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Book Review: Abraham Lincoln, by Benjamin P. Thomas

This very special Lincoln biography, originally published in 1952, benefits from the 1947 opening of the Robert Todd Lincoln Collection (which had been closed for 21 years). All previous Lincoln biographies, however well researched and well written, are the poorer for not having access to this treasure trove of information. Add to this that Lincoln historian Benjamin Thomas was a superb writer, whose clean, direct prose complements his subject's mastery of language, and what you have is an outstanding biography of our 16th president. At 549 pages, Thomas' biography reads smoothly and makes for a quick read. I have read three Lincoln biographies, and this one is without question, the best. If you plan to read one Lincoln biography, this is it.

On the surface, Lincoln was born into a life that was not promising. He hated the hard-scrabble life of his father--which was farming--but otherwise had little hope of bettering his lot in life. Being a sensitive and unusually bright child, the fact that he suffered from depression throughout much of his life should not be surprising. His father, Thomas, was a particularly hard man who neither appreciated nor understood his son.

When Abraham was nine, his mother died of milk sickness. Thomas quickly remarried a widow named Sarah Bush Johnson, who had three children of her own. Right away, she recognized Abraham as unusually bright, and encouraged him to develop his intellect. She gave him several of her books, books that would broaden his mind and influence his speaking and writing skills, particularly later as a lawyer and a politician. Among the books were: "Aesop's Fables," Parson Weem's "Life of Washington", "The Pilgrim's Progress," "Robinson Crusoe," and "Webster's Speller." She came to love him as much or more than her own children. Many years later she said of him: "Abe was the best boy I ever saw. He never gave me a cross word . . ."

Lincoln said of her that she had been "his best friend in the world", and that no son could love a mother more than he loved her.

Meanwhile, the distance between Abraham and his father broadened ever wider. Thomas accepted that his son wanted to expand his mind rather than be a farmer, but he didn't like it. Abe said of his father, "he never learned me to love him." From Kentucky where Abraham was born, his father moved the family first to Indiana (where Thomas met and married Sarah); and then to New Salem, Illinois where Lincoln grew into manhood, and discovered he had a knack for amusing people with his stories and self-deprecating humor. At the same time he found himself at the center of attention wherever people gathered, such was his charisma.

People saw a special quality in this rough-hewn young man with the pronounced Southern drawl: he was quick witted, honest, funny, and eager to learn. New Salem had a debating society, which Abraham joined. Among this high-brow group, he made friends, polished his elocution, borrowed books, and spent much of his time improving himself, with reading. What did he read? Now in his early 20s, he favored the plays of William Shakespeare, and the poetry of Robert Burns. A local justice of the peace lent him books on the law, in particular "Revised Laws of Illinois." Lincoln also purchased a tattered volume of Blackstone's "Commentaries on the Laws of England," then the most popular legal text in the English-speaking world. These books inspired his desire to pursue law as a profession.

Lincoln served one term in the Illinois State Legislature where he met John Stuart, who was so impressed with Lincoln that he invited him to join his law firm in Springfield.

As a lawyer, traveling the eighth circuit of southern Illinois, Lincoln mastered the art of public speaking. In arguing a case, Lincoln generally appealed to reason. His manner was casual as he questioned witnesses in a friendly tone, and was known to threw in a witticism or two. To the prosecuting attorney, he conceded point after point, until he seemed to be giving away his case. But on the crucial point he was relentless, trying to put it clearly before the jury, bringing the argument around to it again and again until the dullest mind on the jury understood it. For lucidity of statement and the ability to clarify by means of homely analogies, Lincoln had no peer. He was almost unbeatable when simple right and justice were involved.

It was while living in Springfield that Lincoln met, wooed, and--after a stormy courtship--married Mary Todd. In many ways they were polar opposites. He was slow-moving and easy going; she was precipitate and volatile. He was a man of simple tastes; she liked fine clothes and jewelry. His personality and mind were the sort that grew continuously; hers remained essentially in a set mold. Both were ambitious, but her determination was so much more intense than his that it would be like a relentless prod, impelling him onward whenever he might be disposed to lag.

