Abraham Lincoln, Tech Entrepreneur

Unlike Trump, Honest Abe had a mind for science—and it helped Him win the Civil War.

Donald Trump’s war on science has been thorough, relentless, and lethal. His rejection of scientific advice on the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in millions of needless infections and more than 100,000 deaths—and likely many more. His refusal to wear a mask in a defiant gesture of archaic masculinity against universal expertise has contributed to the exposure of millions to the contagion. His promotion of snake oil remedies like ingesting bleach over protective protocols has misled his followers into believing there is an instant panacea. His cheerleading of Republican governors to lift public health measures has triggered an exponential explosion of the disease. As the deadly virus spreads, he has prevented his scientific officials from the Center for Disease Control from briefing the people. Even before the crisis, Trump’s war on science has been systematic and ruthless. He has gutted regulations and overturned laws on the environment, safe food, and public health. He has driven scientific experts from every department and agency, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Agriculture to the Department of the Interior. He has insisted that his own fantasies about hurricanes drawn with a sharpie are more authoritative than the scientific tracking and research of the National Hurricane Center of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. He has suppressed incontrovertible evidence of climate change and has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement. He has attacked science to exploit and manipulate the faith of credulous evangelical believers. His assault on science, the scientific method, and scientific research has had fatal consequences that are still expanding in their human destructiveness.

Trump’s anti-science crusade, along with his unremitting assault on the rule of law and his toxic racism, constitute the heart of his anti-Americanism. He has set himself against the foundations of the nation established by such scientific-minded men representing the Enlightenment as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. In one of his last speeches, delivered at Constitution Hall one month before his assassination on October 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, addressed the National Academy of Sciences on its 100th anniversary. He stated: “In the last hundred years, science has thus emerged from a peripheral concern of Government to an active partner. The instrumentalities devised in recent times have given this partnership continuity and force. The question in all our minds today is how science can best continue its service to the Nation, to the people, to the world, in the years to come.”

The president who created the National Academy of Sciences in 1863, Abraham Lincoln, did more to advance the scientific revolution in American life than any chief executive of the 19th century. Trump, a historical as well as a scientific ignoramus, likes to measure himself favorably to Lincoln. Among the many ways Trump bears no resemblance to Lincoln is that Lincoln was himself a man of science. Trump’s war on science is also a war on Lincoln’s legacy.

On May 21, 2019, I delivered a lecture on Lincoln as an inventor, patent lawyer, and maker of the industrial revolution at a conference held in San Francisco by the RPX Corporation. Lincoln’s commitment to science was central to his rise, who he became, how he won the Civil War, and to the United States becoming a modern nation. Now, in the election of 2020, the very fate of science and the nation itself that Lincoln did so much to create—the inextricable entwinement of the scientific experiment and the American experiment—is at stake as never before.

In the early fall of 1848, an obscure, one-term congressman from Illinois campaigned throughout New England for the Whig Party ticket. “Yes,” Abraham Lincoln recalled later when he was in the White House, “I had been chosen to Congress then from the wild West, and with hayseed in my hair I went to Massachusetts, the most cultured state in the Union, to take a few lessons in deportment.”

He decided that he would take a detour on his route home to see one of the natural wonders of the world. “Niagara Falls! By what mysterious power is it that millions and millions, are drawn from all parts of the world, to gaze upon Niagara Falls?” he wrote in a note to himself. His logical and scientifically inclined mind meditated on the amount of water pouring over it per minute, its geology and origins. He remarked to his law partner, William Henry Herndon, “The thing that struck me most forcibly when I saw the Falls was, where in the world did all that water come from?”

