‘Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times,’ by David S. Reynolds: An Excerpt


He liked to be called Lincoln, plain Lincoln, as one of his Illinois law associates reported. He was Mr. Lincoln to his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln; she also called him Father—he affectionately called her Mother or Molly.

He was the Tycoon to his wartime secretaries John M. Hay and John G. Nicolay. In a Civil War marching song, he was Father Abraham. He hated the formal Mr. President. As though to mediate between the different possibilities, he signed his name A. Lincoln.

But to the millions, he was Abe. Honest Abe. Old Abe. Uncle Abe.

Abe the Illinois Rail‑splitter.

Lincoln did not especially like the Abe nickname, but he knew that without it he would not have won the presidency in 1860. His image as Abe, the approachable everyman from what was then the West, was promoted everywhere that year, and it swept him into office. He remarked, “All through the campaign my friends have been calling me ‘Honest Old Abe,’ and I have been elected mainly on that cry.”

[ Return to the review of “Abe.” ]

This book is the story of Abe—a cultural biography of America’s greatest president and its central historical figure. Placing Lincoln in his rich contexts, this book explores the ways in which his absorption and transformation of roiling cultural currents made him into the leader Leo Tolstoy hailed as “the only real giant” among “all the great national heroes and statesmen of history,” and whom Karl Marx called “one of the rare men who succeed in becoming great, without ceasing to be good.”

Among the some sixteen thousand books on Lincoln—more books than on any other historical figure except Jesus Christ—there are many biographies, a number of them superb and several that contain illuminating information about his era. From the earliest biographies, there has been an interest in Lincoln’s politics; in recent times, that interest has expanded to include other aspects of the social and cultural scene. But there has appeared to date no full‑scale cultural biography, which alone can capture Lincoln in his historical fullness.

The limitations of standard biography are visible even in one of the finest single‑volume books on the sixteenth president, David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln. The story Donald tells is by now familiar. Born in 1809 in a one‑room log cabin in frontier Kentucky, the son of undistinguished parents, Lincoln, with less than a year of formal schooling, rose to the pinnacle of power through hard work, intelligence, political shrewdness, and a good amount of luck. Donald relates the story amply and adeptly. But he doesn’t go far beyond the facts of Lincoln’s life. Stating that his is “a biography written from Lincoln’s point of view,” he writes, “I have stuck close to Lincoln, who was only indirectly connected with the economic and social transformations of the period.”

Convinced, surprisingly, that nineteenth‑century America offered few nurturing materials, Donald presents Lincoln as the quintessential self‑made man, who displayed “enormous capacity for growth, which enabled one of the least experienced and poorly prepared men ever elected to high office to become the greatest American president.” Some version of this single‑handed climb from primitiveness to greatness narrative informs other biographies as well.

Even the popular culture around Lincoln, in Donald’s view, was tame and uninteresting—a cotton‑candy sea of maudlin writing and preachy effusions, as captured in Donald’s generalization about the Civil War era: “The feminine fifties were gone, but they were followed by the sentimental sixties and the saccharine seventies.”6

It’s true that there was a sentimental strain in the culture that held appeal for Lincoln. But the cultural scene was also ablaze with sensationalism, violence, and zany humor—literature, penny newspapers, music, and popular exhibits full of strange, freakish images that sometimes verged on the surrealistic. This was the bizarre, turbulent popular culture—sulfuric acid, not sap—that Lincoln participated in daily in his own jokes and stories, which were modified versions of an American humor, whose “chief characteristic,” he said, was “grotesqueness.” The current book reveals that Lincoln, far from distanced from his time, was thoroughly immersed in it. When he entered the presidency, he was neither inexperienced nor unprepared. To the contrary, he redefined democracy precisely because he had experienced culture in all its dimensions—from high to low, sacred to profane, conservative to radical, sentimental to subversive.

Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that genius lies in “being altogether receptive; in letting the world do all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind.” For Lincoln, this meant traversing a culture’s idioms—what Emerson called “the whole scale of the language, from the most elegant to the most low and vile.” In Emerson’s words, “A great style of hero draws equally all classes, all the extremes of society, till we say the very dogs believe in him.” The person who most fully represented this breadth of vision, Emerson wrote, was America’s sixteenth president:

Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the most remarkable example of this class that we have seen—a man who was at home and welcome with the humblest, and with a spirit and a practical vein in the times of terror that commanded the admiration of the wisest. His heart was as great as the world, but there was no room in it to hold the memory of a wrong.

