Where This Meets That
After seeing Spielberg’s film Lincoln in January, I decided it was time to read a biography about the man.
Despite having read contrasting viewpoints of Lincoln in books like Howard Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States and G. Edward Griffin’s The Creature from Jekyll Island, my knowledge of him was too largely archetypal, shaped by whatever I retained from two-dimensional school lessons.
His name conjured his childhood log cabin, his tall body topped with his stovepipe hat, his liberation of black slaves, and his subsequent assassination. I wanted to fill in the blanks. Online searches revealed David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln as the most widely praised, so off I went.
As stated in the Preface, Donald aims to cover Lincoln’s life as much as possible “from Lincoln’s point of view, using the information and ideas that were available to him. . . . to explain rather than to judge.” And so he does, accessibly and agnostically accounting Lincoln’s life from his humble earliest days to his death.
A Witness to Tragedy
Over the course of Lincoln’s life, he was a profound witness to tragedy. When he was a young boy, his newborn brother died. His mother, along with several friends and neighbors, died of illness when he was nine, and his sister, who cared for him after his mother’s death, died a decade later during childbirth. When he was 26, his first serious girlfriend, Ann Rutledge, died. By the time he married Mary Todd, he had been through a number of deep depressions, and with Mary, he also had to face the loss of two young sons and countless others dead in war.
Donald never strays far from Lincoln’s perspective and, in fact, tells the story using Lincoln’s own words as much as possible. The portrait that arises is that of a physically strong man who loathed physical labor, a socially awkward man who nevertheless carried an intangible charisma, a broken man made whole by his steadfast devotion to a home and nation more broken than he, and an ambitious politician whose self-awareness of his scarce qualifications likely significantly prolonged the Civil War before ultimately righting our nation on a road toward racial equality.
A Man for His Age
A couple things become clear in these pages. First, Lincoln could never be elected today. Eyewitnesses recalling their first encounters with him regularly noted an initial repulsion, frequently comparing his facial expressions to those of primates and considering his mannerisms uncouth. While his words were eloquent and stirring to hearts of those who loved the romantic ideal of liberty, he had, as the saying goes, a face for radio. At the same time, his voice was not made for radio, being disarmingly high-pitched and nasally.
Secondly, he was a long shot to be elected to the presidency in his day, even without the banes of television or radio. While he was an ambitious and crafty politician, he lost more elections than he won. Donald says, “To all outward appearances he was less prepared to be [President] than any other man who had run for that high office. Without family tradition or wealth, he had received only the briefest of formal schooling. . . . He had no administrative experience of any sort; he had never been governor of his state or even mayor of Springfield.” Donald continues, “He had served only a single, less than successful term in the House of Representatives and for the past ten years had held no public office.” (p291)
And yet, despite Lincoln’s weaknesses, his friends and followers considered him “one of the best men God ever made” and sought to promote him to the head of the fledgling Republican Party and on to the presidency.
His enemies, however, determined that he was primed for tyranny and sought to destroy the southern tyranny of slavery. And so upon his election, the South erupted. Donald notes, “Within a month [of his election] every state of the lower South had taken initial steps toward secession.” (p317)
Ironically, it was the South’s fears about Lincoln that led them to take actions that ultimately shaped Lincoln into precisely the President they had feared, but the irony began long before, when the US was wrapping up its war against Mexico in 1847.
Lincoln, then a congressman, led an assault on President Polk that intended to prove that the U.S., under Polk’s command, had started the war by provoking Mexican aggression. Lincoln claimed that Congress alone had Constitutional authority to make war and that “no one man should hold the power of bringing this [Kingly oppression of war] upon us.” (p161) Lincoln also declared that, “Any people anywhere . . . have the [most sacred right] to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.” (p161-2)
Add to these positions that Congressman Lincoln believed the Constitution should be considered “unalterable”, and it becomes clear that President Lincoln would have to eat many of Congressman Lincoln’s words. Many of his enemies believed he goaded the South into war at Fort Sumter and exercised dictatorial powers by using executive orders to suspend habeas corpus and force conscription on the citizenry. Finally, of course, he altered the “unalterable” Constitution by driving through the Thirteenth Amendment.
A Hesitant Leader
Indeed, aspects of Lincoln’s management of the Civil War remain controversial today. Donald cites repeated instances during the war when Lincoln saw opportunities for a Union thrust to break the Confederacy, only to stew while his generals failed to capitalize on those opportunities. Many times, Lincoln thought the proper strategy was clear, but despite being Commander-in-Chief, he recognized that he was not a “military man” and tried to avoid micromanaging the war. More often than not, Donald provides evidence that seems to vindicate Lincoln’s instincts, indicating that he might have ended the war sooner by asserting himself more firmly earlier on as Commander in Chief.
But of course, hindsight is 20/20. Who could blame Lincoln’s inclination to trust his military men in the field, given his own lack of experience combined with the unprecedented climate into which he was thrust as President?
All the while, Lincoln wrestled greatly with the institution of slavery. He believed slavery morally wrong but also believed it impossible for black and white societies to ever truly unify. Early on, he considered the best option to be exportation of the slaves to an isolated place where they could establish their own form of society. Later, as President, he wondered about the prospect of compensated emancipation, simply buying the slaves to set them free. However, he thought this solution would only validate the South’s position that slaves were indeed property and not citizens to be protected by the Constitution.
Eventually, pressed by the prospect of slavery growing through westward expansion (where, incidentally, he also faced occasional Native American rebellions), Lincoln determined that there was no realistic way that the nation could “continue together permanently – forever half slave, and half free”(p236). He concluded that the only way to “preserve the Union” was to pursue outright emancipation.
Donald’s Lincoln, though cumbersome with details at times, is an overall enthralling read. It serves as a rich passage through a vital crossroads in our nation’s history. Capturing Lincoln’s perspective amid all the monumental changes that occurred during his lifetime, from the revolution in American politics to that of the American way of life, this is a book worthy of inclusion on anyone’s history shelf.
Also check out the following related posts: