Fascination with Abraham Lincoln endures: poet Carl Sandburg once portrayed the martyred president as a saint, and novelist Gore Vidal etched a portrait of the Illinois politician as a hard-nosed, sharptongued man of power in his 1984 nov-
el Lincoln. Now, New York Times columnist William Safire has entered the fray with Freedom, a monumental 1,125-page novel that only covers the first two years of the American Civil War. Safire has managed to write both an interesting book and a bad novel. But Freedom is an intelligent work about large ideas.
He uses the Civil War backdrop to illuminate three of the most pro-
found political questions. He examines whether a state should use force to compel its citizens to respect territorial integrity, whether a state is entitled to take away liberty to preserve democracy and whether a distinctive culture inevitably leads to a separate state. Safire states such issues abstractly—as one of his characters says, “The idea of majority rule seems rather an academic notion to fight a war about”—yet they are as real as today’s newspaper. Indeed, Canadians may find Satire’s account of the Civil War engrossing: the 1980 Quebec referendum confronted some of the same issues as those raised in Freedom.
Safire brilliantly frames those themes in a single chapter describing a fictional meeting between Lincoln and Senator John Cabell Breckinridge, a former vice-president who eventually joined the Confederacy. The author has Breckinridge arguing that “no majority can long rule over a beaten minority and remain a democracy.” Many Canadians in the 1970s held a similar view: if Quebecers voted to separate voluntarily, few wanted to use force to maintain the Canadian union.
As well, Canadians debating the proper limits of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service can consider what Safire says was Lincoln’s contention— that “a government could not be so tender about the rights of its citizens that it lost the power to maintain its existence.” And as Canadians continue to discuss the merits of a distinct society, Breckinridge’s view that “when a people become distinct from their brethren, they deserve a distinct national identity as well” is highly relevant.
The perplexing question is why Safire chose to make such arguments in the form of a novel. His characters make speeches instead of conversation, and the pivotal figure of Lincoln is especially wooden. The author even makes the customary 20th-century bow to sex by describing a scene in which a Washington hostess, dressed in black, spanks the bottom of a radical Republican. But that scarcely furthers knowledge of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Above all, he has indulged himself with the book’s length. Safire writes one of the brightest newspaper columns in journalism, but that is no reason to inflict excess on the book-buying public. To put it mildly, a Tolstoy he is not. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was able to define the essence of the democratic spirit in only 250 words. The great president obviously had no need of an editor. The same cannot be said for Safire.
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