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.

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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."

It was the lack of hope, energy, and progress in the slave states, where most laborers were indeed "fatally fixed" in the condition of slavery, that made the United States a house divided. When the Whig Party died, in the 1850s, Lincoln helped found the Republican Party in Illinois. The Republicans were determined to keep slavery out of the territories, as the first step, in Lincoln's words, toward placing it "in course of ultimate extinction." "I want every man to have the chance--and I believe a black man is entitled to itin which he can better his condition."

On this platform Lincoln was elected President in 1860, provoking the secession of seven slave states (and later four more), which led the country down the slippery slope to civil war. More than half of Lincoln is devoted to the four years and six weeks of Lincoln's presidency--which is as it should be, because those years were the most important in Lincoln's life and in the life of the nation. The Civil War almost proved to be the death of the nation. But with a genius for pulling factions together, a sure sense of timing, and a determination to prevail despite defeats and despair, Lincoln led the Union to triumph and a new birth of freedom. Donald tells this story superbly. His analysis of the complex interplay of factions, parties, and personalities in the political conduct of the Union war effort is unexcelled.

Donald is on less sure ground in his discussion of Lincoln as commander in chief. He devotes proportionately less time to this function than Lincoln himself did. After all, Lincoln was a war President. He was the only President in American history whose presidency was almost completely bounded by war. Military matters probably took up as much of his time and attention as did political affairs--perhaps more. He spent more time in the War Department telegraph office than anywhere else except the White House itself. He left Washington no fewer than eleven times to visit the Army of the Potomac at the front, spending a total of forty-two days with the Army. Donald chronicles these activities, and includes a good analysis of Lincoln's concept of military strategy, but these pages do not sparkle as brightly as those on politics, personalities, and the emancipation issue.

Donald's grasp of military matters is sometimes a bit shaky. He has the dates of several battles slightly wrong, and confuses the Army of the Tennessee with the Army of the Cumberland. The Union Navy did not "batter Charleston to rubble"; Union troops at the Battle of Monocacy did not consist mainly of "green hundred-day volunteers"; there were never anywhere near 200,000 Confederate prisoners of war "languishing in Northern prisons" at any time; Benjamin Butler's assignment to command the Army of the James was hardly "a dead-end job"--Butler had a real chance to capture Richmond in May of 1864, but bungled it. Donald underrates the remarkable string of Union victories in the winter and spring of 1862. His assertion that "in the winter of 1863-1864 the [military] outlook for the Lincoln administration was bad" is about 180 degrees off the mark. Seldom in the war had the outlook been brighter. It was, after all, a Southern diarist, the Confederate War Department official R.G.H. Kean, who lamented during that bleak Confederate winter: "I have never actually despaired of the cause. . . . [but now] steadfastness is yielding to a sense of hopelessness." Or, as the famous South Carolina diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote in December of 1863, "Gloom and unspoken despondency hang like a pall everywhere." And what is one to make of Donald's assertions that Manassas was "an undistinguished Southern crossroads" and that Nashville "had no strategic value"? These statements would have puzzled strategic planners, who understood that the rail junction at Manassas was a key to military operations in northern Virginia and that Nashville served the same function in middle Tennesseenot to mention its strategic and psychological importance as an industrial center and the first Confederate state capital to fall.

In a frontispiece quotation and in his preface Donald sets forth what he intends to be the central theme of the biography. The quotation comes from an April, 1864, letter from Lincoln to a Kentucky Unionist, in which the President wrote, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me." This statement, Donald writes, illustrates "a basic trait of character evident throughout Lincoln's life: the essential passivity of his nature." Elsewhere Donald speaks of Lincoln's "fatalism," his "reluctance to take the initiative and make bold plans," adding that "he preferred to respond to the actions of others." One of Lincoln's favorite Shakespeare passages was from Hamlet:

There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.

As the suffering and death of the war grew to monstrous proportions, Lincoln came to believe that man was helpless to alter the course of events predestined by God. This belief achieved its most eloquent expression in the Second Inaugural Address.

The Almighty has His own purposes.
. . . Fondly do we hope--fervently do we praythat this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."

