And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle

Why did the Republican Party choose Abraham Lincoln as a presidential candidate? Why was he motivated to sign the Emancipation Proclamation? What’s his legacy today?

In And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle, Jon Meacham breaks down the myths and legends that surround Abraham Lincoln. He argues that Lincoln had good intentions and accomplished great things but was still as flawed and prone to mistakes as anyone else.

Continue reading for an overview of this New York Times bestseller by a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Overview of And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle

Jon Meacham’s And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle provides a new look at a central figure in American history. Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States, the “Great Emancipator,” the man who led the Union through the Civil War and then lost his life to a vengeful Confederate sympathizer.

Jon Meacham started his career as a journalist for a local newspaper and eventually became editor-in-chief of Newsweek magazine, a position he held from 2006 to 2010. He’s a contributing writer for The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as a contributing editor for Time magazine. However, Meacham is best known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential biographer. He’s written several best-selling books about former US presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and George Bush Sr. In each, Meacham aims to portray these historical figures as honestly as possible—he makes a point of presenting their flaws and mistakes alongside their accomplishments. 

We’ll present Lincoln’s remarkable life in chronological order. We’ll begin by describing his upbringing in rural Kentucky, including his family, religion, and education. We’ll then explain how Lincoln became involved in politics, and how his charisma, intelligence, and passion carried him from the Illinois state legislature to the White House. From there, we’ll examine how Lincoln managed to successfully—if narrowly—defeat the Confederacy in the Civil War, only to be killed in Washington, D.C., a few days later. We’ll conclude by briefly discussing the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination and his legacy. 

(Shortform note: Meacham emphasizes Lincoln’s religious beliefs, and he frequently refers to them to explain how they helped guide Lincoln’s thoughts and actions. For conciseness and clarity, we’ve consolidated the discussion of Lincoln’s faith into two sections: one to explain his beliefs as a child and young adult and a second to describe how his beliefs changed during the Civil War.)

Lincoln’s Early Life: 1809-1829

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, to a poor family in rural Kentucky. He was born in a small cabin on a farm called Sinking Spring. However, Meacham notes that Lincoln’s earliest memories are of a different farm, Knob Creek, where his family lived until Lincoln was seven. In 1816, the family moved north to a settlement in Spencer County, Indiana, called Little Pigeon Creek.

Lincoln’s family moved to Little Pigeon Creek because his father could buy land much more cheaply in that area. This also moved the Lincolns to an area where the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had made slavery illegal. So Lincoln spent this part of his childhood in an abolitionist culture, a place where most people favored outlawing (abolishing) slavery.

We’ll examine Lincoln’s childhood through his relationships with his family members, his education (which was largely self-driven), and his religion. 

Lincoln’s Family

Meacham says that Lincoln’s life at home wasn’t happy. His mother, Nancy, was born out of wedlock, and local gossip portrayed Nancy as sexually immoral. Despite her reputation, Lincoln loved his mother and spoke well of her. Nancy died when Lincoln was only nine.

Lincoln’s relationship with Thomas, his father, was much more contentious. Thomas Lincoln was frequently angry, abusive—even by the standards of the time—and demeaning toward his son. As a form of rebellion, Lincoln liked to be intentionally rude when Thomas was around to embarrass him; this frequently led to physical punishments, which Lincoln endured stoically. Furthermore, Thomas hired Lincoln out to help their neighbors with chores and farm work and then kept the money Lincoln earned for himself.

Lincoln also had an older sister named Sarah, who died giving birth in 1828 at the age of 21. His younger brother, named Thomas after his father, died in infancy.

Lincoln’s Childhood Education

Meacham says that Lincoln was an unusual child in many ways. His classmates described him as a quiet loner, though polite. Even as a child, Lincoln had a reputation as a politician and mediator. He was often called on to settle disputes between boys his own age, and they usually respected his decisions.

Lincoln was naturally curious and obsessed with books—he read everything he could get his hands on, often shirking chores and work to do so. Those books made up most of Lincoln’s childhood education, as he had less than a year of formal schooling.

Lincoln’s Religion

Lincoln was raised as a Baptist, an offshoot of Protestantism. Meacham says there was a strong connection between Lincoln’s faith and his morality. Specifically, Lincoln believed that his conscience was God speaking to him; therefore, doing the right thing was synonymous with doing God’s will. He also believed that God called upon all humans to be fair, merciful, and loving to one another. That conviction would guide many of Lincoln’s actions, both in politics and in his private life.

In addition to shaping his morality, Lincoln’s religious upbringing influenced his political views. Many Baptists opposed slavery, and abolition was a common topic in conversations and sermons.

Furthermore, the Lincolns belonged to a religious organization called the Baptist Licking-Locust Association Friends of Humanity, which was dedicated to emancipation—in other words, freeing all enslaved people in the US.

Lincoln’s Early Political Career: 1830-1849

In March of 1830, the Lincolns moved again, this time to Illinois (a Northern state). Shortly after that, Abraham Lincoln moved by himself to New Salem, Illinois; Meacham says that’s when Lincoln left behind his farming life and got involved in local politics. 

