Read Abraham Lincoln Online

Authors: Stephen B. Oates

Abraham Lincoln


The Man Behind the Myths



The lack of a sense of history
is the damnation of the modern world


Those who deny freedom to others,
deserve it not for themselves






Part One: Myth

1:  Man of the People

2:  Arch Villain

3:  White Chief and Honky

Part Two: Many-Mooded Man

1:  Resurrecting Life

2:  A Matter of Profound Wonder

3:  All Conquering Mind

4:  Mr. Lincoln

Part Three: Advocate of the Dream

1:  The Beacon Light of Liberty

2:  This Vast Moral Evil

3:  My Dissatisfied Fellow Countrymen

Part Four: Warrior for the Dream

1:  The Central Idea

2:  Death Warrant for Slavery

3:  The Man of Our Redemption

4:  Necessity Knows No Law

5:  The Warrior

6:  Toward a New Birth of Freedom

Part Five: Final Act

1:  The Theater

2:  Aftermath

3:  Stanton

4:  Without Him



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About the Author

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About the Publisher

In 1984, when this book appears, Abraham Lincoln will be 175 years old. This is certain to cause an eruption of flatulent utterances about the sanctified figure and a shameless parade of scissors-and-paste Lincoln books with more pictures in them than print. Since in
With Malice Toward None
I immodestly undertook to write a Lincoln biography for this generation, I thought I might help commemorate his birthday by publishing a serious volume, one I have been writing in my head ever since my life of Lincoln came out. This is a biographical study, not a true biography in the grand manner, evocative and comprehensive, with a narrative sweep that carries the Lincoln story from birth to death. I have already tried that in
With Malice Toward None
. No, this is a more modest outing, an exploration into special moments and meanings of Lincoln's life. Still, I hope my narrative conveys some sense of him as a living man, for I wrote it in a style that seeks to describe as well as to analyze, to feel as well as to comprehend.

The thing about Lincoln is that he keeps growing and changing. After I completed my biography and went on to a life of Martin Luther King, Jr., who understood Lincoln and carried on his vision and work, I still found myself talking about the Civil War President on the lecture circuit. In one public address in the Midwest, I found myself discussing both Lincoln and King as “Builders of the Dream”—
builders, I should have said, given the pain and suffering both went through. In addition, I kept contributing articles and reviews about Lincoln to various publications.

As I continued to read, write, lecture, and talk about Lincoln, I realized how much I wanted to correct or clarify some of my earlier interpretations, realized how much more I had to say. Hence this book. In it, I have probed the galaxy of Lincoln myth and countermyth, a celestial world I find fascinating. Why has he become our greatest mythical hero? And correspondingly maybe our greatest mythical demon? What do such myths tell us about Lincoln's significance? What do they tell us about us? Moreover, how does the historical man compare with these mythic creations? What is the place of both in our literature?

Such questions are the
raison d'être
for Part One, which deals with the three major myths about Lincoln and against which I orchestrate the rest of the book. There I attempt an approximation of what Lincoln was like in the days he lived, taking care to discuss him in proper historical context. In specific, Part Two addresses certain themes in Lincoln's personal life—his depression, for example, and his difficulties with affairs of the heart until after he wedded Mary. Because a person's private and public selves are inextricably linked, I have searched Lincoln's inner conflicts, and described how he sought to resolve them, in hopes that this might afford a deeper understanding and appreciation of the whole man.

