Young Caesar

By Benjamin Schwarz


abrham-lincoln“There have been ten thousand attempts at the life of Abraham Lincoln,” quipped Horace Greeley, “whereof that of Wilkes Booth was perhaps the most atrocious; yet it stands by no means alone.” For 130 years, what is sometimes called the “Lincoln industry” has churned out title after title about our 16th president. There are more books published in English on Lincoln than on any subject except Jesus: Since 1934, when the great Lincoln scholar James G. Randall famously asked in his address to the American Historical Association: “Has the Lincoln Theme Been Exhausted?” more than 12,000 new titles on Lincoln have been added to the pile. There is, then, something a bit disingenuous in Douglas Wilson’s claim that “Honor’s Voice,” his examination of Lincoln’s early adulthood, treats a subject “that scholars and other students of Lincoln have virtually abandoned,” thereby illuminating aspects of Lincoln’s life and character that have been “only dimly a part of the picture.”

After all, historian Mark Neely recently asserted in his third book on Lincoln, “The Last Best Hope of Earth,” that “given the meager record, it is remarkable how much has been written on the subject of Lincoln’s youth,” a period that includes the years covered in Wilson’s book. Indeed, Benjamin Thomas, Paul Angle, William Baringer, Albert Woldman, John Duff, John Frank, Paul Simon, Gabor Boritt, Charles Strozier, Dwight Anderson, Ruth Painter Randall and Michael Burlingame have written first-rate studies of aspects of Lincoln’s formative years. Those years are also assessed thoroughly in the standard comprehensive biographies by James Randall and David Donald, among scores of others, and in the first two volumes of Albert Beveridge’s magisterial 1928 four-volume study of Lincoln’s pre-presidential years, “Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1858.”

Wilson, who is both director of the International Center for Jefferson Studies in Monticello and a Lincoln expert, examines Lincoln’s life from 1831, when, as a young man, he settled in New Salem, Ill., to 1842, by which time he had moved to Springfield, concluded his four-term career in the Illinois legislature and married Mary Todd. “Honor’s Voice” thus covers Lincoln’s self-education, his early legal and political life and his relationships with women. While these are rich topics, the sources that Wilson and other historians can draw on for this phase of Lincoln’s story essentially boil down to his few public addresses and newspaper writings and to a remarkable collection of interviews and recollections compiled after his death by his law partner, William H. Herndon. Taken as a whole, studies of this period are mind-numbingly repetitive, as the same episodes and anecdotes are inspected in excruciating detail.

Because Wilson doesn’t take a bold or unorthodox approach (unlike Strozier or Anderson, who wrote psycho-biographies), he is left to quibble over what for the most part are very minor issues as he sorts through the often conflicting “informant testimony” that Herndon collected. “Honor’s Voice,” then, largely examines antiquarian and superficial questions rather than significant, and therefore historical, issues. Wilson, a painstakingly careful scholar, takes four pages, for example, to sift through the various self-serving recollections of Herndon’s informants about who helped Lincoln learn English grammar and when, exactly, he studied it. In the end, the only significant conclusion that Wilson can draw from this is that the testimony shows Lincoln’s “wish to improve his command of language, his willingness to tackle an excessively dry and daunting subject, and his diligence in pursuit of a goal.” Although this is an important point, it’s fairly obvious, and nearly all of Lincoln’s best biographers have already made it.

Moreover, although Wilson partly justifies this latest study by promising to bring to light aspects of Lincoln’s life and personality during this period that have been obscured or that are completely unknown, what he delivers is the revelation that his subject “suffered from periods of deep depression and moments of suicidal desperation.” This, too, is a critically important point but, again, one that nearly all of the first-class Lincoln historians going back to Herndon have elucidated. As Wilson himself notes: “melancholy eventually became the most conspicuous part of [Lincoln’s] demeanor and personality, and all his friends would remark on it.”

Still, the picture of Lincoln that emerges from Wilson’s study–as is the case with other serious works on Lincoln–is at variance with the popular mythology. Lincoln’s image, unlike Thomas Jefferson’s, has been nearly impervious to the effects of careful scholarship that have revised and amended historians’ understanding of him. Beveridge’s 1928 biography, for example, is a literary and historical masterpiece, but because his cool, authoritative and elegant approach presented a Lincoln who failed to conform to the oversimplified image of Honest Abe the Rail-Splitter, it made no impact on the popular imagination. In contrast, Carl Sandburg’s cloyingly folksy “The Prairie Years,” published two years before Beveridge’s work and covering the same period in Lincoln’s life, was a colossal bestseller. Lincoln remains, as H.L. Mencken remarked 76 years ago, “the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality . . . a plaster saint . . . a sort of amalgam of John Wesley and the Holy Ghost.”

This is unfortunate because the work of Wilson and other scholars presents a far more complex and nuanced portrait of Lincoln than that of Sandburg and other hagiographers. As Wilson’s account makes clear, for instance, Lincoln–before he became a Statesman and the Great Emancipator–was an expedient politician and was “definitely something of a hairsplitter, a master of deflecting or sidestepping a charge that was substantially true.” Throughout his political career, Lincoln, an expert at political maneuvering and manipulative self-presentation, was capable of outright misrepresentation, as well as of principled action and inspiring rhetoric.

