Who Lincoln Was

Sean Wilentz in The New Republic:

Lincoln-1kf The past three generations of historians have agreed that Abraham Lincoln was probably the best president in American history and that Franklin Pierce was one of the worst. Pierce, a New Hampshire Democrat, gave political cover to fractious slaveholders and their violent supporters in the 1850s. His softness on the slavery issue encouraged the southern truculence that later led to secession and the formation of the Confederacy. Apart from their closeness in age–the bicentennial of Pierce's birth passed virtually unnoticed four and a half years ago–about the only things that he and Lincoln had in common were their preoccupation with politics and their success in reaching the White House.

When Pierce ran for president in 1852, Lincoln, naturally, campaigned against him. But the cause of the Whig party was extremely feeble in Illinois that year. (The Whigs, originally formed in opposition to Andrew Jackson, were a national coalition of pro-business conservatives, reformers who supported economic development, and moderate southern planters. Lincoln remained a staunch Whig loyalist until the party crumbled in 1854.) And so Lincoln limited himself to a long speech in Springfield–it took him two days to deliver it!–which he abridged and repeated in Peoria. The speech did nothing to affect the outcome of the election, in Illinois or in the country at large. But it deserves to be remembered in these days of Lincoln idolatry, because it can be disturbing reading to anyone inclined to worship Father Abraham.

More here.