On Lincoln’s way home, steaming through the Great Lakes, his boat became stuck on a sandbar. The captain lashed empty barrels to its side to buoy it over the barrier. Lincoln’s mind remained fixed on the problem and once he returned to Springfield he enlisted mechanic and Whig activist, Walter Davis, whose shop was near his law office, to help him whittle a wooden model to illustrate his invention for raising ships above sandbars. Carefully carrying the model to Washington, Lincoln presented it to the Patent Office. “Be it known that I, Abraham Lincoln, of Springfield, in the county of Sangamon, in the state of Illinois, have invented a new and improved manner of combining adjustable buoyant air chambers with a steam boat or other vessel for the purpose of enabling their draught of water, without discharging their cargoes.” He was granted a patent, number 6469, on May 22, 1849, the only one ever held by a president, but no steamboat builder ever sought its application. Lincoln’s intricate design for clear sailing was stored to gather dust.

It’s difficult to imagine how extraordinarily unusual it was at the time for anyone to file for a patent. The U.S. Patent Office had only existed since 1837. There were a little more than two thousand patents granted in 1847 and only 49 design patents. The number assigned to Lincoln’s patent reflected the total number of patents granted at that point.

Over the next decade, Lincoln was among the leading patent lawyers in Illinois, though it was hardly a major part of his or others’ practices. According to the historical records, Lincoln and his partners worked on a total of 5,173 cases. Of these, 22 were patent cases. Lincoln was what was called a “volume lawyer.” His fees generally ranged from $5 to $50 dollars. He handled virtually every type of case—divorce, slander and libel, and a murder case in which he deployed the almanac to gain acquittal of his client. Nearly two thirds of Lincoln’s cases involved debt collection, with him swooping in as the repo man. He represented banks, insurance companies, and manufacturers. Most of his corporate practice involved railroads, but he represented railroads and those suing railroads almost equally. Every spring and fall, Lincoln traveled through the prairies on his buckboard wagon pulled by his horse, Old Tom (succeeded by Old Bob), across the Eight Judicial Circuit, covering an expanse of central Illinois larger than Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined.

Lincoln had “a good mechanical mind and knowledge,” recalled Judge David Davis, the maestro of the circuit who would serve as Lincoln’s campaign manager at the Republican convention of 1860. Lincoln had an intense interest in how things worked—not only politics and the law, but also science and inventions. His friend and former Illinois state legislator Joe Gillespie observed that Lincoln “was less given to pure abstraction than most thoughtful and investigating minds. I should say that he was contemplative rather than speculative. He wanted something solid to rest upon and hence his bias for mathematics and the physical sciences. I think he bestowed more attention to them than upon metaphysical speculations. I have heard him descant upon the problem of whether a ball discharged from a gun in a horizontal position would be longer in reaching the ground than one dropped at the instant of discharge from the muzzle of the gun and he said it always appeared to him that they would both reach the ground at the same time even before he had read the philosophical explanation.”

No one was closer to Lincoln for a longer period of time than his law partner Billy Herndon, also his all-around political aide, an abolitionist, political reformer, temperance crusader, and occasional town drunk. Herndon wrote:

“Not only were nature, man, and principle suggestive to Mr. Lincoln, not only had he accurate and exact perceptions, but he was causative; his mind, apparently with an automatic movement, ran back behind facts, principles, and all things to their origin and first cause — to that where forces act at once as effect and cause. He would stop in the street and analyze a machine. He would whittle a thing to a point, and then count the numberless inclined planes and their pitch making the point. Mastering and defining this, he would then cut that point back and get a broad transverse section of his pine-stick and peel and define that. Clocks, omnibuses, language, paddle-wheels, and idioms never escaped his observation and analysis. Before he could form an idea of anything, before he would express his opinion on a subject, he must know its origin and history in substance and quality, in magnitude and gravity. He must know it inside and outside, upside and downside. He searched and comprehended his own mind and nature thoroughly, as I have often heard him say. He must analyze a sensation, an idea, and runback in its history to its origin, and purpose. He was remorseless in his analysis of facts and principles. When all these exhaustive processes had been gone through with he could form an idea and express it; but no sooner. He had no faith, and no respect for ‘say so’s,’ come though they might from tradition or authority. Thus everything had to run through the crucible, and be tested by the fires of his analytic mind; and when at last he did speak, his utterances rang out with the clear and keen ring of gold upon the counters of the understanding. He reasoned logically through analogy and comparison. All opponents dreaded his originality of idea, his condensation, definition, and force of expression; and woe be to the man who hugged to his bosom a secret error if Lincoln got on the chase of it. I repeat, woe to him! Time could hide the error in no nook or corner of space in which he would not detect and expose it.”