Inspired by the highly political atmosphere of the time, Lincoln gave his first public speech in the early summer of 1830. He spoke about the need to clear trees and other obstacles from the nearby Sangamon River. Meacham says the speech went well. Lincoln had natural charisma; his points were well-reasoned and persuasive; and, perhaps most importantly of all, he found that he enjoyed being the center of attention.

Lincoln not only shared his viewpoints orally but also in writing—some of which stirred up controversy. Meacham says that—despite his Baptist upbringing—Lincoln at times openly questioned his faith. For instance, in the early 1830s, he wrote an essay exploring the contradictions within Christianity’s teachings. That essay was widely read and talked about until a friend of Lincoln’s took the manuscript and destroyed it, saying it was unwise for someone with Lincoln’s political ambitions to be associated with such unpopular and radical ideas.

Meacham adds that Lincoln began his political career in earnest as a state legislator. He served four terms in the Illinois legislature from 1834 to 1842.

Lincoln Begins Confronting Slavery

Meacham says that slavery versus emancipation was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, moral and political question of Lincoln’s lifetime. Lincoln was a member of the Whig Party, which opposed slavery but believed that the federal government didn’t have the power to abolish it. Therefore, Lincoln favored a gradual cultural shift instead of a federal mandate to free enslaved people. He and his colleagues hoped that, as more and more states voted to emancipate their enslaved residents, the states that still favored slavery would feel increased political pressure to abolish it as well. In this way, all enslaved people could eventually be freed without the risk of the federal government overstepping its Constitutional powers.

Lincoln also served a single term in the US House of Representatives from 1847 to 1849. In 1849, in his role as a representative of Illinois, Lincoln proposed a resolution that would eliminate slavery in just Washington, D.C. He put forward a moderate plan, which he hoped would free enslaved people without upsetting enslavers too much—for example, the resolution required enslavers to be compensated for the full value of any enslaved people they freed.

However, Lincoln’s plan was almost universally rejected. Abolitionists thought he was being too generous to enslavers, while slavery advocates were against any proposal to abolish it. For the first time, Lincoln’s centrist approach to politics failed him.

Lincoln Runs for President: 1856-1861

Meacham explains that Lincoln joined the newly formed Republican Party in 1856. He ran for an Illinois Senate seat in 1858, but he lost narrowly to Democratic Party candidate Stephen Douglas.

Despite his loss, the political world took note of Lincoln’s debate skills; he quickly became popular among his colleagues not just in Illinois but across the entire country. As a result of his newfound fame, the Republicans chose Lincoln as their presidential candidate in 1860, and he won the election. 

In 1861, at the age of 52, Abraham Lincoln took office as the 16th president of the United States.

Backlash to Lincoln’s Win: 1860-1861

Lincoln, as well as the Republican Party as a whole, strongly opposed slavery. Therefore, Lincoln’s win pleased abolitionists, but he and his colleagues feared retribution from slavery advocates. In fact, Meacham notes, there were rumors that former Virginia Governor Henry Wise was raising an army of 25,000 men, with a plan to march on Washington, D.C., and stop Lincoln from taking office.

The Confederacy Secedes: 1861

The rumors of an attack on Washington, D.C. proved false; instead, the pro-slavery South decided to leave the Union entirely. 

On February 8, 1861, seven states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—declared they were seceding from the United States, and they came together to found the Confederate States of America. Four more states joined the Confederacy in April of that same year: Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

The American Civil War: 1861-1865

Meacham tells us that, after the Southern states announced they were breaking away from the Union, President Lincoln made an uncharacteristically one-sided statement: He wouldn’t compromise with the Confederacy, and he wouldn’t allow the nation to split. In other words, Lincoln didn’t recognize the states’ right to secede; he was determined to dissolve the Confederacy and bring its members back into the Union.

The Confederacy responded by making the opening move of the American Civil War. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces attacked a federal garrison in South Carolina called Fort Sumter. The following morning, Lincoln made another statement saying that he was prepared to meet violence with violence, and so the war began in earnest.

We’ll begin by briefly discussing Lincoln’s personal thoughts about the war, especially how he viewed it through the lens of his faith. Then, we’ll examine some key moments of the war—namely, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and the war’s end in 1865 with Union forces taking the Confederate capital.

Lincoln’s Faith During the Civil War

Meacham says that, during the Civil War, Lincoln wondered whether God would favor the Union or the Confederacy. In other words, Lincoln came to view the war as a religious and moral struggle, not just a military one; he believed God would ensure victory for whichever side was morally right.

This heightened interest in religion came after Lincoln’s son Willie died of typhoid fever in February of 1862. Lincoln sought comfort in attending church and in the idea that every event in the world—even Willie’s death—was part of God’s plan.

The Emancipation Proclamation: 1863

On January 1, 1863, two years into the Civil War, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law. By doing so, he officially freed all enslaved people in Confederate states—though, as Meacham points out, not those in the few Union states where slavery was still legal.

Meacham adds that Lincoln’s decision to finally sign the Proclamation wasn’t driven only by morality. The Union was struggling in the Civil War, and Lincoln hoped that emancipation would encourage more Black Americans in the North to join the fighting, thereby bolstering the Union’s ranks. His gambit worked, and as a result, the Union gained a decisive edge.