It is one thing to recognize that the stress and pain of a terrible war would cause Lincoln, or anyone else in a like position, to search for the meaning of such trauma in the divine will. It is quite another to construct an interpretation around a theme of passivity. As Lincoln himself might have said, that "won't scour." To begin with, one might ask how it squares with Lincoln's "unquenchable ambition"--another theme in this biography. Lincoln's letter to the Kentucky Unionist should not be taken at face value. His purpose was to deflect the bitterness of Kentucky slaveholders who regarded the expansion of Union war aims to include emancipation as a betrayal of Lincoln's original pledge to fight only to restore the Union. Don't blame me, Lincoln was saying. I don't control events. It is God's will, not mine, that has made slavery a victim of this war. Lincoln probably did believe that it was God's will. But he also believed in the adage that God helps those who help themselves. His decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation was not a sign of passivity. Nor was his insistence that the Republican platform on which he ran for re-election in 1864 contain a plank calling for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. Nor were his decisions to sack failing generals but to stick with Ulysses S. Grant despite enormous pressures to sack him in early 1863.

At the very outset of his presidency Lincoln demonstrated traits that were the opposite of what Donald calls "his essentially passive personality." When some Republicans flirted with the idea of endorsing the Crittenden Compromise, which contravened the Republican platform on which Lincoln had been elected, the President-elect stiffened their backbones. "Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery," he wrote to them. The very notion of such a compromise "acknowledges that slavery has equal rights with liberty, and surrenders all we have contended for." "We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten. . . . If we surrender, it is the end of us. . . . They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum."

Having defeated compromise in January of 1861, Lincoln two months later faced a decision whether or not to yield to Confederate demands that he withdraw U.S. troops from Fort Sumter. It was a decision for peace or war. It was also, in Lincoln's mind, a decision whether to give up the Union or fight for it. He made the lonely decision, opposed initially by most of his Cabinet and by other advisers, to fight for it if necessary. But in a brilliant move he offered only to resupply the Sumter garrison without reinforcing it, thus placing the burden of deciding for peace or war on Jefferson Davis's shoulders. If Davis allowed the supplies to go in, Lincoln would score an important symbolic point asserting national sovereignty. If Davis fired on the supply ships or on Fort Sumter, the responsibility for starting the war would be his. And the war came.

Donald somehow manages to find in Lincoln's handling of the Sumter crisis evidence of his "essential passivity." More convincing is the conclusion to which Nicolay and Hay came: that with his plan to resupply the fort Lincoln made himself "master of the situation . . . master if the rebels hesitated or repented, because they would thereby forfeit their prestige with the South; master if they persisted, for he would then command a united North."

To be fair, Donald is too good a historian to ride the passivity thesis roughshod over the evidence in most cases. As he lays out the story of Lincoln's leadership during the war, with all its ups and downs, its successes and failures, the reader gains a clear impression more of mastery than of passivity. And Donald can quote with approval an entry from John Hay's diary in August of 1863: The President

is managing this war, the draft, foreign relations, and planning a reconstruction of the Union, all at once. I never knew with what tyrannous authority he rules the Cabinet, till now. The most important things he decides and there is no cavil.

Recognizing that the facts mostly do not fit the passivity thesis, Donald wisely allows it to fade away as the book proceeds.

In one important respect, however, Lincoln was fatalistic about events he perceived as beyond his control. Despite a number of death threats, the President refused to sanction elaborate security arrangements and philosophically accepted the possibility of assassination. "It would never do," he said, "for a President to have guards with drawn sabres at his door, as if he fancied he were . . . an emperor." Such precautions were useless anyway: "a conspiracy to assassinate, if such there were, could easily obtain a pass to see me for any one or more of its instruments." So when Lincoln went to Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth was able to enter his box because the guard on duty had moved away from the door to see the play.

In his preface Donald forswears the role of omniscient author. His perspective will be limited to Lincoln's perspective: "what he knew, when he knew it, and why he made his decisions." It is an effective device. As good as his word, Donald ends the book at the moment of Lincoln's death, when Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton intoned, "Now he belongs to the ages." Readers must draw the moral and meaning of Lincoln's life for themselves. Thanks to Donald's scholarship and literary skill, they can readily do so.