Where's the Beef?
With all of the attention lavished by historians on Abraham Lincoln, and with the growing number of works on Jefferson Davis, it is curious that there have been so few comparative studies of the two men. Aside from Bruce Catton's Two Roads To Fort Sumter (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), and a few scattered articles and monographs, no scholar of the Civil War has attempted a comprehensive, systematic comparison of Lincoln and Davis. Bruce Chadwick has attempted to fill this hole with The Two American Presidents.
As the title suggests, this is a dual biography, a two-track narrative which switches back and forth between Lincoln's and Davis's stories. These twin narratives are not bad history in the sense of being inaccurate or sloppy. Chadwick wrote competently and with occasional dramatic flair, he made good use of the available primary sources, and he utilized an impressive amount of newspaper research. A casual reader without much prior knowledge of the Civil War could read The Two American Presidents and come away with a basic understanding of each man's life and career.
But Chadwick really unearthed nothing new about either man; his book is for the most part merely a pedestrian rehashing of oft-told tales. His story of Lincoln follows the standard arc which one could find in a dozen other biographies: Lincoln the savvy politician and prairie lawyer with the large measure of common sense who is smarter than most everyone around him, and who is dedicated to finding a pragmatic means to the idealistic end of killing slavery and establishing a new birth of freedom. Likewise, Chadwick's Jefferson Davis is not very original: he is the Calhounian planter and Mexican war hero who never questions slavery; a principled yet rigid man who relentlessly pursues Confederate victory but is hobbled by serious character flaws and political ineptitude. Chadwick's narrative is sprightly, but in the end this is still old wine in a new bottle. It is so old, in fact, that I found very little material worthy of substantive criticism; hence the brevity of this review.
According to the book's dust jacket, Chadwick argues that "one of several reasons why the North won and the South lost can be found in the drastically different characters of the two presidents." This is perhaps a reasonable--though by no means foregone--conclusion. It is not the "fascinating new perspective" and "startling answers" the book's jacket claims; Davis Potter made this exact argument forty years ago in a widely read essay which Chadwick does not cite (see Potter, "Jefferson Davis and the Political Factors of Confederate Defeat," in David Donald, ed., Why the North Won the Civil War [New York: Collier, 1960]).
But where does Chadwick draw these conclusions, let alone support them with evidence? I have quoted the book jacket at some length because in 490 pages of text I was unable to locate anything resembling an actual argument. The Two Presidents is a comparative study with no substantive comparative analysis. Chadwick seems to have assumed that the mere placing of a mediocre biography of Davis and a mediocre biography of Lincoln within the same cover somehow constitutes an "argument," an original contribution. It does not.
Chadwick somehow missed the point of his own book. The only value such a study might possess would lie in the new light it shed on either Lincoln and Davis themselves, or on larger subjects -- presidential leadership, for example -- which are illuminated by but transcend the two men's individual stories. Chadwick did neither, and in the end wrote a book which is of little real value to serious scholars of Lincoln, Davis or the Civil War.
Reviewed by Brian Dirck, Assistant Professor of History, Anderson University . Published by H-South (September, 2000)
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