Searching for the Real Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln in His Times
By David S. Reynolds

Of the 16,000 books produced about Abraham Lincoln since his death 155 years ago, not one, in the view of the historian and biographer David S. Reynolds, fits the definition of a “full-scale cultural biography.” Reynolds, the author or editor of 16 books on 19th-century America, has set out to fill that void with “Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times,” a prodigious and lucidly rendered exposition of the character and thought of the 16th president as gleaned through the prism of the cultural and social forces swirling through America during his lifetime.

More character study than narrative biography, this Lincoln portrait, fully 932 pages of text, goes further than most previous studies in probing the complexities and nuances of the man: his tastes, likes, dislikes, the quality of his thinking, the evolution of his ideas — all shaped and molded by the society around him. At the same time, Reynolds succumbs to a pitfall in drawing conclusions about how particular Lincoln experiences influenced his later thoughts and actions when no evidence for such causal effects is discernible. The author employs speculative language abundantly, as when he writes within one three-page section: “must have been also saddened by,” “could not but have been moved by,” “could have exposed him to,” “must have also been aware” and “appears to have been influenced.”

It was a raucous and turbulent culture that greeted Lincoln’s birth in 1809, with a sentimental quality, certainly, but also “ablaze with sensationalism, violence and zany humor” as well as “popular exhibits full of strange, freakish images.” In tracing the multiple strains of American culture, Reynolds explores Puritan and Southern Cavalier sensibilities, frontier mores, alcohol consumption and the temperance movement, the Baptist Church, Quakerism, frontier humor, popular music, rural carnivals and P. T. Barnum, among other cultural phenomena.

[ Read an excerpt from “Abe.” ]

Lincoln embraced nearly all of it, Reynolds writes, “in an extraordinarily wide-ranging manner.” Indeed, he adds, Lincoln ultimately was able to redefine democracy “precisely because he had experienced culture in all its dimensions — from high to low, sacred to profane, conservative to radical, sentimental to subversive.”

In portraying Lincoln, Reynolds examines an intellectual trait that guided this frontier lawyer throughout most of his life and became a hallmark of his presidency (and probably his greatness) — his ability to free himself from dogma and synthesize seemingly divergent concepts into a coherent whole. Take, for example, Lincoln’s view of his own ancestry — New England Puritan on his father’s side; Southern Cavalier on his mother’s. The two regional sensibilities became so disparate that The New York Herald once declared, “There is nothing in common between them but hate.” And yet Lincoln managed to mesh those sensibilities through what Reynolds calls “a unique fusion of cultural traits,” which yielded a vision of national unity and generated a perception that he represented “a bridge across the Puritan-Cavalier gulf.”

Lincoln also managed to reconcile his “rationalist impulse” with more abstract thinking. He devoured and mastered all of Euclid’s geometric propositions, for example, during his days as an itinerant lawyer on the Illinois court circuit; Reynolds believes Euclid’s propositions about equal angles, equal sides and equal degrees actually combined with Lincoln’s rationalist outlook to help shape his views on human equality.

But another of Lincoln’s literary companions on the circuit was Edgar Allan Poe, who stirred Lincoln’s rationalist side with his elaborate tales of ratiocination but also saw limitations in the process of reason, as explained with particular acuity by Poe’s fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin, in the tale “The Purloined Letter.” As Reynolds points out, in the story Dupin dismisses mathematics as a means of adducing abstract truths about morals or human motivation. “Mathematical axioms are not axioms of general truth,” Dupin says, to which Reynolds adds: “On this point Poe trumped Euclid.”

Lincoln’s aim, Reynolds says, was to find a “balance between reason and passion.” He consequently positioned himself almost always upon a solid middle ground. Though he loathed slavery, he never joined such abolitionists as the radical William Lloyd Garrison or even New York’s more moderate William Seward in criticizing the Constitution as a flawed document because it sanctioned slavery in the original states.

Instead, Lincoln hewed to an “antislavery constitutionalism” that anticipated the eventual end of bondage by prohibiting its spread into new American territories. Thus did he anchor his outlook firmly “within the boundaries of the American system.” As Congressman Lincoln said in 1848, “In the West, we consider the Union our ALL.”

One could argue, based on Reynolds’s study, that this balance broke down as Lincoln and the country entered the vortex of war after the 1860 election. The crux of the matter was the concept of the “higher law,” described by Reynolds as “the law of morality and justice that transcends human law, including what some regarded as pro-slavery passages in the Constitution.” The higher law was embraced by Northern radicals who argued that man’s law lacked the force to address the moral blot of slavery. Garrison publicly burned the Constitution to make that point, and it guided John Brown in his murderous attack on a pro-slavery family at Pottawatomie Creek during the 1856 “Bleeding Kansas” days and in his raid on Harpers Ferry three years later to initiate a Southern slave revolt.

Lincoln rejected the higher law, declaring at one point that “insofar as it may attempt to foment a disobedience to the Constitution, or to the constitutional laws of the country, it has my unqualified condemnation.” Reynolds writes that Lincoln saw the higher law as a potentially destabilizing concept because it could be “appropriated by anyone to defend any position.”

As for Brown, even as prominent literary figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau hailed him as “that new saint” and “the clearest light that shines on this land,” Lincoln kept his distance and sought to balance a few words about Brown’s “great courage” and “rare unselfishness” with a stern admonition that those traits “cannot excuse violence, bloodshed and treason.”

And yet Reynolds identifies Lincoln ultimately with the higher law, notwithstanding his early “condemnation.” He bases this particularly on Lincoln’s embrace of the equality language of the Declaration of Independence, which he viewed as “the most powerful moral law America had produced,” as Reynolds puts it, and whose spirit, in Lincoln’s view, was “inherent in the Constitution.” Certainly this was a profound element of Lincoln’s thinking. The historian Garry Wills has called Lincoln’s elevation of the Declaration at Gettysburg “one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight of hand ever witnessed by the unsuspecting.” But Lincoln never suggested the principles of that hallowed language should be promulgated through any extra-constitutional means or, later, any actions that went beyond the recognized laws of war.

Reynolds may be on less solid ground when he seeks to portray Lincoln as an ultimate admirer of John Brown — not of his lawlessness, of course, but of his “methods,” which by 1864 seemed to Lincoln “desirable and defensible.” Reynolds adds that by combining his Emancipation policies with his doctrine of “hard war” to break the South, “Lincoln had already established a cultural atmosphere friendly to the memory of John Brown.”

The author of a hagiographic Brown biography, Reynolds marshals his evidence for Lincoln’s affinity for Brown with his characteristic thoroughness. But in the end he doesn’t make a definitive case that Lincoln adopted a view of Brown that fit those of Emerson and Thoreau (or Reynolds). Ultimately he can’t get around the fact that Lincoln was a saintly genius while Brown was a murderer, a traitor and a madman.

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