Lincoln was not an easy man to live with. His careless ways and dowdy dress, and his interludes of abstractions and dejection surely annoyed his wife. But Mary learned to overlook his shortcomings. Writes the author, their letters written when they were apart reveal sincere affection. They went to parties together and they often entertained friends in their home. Together they met defeats and rejoiced in victories.

Abraham Lincoln loved children, and was an affectionate father of four sons. The oldest, Robert Todd Lincoln, was born in 1843, and was the Lincoln's only son to live to maturity. The second son, Edward Baker Lincoln, born in 1846, died prematurely young, probably from tuberculosis, and was buried in Springfield. The third son, "Willie" Lincoln was born in 1850, and died of a fever at the White House, on February 20, 1862. The youngest son, Thomas "Tad" Lincoln, was born in 1853, and survived his father, but died of heart failure at age 18, in 1871.

In 1844, Lincoln opened his own law firm and took as a partner William Herndon, a young man just licensed to practice law. At the time Lincoln was among the most successful attorneys in Illinois. He advised his young partner: "Billy, don't shoot too high. Aim lower and the common people will understand you." Part of Lincoln's success was that he trusted people, and they in turn trusted him. According to the author, he had supreme faith in their right-mindedness, provided thy could be made to understand, and he never questioned their powers of comprehension when the facts were presented to them simply and honestly.

Lincoln served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives (1847-1849). While in office, he backed a bill that would have abolished slavery in the District of Columbia. The idea of slaves being sold openly within earshot of the Capitol building offended him greatly. Unfortunately, the bill failed (as president, early in his administration, Lincoln finally managed to have slavery outlawed in Washington D.C.)

It was while campaigning for a seat in the House, that his opponent accused him of not being a true Christian. Lincoln (a lifelong Bible reader) set the record straight: "That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular."

Lincoln had a curious mind, and a fondness for mathematics. As a mental discipline, he mastered the six books by Euclid. He also read books on astronomy. He particularly enjoyed the plays of William Shakespeare. His favorites were the tragedies, particularly "King Lear", "Richard III", "Hamlet" and "Macbeth". He also enjoyed Shakespeare's comedies, but preferred to see them performed on stage. During the darkest days of the Civil War, he turned to the Bible requently, and at one of his darkest hours as president, found paritcular solace in the Book of Job.

By the 1850s, the slavery issue was making headlines across the nation, particularly after passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. One of its biggest proponents was the man who wrote the law, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas. Lincoln feared slavery would spread, but he could not stand by and watch it happen. He had to speak out. In Peoria on October 16, 1854, Lincoln gave his "House Divided" speech; it revived his sagging political career and paved the way for the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The debates made him a national political figure. He lost the 1858 Senate race to Douglas, but two years later was nominated by the newly-formed Republican party to be their candidate for president of the United States.

On election day, Lincoln carried the Northeast and West, but failed to carry a single state below the Mason-Dixon line. In the end he tallied 180 electoral votes to 72 for Breckinridge, 39 for Bell, and only 12 for Douglas. But while those closest to him celebrated, Lincoln brooded. Though he held out hope that reason would prevail in the Deep South, he suspected the national divide over slavery was too great and that his years as president would be difficult ones. Fate had brought him to the White House, only to lead the Northern states in the most calamitous crisis of our nation's history.

On his way to Washington, he made a remarkable speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia where he declared: "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence . . . that all men are created equal . . . not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time."

Lincoln knew nothing of the art of war, but as with everything else in his life he proved to be a fast learner. After a few missteps, in Ulysses S. Grant, he found a general who would fight. Grant fought some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, and in doing so defeated the one general no other Union general could whip--Robert E. Lee. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, in April of 1865, which ended the Civil War. Tragically, within a month, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater. Noting his untimely death, Lincoln's Secretary of State, one-time political rival, and good friend, William Seward, said: "Now he belongs to the ages."

The book concludes with this remarkable paragraph: "Lincoln saw his countrymen as inheritors of a trust. To them it had been given to make democracy succeed, to cleanse it of the hypocrisies that deprive it of its just example in the world. For in democracy, made genuine, he saw our 'last, best hope' of frustrating any tyrant who seeks to regiment or debase or mislead people, anywhere, and of achieving peace on earth and good will among men through 'the universal liberty of mankind.'"


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