Abraham Lincoln Again

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The newspaperman Noah Brooks knew Abraham Lincoln well before he became President and grew so close to him during his time in Washington that he was being considered as a replacement for one of the President’s secretaries at the time of the assassination. Afterward he wrote a book about the Lincoln White House and a biography of Lincoln for young people. But as the years went by, even he was astonished by the superabundance of books and pamphlets and articles about his old friend. “It is questionable,” he wrote near the turn of the century, “if material relating to the human existence of any person has ever been so thoroughly explored, sifted, and analyzed as the material relating to the humble birth and obscure youth and manhood of Abraham Lincoln has been. What rummaging! What minute scrutiny! What indefatigable questioning of every person who had the slightest acquaintance with Lincoln, his friends and his neighbors! . . . There can be no new ‘Lincoln stories.’ . . . The stories are all told . . . for the most part the mental figure of Lincoln, as it will appear to future generations of men, has already begun to take permanent shape.”

As this century nears its own turn, the rummaging and scrutiny show no sign of stopping, and our mental figure of Lincoln continues to shift and change, just as it always has. The last year or so has seen at least three useful new studies of Lincoln and his lasting influence on the nation he saved from splitting apart.

Merrill D. Peterson’s Lincoln in American Memory (Oxford University Press, $30.00) traces in rich, learned detail the efforts of six generations of Americans to get right with Lincoln. Over the decades writers with one ax or another to grind have painted him as a saloonkeeper and a prohibitionist, an unbeliever and a man of God, a racist and the patron saint of civil rights, a peacemaker and the author of total war.

Hagiographers were the first to write about Lincoln, unwilling to recognize in him any private flaw or ignoble motive. Some of the latest have been psychobiographers, who see in his public deeds the working out of private problems. Their work can be enormously valuable: I think of my friend Charles Strozier’s Lincoln’s Quest for Union with its deft dissection of the Lincoln marriage. But all too often it seems marginal, jargon-ridden, reductive.

Michael Burlingame’s The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (University of Illinois Press, $29.95) falls somewhere between the two. It is a grab bag of evidence, some of it fresh and fascinating—even Noah Brooks might have learned a thing or two from it—but adding up to a good deal less than its compiler repeatedly promises.

A chapter that begins by asserting that “Abraham Lincoln did not like women” demonstrates only that he was sometimes shy and awkward in their presence. Another, entitled “Lincoln’s Anger and Cruelty,” actually shows precious little “cruelty”—by the time he reached the Executive Mansion Lincoln had put behind him his youthful delight in satirizing his opponents—but offers plenty of proof that he did sometimes lose his temper as President, usually at politicians who he thought had double-crossed him, soldiers who seemed lacking in energy or courage, or office seekers who would not take no for an answer.

A day or two after his son Willie died, for example, a man who thought himself entitled to a Michigan postmastership insisted loudly on seeing the President. Lincoln came out of his office to see what was causing the commotion and finally ushered him into his office.

“When you came to the door here didn’t you see the crepe on it?” Lincoln asked him. “Didn’t you realize that meant somebody must be lying dead in this house?”

“Yes, Mr. Lincoln, I did. But what I wanted to see you about was important.”

“That crepe is hanging there for my son,” Lincoln said; “his dead body at this moment is lying unburied in this house, and you came here, [and] push yourself in with such a request! Couldn’t you at least have the decency to wait until after we had buried him?”

That intruder evidently did not get a job. Neither did Sam Houston’s brother, William. When Lincoln’s old friend Henry C. Whitney unwisely urged that something be found for him, Lincoln flew into what Whitney recalled as “a towering rage.” “Don’t bother me about Bill Houston,” he said. “He has been here sitting on his ass all summer waiting for me to give him the best office I’ve got.”

Burlingame’s final chapter, on the President’s marriage, offers what must be the definitive catalogue of anecdotes about Mary Lincoln’s tumultuous personality, all aimed at demonstrating that Lincoln’s home life was “unbearable.” But it also suffers from a far too literal reading of the evidence. Surely, when Lincoln pardoned a soldier who had deserted to go home and marry his sweetheart, saying, “I want to punish the young man—probably in less than a year he will wish I had withheld the pardon,” he was joking, not seriously suggesting, as Burlingame writes, that “he regretted his marriage as much as he expected the soldier to rue his.” Nor, it seems to me, is it any more helpful to an understanding of Abraham and Mary Lincoln as individual human beings that Burlingame declares them representative of the Jungian archetypes for the “positive Old Man” and “the negative Eternal Youth” and therefore “polar opposites and bound to get along only with great difficulty” than it would be if he had given us their star signs.