In James McPherson's new collection...


February 13, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

SEVERAL ESSAYS in James McPherson's new collection, "Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution," are interesting read against the backdrop of current events.

"How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphors" argues that a president's language can determine history's course. McPherson agrees with other historians who say it was important that while Jefferson Davis "spoke in platitudes," Lincoln drew on his favorites books, the King James version of the Bible, "Aesop's Fables," "Pilgrim's Progress" and the plays of William Shakespeare.

"What do these have in common?" asks McPherson. He answers, "They are rich in figurative language -- in allegory, parable, fable, metaphor -- in words and stories that seem to say one thing but mean another, in images that illustrate something more profound than their surface appearance."

Lincoln's ability to think and to speak -- to communicate -- this way inspired, energized and mobilized Americans "to make the sacrifices necessary for victory," McPherson says. Only Franklin Roosevelt among presidents also had this gift, he adds.

George Bush deals in figurative language sometimes, too, but it is more often than not uninspiring. "Kick ---" and "read my lips" are not in the category of, say, "If we do not make common cause to save the good old ship of the Union on this voyage, nobody will have a chance to pilot her on another voyage." If the going gets tough, does Bush have what it takes to keep us going?

"Lincoln and the Strategy of Unconditional Surrender" is a reminder that war aims can change as time passes. Lincoln's original one was merely to restore the national government's power in the states that had left the Union. Their political, social and economic institutions were to be left intact.

But soon Lincoln came to believe that he could achieve the nation's aims only by emancipating the slaves and destroying the South's infrastructure and political elite. Do they read American history in the Middle East?

The book's title essay makes the point that wars can have unexpected and unintended results. Not only did the Civil War have a revolutionary effect on the losing side, it also shifted power on the winning side by creating a politically dominant capitalist middle class.

For years Republicans and Whigs had failed to achieve legislative goals that they won during the war. They got a higher tariff, a homestead act, land grant colleges, a transcontinental railroad act, a national banking act, an income tax and more. McPherson says, "This astonishing blitz of laws, most of them passed within the span of less than one year, did more to reshape the relation of the government to the economy than any comparable effort except perhaps the first hundred days of the New Deal." While our attention is diverted by the war, could Congress and/or the president make such major changes?

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