Moreover, as Wilson (again, confirming myriad other accounts) repeatedly demonstrates, Lincoln in this period had quite a mean streak when dealing with his political enemies: He poured sarcasm and ridicule on his debating opponents and hid behind pseudonyms when trafficking in innuendo and slander in the newspaper columns. But at the same time, conforming to the mythology, he was unfailingly affable and easygoing with his New Salem and Springfield neighbors and, as Wilson asserts, he was “remarkably tenderhearted in the presence of suffering and helplessness,” as his extraordinarily kind treatment of animals–often in the face of others’ scorn–demonstrates.

No episode in Lincoln’s early adulthood was to have as profound and lasting an effect on his character and personality as his marriage to Mary Todd. While other American presidents have had difficult marriages, Lincoln’s was uniquely terrible. Mary Todd Lincoln could be, as even her sympathetic biographer Painter Randall acknowledged, “willful, imprudent, superficial, vain, childish, stingy, jealous, emotionally unstable, tactless, gossipy, malicious, materialistic, sharp-tongued, acquisitive and indiscreet.” Lincoln recognized that “it would just kill me to marry Mary Todd” (as he confessed to one of Herndon’s informants), but he married her anyway. Amazingly, as Wilson and others have pieced together the evidence, he did so because, in a brief period of infatuation, he had proposed to her and, though he recognized the magnitude of his error, he felt (according to Herndon’s informants’ nearly unanimous testimony) honor bound to stick to his word. Of course, as Herndon nicely put it, Lincoln “saved his honor and threw away his [and, it can be argued, his wife’s] domestic happiness.” But along with the chill bond of duty, other considerations (no doubt equally “unhealthy” to modern psychologists) clearly impelled Lincoln’s decision.

Lincoln married his wife when he was 31, she 21, and as one would treat a pet or a child, he often seemed to enjoy humoring Mary, who was indisputably unstable (“she was always either in the garret or the cellar,” as Lincoln’s friend and political advisor Orville Hickman Browning asserted). He, in fact, called her his “child-wife” (a term that enormously pleased her), and she called him, after they became parents, “father.” Given the complicated origins of any action in life, the reasons for Lincoln’s marriage do seem a bit more nuanced than to prove to himself his “rock-solid ability to keep his resolves,” which seems to be Wilson’s only conclusion.

Perhaps Wilson was fooled by Lincoln’s own simple assessment of his life. “It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life,” he once said. “It can all be condensed into a simple sentence . . . ‘the short and simple annals of the poor.’ ” But, in fact, a great deal can be made out of this phase of Lincoln’s story. When he arrived in New Salem, Lincoln was an uneducated and unskilled boatman, a “piece of floating driftwood,” as he later put it. Eleven years later, Wilson reminds us, he was “a leading politician in the Illinois capital of Springfield and the partner of its foremost lawyer; he had married into an aristocratic family and was positioning himself for election a few years later to the United States Congress.” In the Lincoln mythology, his self-transformation is nothing more complex than the story of the self-made man who, by dint of honest hard work, made something of his life. But unlike his fellow frontiersmen, Lincoln didn’t seek wealth (he was conspicuous in a society of grasping men for his complete indifference to money). He had nevertheless, as even a cursory examination of “Honor’s Voice” bears out, a conviction of his own superiority and, most important, he was possessed by his ambition; Herndon called him “the most ambitious man in the world,” “a man totally swallowed up in his ambitions,” which were “a consuming fire that smothered his finer feelings.”

Toward what end was this ambition impelling him? Browning believed that Lincoln’s ambition, consistent with his powerful sense of fatalism, was “to fit himself properly for what he considered some important predestined labor or work. . . .” At least by 1838, in one of his earliest addresses, Lincoln seemed to sense what that work was. The Founding Fathers, the 29-year-old Lincoln asserted in his speech before the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, had gratified their ambitions by building the country and its political institutions. But now, he went on, the aspiring and energetic cannot be satisfied by merely “supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others.” They would not be content with just a seat in Congress or even the presidency for, he warned prophetically, “think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon? Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path. . . . It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, no matter how illustrious. . . . It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen.” The literary critic Edmund Wilson (nothing better has been written on Lincoln than Wilson’s chapter in his history of the literature of the Civil War period, “Patriotic Gore”) was the first to point out that in this warning against a future Caesar who would strike down the Founding Fathers and transform the country, Lincoln was describing his own aspirations. Lincoln, as Edmund Wilson asserted, “created himself as a poetic figure, and he thus imposed himself on the nation.”

Why and how Lincoln conceived this role for himself is the crucial question that “Honor’s Voice” leaves unasked and unanswered. Nevertheless, in exploring Lincoln’s formative years, it seems clear that his will to power and his sense of destiny meant that he saw himself in heroic terms from the very beginning of his public career, and it is difficult to see his all-consuming ambition as anything less than to maneuver himself into a position to effect, in Gore Vidal’s words, “so bloody and absolute a rebirth to his nation.”

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