A. Lincoln –
This is a fairly broad, but not overly long biography of Abraham Lincoln. The book comes in at about 800 pages with notes. Some others come in at 720, 1088, 720, 800, and even 2008 pages. So this is “small”?
Ronald White calls this book “A. Lincoln” in part because that’s how Lincoln signed his name, and also for the metaphorical gap in our understanding of Lincoln, and the way that people fill in that gap with whatever they seem to want to (good or bad really). I am always interested in pre-1970 biographies of politicians in part because of how impossible the politics is to really understand because of the ways that factions shift and criss-cross around various issues. And even applying big, broad understandings don’t quite make sense. Part of the reason it’s so difficult to define Lincoln politically is because so much of his presidency was figured on litigating the war and that comprises the bulk of what we know about him, but also because he was so political that he shifted his positions over time to fit various political needs. I tend to see Lincoln as a Odysseus type figure, with a mythic and epic backstory, a set of monumental achievements, but also with the crafty and wiry cleverness that makes him hard to pin down at times. I was hoping to learn more about some of these different ways of looking from a general history, because I know that when I read a few others later their biases and lenses will affect the way they write about them. I have a copy of the Carl Sandburg Lincoln, which is apparently pure myth-making, but also any biography or history that is remotely sympathetic to the South tends to color Lincoln in certain ways. Plus I plan to read the Gore Vidal novel soon, and well, who knows what that will bring.
The book covers Lincoln’s ancestry and childhood with little fanfare or myth-making. There’s an emphasis on Lincoln’s puritan roots, which began in New England and then found its way to Rockingham Co. Virginia, before going to Kentucky. We find that one of the reasons behind the nomadic element has to do with litigious land scheme and other similar things, which feels very America. Lincoln had an older brother who died before Lincoln was born, and Lincoln’s mother died from “milk sickness” which is a toxicity from cows drinking certain plants. Others in the family also got sick. Lincoln’s older sister died soon after she got married, so a lot of the book hints at a kind of hauntedness about his life. Lincoln’s father remarried soon thereafter to a widow with debts, and this tying up of funds seems to require Abe having a kind of independence from the family. He reads the law, begins practicing, and soon gets a taste for politics. This is a continuous path toward 1860, but what is really interesting is thinking about Lincoln not just as president and war commander in chief, but as a party politics footman for the Whig and then Republican parties.
Once Lincoln is passed over for VP in 1856 and turns toward running for senate we see the Lincoln we know (not just recognize) come into focus. For this biography, this marks not quite the halfway mark, showing the focus on the war years as the primary element here. That seems obvious, but just to add a stat here.
His early administration is characterized by what I think I would call a kind of deliberateness that contemporaries viewed as worrying dithering. Specifically, he seemed very concerned about filling all cabinet posts before jumping to action on the war question. I think this makes perfect sense, to set the board before moving. There’s also a kind of interesting concern that the country is on the brink of war and he’s not doing anything. But there’s also the sense that the country has been on the brink of war for quite some time. Once the war starts moving we’re in very familiar territory and the book kind of becomes a slight civil war history. It’s still focused entirely on Lincoln and his moves, but so many of his actions are predicated on litigating the war. I still find McClellan to be the preeminent twerp in American history and laugh a little to find out that his wife went by her middle name, Ellen.
Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural –
This book is similar enough to the fully biography, and in fact some of the material was re-used for the longer book. This is a close, historical reading of the text of Lincoln’s second inaugural. White spends the opening chapter setting the scene on the speech itself, giving us some of the same historical context he does in the biography. For example, two very different spectators witnessed the speech: Frederick Douglass who seemed to believe the speech represented a foundational shift in the way Lincoln saw the goals of the war (in a good way, understanding it in nearly mystical, moral terms and not just military and political terms), and John Wilkes Booth, who walked away seething.
The rest of the book takes the speech sentence by sentence or section by section and gives some historical accounting of the language and a comparison to other of Lincoln’s speeches, demonstrating the construction of the speech, the literary and Biblical allusions within in, the shift from other speeches to this one, and the complexity of the diction Lincoln employs. These are very satisfying close-readings with an especial focus on sourcing and reading into the building of the speech.
There’s always the near hilarious contemporary reactions to Lincoln’s speeches and actions, given how partisan the times were (always are), which sometimes ask questions like: Is Abraham Lincoln a moron? Is he evil? Is he a coward?
Second Inaugural Address –
I mentioned in the Lincoln biography review how much Lincoln is a crafty politician. We often want to see him in a kind of mystic and moral light, which is not wrong really, but that sometimes ignores that cleverness. When faced with the question of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, Lincoln sent word to Jefferson Davis that he planned to resupply the fort with rations and such (no weapons or ammunition) and this forced Jefferson Davis into a corner or either firing on the fort or allowing the supplies through, suggesting a legitimacy of the US government’s ownership. Here we see a similar impulse to begin to plan for the end of the war, which is inevitable, and has been since at least Gettysburg, and imminent, with Grant doggedly pursuing Lee after the fall of Richmond. Lincoln is beginning to try to make the case for how to actually bring the Union back together, knowing that as much as they might deserve it, you couldn’t possibly imprison and hang everyone who you might call traitor. There’s also the fact that all sides seemed to agree that the combatants in the Civil War might well be needed to form a new Army to eradicate Native Americans out West, as many of them would be put to later on, but that’s not present here. Who knows exactly what Lincoln should have been saying or doing. Had he not been killed so soon after this address, and had he served out his second term and been able to provide actual stewardship over Reconstruction than a lot of pain and death might have been avoided. The problem of course is that Reconstruction was wantonly and purposely destroyed in order enact revenge on African Americans, reassert White Supremacy directly and indirectly, and to keep material wealth in the hands of white landowners. The contract labor system after Reconstruction ended was often more violent and deadly (in quicker fashion at least) than slavery because a person’s worth was no longer tied to an investment made. So as hopeful and thoughtful as this speech is, and however much it feels like a movement forward, in a lot of ways it’s an obituary of Lincoln, and of any kind of hope that this country had to knit together the wounds and ties created by the founding through the Civil War.
Lincoln Presidential Biographical document –
The below document is the biographical sketch Lincoln himself wrote for newspapers as he was becoming a national figure. He was regionally well-known and almost famous in his own right, but this offered him a chance to tell his own story. What I find interesting about this writing is a huge amount of it in based in telling a story of himself as a free thinker and beholden to no real interests. This is a common refrain with politicians, but Lincoln is expressly defining himself by having been on different sides of issues in various ways in his legislative and rhetorical career. He’s a lawyer and was a lawyer, so this makes sense to establish this as a principle rather than a liability. It’s also funny that he talks about the sheer number of public speeches he’s given, and other than the nationwide famous ones with Douglass, these have never appeared in print, perhaps laying the ground for debunking any kind of spurious attribution of his to unsavory causes and opinions. Who knows.
But what I find most fascinating here is that he spends a huge amount of time telling the story of his life and his family, including mentioning the names of grandparents and parents, parcels of land, counties in multiple states, lots of deaths. It’s like he’s trying to make sure people know he’s American through and through in one sense, but also his own self-made man in another. His father was neither rich nor destitute, but Lincoln came from a large family, made even larger after the death of his mother, when his father remarried to a woman with several children of her own. And in a tender-hearted appeal Lincoln mentions how much this step-mother was like a mother to him.
It’s some interesting myth-making, while also with truth-telling. I can’t imagine how you make yourself known to a national audience with scant mass media, especially since the vast bulk of presidents so far were founding fathers, famous generals, sons, and handpicked successors. The early days, like recent days, of presidential campaign seems so wild to me.