Another section examines Lincoln's rise to prominence in the turbulent antebellum years and his emergence as the foremost political spokesman in America for the liberating impulses of the age. Here I venture an explanation for why scholars still rank Lincoln as our best President—which would doubtless amuse him, since he preferred a seat in the national Senate to the White House. In this and in the section on the war years, I try to elucidate Lincoln's vision of the historic meaning and mission of his young country in the progress of human liberty in the world. He fought the Civil War with that uppermost in his mind, and I attempt to discuss all his momentous war measures—particularly emancipation—in terms of his vision and core of unshakable beliefs. I've given special attention to Lincoln's troubled and troubling attitudes about slavery, in part because it was the source of the conflict (as Lincoln and his associates repeatedly stressed), in part because what he did about slavery in his own view was the most important measure of his presidency. Too, my narrative seeks to capture all the passion that bondage aroused in Lincoln and his entire generation. A final section attempts to clear away some of the popular misconceptions and elaborate fantasies that surround the assassination, and to suggest the meaning of that shattering and final act. The book ends with what I hope is a fair and compassionate portrait of Mary Lincoln, surely the most misunderstood First Lady in our history. Because her whole life was bound up with Lincoln, Mary's desolate years alone constitute a tragic coda to the Lincoln story.

On the lecture circuit and in the classroom, I have been asked all manner of provocative things about Lincoln, which attests to the powerful hold he still has on our imaginations. In this volume, I endeavor to answer some recurring questions. How, for instance, did Lincoln's log-cabin origins affect him? How did he relate to his father and real mother? What was he like as a lawyer, a husband, a man? Was he really a country fellow who cracked jokes at the village store? On that point, can the Lincoln stories told by Carl Sandburg be believed? What in fact are we to make of Sandburg's immensely popular biography? Was Lincoln a lifelong white supremacist, as many blacks and whites contend today? Did the Emancipation Proclamation free any blacks? Did Lincoln steal the glory of self-liberating slaves by issuing it? Was he tenderhearted when it came to reconstructing Dixie? Would reconstruction have been different had he lived? Was there a conspiracy on the part of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and the so-called Radical Republicans to have Lincoln assassinated—an allegation enshrined as fact in several books and a recent motion picture and periodically reported in the popular media? There is much more here about Lincoln's public and private selves, but I have told enough: perhaps some of you are teased enough to read the book.

Inevitably, I have covered some points and used certain facts here that are also found in
With Malice Toward None
and in a couple of essays in my book,
Our Fiery Trial
. In truth, the present discussion of emancipation considerably refines and elaborates on an argument I first made in one of those essays. Given the persistent misunderstanding of that crucial event, I thought it necessary to make the argument longer and more precise. Nevertheless, in approach, emphasis, and purpose, this is an altogether different book from its predecessors. I've offered much new material here, new ideas and insights, all of which I hope adds up to an original and spirited portrait.

In shaping it, I benefited enormously from a growing library of modern Lincoln studies. In fact, the last couple of decades have witnessed a veritable renaissance of Lincoln scholarship. Modern specialists have reexamined almost every aspect of his life and career, producing new treatises on his inner meanings, his humor, love of language, and ideology, his economics, law practice, work in the Illinois legislature and Congress, his rise to the presidency and his presidency itself, his relationship with his wife, with his generals and Cabinet Secretaries, with his so-called Radical Republican colleagues, with Negroes and abolitionists, even with his southern adversaries. But because much of this scholarship inhabits technical monographs and journal articles written by scholars for one another, it hasn't reached a broad literary audience. I am addressing that audience, because I want lay readers to rediscover Lincoln as the scholars have, to take a renewed interest in his life and work, to understand what they still mean for us. And there is no better time for that than Lincoln's 175th.


Amherst, Massachusetts

August, 1983

Part One

Myth fulfills in primitive culture an indispensable function: it expresses, enhances, and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of man. Myth is thus…a hard-worked active force


In 1858, against a backdrop of heightening sectional tensions over slavery, Abraham Lincoln stood in the Great Hall of the Illinois House of Representatives, warning his countrymen that a house divided against itself could not stand. Across Illinois that year, in a series of forensic duels with Stephen A. Douglas, this tall and melancholy man addressed himself boldly to the difficult problems of his day: to the haunting moral contradiction of slavery in a nation based on the Declaration of Independence…to the combustible issue of Negro social and political rights…to the meaning and historic mission of America's experiment in popular government. This same man went on to the presidency, charged with the awesome task of saving the Union—and its experiment in popular government—in the holocaust of civil war. In the end, after enduring four unendurable years, he himself became a casualty of that conflict, gunned down by John Wilkes Booth just when the war was won and popular government preserved for humankind the world over.

