A Passive President?

A rich one-volume biography of the touchstone of American greatness


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The image of our sixteenth President, at once brooding and benign, casts its spell over all who visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Political leaders and reformers of many persuasions have invoked this icon of American civil religion. At a low point of the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon engaged anti-war protesters in a dramatic midnight dialogue at the Lincoln Memorial. During the civil-rights march on Washington in 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the memorial and began his "I Have a Dream" speech with the words "Fivescore years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been scarred in the flame of withering injustice." Jacqueline Kennedy often sought comfort and inspiration in the Lincoln Room of the White House. "The kind of peace I felt in that room was what you feel when going into a church," she said once. "I used to feel his strength. I'd sort of be talking with him."
Forty years ago David Herbert Donald wrote a penetrating essay, "Getting Right With Lincoln," that analyzed the penchant of American public figures for squaring their positions with what they believe Lincoln would have done if he were alive, or for finding Lincoln quotations that support their opinions. And if the official Lincoln canon does not yield a genuine quotation, there are plenty of spurious ones to choose from, as Ronald Reagan demonstrated at the 1992 Republican National Convention. My own experience with Americans' attribution of Delphic qualities to Abraham Lincoln occurred in 1984. After I had delivered a banquet address to the Lincoln Group of Delaware, I was interviewed by a Wilmington radio station. The first question the interviewer asked was "If Lincoln were alive today, what would he do about abortion and the budget deficit?" (Undaunted readers should see "On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position," by George McKenna, in the September Atlantic.) The multiple layers of myth that encase the real Abraham Lincoln pose a formidable challenge to biographers--especially since most of what we know about the first thirty years of his life comes from the decades-later recollections of contemporaries which were gathered by Lincoln's mercurial law partner, William Herndon. But these problems have not deterred historians. Hundreds of Lincoln biographies have appeared during the past 130 years, including some of great distinction. In almost every decade at least one major biography has defined Lincoln for that age. In 1889 William Herndon and Jesse Weik published the three-volume Herndon's Lincoln, which in many ways is still the fullest account of Lincoln's early years. In 1890 Lincoln's presidential private secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, offered their ten-volume Abraham Lincoln: A History, which remains the most detailed study of the presidential years and was the only biography until the 1950s to draw on Lincoln's personal and official correspondence (these papers were opened to the public in 1947). Biographies by Ida Tarbell in 1900, Lord Charnwood in 1916, William E. Barton and Albert J. Beveridge in the 1920s, Carl Sandburg in the 1930s, and James G. Randall in the 1940s and 1950s enlarged and enriched our understanding of Lincoln's life. Most of these were multi-volume studies; rare is the biographer who has encompassed the full story in one volume. Benjamin Thomas did it in 1952, and Stephen B. Oates in 1977, both with verve and insight.

lincoln picture

Now David Herbert Donald, one of the most distinguished historians of our time, has added his name to the list of outstanding Lincoln biographers. Although Donald has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for biographies of other men (Charles Sumner and Thomas Wolfe), it is Lincoln that he has in a sense been preparing to write during his whole career of half a century. Donald's first book (in 1948) was a biography of William Herndon, and he has closed the circle with this biography of Herndon's famous law partner.

Eagerly awaited, Lincoln fulfills expectations. Donald writes with lucidity and elegance. The book moves between Lincoln's private and public lives with a clarity that illuminates the connections between them. Donald negotiates the potential pitfalls for Lincoln biographers with surefooted grace: Lincoln's relationship with his father; his romance with Ann Rutledge; his bouts of "hypo," which amounted at times almost to clinical depression; his marriage; his political ambition; his attitudes toward slavery and black people; his relations with radical Republicans during the Civil War; the mistakes and successes of his wartime leadership.

On all these matters, and others, Donald weighs the evidence, navigates skillfully among the shoals of apocrypha, myth, and self-serving recollections, avoids reductionism, and advances interpretations that mostly rely on common sense as well as on informed insight. Yes, Lincoln had an uneasy relationship with his father, but it was not an oedipal rivalry. He probably loved Ann Rutledge, but the memory of this lost love did not poison his marriage to Mary Todda marriage that had its good and bad days but was neither as smooth and fulfilling as Mary's partisans have claimed nor as tempestuous and barren as her detractors charge. Lincoln was politically ambitious and knew how to manipulate the system, but he was more principled and less corruptible than most politicians of his generation. He believed slavery to be a moral evil but was cautious in his approach to eradicating it. He shared the almost universal white-supremacy convictions of his age but rose above them during the Civil War to promote the cause of freedom and take the first tentative steps toward equal rights.

Using the wealth of new material uncovered by the Lincoln Legal Papers project, Donald offers a fuller account of Lincoln's legal career than previous biographers have. Although largely self-taught, Lincoln was far more than the folksy country-bumpkin lawyer of legend. By the 1850s he had become one of the leaders of the Illinois bar. But Donald does not share the mistaken notion of some students that Lincoln was a "corporation lawyer." To be sure, he represented corporations (mainly railroads) in several cases. But he opposed corporations about as often as he defended them. And the bulk of his practice continued to concern small-scale property disputes, debts, damage to crops by marauding livestock, and other staples of county courts in rural Illinois. This would seem to make for dull reading, but Donald brings it alive.

Donald is at his best in discussing Lincoln's politics. From the time Lincoln first announced his candidacy for the Illinois legislature, at the age of twenty-three, until the Cabinet meeting on the day of his assassination, politics was rarely absent from his consciousness. He was a Whig, a devotee of Henry Clay, whose "American System," with its emphasis on government support for education, internal improvements, banking, and economic development to promote growth and opportunity, attracted the upwardly mobile young lawyer. This philosophy undergirded Lincoln's commitment to what the historian Eric Foner has defined as the free-labor ideology. Social mobility was central to this ideology. Free men who practiced the virtues of hard work, self-discipline, and sobriety could climb the ladder of success. "I am not ashamed to confess," Lincoln said, "that twenty-five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat--just what might happen to any poor man's son." But in the free states an ambitious youth knew that "he can better his condition" because "there is no such thing as a freeman being fatally fixed for life, in the condition of a hired laborer." The free-labor system "opens the way for all--gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition."

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