I just finished reading Michael Burlingame's magisterial 1,600-page biography of Abraham Lincoln. It's been on my reading list ever since a review described it as the single most important Lincoln biography, and I can see why. Burlingame has spent decades on this project, he's apparently seen just about all the documentation and has read mountains of secondary literature, and so far as I can tell his work needs to be the starting point and constant reference for any serious student of Lincoln - which I'm not. I've read a bit here and there, and of course I once wrote, on this very blog, about Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. In choosing to read this door stopper, I was looking for a really good biography which would enable me to know enough about the man and his time so as not to have to read another twenty books. I'm not certain I've achieved that, and may yet have to read the William Lee Miller biography, which I'm told deals well with the single most intriguing part of Lincoln's story, his morality.
Burlingame mostly stays away from overt interpretation or philosophizing. He tells the story in detail, to the extent that at times the book reads almost like a catalog, or a who's-who of 19th century American politics - not something a casual reader such as myself needs. He stops to read at least eight editorials of different long-forgotten newspapers at each juncture in the tale, so as to tell what the various parts of American society thought about Lincoln as he went along. (Most of them didn't much like him - more on that below). This makes for slow reading, and if you've lost the ability to do slow reading of long books, don't try. (But you should try to regain that lost ability. Trust me).
Yet the slow reading isn't actually a drawback. It's a lifetime we're trying to understand; spending lots of hours over a few months (that's how I did it) has the advantage of forcing us into at least a vague semblance of taking our time to follow what took the man himself a lifetime.
As a final introductory thought: Burlingame is no Robert Caro. His subject will remain with the reader not for the Shakespearean ability of the biographer, but for the startling greatness of the subject.
Instead of writing a structured review of the book, here are things I noticed as I went on, in the order of their appearance, and thus, the chronology of Lincoln's life.
First, there was the fact of his childhood of extreme poverty. Once upon a time I lived in Chicago, and remember its winters. The mere thought of a child living in a three-sided shack in an Illinois forest, with only a fire serving as the fourth wall between "inside" and the elements, makes me shiver with horror. Add the near total intellectual poverty: school was a remote shack children sometimes visited, while books and ideas were things other folks might have had use for.
As America undergoes yet another electoral season and the raising of billions to pay for it, it's nice to read on page 238 how Lincoln used the $200 his supporters raised for him the one and only time he ran for Congress (and won):
"I did not need the money," [he] said as he returned the balance of the cash. "I made the canvass on my own horse; my entertainment, being at the houses of friends, cost nothing; and my only outlay was 75 cents for a barrel of cider which some farm-hands insisted I should treat them to".They did things differently in 1843.
A bit further on, Burlingame spends pages 241-247 on the poetry Lincoln loved, sometimes composed, and often repeated in front of friends and colleagues. The themes he returned to time and again dealt with the many loved ones who had died, and the irretrievable past. One of his favorite poems was by Oliver Wendel Holmes, "The Last Leaf":
The mossy marbles restHe would have been thinking, among others, of his mother, his sister, various friends and relatives, the young woman who appears to have been the most important love of his life Ann Rutledge, and in later years, the two of his sons who died before him. Death was still a common part of life in the mid 19th century.
On lips that he has pressed
In their bloom;
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb.
For most of his career Lincoln was a small-time lawyer in frontier Illinois. How good was he? As with every single point of his life, there were varying opinions; I chose this description, from a newspaper in Danville:
When examining witnesses "he displays a masterly ingenuity and a legal tact that baffles concealment and defies deceit. And in addressing a jury, there is no false glitter, no sickly sentimentalism to be displayed.... Bold, forcible and energetic, he forces conviction upon the mind, and by his clearness and conciseness stamps it there, not to be erased... [Lincoln] may have his equal, but it would be no easy task to find his superior."Reentering politics in the mid-1850s, Lincoln showed a profound sense of fairness towards people whose positions he abhorred. By this time he made no secret of his compete rejection of slavery; yet pondering on how it might be ended:
I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist among them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist among us, we should not instantly give it up... Some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south and become most cruel slave-masters. [When southerners state that] they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery than we, then I acknowledge that fact. When it is said that the institution exists, and that it is very difficult to get rid of it in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. (p.321)It is nigh inconceivable, even in our day and age of cynical talk of subjective narratives and insistence on the right of each perspective to its own legitimacy, to imagine any politician or pundit of any stripe using such scrupulously empathetic language to describe sworn adversaries. Go ahead: try to find one. Representatives of mildly different political viewpoints aren't even allowed to speak on campuses these days.
In 1858 Lincoln first came to national attention by debating Senator Stephan Douglas (a very prominent figure of his day who lives on in history only because of these debates). Douglas had a standard stump speech; Lincoln gave a different two-hour speech each day. Asked how and why, he explained:
He could not repeat today what he had said yesterday. The subject kept enlarging and widening in his mind as he went on, and it was much easier to make a new speech than to repeat and old one. (p.481)Just imagine. A politician who listens to what he's saying, thinks about what it means, and works on improving his thoughts.
Towards the end of 1858, having lost his bid for the Senate, Lincoln wrote about politicians striving for or against an end to slavery, and consoled himself with the story of the British movement to end the African slave trade:
I have not allowed myself to forget that the abolition of the slave trade by Great Britain was agitated a hundred years before its final success... Remembering these things I cannot but regard it as possible that the higher object of this contest may not be completely attained within the term of my natural life. But I cannot doubt either that it will come in due time. Even in this view, I am proud, in my passing speck of time, to contribute an humble mite to that glorious consummation, which my own poor eyes may not last to see. (p. 551)As of this writing, it appears that in spite of some conjecture over recent months, neither the Democratic nor the Republican conventions of 2016 will be contested. Burlingame's chapter on the decidedly contested Republican convention of May 1860 reads like satire. Lincoln himself was an honest man, but his henchmen at the convention shied away from none of the dirty tricks in the book. At one point he sent them a brief message that they must make no deals in his name. His chief operator, David Davis, laughed out loud: "Lincoln ain't here, and don't know what we have to meet, so we'll go ahead as if we hadn't heard from him, and he must ratify it". A supporter acquired an entrance permit to the Wigwam, the large structure built specially for the convention; he had a printer make 5,000 copies and by early morning most of the seats had been taken, forcing supporters of other candidates to remain outside, permits or no permits. Seating arrangements were calculated to give Lincoln's supporters the appearance of outnumbering everyone. There were procedural shenanigans galore. Just before the voting began there was a shouting match between supporters of front-runner William H Seward and Lincoln. An observer described the outcome:
Imagine all the hogs ever slaughtered in Cincinnati giving their death squeals together, a score of big steam whistles going together, and you can conceive something of the same nature. A Seward man pessimistically remarked "We may easily guess the result". (p.624)Lincoln may have been the most noble of American presidents, but he didn't get there by being saintly.
The first volume of the biography ends with Lincoln parting from his neighbors in Springfield:
My friends - No one not in my situation can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place and the kindness of its people, I owe every thing. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I leave now, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good let us confidentially hope that all will be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell. (p.759).The second installment of this review is here.