Beloved and hated, but mostly friendless

Abraham Lincoln kept the nation together, but held his friends at arm's length

Here's a man with real intimacy issues: a father who ignored him, a beloved mother who died when he was only 9, and a childhood with no known close friends.

"If we have no friends, we have no pleasure," Abraham Lincoln once said, "and if we have them, we are sure to lose them, and be doubly pained by the loss." According to William Herndon, his Illinois law partner of 16 years, Lincoln "was the most reticent and mostly secretive man that ever existed: he never opened his whole soul to any man."

In one sense, nothing should be wrong with giving Lincoln his privacy. He ended slavery, preserved the Union, and usually wins those polls of historians asking who was the greatest American president. That should be enough. And as historian David Donald ultimately concludes in "We Are Lincoln Men," having close friendships - while they could have eased the burden of office - would probably have made little difference in Lincoln's actions on important issues.

He was deaf to personal appeals once he decided on a course of action. Apparently, he knew of Aristole's dictum that a king has no friends - or, as we say today, it's lonely at the top.

The reason to learn about Lincoln's friendships, then, lies more in our eternal fascination with this complex human being than in revealing why history took the turns it did.

As an astute politician, Lincoln was a man with many "friends," Donald says. In his letters, for example, Lincoln refers frequently to acquaintances, even political enemies, as "my personal friend."

Nor was Lincoln cold and standoffish. He loved to tell stories and listen to others tell theirs. But "those who knew him best came to realize that behind the mask of affability, behind the facade of his endless humorous anecdotes, Lincoln maintained an inviolable reserve," Herndon says.

Donald, a Pulitzer Prize winner for earlier biographies of abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner and author Thomas Wolfe, profiles six men who had a claim to being really close to Lincoln: Joshua Speed, Herndon, Orville Browning, William Seward, John Hay, and John Nicolay.

Speed, who may have been his closest friend, was a roommate when they both were in their 20s. As often is the case, they drifted apart after each married.

Browning was a senator from Illinois and for a time Lincoln's closest Washington confidant. But the president still passed him over three times for a spot on the Supreme Court, despite personal pleas from Browning and his wife, who were often guests of the Lincolns.

Lincoln "was by some considered cold-hearted or at least indifferent towards his friends," said one contemporary observer. "This was the result of his extreme fairness. He would rather disoblige a friend than do an act of injustice to a political opponent."

Seward was bitter at losing the 1860 Republican nomination for president to Lincoln (he called him that "little Illinois lawyer"). But Lincoln needed Seward's support and persuaded him to become secretary of state, the top cabinet post.

Over time, Lincoln won Seward's friendship and loyalty, causing Seward to write later: "The President is the best of us ... the best and wisest man" he had ever known.

Nicolay and Hay served as Lincoln's private secretaries. They were young enough to be his sons and in his employ, factors that kept the friendships from fully blooming. But Lincoln did turn to them for advice, encouragement, and even companionship, especially as Mary Todd Lincoln became more erratic and depressed after the death of their son Willie in 1862.

After Lincoln's assassination, the two became his official biographers. In their account, Donald says, they promise to give the unvarnished, unbiased facts of Old Abe's life - while, of course, reminding readers, "We are Lincoln men all the way through."

Hay, with boyish good looks and high breeding, had taken his post as a lark to enjoy Washington society, and expressed doubts about the low-bred Lincoln. But by 1863, he wrote, "The old man is working with the strength of a giant and the purity of an angel to do this great work.... I do not know if the nation is worthy of him."

We're left finally with an intriguing disconnect: Though Lincoln kept individuals at arm's length, he eagerly embraced a nation in need. "He was the warm friend of few men," concluded Illinois Gov. Richard Oglesby, "but he was the true friend of Mankind."

Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.

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