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'Ethical historian' William Lee Miller has died

May 29, 2012 |  3:40 pm

LincolnsvirtuesWilliam Lee Miller died in Manhattan on Tuesday at age 86. Although he had been ill, longtime publisher Knopf announced, he had continued writing. His latest book, "Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World," was published just last month.

Miller, who was born in 1926, graduated from Yale in 1950; he stayed on to earn a PhD there in Reglious Social Ethics. He taught at Smith, Indiana University and Yale before settling down at the University of Virginia.

He began publishing in the 1960s. He sometimes wrote books grounded in the present -- "Yankee From Georgia: The Emergence of Jimmy Carter" was published in 1978, just two years after Carter's election to the presidency. Yet he became known for histories, particularly those that grappled with ethics and religion.

His 1986 book "The First Liberty: Religion and the American Republic" was a finalist for the L.A. Times book prize. It was his first book with Knopf; he stayed with the publisher for another 26 years.

Miller's later books included "Arguing About Slavery: The Great Debate in the United States Congress,"  "Two Americans: Truman, Eisenhower, and a Dangerous World," and "Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography."

About Lincoln, Miller wrote, "Lincoln was human, he was not born on Mount Rushmore ... he acquired such moral distinction as he did by deliberate effort over time, and [his] moral excellence never was or would be anything like perfection."

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

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