Abraham Lincoln in His Times

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.”

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.

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