Indeed, Lincoln was unusually responsive to the spirit of the hour, and this responsiveness fostered his practicality and his compassion. His close friend Joshua Speed commented, “Lincoln studied and appropriated to himself all that came within his observation. Everything that he saw, read, or heard, added to the store of his information”; nothing “was too small to escape his observation.” The Illinois lawyer Leonard Swett reported that Lincoln, who on the law circuit talked endlessly with average folk by day and pored over Shakespeare or Euclid by night, was the “most inquisitive man I have known,” one for whom “life was a school; . . . he was always studying and mastering every subject which came before him.”

Lincoln believed that the surroundings shape the person. According to his law partner William Herndon, he often said, “Conditions make the man and not man the conditions.” But, Herndon emphasized, Lincoln also “believed firmly in the power of human effort to modify the environments which surround us.” Fate and free will, then, combined in Lincoln’s outlook. There were times when he felt that fate had taken over. At a trying moment during the Civil War, Lincoln wrote, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” At other times, though, he took an active and aggressive stance toward the world: he became a shaper and a creator, not just an observer or a receiver. Lincoln declared, “He who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.” As this book shows, Lincoln constantly molded popular opinions and language and redirected them toward what he regarded as order, justice, and fairness.

[ Return to the review of “Abe.” ]

Cultural biography reveals an engaged, fully human Lincoln. It works from the premise that cultural and social surroundings infiltrate the mind and shape behavior, motivation, and expression. Every human life is culture‑specific and time‑specific. Outside influences saturate innermost thoughts. Although we all share virtually the same genome, as individuals our behavior and our cognition are products of the intersection of our genes and the unique environment around us. The cultural biographer’s task is to describe that environment as fully as possible with the aim of revealing cross‑influences between the individual and the outside world.

Cultural biography reveals not only self-making but also culture-making. Culture fashioned Lincoln; he in turn fashioned it. From a young age, he reacted creatively to the cultural materials available to him. He responded to a culture alive with subversive passions and fertile images of the sort that energized America’s greatest writers— Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, Mark Twain, and others—and that produced Lincoln’s all‑absorbing vision, which enabled him to guide the nation through its most turbulent period.

Political victory frequently comes to candidates who best tap into cultural attitudes. Few in American history have done so as effectively as Lincoln. Much of his greatness lay in his thoughtful response to his teeming, unstructured nation. Emerson called America “the ungirt, the diffuse, the profuse, procumbent, one wide ground juniper, . . . it all runs to leaves, to suckers, to tendrils, to miscellany, . . . formless, has no terrible & no beautiful condensation.” Thoreau, likewise, remarked on what he called the “confused tintinnabulum” of “this restless, nervous, bustling” nineteenth‑century America.”

America’s formlessness reflected a democracy that before the Civil War had few established institutions. In an era of a weak central government, the only federal agency that touched the lives of average Americans was the postal service. American Protestantism, liberated in the atmosphere of religious freedom, spawned so many new denominations, sects, and self‑styled prophets that Tocqueville wrote, “In the United States there are an infinite variety of ceaselessly changing Christian sects.” In the absence of organized police forces and effective crowd control, mob scenes broke out regularly from the 1830s, when Lincoln denounced the “mobocratic spirit . . . abroad in the land,” right up to the second year of the Civil War, when the New York City draft riots erupted with deadly violence. Periodic slave rebellions, such as those by Nat Turner in Virginia and the Amistad rebels at sea, created a terror in the South that turned into widespread panic when John Brown invaded Virginia in 1859 to spark insurrections.

The North and the South viewed each other as dangerously centrifugal—that is, spinning away from the center, toward the chaotic. In the eyes of antislavery Northerners, the South’s intention to carry slavery into the western territories and perhaps into Cuba, Mexico, and elsewhere was an unleashed impulse that had to be stopped. For many Southerners, the North was a cauldron of wild “isms”—most perilously abolitionism—that portended social disintegration.

