In 1861, Abraham Lincoln asked William Seward, his incoming secretary of state and former rival for the Republican presidential nomination, to critique a draft of his inaugural address. Seward suggested that Lincoln tone it down, ending with calm, confidence and an expression of affection for Southerners. Lincoln complied with Seward's rewrite, having taken Seward's measure as a useful adviser.

According to Steve Inskeep (a cohost of NPR's "Morning Edition" and author of "Jacksonland" and "Imperfect Union"), the encounter with Seward is emblematic of Lincoln's character and conduct. He "knew the people he wanted to lead and met them as they were."

With an eye on partisanship and paralysis in 21st-century American politics, Inskeep draws on 16 Lincoln encounters with well-known mostly forgotten individuals in Illinois and Washington D.C. He reminds us that the 16th president was a moral and pragmatic politician, who listened to, learned from and worked with his critics.

The analysis in "Differ We Must" echoes assessments by most Lincoln biographers. That said, except for the influence of Seward, Inskeep does not make a compelling case that the encounters he describes taught Lincoln how to turn his beliefs into policies.

"Differ We Must" is better when Inskeep describes Lincoln's idiosyncratic and intensely human responses to the pressures on a wartime president. In 1864, for instance, he chatted with a pastor while reading documents and devouring a basket of peaches without the benefit of a knife, fork or plate.

In the next presidential election, Lincoln joked, General George B. McClellan, his opponent, wouldn't accept the Democratic Party platform because indecision was his great strength. Just then, a secretary announced that a woman wanted to see him to request clemency for her son, who had been convicted of desertion. Lincoln said no. When the secretary asked if he could indicate the matter was under consideration, the president replied, "Well, if you choose, but I shall not interfere." When Lincoln discovered the mother was weeping at the door, the pastor reported, he was "almost unmanned."

Another woman appeared later that day. Accompanied by a radical Republican Lincoln knew, she claimed she fought for the Union for two years, disguised as a man, but had not been paid. Lincoln ordered the paymaster to give her $65. If it turned out regulations had been violated, Lincoln declared, he would be responsible for the amount.

On April 14, 1865, the president and Mary Todd Lincoln, who had been roundly criticized for excessive spending on clothing and White House furnishings, took a carriage ride in Washington, D.C., a rare outing. Noting that between the war and the death of their son Willie, "we have both been very miserable," Lincoln, himself prone to bouts of depression, declared (as Mary subsequently recalled), "We must both be more cheerful in the future."

That was not to be. That evening the couple went to Ford's Theatre and Lincoln was assassinated.

Glenn C. Altschuler is a professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America

By: Steve Inskeep.

Publisher: Penguin Press, 352 pages, $30.

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