A compelling and nuanced exploration of Abraham Lincoln’s political acumen, illuminating a great politician’s strategy in a country divided—and lessons for our own disorderly present
In 1855, with the United States at odds over slavery, the lawyerAbraham Lincoln wrote a note to his best friend, the son of a Kentucky slaveowner. Lincoln rebuked his friend for failing to oppose slavery. But he added: “If for this you and I must differ, differ we must,” and said they would be friends forever. Throughout his life and political career, Lincoln often agreed to disagree. Democracy demanded it, since even an adversary had a vote. The man who went on to become America’s sixteenth president has assumed many roles in our historical consciousness, but most notable is that he was, unapologetically, a politician. And as Steve Inskeep argues, it was because he was willing to engage in politics—meeting with critics, sometimes working with them and other times outwitting them—that he was able to lead a social revolution.
In Differ We Must, Inskeep illuminates Lincoln’s life through sixteen encounters, some well-known, some obscure, but all imbued with new significance here. Each interaction was with a person who differed from Lincoln, and in each someone wanted something from the other. While Lincoln didn’t always change his critics’ beliefs—many went to war against him—he did learn how to make his beliefs actionable. He told jokes, relied on sarcasm, and often made fun of himself—but behind the banter was a distinguished storyteller who carefully chose what to say and what to withhold. He knew his limitations and, as history came to prove, he knew how to prioritize. Many of his greatest acts came about through his engagement with people who disagreed with him—meaning that in these meetings, Lincoln became the Lincoln we know.
As the host of NPR’s Morning Edition for almost two decades, Inskeep has mastered the art of bridging divides and building constructive debate in interviews; in Differ We Must, he brings his skills to bear on a prior master, forming a fresh and compelling narrative of Lincoln’s life. With rich detail and enlightening commentary, Inskeep expands our understanding of a politician who held strong to his moral compass while navigating between corrosive political factions, one who began his career in the minority party and not only won the majority but succeeded in uniting a nation.
About the Author
Steve Inskeep is a cohost of NPR’s Morning Edition, the most widely heard radio program in the United States, and of NPR’s Up First,one of the nation’s most popular podcasts. His reporting has taken him across the United States, the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, Pakistan, and China. His search for the full story behind the news has led him to history; he is the author of Instant City, Jacksonland,and Imperfect Union.
“Presidential historians love to claim at the beginning of a biography that they will demonstrate some remarkable evolution by the end, but it’s often imperceptible in the pages between. In Inskeep’s hands, by contrast, Lincoln advances as a person and a politician. To a large extent, Inskeep shows, the president’s growth was a product of his ability to interact patiently with others, even when their conduct or character was troubling . . . Inskeep’s Lincoln isn’t yet the Great Emancipator we know; the famously self-taught, craggy-faced, frontier-raised man figures out how to get there through these conversations. He understood that people were motivated by self-interest, but delineating that interest was an art. He wasn’t precious about who he spoke to, and he was always compassionate . . . Differ We Must offers important parallels with the present . . . The key to preserving democracy in a moment of crisis, Inskeep reminds us, is electing a leader who is committed to something far greater than himself: America.” —The Washington Post
“Inskeep details how much Lincoln’s political skill was a part of the late president’s legacy and character . . . The brisk biography, filled with lively anecdotes and interesting analysis, offers more than enough to stand out among recent additions to the collection of Lincoln biographies.” —Associated Press “[Inskeep] reminds us that the 16th president was a moral and pragmatic politician, who listened to, learned from and worked with his critics.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“What if what we really ought to learn from Lincoln isn’t how principled and humane he was, but rather how capable he was of getting down and dirty, of forging ugly compromises and making questionable alliances, to advance what he thought the greater good? What if Abraham Lincoln was American Machiavelli, and what if that’s good, actually? [Steve Inskeep’s] new book on the subject is titled Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America, and it’s fascinating reading. It’s not a biography—there have been so many of those. Rather, it’s an account of a handful of encounters between Lincoln and people he disagreed with, people he often nevertheless needed to get his way.”—Anand Giradharadas, The.Ink
“Steve Inskeep, the genial NPR host who spends his days respectfully eliciting the views of all, finds in our 16th president a model for our age. He has written an instructive and entertaining introduction to Lincoln by telling the stories of 16 men and women whose lives intersected with his, ranging from William Seward, his scheming secretary of state, to his troubled wife, Mary. Most will be familiar to avid Lincolnophiles, but some less so, such as Lean Bear, the Cheyenne chief who was part of a delegation that met with Abe in the White House in 1863; and William Florville, the Haitian barber and entrepreneur who cut Lincoln’s unruly hair in Springfield. What emerges is a multifaceted picture of a man who collected friends from everywhere.”—Air Mail
“A satisfying new look at one of the most written-about political figures in American history. . . An admirable addition to Lincolniana.”—Kirkus
“Abraham Lincoln’s ambidextrous political acumen is the focus of journalist and public radio personality Inskeep (Imperfect Union) . . . The energetic narrative and intriguing cast of characters keep things moving . . . Lincoln buffs will relish this unique account.” —Publishers Weekly
“Abraham Lincoln, America’s greatest president, comes freshly alive in Steve Inskeep’s brilliant rendering of his interactions with many individuals, famous and obscure, of varied backgrounds and viewpoints. Inskeep’s Lincoln is flexible, witty, and wise--sometimes cagey but always rock-solid in his principles. Differ We Must is a read-we-must in a time when America is almost as divided as it was in Lincoln’s era.” —David S. Reynolds, author of Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times
“Lincoln was an artful politician capable of portraying himself differently to different people. Yet he rose to the level of statesman. Steve Inskeep captures the artfulness and the ascent in this fascinating, insightful account of Lincoln’s dealings with sixteen of his contemporaries—men and women whose cooperation he solicited, whose opposition he parried, and whose diversity informed the more inclusive republic he did so much to create.” —H.W. Brands, author of The Zealot and the Emancipator