In addition to being president, Abraham Lincoln was also a writer, commander of troops, assassination target, family man, and peer of other great men. The 16th president can be examined from many angles and, as we celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, biographers have overlooked few of them.
Among the stacks, some titles stand out.
In Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, English professor emeritus Fred Kaplan seeks the roots of the president’s truly timeless prose. “Since Lincoln, no president has written his own words and addressed his contemporary audience or posterity with equal and enduring effectiveness,” Kaplan writes.
Consider a November morning in 1863, as an esteemed orator gave a speech at the dedication of a military cemetery in Pennsylvania. He finished two hours and 13,607 words later. The main attraction now complete, the audience waited for another speaker to make a few remarks. And few they were. In just 10 sentences, the president of the United States paid tribute to those lost in war and spoke of a young nation that must not “perish from the earth.” The words, simple and unadorned, turned Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address into a national touchstone.
How did Lincoln write so beautifully and effectively, not just once or twice but again and again? From famous speeches to personal letters to conversations, Lincoln created sentences that crackled with imagery, intelligence, and emotion.
This academic-minded book isn’t for everyone. Its language is dense, and Civil War buffs may be disappointed to find that Kaplan spends little time examining the speeches of Lincoln’s presidency. But there’s still plenty here to reveal how Lincoln learned to inspire.
Kaplan follows Lincoln’s life through the prism of language, examining the books he read and the words he wrote and spoke aloud. “His was a personality and a career formed in the crucible of language,” Kaplan writes.
The future president’s love letters, speeches, essays, poems and even his dirty jokes all get their due. Kaplan also looks for connections between Lincoln’s reading material and his words, finding influences of Shakespeare and the Bible among other sources.
And what of the Gettysburg Address? In it, Kaplan finds poetry of loss, of renewal, of life and death. And, of course, the speech invokes the past and future of America, which Kaplan calls “a text constantly being rewritten.” So many years later, though, the words from one presidential pen need no revision.
It seems Lincoln’s sword was as mighty as that pen. In his perceptive new book, acclaimed Civil War historian James M. McPherson reveals the struggles and triumphs of an inexperienced president whose youthful military career consisted of fighting off mosquitoes. Three decades later, he managed to run a war and outshine his own generals.
In the end, he beat back foes from Richmond to Capitol Hill, persisting “through a terrible ordeal of defeats and disappointments to final triumph – and tragedy – at the end,” McPherson writes in Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief.
McPherson’s account isn’t a page turner, but the author carefully avoids military jargon and skillfully shows Lincoln as man, not myth. The president made mistakes and miscalculations. His frustration spilled out in depressed moods, sarcastic gibes, and red-hot anger. And he repeatedly failed to convince inept generals to act. But Lincoln still managed to succeed brilliantly, holding the North together and strategizing his way to victory.
Through the eyes of McPherson, readers learn how Lincoln got so smart: He read voraciously, carefully considered advice, charmed would-be enemies, and overlooked insults.
McPherson does stumble at the end of the book when he excuses Lincoln’s stunning decisions to curb free speech and other civil liberties. McPherson writes that the president’s actions were mild considering the Civil War was a bigger threat to the US than the 20th century’s world wars or today’s terrorism.
That’s a stretch. But McPherson’s link from the past to present does raise a fascinating question: What if a modern Lincoln had faced a modern war? Would his actions be acceptable today? One thing seems clear: He’d be a formidable foe.
One of Lincoln’s intellectual opponents (turned friend) was the remarkable Frederick Douglass. Born a slave, Douglass had a seemingly unquenchable intellect and spirit. As a young fieldworker, he chose to be severely beaten by a tyrannical white overseer rather than submit. At the age of 20 he escaped and went on to become a mighty warrior in the fight against slavery. His skills as a writer and orator, arguably, rivaled those of Lincoln.
Together, asserts prize-winning author and historian John Stauffer in Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln and Douglass were “the pre-eminent self-made men in American history.”
In his biography Stauffer spins a fascinating story by intertwining the lives of Lincoln and Douglass. They met only three times, yet each profoundly touched the other. Before their introduction, Douglass often fulminated against Lincoln’s gradualist, pragmatic approach toward ending slavery and his doubts that freed blacks and whites could comfortably live together.
However, on their first encounter, Douglass was greatly moved by Lincoln’s humanity. “He treated me as man,” he recounted. “He did not let me feel for a moment that there any difference in the color of our skins!”
When Lincoln saw Douglass at his second inauguration (after two policemen tried to prevent Douglass from entering), Lincoln took him by the hand and said, “Here comes my friend,” adding that, “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more.”
