This book, The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln: The Story of America’s Most Reviled President, is a rather extraordinary look at Abraham Lincoln. And a remarkably pleasant surprise given the uncustomary view of Lincoln, as well as the providence of the author. Larry Tagg is not whom you might expect to be writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln. Some will recognize the name from the music world and Tagg’s band Bourgeois Tagg, or from his many years touring with Todd Rundgren, Hall & Oates, and opening for Robert Palmer, Belinda Carlisle and others. Now a high school English and drama teacher in California, Tagg surprises the reader with his deep understanding of Lincoln and his times. And he tackles an often overlooked and difficult facet of how Lincoln was viewed by contemporaries.
Tagg says that he “found the spectacular animosity against Lincoln irresistible as a subject,” and he shows no inhibition in showing it to us. He is brutally critical and yet fair and respectful, even equitable, in his treatment of Lincoln’s friends and foes. In short, and perhaps contrary to the mythology that has grown up around Lincoln in the century and a half since his assassination, Lincoln was not always looked on kindly by his peers. In fact, many of his peers did not view Lincoln as a peer, but rather a backwoods buffoon incapable of leading the country in its most precarious moment.
As Lincoln emerged onto the national scene, his rivals couldn’t believe that this “ugly, gangly, baboon” could possibly be considered presidential material. That was to be left to the more accomplished (both real and in their own minds) statesmen such as Seward and Chase. While the Republican party had coalesced around the disgruntled members of the former Whigs, the “war Democrats,” the abolitionists, the Radical Republicans, that cobbling together of discordant interests virtually ensured that Lincoln would be attacked from all sides. And attack they did, oft-times viciously. To the Radicals he was an appeaser that acted too slow, to the peace Democrats he was a war-monger, to the southern Democrats and the newly seceded confederacy he was a tyrant. And to the newspapers, which were openly partisan in those days, he was all of the above. Even his own cabinet members plotted against him.
And Tagg lays out all of this for us, warts and all. He documents the letters of General McClellan, who was brashly self-confident, and while he seemed to be good at preparing for battle, never seemed to get around to actually battling (and when he did he failed miserably). McClellan considered Lincoln to be a rather incompetent and classless dolt and made no bones about saying so (at least in letters to his wife). Secretary of the Treasury Chase plotted to push Lincoln aside. Influential newspaperman Horace Greeley tried to get him to drop out of the 1864 election. And those were the ones on Lincoln’s side. The confederacy and the Democrats were even more brutal.
The book is broken down into 32 chapters grouped into four themes: Lincoln’s entrance into the national political scene, his first 18 months in office, the changes in attitude leading up to and following the Emancipation Proclamation, and then the reelection in 1864. Wound into these themes are the key events of the war, which correlate to some extent with the ebb and flow of Lincoln’s popularity (or more accurately, military victories gave some respite from the seemingly constant barrage on his presidential ability). Finally, Tagg leaves us with an Epilogue whose title perhaps explains how we have reached the view of Lincoln that most people have today – The Sudden Saint.
I highly recommend this book as a respectful and scholarly treatment of contemporary adversity heaped upon Abraham Lincoln. Unlike other books that I have reviewed in which Lincoln’s negatives are viewed in the light of current ideologies and biases, Tagg presents a glimpse into the realities of the times while acknowledging the foibles and humanity of all involved.
David J. Kent is an avid Lincolnophile and the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity. You can order a signed copy directly from me, download the ebook at barnesandnoble.com, and find hard copies exclusively at Barnes and Noble bookstores.