“If you do what I do, he totally looms over everything,” Jon Meacham said of Abraham Lincoln in a phone interview about “And There Was Light,” his 720-page examination of the 16th president’s life. The book was on the hardcover nonfiction list for 12 weeks.
Lincoln’s shadow hovered over Meacham’s childhood, long before he became a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer. He grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., about 1,000 yards from the Confederate headquarters on Missionary Ridge, site of a Union victory on Nov. 25, 1863. A week after the battle, The Times published a report from an officer to the War Department, describing the scene: “The storming of the ridge by our troops was one of the greatest miracles in military history. No man who climbs the ascent by any of the roads that wind along its front, can believe that 18,000 men were moved upon its broken and crumbling face, unless it was his fortune to witness the deed.”
Meacham said, “I could still find, in the 1970s, old Civil War bullets in our yard.” He added, “To me, the Civil War was always tactile. It was real.”
So, having delved into the legacies of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush, why did Meacham take so long to turn his sights on Lincoln?
“Because the constitutional order has not been in as perilous a state since Lincoln himself became president,” he explained. “I actually started thinking about it after the 2016 election, wondering if the fears that many of us in the country had about threats to the constitutional order would in fact come to pass. And they did.”
He said, “My project was to be in conversation with Lincoln to see what his worldview could tell us about securing the journey toward a more perfect union. I was right that things had not been as touch and go since the 1850s, which the events of Jan. 6 clearly prove.”
But writing about “the battle to preserve the possibilities of the American experience,” as he put it, did leave Meacham with a sense of hope for the people of our “fallen, frail and fallible” country. He said, “Just enough of us will do the right thing just enough of the time — and, as cataclysmic as the Civil War was, just enough of us did the right thing just long enough.” Meacham went on, “The remarkable thing about the American story is that, however slowly, however painfully, however tragically, however bloodily, we have advanced toward fulfilling the promise of the Declaration.”
Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”