A reader often develops an affinity, or connection, to a writer. Whatever that writer publishes, you’re inclined to take a look, attracted to the subjects, or tone, or language, sensibility or pace, or all of the above, or part. Count William Lee Miller among those I have tried not to miss. He died a few weeks ago at age 86, not long after the publication of his most recent book, Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower and a Dangerous World.
Miller was a historian, most closely identified with the University of Virginia where he taught and wrote about politics and ethics from the 1980s into this century. I first encountered him through The Business of May Next: James Madison and the Founding (1993), an engaging look at the moral and intellectual development of Madison and the nation. His Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress (1996) tells the story of John Quincy Adams’ epic fight against the “gag rule,” which had all but shut down discussion of slavery.
Yet the volume that made the strongest impression is Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (2002). The book rambles a bit. It skirts past an uncomfortable topic or two. Yet the digressions serve a purpose, to examine closely Lincoln, his words and deeds, up to the eve of his presidency, especially for how a politician should conduct his business.
I have written about Lincoln’s Virtues in the past, and along this line. What seems worthy of recalling now is Miller’s telling of how Lincoln came to hire Edwin Stanton, of Steubenville, and Kenyon College, then one of the country’s leading trial attorneys, as the secretary of war in 1862.
The two had met seven years earlier, Lincoln the local counsel in a massive patent case involving the McCormick reaper. Stanton was the lead litigator, and showed disdain for his colleague, delivering “slights, snubs and affronts.” He shunted Lincoln aside, leaving him to watch from the gallery.
What Miller stresses is that Lincoln didn’t exit in humiliation. He stayed and learned, with the idea of elevating his game. Then follows the remarkable turn, Lincoln seeking someone to lead the War Department, at a most critical hour. He turned to Stanton, now in Washington, of the other party, a Democrat. Miller recounts how Stanton still had groaned about the president’s “painful imbecility.”
On display were the traits Miller so admired in Lincoln, his magnanimity (no grudge in this instance), his practicality (here was the best man) and his moral clarity (Stanton and Lincoln shared a devotion to the Union). All of it fell into the Miller category of “responsible realist.”
Which was evident in how well the relationship worked. Stanton came to admire his boss. Lincoln delivered what the country needed.
— MICHAEL DOUGLAS
Editorial page editor