In September 1855, what Lincoln thought would be the biggest case of his career dropped in his lap. It was the most important patent case of its day. The famous patent attorney Peter H. Watson, indeed the first prominent patent attorney in the United States, had acquired the patents of the J.H. Manny Company of Rockford, Illinois, which was sued for alleged infringement by Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the reaper. Watson hired Lincoln as part of a legal team to make arguments in the courtroom in Chicago. Lincoln envisioned himself catapulted to the top rank of his profession. Representing McCormick was Reverdy Johnson, the former attorney general of the United States, and the case would be argued before the associate justice of the Supreme Court John McLean. Lincoln spent days mastering the details for his smashing summation. One afternoon in Springfield, he recruited a local court official, Thomas W. S. Kidd, who Lincoln knew to have mechanical ability, to come to his law office across from the State Capitol in order to take apart the two reapers to learn how they operated. Lincoln traveled to Rockford to examine the Manny reaper for himself where it was manufactured. But then the venue changed to Cincinnati. When the time came for the dramatic conclusion of the defense, the speaking role was given to another attorney, the well-known corporate lawyer Edwin Stanton of Pittsburgh, who dismissively told Peter Watson he would not argue alongside that “giraffe” and “ape.” William W. Dickson, a Cincinnati attorney whose wife was Mary Lincoln’s cousin and with whom Lincoln resided while in the city, recalled, “He came with the fond hope of making fame in a forensic contest with Reverdy Johnson. He was pushed aside, humiliated and mortified.” Lincoln felt inadequate next to the great patent lawyers. Instead of being given a starring role, he was flung back as a country lawyer who had overstepped his bounds. “I am going home to study,” he told a friend.

Lincoln’s biggest patent case was the most misbegotten one in his career and a turning point in his life. Respected though he might be as a lawyer in central Illinois, he learned that he would never reach the top of his profession. The harsh experience reminded him that his true strength and calling was in politics. Five months after the Manny case, Lincoln led in the creation of the Illinois Republican Party, which would in four years carry him to the presidency. But he learned something else, too. In tinkering with the reapers and trying to grasp their movements, he advanced his scientific knowledge. And President Lincoln, bearing no grudges, appointed Edwin Stanton his Secretary of War and Peter Watson the Deputy Secretary of War.

Lincoln’s thirst for knowledge was limitless. He and his law partner maintained the most extensive private library in town and perhaps in Illinois. They subscribed to newspapers across the country and journals from England. Lincoln read as much as he could on scientific subjects, from both books and journals. Though he did not read Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, he read journal articles about it and was convinced of the validity of evolution. Since he had been a young man, he had been a freethinker, skeptical of the dogmas of orthodox organized religion, and he recommended to one-and-all the works of the revolutionary Tom Paine and the French Enlightenment philosopher Volney. In his first notable speech in 1839, the young Lincoln declared that “passion…will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense. Let those materials be molded into general intelligence.

In the late 1850s, Lincoln wrote two lectures on science entitled “Discoveries and Inventions.” They dealt with everything he could think of from how boats worked to the effects of water and wind in generating power. He intended to deliver his speech on the growing lecture circuit, but after a few unsuccessful appearances “he soon dropped it altogether,” according to Herndon. Lincoln’s friends disapproved of his talk as windy, and invitations to deliver it quickly dried up. But it has importance for underscoring his continuing interest in science. “I have already intimated my opinion that in the world’s history, certain inventions and discoveries occurred, of peculiar value, on account of their great efficiency in facilitating all other inventions and discoveries,” he wrote. “Of these were the arts of writing and of printing—the discovery of America, and the introduction of Patent-laws.”