The Gettysburg Address: 1863

On November 19, 1863, slightly less than a year after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln delivered a short speech called the Gettysburg Address. This speech was part of a ceremony to consecrate the Soldiers’ Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The Address condensed decades’ worth of Lincoln’s thoughts into a few minutes of speaking. In it, he made a case for freedom, equality, and democracy for all US citizens—regardless of skin color or ethnicity—and renewed his promise that the United States would be a place of liberty and opportunity for everyone.

The site of the Address also held great significance. The Battle of Gettysburg—which took place from July 1 through July 3, 1863—was the Union’s most significant victory to date and a clear sign that the war was turning in their favor.

The War Ends: 1865

Meacham tells us that Lee had set up a base in the town of Appomattox, Virginia, from which he was defending the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia. However, on April 2, 1865, Lee sent a telegraph to Confederate President Jefferson Davis saying that he could no longer hold his position. Richmond fell to Union forces that same day. 

On April 9, 1865, Lee signed the Articles of Surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse. The Articles affirmed that the Confederates surrendered completely and unconditionally to the Union.

The next day, at dawn, a barrage of cannons fired in Washington, D.C., to announce the Union’s victory. Lincoln gave a brief speech, then asked some nearby musicians to play “Dixie,” a popular song that the Confederacy had taken as its national anthem. Meacham says that, by requesting that specific song, Lincoln was signaling his desire for Reconstruction—in other words, his wish to reintegrate the rebel states into the Union and move forward as a united country.

Lincoln’s Assassination: 1865

Lincoln had won the Civil War, but he didn’t live long thereafter. 

Meacham explains that on April 14, 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth—a white supremacist and a Confederate sympathizer—attacked Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Shouting “sic semper tyrannis” (“thus always to tyrants”), Booth shot the president in the head from close range and then fled the theater and went on the run. 

Lincoln died from the gunshot wound the following morning.

Booth himself was cornered and killed during a standoff with Union cavalry on April 26 of the same year. After being fatally shot, Booth proclaimed that he was dying for his country—meaning the Confederate States of America.

We’ll examine the events that followed Lincoln’s assassination: the presidency of Andrew Johnson and the beginning of the “Lost Cause” ideology in the American South.

President Andrew Johnson: 1865-1869

Lincoln’s death meant that his vice president, Andrew Johnson, became the new president. Johnson took office on April 15, the same day that Lincoln was pronounced dead.

However, Johnson—a conservative Democrat—held very different views from Lincoln’s. In fact, Meacham says that Lincoln chose him as vice president as a way to placate racist whites who would otherwise not have supported the Lincoln administration. 

Meacham says that Johnson’s presidency was a disaster for race relations and Black social progress. After taking office, Johnson rejected many of Lincoln’s ideas for postwar Reconstruction; Johnson was more interested in quickly restoring order and rebuilding the country than in protecting the rights and liberties of formerly enslaved people.

In fact, according to Meacham, Johnson didn’t think that Black people were capable of governing themselves; therefore, he said that whites must continue to control the South. As a result, although the institution of slavery had been overthrown, white supremacy continued in the form of legal segregation, lynchings, and Jim Crow laws.

The “Lost Cause” Ideology: 1865-Present

After the end of the Civil War, prominent white Southerners—ranging from religious leaders to influential authors—invented a romanticized version of the Confederacy’s history, which they came to call the Lost Cause. According to this revised version of history, the Confederacy had been doing Black people a much-needed service by allowing them to work in exchange for housing and food.

According to Meacham, proponents of the Lost Cause said that the South’s rebellion had been a righteous defense of states’ rights against federal tyranny. As such, the Confederacy’s defeat had been a tragic victory for the forces of evil and oppression.

Paradoxically, these same people also said the “Lost Cause” wasn’t lost at all; though they’d been defeated on the battlefield, the spirit of the Confederacy would live on. They urged Southerners to uphold Confederate ideals in politics, education, and social norms—in other words, to continue the fight for white supremacy with social and political means, rather than military ones.

Conclusion: Lincoln’s Legacy

Broadly speaking, people remember Lincoln in one of two ways: as the Great Emancipator who saved the United States and ensured freedom for all its people, or as a tyrant who overstepped his authority and forced Northern ideology onto the South. Meacham says the truth is somewhere in the middle. Lincoln was a political moderate, a negotiator, and a peacemaker at heart, yet willing to fight passionately for what he believed in.

It’s unclear whether there was anything Lincoln could have done to prevent the Civil War, short of allowing the Union to split and the Confederacy to secede. It’s equally unclear what the outcome would have been if he’d lived long enough to enact his plans for Reconstruction. But, Meacham says it is clear that Lincoln is remembered as one of the most famous and influential American presidents—the man who guided the United States through its greatest crisis to date—and that his work was left tragically unfinished.

And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Jon Meacham's "And There Was Light" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full And There Was Light summary:

  • The myths and legends that surrounded Abraham Lincoln
  • Abraham Lincoln's life in chronological order, from his birth to his assassination
  • What the Republican Party looked like in the 19th century

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *