By Michael BurlingameJohns Hopkins
Image: Dung Hoang
Lincoln’s bicentennial has permitted us to revisit and reconsider every facet of his story and personality, from the Bismarckian big-government colossus so disliked by the traditional right and the isolationists, to the “Great Emancipator” who used to figure on the posters of the American Communist Party, to the reluctant anti-slaver so plausibly caught in Gore Vidal’s finest novel. Absent from much of this consideration has been the unfashionable word destiny: the sense conveyed by Lincoln of a man who was somehow brought forth by the hour itself, as if his entire life had been but a preparation for that moment.
We cannot get this frisson from other great American presidents. Washington, Jefferson, Madison—these were all experienced members of the existing and indeed preexisting governing class. So was Roosevelt. However exaggerated or invented some parts of the Lincoln legend may be, it is nonetheless a fact that he came from the very loam and marrow of the new country, and that—unlike the other men I have mentioned—he cannot possibly be imagined as other than an American.
No review could do complete justice to the magnificent two-volume biography that has been so well-wrought by Michael Burlingame, but one way of paying tribute to it is to say that it introduces the elusive idea of destiny from the very start, and one means of illustrating this is to show how the earlier chapters continually prefigure, or body forth, the more momentous events that are to be dealt with in the later ones.
Before I try to demonstrate that, I would like to call attention to something that Professor Burlingame says in his Author’s Note:
Many educated guesses, informed by over twenty years of research on Lincoln, appear in this biography. Each such guess might well begin with a phrase like “in all probability,” or “it may well be that,” or “it seems likely that.” Such warnings, if inserted into the text, would prove wearisome; readers are encouraged to provide such qualifiers silently whenever the narrative explores Lincoln’s unconscious motivation.
It is agreeable to be informed, when embarking on such a long and demanding work, that one will be treated like a grown-up.
There is, whether intentionally or not, a sort of biblical cadence and flavor to the way in which Burlingame relates the early family history: the grandmother Bathsheba; the father’s older brother Mordecai; and Mary Lincoln’s half sister, who said that “the reason why Thomas Lincoln grew up unlettered was that his brother Mordecai, having all the land in his possession … turned Thomas out of the house when the latter was 12 years; so he went out among his relations.” The story of Jacob and Esau, and of Naboth’s vineyard, was surely known to the person who recounted that.
As for the social background, here is a sentence that conveys a great deal of misery in a very few words. It is Burlingame’s summary of the area in which Sinking Spring farm, Kentucky, young Abraham’s birthplace, was situated. “The neighborhood was thinly settled; the 36-square-mile tax district where the Lincoln farm was located contained 85 taxpayers, 44 slaves, and 392 horses.” Lincoln himself said that his early life could be “condensed into a single sentence” from Gray’s “Elegy”: “The short and simple annals of the poor.” But this would be to euphemize his true boyhood situation, which was much more like that of a serf or a domestic animal than of Gray’s lowly but sturdy peasantry. To read of the unrelenting coarseness and brutality of the boy’s father is lowering to the spirit, as is the shame he felt at his mother’s reputation for unchastity. The wretchedness of these surroundings made Lincoln tell a later acquaintance in Illinois: “I have seen a good deal of the back side of this world.” (Incidentally, one has to imagine this being said with some kind of wink and nudge: Burlingame is not content, as so many historians are, merely to hint at Lincoln’s fondness for broad humor, but furnishes us with some actual examples, which are heavy on the side of scatology and flatulence.)