty of examples of both.

Achorn’s professional background is in journalism and commentary, and his first two published books were about baseball history. So I approached this book with a bit of trepidation - it’s nice that he’s a Lincoln fan, and he does have one Lincoln book under his belt already. But what could someone who is not a Lincoln scholar possibly have to offer that’s of any value, in yet another book that focuses in on one small slice of the Lincoln story?

It turns out he’s an excellent writer, a compelling storyteller, and he’s clearly done his homework in producing the best, most comprehensive and colorful modern account of the 1860 Republican convention that I’ve read.

One by one, Achorn introduces us to those who were to be the key players at the Chicago convention, with mini-biographies of the likes of Thurlow Weed, the political power broker who aimed to engineer the nomination of frontrunner William Seward; Horace Greeley, the journalist, political player and erstwhile Seward ally who came to Chicago to prevent his nomination; and David Davis, who served as Lincoln’s chief convention strategist. Along the way, Achorn fills in the background with anecdotes about Lincoln’s political rise, his influential friends and supporters, his party rivals, and the pressing political issues of the day.

Achorn makes good use of contemporary newspaper reports and correspondence from convention goers, to provide engaging details and color about the Chicago of 1860, the construction of the convention hall known as “the Wigwam,” and the long rail journeys that many thousands of people made to get there.

While these details succeed in enhancing, and not distracting from, the main story, I will say that the narrative can seem a little jumbled at times in the first half. Sometimes we get more than one biographical sketch of the same person, or more than one detailed description of what Chicago was like at the time of the convention. It might have been better had these been grouped together instead of parceled out, as it can start to seem a little repetitive, even if the details are different each time.

The book is also structured as a day-by-day account of the convention, with each chapter or group of chapters titled and organized chronologically, from the Saturday before the convention to the subsequent Saturday after it concluded. Not much happened on some of those days early in the week, so several early chapters have little to do with the day under which they’re grouped, instead providing a lot of background that doesn’t really fit the day-by-day approach.

But any concern about the book’s structure fades away once the convention gets under way in earnest. With all of the personalities having been introduced, the issues described and the scene-setting established, the real work of the convention begins. And Achorn ably describes how Lincoln was no passive dark horse, waiting at home indifferently to find out what the convention delegates decided, and his nomination was not some kind of fluke. Nor, however, was it inevitable, as it might seem to be from our vantage point.

So how does one create an engaging and suspenseful narrative about a convention, when we know how it turned out? By showing how Lincoln’s nomination was the result of hard work on the part of the candidate and his supporters, with a smattering of sneakiness and backroom dealmaking, a little bit of luck, and deft efforts to capitalize on the general feeling among many delegates that frontrunner Seward would not be the best choice for the party in the general election.

From courting support among swing states to cement Lincoln’s status as everyone’s second choice, to manipulating the seating arrangements and packing the convention hall to create “the appearance that the delegates were spontaneously swinging behind him,” to Davis’s apparent disregard for Lincoln’s directive not to promise any jobs in exchange for votes, Achorn covers all the angles. “Many who see Lincoln as a cut above grubby politicians still have difficulty regarding him as the beneficiary of shenanigans in Chicago and political trading in smoke-filled rooms," he writes. But the publicly-detached, above-it-all style of office-seeking at the time masked the real behind-the-scenes work and skill that it took to win.

The challenge with any book that focuses on a specific moment in Lincoln’s life and career is where to end the story. Do you stop with the end of the central event, assuming that the reader knows how the rest of Lincoln’s life and career turned out? Or do you continue on to summarize everything that happened afterwards? Achorn does the latter, but in a way that complements his main story instead of needlessly extending it. In addition to providing an epilogue on whatever happened to all the main players and to the Wigwam itself, he describes how the “Team of RIvals” approach Lincoln adopted as president went far beyond just choosing his former convention rivals for his Cabinet - it extended to Lincoln’s willingness and ability to work with all of those who might criticize or slight him, rewarding opponents and winning over skeptics, just as his handlers did on his behalf in Chicago.

I won’t spoil the book’s ending, but the very last paragraph insightfully reveals a double meaning of the book's title - and concludes that the true meaning is not the one you might have thought.

While the book doesn’t offer or promise any new revelations per se, it’s a great work of storytelling that brings to life a momentous political event that could have changed history had any number of things gone differently. And notably, Achorn manages to avoid the trap that other journalists who dabble in history fall into, as he allows the story to stand on its own, without attempting to make strained or facile comparisons to issues or events of today. Achorn may not have spent his entire professional life studying and writing about Lincoln, but with this book, I believe he’s more than earned a place among the most engaging voices in Lincoln literature today.
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Excellent read.  The author develops the unfolding activity of the 1860 Repubilcan convention in a manner that holds your attention.   Even knowing the eventual result does take away from the action.   The occasional sidetrips add to the story.  The author does not loose track of the numerous involved personalities, expertly developing their backstories.    Even an experienced Lincoln fan will find a new nugget of information.
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