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Abraham Lincoln Again

June 2024
5min read

Three new studies offer important glimpses into a subject whose significance never dwindles

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.

Mark Neely, Jr., author of the Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties , hasn’t much patience with such speculation. And in just under two hundred pages of lucid text he recently produced in The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America (Harvard University Press, $24.95) what I believe to be the best single-volume study of the Emancipator since Benjamin P. Thomas’s biography was published more than forty years ago.

Neely sticks to the documentary evidence, judiciously applying to it that quality most prized by Lincoln himself: “Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason. . . .” His focus is Lincoln the politician and statesman, not the troubled but largely unknowable private man. Since the written record is “meager” for Lincoln’s youth and early manhood, for example, Neely gives it just seven pages; because the Lincolns were reticent about their feelings for each other, he deals with all the vexing questions about their lives together in less than two.

Neely is admiring but unblinking. Drawing on the scholarship of Gabor S. Boritt and others, he demolishes the ancient myth that Lincoln was a political failure before the 1850s; in fact no Whig ever fared better than Lincoln did in his overwhelmingly Democratic state. And he does away as well with the more modern notion that Lincoln was little more than a party hack before the slavery issue propelled him into prominence. He believed deeply in the economic and political programs championed by his party: internal improvements, protective tariffs, the convention system for nominations to state offices—issues that have little appeal to modern historians but that meant enough to Lincoln to persuade him to take up politics rather than blacksmithing in 1832.

Neely sticks to the evidence, applying to it that quality most prized by Lincoln himself: “Cold calculating... reason.”

Neely’s Lincoln is substantive, but he is also a tough customer, relentlessly driven by ambition and perfectly willing during his 1858 Senate campaign to allege without a shred of evidence the
existence of a vast conspiracy to spread slavery into the states and then to propose cheerfully that his followers counter Democratic ballot stuffing by hiring “detectives” to infiltrate the opposition and “control their votes.”

As Commander in Chief Lincoln often made mistakes, but unlike his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, he never for a moment lost touch with military reality, never flinched from the “awful arithmetic” that eventually won the war for the Union, allowed nothing—including even civil liberties and bitter opposition to conscription—to divert him from his course. Neely reminds us, too, that while Lincoln may seem to have been slow in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, once he had done so, nothing could persuade him to retreat from its consequences, and when it seemed likely that he might lose the Presidency in 1864, he schemed with Frederick Douglass to see to it that word of freedom reached the deepest interior of the Confederate states so that as many slaves as possible might strike for freedom before an administration less likely to have their welfare in mind took office in Washington.

If anyone from overseas asked me which single book he or she should read as an introduction to Lincoln, The Last Best Hope of Earth would be my enthusiastic answer.

Some years back the New York Center for Visual History produced an especially imaginative series on American poets, “Voices and Visions.” It’s now done it again with the lively ten-part history of the movies, “The American Cinema,” currently running weekly on PBS. Most documentaries about Hollywood tend toward fandom and fluff. These are different, filled with shrewd analysis, inside information, and a rich sense of history. And interwoven through them all are enough well-chosen clips from famous films both to delight those old enough to remember a time when people actually left their living rooms to be entertained and to give those who now think they needn’t stir outside at least a taste of what they missed.

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