Douglass ever remained a feisty spirit. Had Lincoln lived, the two men would doubtless have disagreed many more times. But Douglass was devastated by Lincoln’s death and mourned for him as “the greatest statesman that ever presided over the destinies of this Republic.” Lincoln’s widow gave Douglass her husband’s favorite walking stick as a memento of their friendship, and he treasured it as “a token of sacred interest.”
After countless books, movies, and documentaries, the death of Lincoln still holds the power to shock. Anthony S. Pitch, author of “They Have Killed Papa Dead!”: The Road to Ford’s Theatre, Abraham Lincoln’s Murder, and the Rage for Vengeance, calls the assassination “the saddest story in American history.”
It had its roots years before. On March 4, 1861, Lincoln’s first Inauguration Day, sharpshooters lined the roofs of buildings in the capital. Soldiers protectively surrounded the new president as he traveled in a carriage along Pennsylvania Avenue.
The passage of time has cast shadows over the full extent of the desperate efforts to protect the president, not to mention the devastating grief and cruel injustice that came after Lincoln’s untimely demise.
Now, Pitch looks through a wide-angle lens at the assassination in his emotionally wrenching new account. While the tangled title could have used an editor’s eye, the book is readable and expertly researched.
Pitch worked on the book for nine years, and his dedication shows in its pitch-perfect level of detail. Quotes from diaries of the time, some of them apparently never published before, portray the nation’s post-assassination grief in high relief. And Pitch has made some notable finds, including details about the lives of two of the assassination conspirators.
In perhaps the most revealing parts of the book, Pitch explores the deplorable treatment of the alleged conspirators, their circus trial, and the remarkable escape of conspirator John Surratt, who hid at the Vatican.
Other recent books have covered some of the same ground. But “They Have Killed Papa Dead!” provides an excellent overview, bringing thoughtful analysis to one of the most sensational events in American history.
Chief among the victims of Lincoln’s assassination should be counted his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. She lived another 17 years after his death but never recovered from her grief and shock.
Mary Lincoln has been called “First Lady of Controversy” and is generally remembered in a less-than-flattering light. In Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, academic and author Catherine Clinton argues – more convincingly in some places than in others – that history has been unfair to this complex, “brilliant,” yet “flawed” woman.
Like her husband, Mary Todd was born in Kentucky, but reared in the luxurious mansion of her socially prominent family. When Abraham Lincoln met her in Springfield, Ill., she was the belle of the ball. The exact circumstances of their courtship have been lost but it would seem that Mary deserves some credit for seeing potential in the awkward, unpedigreed Abraham.
As a wife, Mary was often demanding and always emotional. But her husband expressed great respect for her intellect and she was said to possess a special ability to soothe and bolster his spirits.
Both the Lincolns doted on their children and suffered grievously at the deaths of two of them.
But when her husband was slain in 1865 Mary tumbled into a seemingly endless sea of troubles. It was five years before the US government would grant her a pension. One year after she finally became financially secure, her son Tad died. Four years after that, her one remaining child had her committed to a mental institution.
She was eventually released and lived abroad for some years but there was little joy in the days of her widowhood.
Where Mary Lincoln’s unhappy story leaves off, Charles Lachman picks up with his book The Last Lincolns: The Rise & Fall of a Great American Family. Lachman, executive producer of the TV show “Inside Edition,” tracks the epic history of the Lincoln family from the 1860s to 1985, when the president’s alleged last descendant, a great-grandson, passed away.
At first glance, this is a very grim tale. As Lachman tells it, the Lincoln descendents dissolved into “scandal and a sense of entitlement,” becoming a “symbol for dishonor and decadence in the upper class” and an inverse image of the beloved president.
The trouble began with the unhinged Mary Lincoln, and Lachman tells her sad story in both gripping and suspenseful terms, including a careful account of the injustices she faced as she battled insanity charges.
Lachman paints Robert Todd Lincoln, the Lincoln’s only surviving son as a grump who somehow managed to be on the scene at two more presidential assassinations. The next two generations – including an eccentric spinster, a playboy, and a wild-child divorcée – became mired in scandal.
Throughout the book, Lachman expertly explores the times in which the Lincoln descendents lived and the choices they made regarding religion (several turned to Christian Science), marriage, and wealth.
Today, a Florida prosecuting attorney in his 40s may – or may not – be the last Lincoln. Only a blood test will tell for sure and he hasn’t offered to take one. Greatness, it seems, runs in some families while running from others.
The good news is that greatness, in the form of one Abraham Lincoln, struck at the right time and in the right place.