The man who died that dark and dismal day had flaws as well as strengths, made mistakes and suffered reversals just as surely as he enjoyed his remarkable achievements. But in the days that followed his assassination, the man became obscured in an outpouring of flowery orations and tear-filled eulogies. As the seasons passed, Lincoln went on to legend and martyrdom, inflated by the myth makers into a godly Emancipator who personified America's ideal Everyman.

Before proceeding, I had best try to define myth as I am using it here. Above all, I do not mean some preposterous story. Nor do I mean a story that is uncontaminated by life. Myth, as I am using the term, is a grandiose projection of a people's experience. As X. J. Kennedy has put it, “Myths tell us of the exploits of the gods—their battles, the ways in which they live, love, and perhaps suffer—all on a scale of magnificence larger than our life. We envy their freedom and power; they enact our wishes and dreams.” In other words, the grandiose dimensions and symbol-building power of the myths we create reveal our deepest longings as a people. And this is especially true of the myths we Americans have fashioned about the powerful figure who presided over the Civil War, our greatest trial as a nation. Our extravagant projections of Lincoln in myth suggest a great deal about the spiritual and psychological needs of our culture ever since.

As historian David Donald has noted, two traditions of Lincoln mythology developed after the war. The first began on “Black Easter,” April 16, 1865, when ministers across the North portrayed the slain President as an American Christ who died to expiate the sins of his guilty land. For them, it was no coincidence that he had fallen on Good Friday. Did not the times of his shooting and death—just after ten in the evening and just after seven-twenty the next morning—make on the clock an outline of the crucifix? “Oh, friends,” cried the Reverend C. B. Crane from the pulpit of Broadway Tabernacle, “it was meet that the martyrdom should occur on Good Friday. It is no blasphemy against the Son of God and the Saviour of men that we declare the fitness of the slaying of the second Father of our Republic on the anniversary of the day on which He was slain. Jesus Christ died for the world, Abraham Lincoln died for his country.”

Blacks, too, viewed Lincoln with uninhibited reverence. “We mourn for the loss of our great and good President,” a Negro soldier wrote his fiancée. “Humanity has lost a firm advocate, our race its Patron Saint, and the good of all the world a fitting object to emulate…. The name Abraham Lincoln will ever be cherished
in our hearts, and none will more delight to lisp his name in reverence than the future generations of our people.” In truth, black Americans came to regard Lincoln as a perfect, personal emancipator and kept pictures of him pasted on the walls above their mantelpieces. “To the deeply emotional and religious slave,” as one man explained, “Lincoln was an earthly incarnation of the Saviour of mankind.”

And so one body of writings depicted him in the ensuing decades. Typical of this school was Josiah Gilbert Holland's
The Life of Abraham Lincoln
, which appeared in 1866 and sold more than 100,000 copies. Holland's Lincoln is a model youth and an impeccable Christian gentleman. When war clouds gather in 1866, he supposedly tells an Illinois associate: “I know there is a God and that he hates injustice and slavery. I see the storm coming, and I know that His hand is in it. If he has a place for and work for me—and I think he has—I believe I am ready. I am nothing, but truth is everything. I know I am right, because I know that liberty is right, for Christ teaches it and Christ is God.” For Holland and other writers, ministers, and orators of this tradition, Lincoln was a martyr-saint, as pure and perfect a spirit as the Almighty ever created. He was “savior of the republic, emancipator of a race, true Christian, true man.”