Lincoln attributed the emergence of the idea of equality to the diffusion of scientific progress. “It is very probable—almost certain—that the great mass of men, at that time, were utterly unconscious, that their conditions, or their minds were capable of improvement,” he said.

“They not only looked upon the educated few as superior beings; but they supposed themselves to be naturally incapable of rising to equality. To emancipate the mind from this false and under estimate of itself, is the great task which printing came into the world to perform. It is difficult for us, now and here, to conceive how strong this slavery of the mind was; and how long it did, of necessity, take, to break its shackles.”

And he connected that form of emancipation to an invention in the law that made other inventions possible. “Next came the Patent laws. These began in England in 1624; and, in this country, with the adoption of our constitution. Before these, any man might instantly use what another had invented; so that the inventor had no special advantage from his own invention. The patent system changed this; secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.”

Lincoln, the lawyer, believed above all in facts and evidence. In his first great speech, which brought him out of his political wilderness in 1854, against the extension of slavery into the territories opened by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he said, “Let the facts be the answer to the argument.” One of his co-counsels on many cases, Henry C. Whitney, observed that “many a time have I seen him tear the mask off from a fallacy and shame both the fallacy and its author.”

Having only attended a backwoods “blab” school for a short session, he always felt his education rudimentary. “Education defective. Profession, a lawyer,” he wrote in his first autobiography. On the circuit, the traveling lawyers shared rooms. Late at night, while the others slept, Lincoln read the books of Euclid by candlelight. He had some knowledge of geometry from his days as a young surveyor, one of his earliest jobs. “He studied and nearly mastered the six books of Euclid since he was a member of Congress,” Lincoln wrote in another brief autobiography. “He regrets his want of education, and does what he can to supply the want.”

“In the course of my law reading I constantly came upon the word ‘demonstrate,’” Lincoln told an interviewer in 1860. “I thought, at first, that I understood its meaning but soon became satisfied that I did not…At last, I said, ‘Lincoln, you can never make a lawyer if you do not understand what ‘demonstrate’ means.” By studying Euclid, “I then found out what ‘demonstrate’ means.”

Case by case, he honed his logical skill sharpening each point with fact. And he applied that logic to the greatest case of his time. “There are two ways of establishing a proposition,” Lincoln said in 1859. “One is by trying to demonstrate it upon reason; and the other is, to show that great men in former times have thought so and so, and thus to pass it by the weight of pure authority.” He defied anyone to “demonstrate…the right of one man to make a slave of another without any right in that other, or anyone else, to object—demonstrate it as Euclid demonstrated propositions…” And to what ruling in what case was Lincoln referring? It was to the case of Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom, whose case was denied in 1857 by the Supreme Court on the grounds that the supposed original intent of the founders was that blacks were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

After Lincoln delivered speech at Cooper Union in 1860, in which he declared “right makes might,” setting him on the course for the Republican presidential nomination, he granted an interviewer to an antislavery preacher. “I vote for Euclid,” Lincoln told him.

Where did Lincoln’s insatiable desire for knowledge, including science, come from? Where in fact did Lincoln come from?

The first time Abraham Lincoln spoke openly about his origins was the year he assumed his new identity as a Republican. Until then, he had been remarkably reticent about the facts of his personal life. He was one of the best-known political figures in Illinois, yet he kept an essential part of himself mysterious. By 1856, he had been a professional politician on public view for twenty-four years, more than half his lifetime a stalwart member of the Whig Party. At the age of twenty-seven he was elected to his second term in the legislature and his peers chose him as the Whig floor leader. He was dubbed the “Sangamon chieftain,” head of the so-called Springfield Junto that directed the state party, and de facto coeditor of the leading Whig newspaper, the Sangamo Journal, writing many of its editorials anonymously. He emphasized that he was one of “the people,” not “the aristocracy,” and felt hurt that he was once accused of being part of the upper class because of his marriage to Mary Todd, of the Edwards-Todd family, the most distinguished in Springfield who living on Aristocracy Hill. Projecting himself as a self-made man, he believed himself to be, and wanted to be seen as, rising from the common clay. He was also determined to leave his past behind, even to bury it, as if hiding his humiliation. His impulse was to protect himself from revelations about his origins. As for the actual details of his early existence, he had been stone silent.