Accelerating these centrifugal forces were powerful assertions of individualism on each side. Among Northerners, the reformer Stephen Pearl Andrews’s notion of Individual Sovereignty, Emerson’s doctrine of self‑reliance, and Thoreau’s conviction that the individual is more powerful than the state matched the South’s stubborn insistence on states’ rights, which finally led to the secession of eleven slave states.

The central problem of American democracy, Walt Whitman noted, was the relation between the individual and the mass—or, on the political level, between the separate states and the Union. Whitman wrote, “There are two distinct principles—aye, paradoxes—at the life‑fountain of the States: one, the sacred principle of Union, the right of ensemble, at whatever sacrifice—and yet another, an equally sacred principle, the right of each State, consider’d as a separate sovereign individual, in its own sphere.” Either “the centripetal law” or “the centrifugal law” alone, he emphasized, would be fatal to the nation. He tried to achieve a balance in his poetry volume Leaves of Grass, in which he created a powerful “I” who embraced all states, creeds, and ethnicities in the interest of promoting equality and togetherness. Trying to reconcile conflicting cultural impulses, Whitman’s speaker announced himself as “one of that centripetal and centrifugal gang.”

Lincoln’s words for these opposing forces were despotism and anarchy—real perils, he believed, that arose from secession and the slavery crisis. He came closer than any other politician has done to mediate between these threats and to approach the kind of balance Whitman saw as the surest means of saving the nation. From his dual ancestry in Virginia and New England, Lincoln inherited both the code of honor associated with Cavalier culture and the moral sense attributed to bygone Puritanism. From an early age, his experiences on the frontier in Kentucky and Indiana instilled him with both powerful self‑reliance and a profoundly democratic instinct linked to his immersion in nature and his reflections about mortality. Faced with the raw energies of frontier culture, he developed a remarkable ability to tame the wild, manifested later on in his measured responses to seemingly uncontrollable social and cultural phenomena. When he entered mainstream society as a lawyer and politician, he found himself in a whirl of passionate reform movements—notably abolitionism, temperance, women’s rights, spiritualism, and Know‑Nothingism—that he learned from even as he remained removed from them.

Witnessing reformers on all sides who took extreme positions, Lincoln stuck close to the center. Unlike many other centrists, he was neither dull nor indecisive. His liveliness owed much to the innovative performance culture of his day. Though centered, he leaned to the left, using every means possible—including, eventually, hard war—to push the nation toward equal rights and an activist federal government that promoted justice.

Like every culture, Lincoln’s had its time‑specific phenomena that were strongly influential at the moment but then were largely forgotten by later generations. New England Puritans versus Southern Cavaliers; the backdrop of Oliver Cromwell versus Charles I; Daniel Boone; the Crockett almanacs; Quakerism; the new sermon style; intemperate temperance reformers; Phineas T. Barnum; popular songs like “Twenty Years Ago” and “Dixie”; British and American poetry; ministers like Theodore Parker; the higher law; John Brown; the tightrope artist Charles Blondin; the working‑class figure known as the b’hoy; the drillmaster Elmer Ellsworth and his Zouaves; the military strategist and political pamphleteer Anna Ella Carroll; the humor character Petroleum V. Nasby; the retailored Thanksgiving and Christmas; the American acting style; the writings of Thoreau, Poe, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—these and other cultural markers are crucial for understanding many aspects of Lincoln’s life. This book illuminates such previously neglected contexts and their relation to Lincoln.

In a letter written on April 14, 1865, the last day of his life, Lincoln said that he wanted to create “a Union of hearts and hands as well as of States.” That had long been his goal. As Walt Whitman, Lincoln’s most sensitive observer, declared, “UNIONISM, in its truest and amplest sense, form’d the hard‑pan of his character.”

Lincoln’s UNIONISM went well beyond the restoration of the political union. It pointed to his ongoing attempt to provide unity or direction to many cultural forces in America that tended toward conflict, fragmentation, and, at times, chaos. Lincoln envisaged a nation that was both united and committed to political equality.

The following pages reveal his continual struggles to remake America—and his resounding success in doing so.

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