Sheer nonsense!
thundered William H. Herndon, Lincoln's nervous, besotted law partner, when he read Holland's book. This prettified character was not the Lincoln he had known in Illinois. That Lincoln had never belonged to a church. He was “
an infidel
,” a prairie lawyer who told stories that made the pious wince. Determined to correct Holland's portrait, Herndon set out “to write the life of Lincoln as I saw him—honestly—truthfully—co[u]rageously—fearlessly cut whom it may.” He jotted down his own impressions and interviewed old settlers in Indiana and Illinois who remembered Lincoln. They spun yarns about “Old Abe” that made Herndon's eyes hang out on his shirt front. Their Lincoln was an Illinois Paul Bunyan who could hoist a whiskey barrel overhead, a prairie Davy Crockett who roared that he was
“the big buck of the lick.” No historian, Herndon embraced such tales as zealously as he did actual fact. As a consequence,
Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life
, which came out in 1889, brimmed with gossip, hearsay, and legend, all mixed in with Herndon's own authentic observations of Lincoln in their law office, in Springfield's muddy streets, in courthouses and on the platform.

In sharp contrast to Holland's Christian gentleman, Herndon's Lincoln is a Western folk hero, funny, ambitious, irreverent, and sorrowful by turns. He is born in a “stagnant, putrid pool,” the son of a shiftless poor white and “the illegitimate daughter” of a prominent Virginia planter. Though he rises above his impoverished origins, Herndon's Lincoln still has the stamp of the frontier on him: he plays practical jokes and performs legendary feats of strength. Still, he fears that he is illegitimate, too, and that and other woes often make him depressed. In New Salem, Herndon's Lincoln has the only love affair of his life. This is the Ann Rutledge story, a chimerical story which Herndon popularized and which subsequent biographies shamelessly repeated. In Herndon's telling, Lincoln falls deeply in love with Ann and almost goes mad when she dies. As she lies in her grave, he moans miserably, “My heart is buried there.” If his heart is buried there, then he cannot possibly love Mary Todd. Herndon certainly bears her no love; in fact, he detests the woman; she is “
the female wildcat of the age
.” What follows about Lincoln and Mary is mostly malicious gossip. In Springfield, Herndon's Lincoln does promise to wed Mary, only to plummet into despair. How can he marry this nasty little woman? Still, his sense of honor torments him. He has given his word. Sacrificing domestic happiness, Herndon's Lincoln goes ahead with the marriage, and Mary, a “tigress,” “soured,” “insolent,” “haughty,” and “gross,” devotes herself to making Lincoln miserable. For him, life with Mary is “worse punishment…than burning by the stake.” He finds escape in law and politics, and through adversity rises to “the topmost rung of the ladder.” No
haloed saint, Herndon's Lincoln in sum is a product of the great Western prairies, a religious skeptic, open, candid, energetic, trusting, and brave.

Herndon had promised that his
would “cause a squirm,” and he was right. From across American Christendom came a fierce and unrelenting cry, “Atheist! Atheist! Herndon's an atheist!” With that, Herndon's partisans took on those of the Holland school in what David Donald has termed “a religious war.” And so the two mythical conceptions—one portraying Lincoln as a frontier hero, the other as a martyr-saint—battled one another into the twentieth century.

By 1909, the centennial year of Lincoln's birth, the two traditions had begun to blend into “a composite American ideal,” as Donald has said. But it remained for Carl Sandburg, in his epochal
Abraham Lincoln
, to combine the saint and folklore Lincoln and capture the mythic figure more vividly and consistently than any other folk biographer. In truth, Sandburg's became the most popular Lincoln work ever written, as a procession of plays, motion pictures, novels, children's books, school texts, and television shows purveyed Sandburg's Lincoln to a vast American public, until that Lincoln became for most Americans the real historical figure.

Yet, ironically enough, Sandburg did not set out to write an enduring epic. When he began his project in 1923, he intended only to do a Lincoln book for teenagers. He had collected Lincoln materials since his days at Lombard College in Galesburg, Illinois. Now he read voraciously in the sources, particularly in
Herndon's Lincoln
. And he retraced Lincoln's path across Illinois, chatting with plain folk as Herndon had done, looking for the Lincoln who lived in their imaginations and memories. As he worked, Sandburg strongly identified with “Abe” and even dressed, acted, and physically resembled the figure taking shape in his mind. “Like him,” Sandburg said, “I am a son of the prairie, a poor boy who wandered over the land to find himself and his mission in life.”
Both were commoners from Illinois, both champions of the underdog, both great storytellers, and “both poets withall,” as Stuart Sherman said.

