All about Honest Abe

Lincoln
June 7, 1996

At the last count, in 1991, there were some 16,000 Lincoln titles. The man has become an industry. It is not difficult to fathom why. For most Americans Lincoln embodies honesty and integrity; even in his own lifetime he was known as "Honest Abe". He also speaks to their ideals and their ambitions. The first American president to be born west of the Appalachian mountains, Lincoln quite literally rose from a log cabin to the White House. He saved the Union and freed the slaves. If he had not been assassinated who knows what he might have gone on to achieve.

As David Donald makes clear in his new biography, Lincoln was in many respects an unlikely hero. An awkward and unassuming man, he retired from active politics in 1850, following a brief spell in the House of Representatives, in order to resume a career as a busy and well-respected lawyer in his native Illinois. There he might have remained. But the political crisis precipitated by the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), together with Lincoln's intense personal rivalry with Stephen Douglas, set him on a path that would eventually lead to the White House. Lincoln never had time to savour the fruits of victory. Within months of his inauguration, conducted amid tight security, the country was at war and the new president found himself struggling to preserve the Union as well as the future of his own party.

Donald, who is an acknowledged authority on the civil war era, tells this story with great verve and fluency. His reconstruction of Lincoln's law practice, to take one example, captures perfectly the drudgery of life on the eighth judicial circuit. There are also valuable insights into Lincoln's religious ideas and his relationship with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. More controversial, to my mind, is Donald's assessment of Lincoln, both as a man and as president. According to Donald, Lincoln's nature was essentially passive. How else are we to account for his "ineffectual leadership" over the relief of Fort Sumter or his indulgence of the hapless George McClellan, commander of the army of the Potomac? Consider, too, Lincoln's seeming aboutface on the question of emancipating southern slaves. Lincoln, Donald argues, "was temperamentally averse to making bold decisions. It was his style to react to decisions made by others rather than to take the initiative himself". Lincoln's singular quality, it seems, was "negative capability".

This is a novel thesis but not entirely convincing. It is true that Lincoln was fatalistic. It is also true that the civil war intensified his belief in a doctrine of necessity. But when the occasion arose he was quite capable of asserting himself. During his unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Senate in 1855 he was so assiduous in soliciting votes that "he slept, like Napoleon, with one eye open". He showed the same determination in his desire to preserve the Union, notwithstanding the tragic cost in human lives. And it was Lincoln again who seized the initiative when, in 1863, he issued details of his reconstruction policy; a policy, incidentally, which was not unrelated to the president's painstaking bid for re-election. On the face of it, these were not the actions of a man who was essentially passive.

For all that, Lincoln was averse to making quick decisions. An intelligent man, he liked to take his time, to consider all the options, and to be sure of his ground. These habits of mind understandably infuriated Lincoln's critics, many of whom concluded that he lacked either will or political purpose. What the country needed, grumbled Charles Sumner, was "a president with brains; one who can make a plan and carry it out". But, arguably, Lincoln's "pragmatism and flexibility", his willingness to accept defeat and to try something new, were his greatest strength. He also revealed a remarkable capacity for growth. Something of a novice when he assumed the presidency, he developed a firm grasp of military strategy, which improved as the war went on. His skill in handling his cabinet, which included such volatile personalities as William Seward and Salmon P. Chase, was equally adroit.

Lincoln was an exceptional politician and a brilliant party manager. But he did lack sophistication and even by the standards of the time he was poorly educated. Visitors often found the president "coarse" and sometimes "puzzling". In public Lincoln made light of his humble background, adopting a homespun style that, in time, would become an essential part of his appeal and charm. Privately, however, he was moody and depressive and suffered from nightmares and insomnia. Those closest to Lincoln attributed these moods, which predated his years in the White House, to domestic unhappiness or the chronic constipation that troubled Lincoln all his adult life. Donald points to something else, namely frustrated political ambitions, but he seems reluctant to delve any deeper and one is left with a nagging sense that there always was a darker side to Lincoln's personality which continues to elude the biographer's gaze.

Nevertheless, these are quibbles. Lincoln is a magnificent achievement: stimulating, authoritative and beautifully paced. Donald is a sensitive and stylish author and he has a keen eye for the telling quotation. His book is a tour de force. By sticking closely to his subject, and to events as he saw them, Donald enables us to appreciate more fully Lincoln's energy, his determination and, above all, the difficulties that beset his private as well as his public life. If not quite the last word on Lincoln, this will be the definitive biography for many years to come.

J. R. Oldfield is senior lecturer in American history, University of Southampton.

Lincoln

Author - David Herbert Donald
ISBN - 0 224 0422 X
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Price - £30.00
Pages - 714

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