Book Review: Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald

The Thinker by Rodin

Abraham Lincoln was our president that we cannot get enough of. Asked to name a famous American president, and he is as likely, if not more likely to come to mind than George Washington. Washington won the Revolutionary War, but Lincoln saved the union. Arguably, the latter was a far more challenging task than the former.

Like reading the Bible cover to cover, reading an in depth Lincoln biography has been on my list of things to do for decades. As a Washingtonian, his presence is inescapable since I cannot enter Washington from Virginia without seeing his towering memorial. Does Lincoln truly deserve his almost god-like status? He would seem to be a president to be singled out for ridicule. He got plenty of ridicule in his own time from his high-pitched voice to his incredible height, emaciated appearance and pitiful taste in clothes. Lincoln would be the first to admit that he was not particularly handsome. Age only made him uglier. Most sophisticated people thought he was an uncivilized bumpkin. He was often treated like Jimmy Carter was by the establishment crowd.

Part of what makes Lincoln compelling is because he is the closest example we have of a true rags to riches figure. It is hard to imagine any American born in more humble circumstances, although he was typical for his time. Born in Kentucky, he spent much of his childhood in Indiana, then a territory. He endured a childhood that would appall even our most impoverished Americans today. He essentially had no schooling. How does a log splitter with at best a first grade education become a lawyer? He does it by fanatical focus. Lincoln made friends easily and used his family (he was particularly attached to his stepmother) as teachers. Mostly he was self-taught and devoured any book he could get his hands on, including a handful of law books. Since he never graduated even elementary school, he obviously never went to law school. He was mentored by a senior lawyer and became a real lawyer when he convinced the Illinois Supreme Court to let him practice law. He was intensely political, and found it took only a couple of campaigns to be elected to the Illinois state assembly. He was a passionate Whig, which was a political party of the mid 19th century, who were roughly the Democrats of their time. As for the Democrats, they were today’s Republicans concentrated, as now, principally below the Mason Dixon line.

Lincoln, by the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author David Herbert Donald provides a biography with a new perspective on Lincoln. Principally Donald had access to many private and unofficial papers that Lincoln, his friends and enemies had written. He meticulously worked his way through all of them and assembled something of a backstage collage of Abraham Lincoln and his times. The biography is roughly divided into two parts: Lincoln’s childhood and adulthood through becoming president, and his presidency.

Of the two major stories, I found the first half more interesting, perhaps because it is not as well known. Indiana and Illinois were at the time emerging into states from territories. As a lawyer, Lincoln spent much of his time following a southern Illinois state circuit court. Circuit courts are essentially appeal courts, but their name at the time was very apt because appellate judges circuited around their large jurisdictions hearing appeals. Lincoln was one of a number of lawyers who followed the circuit. There were no Hampton Inns in those days. The roads were often close to impassable. The grub was bad, the accommodations for travelers almost nonexistent. Lincoln seemed indifferent to these trials, raised as he was on hardship.

He eventually settled in Springfield where he made friends with nearly everyone, eventually becoming the senior partner in a two-person law firm. He married Mary Todd principally because of her connections. She married him for his potential. Mary was also very sociable and encouraged her husband’s forays into politics. She was also temperamental, often flying off the handle and capable of keeping lifelong grudges.

Lincoln served only one term in Congress, but failed at other attempts at higher office. When the Whig Party eventually collapsed, the remnants of it and other minority parties formed the new Republican Party. Lincoln was their first nominee for president. He won the nomination principally by being a terrific public speaker as well as being well versed on the issues of the day. He was very much a constitutionalist. While he personally disliked slavery, the fact that it was in the constitution made it tolerable, as he saw it more important to be constitutional than to be just. His views on the necessity of emancipation for the nation’s slaves evolved very slowly. He advocated policies that now seem incredibly naïve. His solution to slavery was to foster a country for blacks to govern and to send them there. For much of his life he saw the United States as a country by and for white people only. This was not unusual. It was the accepted norm of his time, unless of course you were not white.

Lincoln may have been bipolar. He could go from exuberant to deeply depressed. The impression we get from our history books is that he was a serious man, but he was also a very engaging, lighthearted and a perennial jokester always with a half dozen fresh anecdotes to share. He was also very realistic. He did not think he would become president and after winning doubted he could win reelection, which at the time rarely happened.

It is fair to say that for much of his first term, Lincoln was a poor president. Politicians today now praise his “cabinet of rivals”, but in reality, it worked poorly at best. Lincoln liked to delegate. He knew when issues were beyond his ken. He was particularly intimidated by his generals, and deferred to generals like McClellan time and again, even after they continuously lost major battles. He fired generals only reluctantly, gave firm direction rarely and seemed at times more like a kite buffeted by the wind than a leader. It wasn’t until close to the end of his first term that he really grabbed the reins of his power and directed government and the war competently. Yet, it is also probably true that few other politicians of the period could have done better. The Civil War was uncharted territory for our nation. While Lincoln stood firmly on certain principles, he was a political creature and sought the middle path when possible. Unfortunately, there were so many people on the extreme of both sides that he rarely made anyone happy. The only thing he was fixed on was that the union had to be preserved at any cost.

Although he often seemed clueless and ineffectual, Lincoln was certainly principled and most importantly dogged. If something did not work, he would try a different strategy repeatedly until he got it right. He did not shrug off the burdens of office. It is likely that no president had to deal with more difficulty and stress, a stress that extended into his personal life with the loss of two sons, a spendthrift wife, and a son who was likely mentally retarded. Like him or hate him, everyone agreed that Lincoln was honest. He was singular as a president in that he never thought of himself as an exceptional human being, just a common man navigating himself through extraordinary times. His humility was innate.

Donald’s 1996 biography is full of interesting detail about both Lincoln and his times. We learn of his close friendship with Joshua Speed, perhaps his best friend with whom he shared a bed for many years, when such things were practical and accepted. Our country was a far different and much poorer place in the 19th century. Anyone could pay the president a visit and he met most of them. They often came with petitions for federal jobs, and he found this part of his job very annoying. In his time, there were no civil service laws, so he ended up hiring much of his government personally.

Lincoln was our first president to be assassinated. At most there was one guard between a citizen and the president, and no one checked visitors for weapons. Both Lincoln and his wife often took carriage or horseback rides alone around Washington. During the war, Lincoln spent much of his time down the street at the telegraph office, where he went unguarded. With the war moving toward a conclusion, there were many concerns expressed for his safety. He largely ignored these concerns, convinced in the goodness of his countryman. On the night of his assassination, there was plenty of concern that he was targeted. As usual, Lincoln dismissed these concerns. You might say his foolishness helped kill him.

Read Donald’s biography for insights likely unavailable in other biographies, as well as to survey the history of a remarkable time in our nation’s history. Despite the six hundred pages in length, this book is still a survey of a remarkable man and his times. It tempts me to learn more about the Civil War. The downside of Donald’s biography is that it has a flat and unemotional tone. The book likely sees Lincoln through a clearer glass than most biographies but, alas, our true view of the man will likely always be somewhat obscured.