As it happened, another poet had the most influence on Sandburg as a Lincoln biographer. This was Walt Whitman, who before the Civil War had actually anticipated the kind of mythic Lincoln who subsequently emerged. In the rollicking preface to
Leaves of Grass
, first published in 1855, Whitman's Poet Hero was “the equable man,” simple, generous, and large, who spoke for the common people and for national union. In 1856, with uncanny foresight, Whitman asserted that “I would be much pleased to see some heroic, shrewd, fully-informed, healthy bodied, middle-aged, beard-faced American blacksmith come down from the West across the Alleghanies, and walk into the Presidency, dressed in a clean suit of working attire, and with the tan all over his face, breast, and arms.” Four years later, Republican campaign propaganda depicted the rail-splitter candidate as almost exactly such a man.

In February, 1861, Whitman saw the President-elect as he passed through New York City on his way to Washington. Lincoln's “look and gait” captivated Whitman—“his dark-brown complexion, seam'd and wrinkled yet canny-looking face, his black, bushy head of hair, disproportionately long neck, and his hands held behind him as he stood observing the people.” Here was a hero fit for the author of
Leaves of Grass
. From that moment on, Whitman idolized Lincoln and insisted that only the combined genius of Plutarch, Aeschylus, and Michelangelo—“assisted by Rabelais”—could have captured Lincoln's likeness. A true portrait, in other words, must have the dimensions and powerful symbols of myth.

“He has a face like a hoosier Michel Angelo,” Whitman wrote three years later, “so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion.” Then he wrote something that was to affect Carl Sandburg enormously: “My notion is, too, that underneath his
outside smutched mannerism, and stories from third-class country bar-rooms (it is his humor,) Mr. Lincoln keeps a fountain of first-class practical telling wisdom. I do not dwell on the supposed failures of his government; he has shown, I sometimes think, an almost supernatural tact in keeping the ship afloat at all, with head steady, not only not going down, and now certain not to, but with proud and resolute spirit, and flag flying in sight of the world, menacing and high as ever.” Here was the mythic “equalizer of his age and land” who inhabited Whitman's
Leaves of Grass
, a poet leader who in peace “speaks in the spirit of peace,” but in war “is the most deadly force of the war.”

In Lincoln, Whitman saw the archetypical Captain who was destined to lie “fallen cold and dead.” And after Lincoln did fall, the poet poured out his grief in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd,” a melodic farewell to the leader he loved, “O powerful western fallen star,” “the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands.” In 1886, broken down from a stroke, this “tender mother-man” with whiskered face and luminous blue-gray eyes, smelling of soap and cologne, wearing his gray felt hat tilted straight back, gave a memorial lecture about Lincoln which he repeated almost every year until his death in 1892. It was a ritual reenactment of Lincoln's assassination, a poet's celebration of a “sane and sacred death” that filtered “into the nation and race” and gave “a cement to the whole People, subtler, more underlying, than anything in written Constitution, or courts or armies.”

In Whitman's writings, Sandburg found the central themes of the life he wanted to tell. He was already publishing verse that reflected Whitman's influence and would soon be known as his heir, describing him as “the only distinguished epic poet in America.” But it was Whitman's mythic vision of Lincoln that most captured Sandburg's imagination, setting many of the expectations in treatment, mood, and archetype, as Justin Kaplan has pointed out, which Sandburg would try to satisfy in his biography. “In Lincoln,” Sandburg himself wrote, “the people of the United States could finally see themselves, each for himself and all to
gether.” And he intended, Sandburg said, “to take Lincoln away from the religious bigots and the professional politicians and restore him to the common people.”

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