‘Freedom’ brings history alive

A relative once described William Safire as “the smartest guy alive.” Upon reading just the first few chapters of his novel “Freedom,” one would find that description difficult to dispute.

Safire, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the New York Times, author and former White House speechwriter has an unparalleled knowledge of American history and government as is evident in this exhaustively researched novel. Eight years in the making before publication in 1987, “Freedom,” is a “Novel of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.” It is that and much more.

In 1,248 paperback pages, Safire covers, in excruciating detail, the period from Lincoln's election in 1860 to his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The reader gains an intimate knowledge of the battles, generals, politicians and prominent journalists of the era.

Safire introduces Washington insiders who played prominent roles in the national politics of the Civil War, but have been skimmed over by history books. Renowned Washington socialite and Confederate spy Rose Greenhow and pamphleteer Anna Carroll are central characters, along with Kentucky Senator John C. Breckinridge, an 1860 presidential candidate on the Peace Democrat ticket and vice-president under James Buchanan. The family of Francis Preston Blair, his son Montgomery served in Lincoln's cabinet as Postmaster General, also held considerable influence in wartime Washington.

Drawing from letters, diaries and documents, and re-creating when necessary, Safire's extensive use of dialogue brings the reader into the decision-making process of Lincoln's White House. The book brings to life the political torments endured by Breckinridge, Lincoln's struggles with depression, the death of a son and the increasing instability of his wife Mary Todd while shouldering the enormous burden of an escalating and bloody war.

While “Freedom” is not a short story, the pace is furious. The book opens in the courtroom of the aging and debilitated Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney, who is firm in his belief that the Constitution permits states to withdraw from the federal system. Safire delves into Lincoln's mind to gain a better understanding of his decision to suspend the Writ of Habeas Corpus, allowing him to detain disloyalists without showing cause. Fluid dialogue engrosses the reader in the debates of the day concerning state's rights, Constitutional interpretation and morality vs. law. Safire leads readers through the decisions that lead to war and the eventual transformation of the war into a conflict over the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

This is historical fiction at its best—little fiction and a lot of historical. And what is fiction is detailed by chapter in an “Underbook” at the end of the novel. In it Safire explains, “Here is what we know happened, or what was said, based on these firsthand sources or contemporary documents. And this other part is fiction, a device that overrides the facts to keep the reader awake, or—when it works best—to get at the truth.”

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“Freedom” reads as a history book that displays the emotions, motives and backroom dealings of the players involved in America's great national test. Readers will gain more knowledge about a young nation divided over slavery, the expansion of slavery into western territories, the war and emancipation than many history books offer. After finally reaching the end of this book you will be wishing for more.