Saturday, 05 December 2015 04:43

Writers for Conservatives: 35 - The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln

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Writers for Conservatives: 35 - The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. He writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

This unusual book, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, written by Michael Burlingame, whose two volume life of Lincoln was recently published, will be richly rewarding to readers curious about the character of President Lincoln, because it probes and analyzes, clearly in a straightforward manner, issues and problems that most books on Lincoln gloss over, mainly because the data are lacking. Burlingame has an answer for that:

For nearly a decade I have steeped myself in Lincoln sources and offer . . . what I hope are informed guesses about my subject's inner life.

This is not to say that the book is all speculation - far from it. Each chapter displays all the facts obtainable about its particular subject, not the inner life itself but something that grows out of it. For example, the first chapter "Lincoln's Midlife Crisis: From Party Hack to Statesman," lays out the evidence for Lincoln's early undistinguished career, and then shows that after his withdrawal from politics from 1849-54 he emerged, determined to shape a legacy, as distinctly himself. As an observer in 1859 said:

. . . what he does and says is all his own. What Seward and others do you feel that you have read in books or speeches . . . but what Lincoln does you feel to be something newly mined-out - something above the ordinary.

It is Burlingame's contention that Lincoln, in those five years of political retirement, consciously and unconsciously confronted himself and shaped anew his purpose. This is a "mid-life crisis," and the author uses psychological insights to delineate its features. As he says in the last chapter, he is "militantly eclectic" in using theories, meaning that he doesn't adhere dogmatically to any one school of thought - he uses them where he thinks their theories are appropriate.

I may say here that I find much of the psychology plausible but irrelevant, for this reason: to say, as theorists do, that early loss of one's mother is traumatic is obvious, but to say that Lincoln's loss of his mother when he was nine is the source of his lifelong fits of depression or his awkwardness with women (or anything else) is presumptuous. For our sins we once ran a small school for disturbed boys, and what was a trauma that marked one boy for life, scarcely touched another. How we react to the buffets of life depends almost entirely on our character, and that is always a mystery. So, while the theories advanced here are mildly interesting, what will really matter to readers are the accumulated facts. Much of his material Burlingame acquired by researching the notes of previous biographers, material they didn't use but stored away in their papers, usually deposited in some library. These yielded many very interesting first-hand observations of Lincoln.

The chapter on Lincoln's attitude to slavery is very impressive, because most historians take a somewhat equivocal stance on this issue, confusing his prudent public stance with his personal feelings. He always hated slavery, and when he reentered politics in 1854 he had worked out a reasoned argument against the doctrine of popular sovereignty and the spread of slavery, an argument he would use again and again in the coming years. Burlingame traces his attitude to alienation from his father, an unsympathetic figure who hired out his son to neighbors for his own gain. In his own way, he was a "slave driver," and his son had nothing to do with him after leaving home.

Burlingame tackles Lincoln's antipathy to women, as well as his strange marriage to an utterly incompatible woman, in two memorable chapters. His inability to trust women and to get along easily with them the author traces to the loss of his mother, but the origin of the problem is less important than the fact that it set him up for his disastrous marriage. That painful story, told in full here, is significant because, as one biographer wrote:

. . . over the slow fires of misery that he learned to keep banked and under heavy pressure deep within him, his innate qualities of patience, tolerance, forbearance, and forgiveness were tempered and refined.

Or, as another put it more simply:

. . . but for the domestic discipline which Mr. Lincoln underwent living with his wife, he would not have succeeded as President.

It also could be said that if he had had a happy home life, he would have been satisfied with his country lawyer's practice and not gone into politics at all. Lincoln was ambitious (there's a chapter on that), but his wife goaded him on, because she was ambitious, too. So, as the author concludes, the "marriage was a fountain of misery, yet from it flowed incalculable good for the nation."

In the Epilogue, the author concludes:

In most areas, he was a model of psychological maturity, a fully individuated man who attained a level of consciousness unrivaled in the history of American public life. Most politicians, indeed most people, are dominated by their own petty egos. They take things personally, try to dominate one another, waste time and energy on feuds and vendettas. . . . A dramatic exception to this pattern, Lincoln achieved a kind of balance and wholeness. . . . What stands out about Lincoln's inner life is not his psychological weakness but his remarkable strength.

During his first years in the White House, Lincoln was mocked and reviled, condescended to and despised, but as the war ground on, he began to be seen in a more favorable light; in the eyes of the common people he assumed a patriarchal quality ("We Are Coming Father Abraham Three Hundred Thousand Strong"), and even the genteel revised their earlier opinions, but the outpouring of grief after his assassination was, and is, astonishing. Overnight, as it were, people realized the profundity of character of their late President, and it is a tribute to those Americans, and to all Americans since who have felt the same, that they recognized Lincoln's character. When we think of both his inaugural speeches, or the Gettysburg Address, or the last paragraph of his Second Annual Message to Congress:

Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation . . .

we know that they are sublime utterances and we are moved beyond reckoning. What Burlingame's book does is to show us, to a considerable degree, the elements that made up the man who could steer the nation through its great trial and ruminate on it in passing (as it were) with such eloquence.

When I was growing up in the 1930s and '40s, Lincoln was a familiar figure. We celebrated his birthday and honored his memory. When I was seven, I read a book, Abraham Lincoln, The Boy and the Man, and afterwards I memorized Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain" as well as the Gettysburg Address, not for recitation (I never revealed this accomplishment to anyone) but because, even at that age, they stirred me. It is a matter of great sadness and disgust to me that young (and not so young) people today know nothing about Lincoln but derisive lies, thanks to the efforts of the 1960s generation. A nation that degrades its past has no future.

In the next issue: Children's Reading. *

Read 3656 times Last modified on Saturday, 05 December 2015 10:43
Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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