Lincoln for Beginners (For Beginners Books)

President’s Day is just around the corner, which makes it the perfect time for a well-rounded primer on that greatest of presidents, Abraham Lincoln.



168 pgs., B&W; $15.95
(W: Paul Buhle; A: Sharon Rudahl)
Holidays seem to have an unstoppable tendency to become commercialized on a big scale in the United States. Even President’s Day, that bastard mingling of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington with a more general celebration of all 43 gentlemen who have held that office, has become a major occasion for sales. But you don’t have to celebrate any holiday by shopping, and one alternative is to spend some time reading about whatever the holiday commemorates.
With President’s Day just around the corner, a bio of Abraham Lincoln might fill the bill. Of course, there’s a lot to choose from, with over 15,000 books published about Lincoln and some 50,000 about the Civil War, which was the major event in Lincoln’s presidency. I’m no expert on either subject so I’m not going to get into who got it right and who got it wrong, but I did find one book that is readable if you don’t know that much about the subject, yet offers enough depth and breadth to be satisfying for adults: Lincoln for Beginners, written by Paul Buhle and illustrated by Sharon Rudahl.
Lincoln for Beginners alternates between sections of text (with occasional illustrations) and sections of comics, with the comics sections often summarizing key points of the preceding text. Buhle’s treatment of Lincoln seems to me to be fair: he acknowledges both the strong and weak points of the man and of his presidency, and also covers the political and historical context of the times sufficiently to allow you to place Lincoln’s words and deeds in context.
If all you remember about Lincoln from grade school is that he freed the slaves, for instance, you’ll have a much more nuanced understanding after reading this book. Lincoln was not an abolitionist, and the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the Confederacy (and it didn’t offer a lot of practical help to those enslaved in the South either, while the Civil War was being fought). Nor was Lincoln the great egalitarian he is often made out to be: like many in his day, he was opposed to the cruel treatment of slaves but did not believe that African Americans were the equal of Whites, and although he was apparently grieved about the poor treatment accorded Native Americans (including massacres and land confiscation), he didn’t do much to make things better. On the plus side, the Morrill Act was also a product of Lincoln’s administration, creating the land grant system of colleges and universities that is still educating people 150 years later (as a proud graduate of the University of Nebraska, this Act is particularly close to my heart).
While reading Lincoln for Beginners I kept being struck by the parallels between the mid-19th century and the present day. Smear campaigns were the norm, potential voters were wowed by appearances and general showoff-ness perhaps more than substance, and politics was truly the art of compromise. Having recently seen Selma, I was struck by the parallels between Lincoln and LBJ, both of whom moderated their official actions regarding Civil Rights with a sharp eye to public opinion and the political ramifications of each move. Buhle also brings up some aspects of the Civil War that I hadn’t considered but which are also relevant to the present day, such as the way it widened the gulf between rich and poor in America.
Sharon Rudahl has been working in comics since the 1970s, when she was a cofounder of the Wimmen’s Comix collective, and more recently has collaborated on a graphic history of the IWW and a graphic biography of Emma Goldman. Her style in Lincoln for Beginners is realistic yet expressive and incorporates maps, charts, and other graphic aids to reinforce the points made in the text. The comics sections also highlight many famous quotations (e.g., Lincoln’s response to criticisms of Ulysses S. Grant’s drinking: “Whatever brand General Grant is drinking, give some to the other officers”) and thus provide a nice little highlights reel for the book. | Sarah Boslaugh

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