It was at one of those campaign events that the man who had been extraordinarily reluctant about discussing his past, sensitive about his social inferiority, blurted out a startling confession. “I used to be a slave,” said Lincoln. He did not explain what prompted him to make this incredible statement, why he branded himself as belonging to the most oppressed, stigmatized, and untouchable caste, far worse than being accused of being an abolitionist. Illinois, while a free state, was the most racist in the north and had a draconian Black Code. Why would Lincoln announce that he was a former “slave”? The bare facts he did not disclose to his audience were these: Until he was 21-years-old, Lincoln’s father had rented him out to neighbors. The father collected the son’s wages. Lincoln was in effect an indentured servant, a slave. He regarded his semiliterate father as domineering and himself without rights. Thomas Lincoln had led a harsh and unfair life. In Kentucky, he had been forced to compete for wages with slaves. He fled across the Ohio River to the free state of Indiana. He wanted his son to learn an honest trade as a laborer, perhaps trained as a carpenter like himself, considered formal education a waste of time, reading to be laziness, even hitting him for reading, and sought to suppress any larger ambition as useless dreaminess. Lincoln spent only a few weeks in a frontier school and was entirely self-educated.

Lincoln truly considered himself to have been held in bondage and escaped. He rarely, if ever, talked about his feelings, even to his closest friends, who tried to discern the signs. He hid his depths behind his simplicity. His authenticity was not deceptive, but a veneer nonetheless. His captivity as a boy was humiliating and degrading: an imprisonment in a world of neglect, poverty, fecklessness, and ignorance. It was at the root of his fierce desire to rise. If he was angry with his father, he also knew that his father had been reduced to a dirt farmer and compelled to flee Kentucky to escape from slavery. “Slave States are places for poor white people to remove FROM; not to remove TO,” Lincoln said. Lincoln had been oppressed by a man who himself was oppressed. His father had made his own escape. Lincoln was a fugitive’s son—and a fugitive himself.

Lincoln believed he had his own fugitive experience and emancipated himself. He was an oppressed and stunted boy who achieved his freedom. If, with his disadvantages, he could do it, it could be done.

At the age of twenty-one, Lincoln settled his father and family in Cole County, Illinois and set off on his own. Herndon’s description of Lincoln’s appearance into the known world in 1831 is among the most lyrical passages, approaching myth, in his biography. “He assured those with whom he came in contact that he was a piece of floating driftwood; that after the winter of deep snow, he had come down the river with the freshet; borne along by the swelling waters, and aimlessly floating about, he had accidentally lodged at New Salem.” But it was not the first time that Lincoln had appeared at New Salem. A few months earlier, he was a boatman on a vessel carrying hogs, corn and barrels down the Sangamon River on his way to the Mississippi and New Orleans that got caught on a mill-dam. Lincoln improvised. He unloaded the goods, rolled the barrels forward, bore a hole in the end where water had leaked, and slid the boat free. It was this incident that was at the back of Lincoln’s mind when he later invented a means for ships to be avoid being stuck, which led to his patent. Lincoln worked at solutions for problems for years, from boats caught on mill-dams and sandbars to slavery.

So how did the inventor and the patent lawyer become the Great Emancipator? It turns out the patent lawyer and the great war leader were one and the same man. The man of scientific advancement was responsible for a great leap in the industrial revolution and in technological innovation, chartered the National Academy of Sciences, and created the first system of modern, scientifically-based agriculture in the world through the establishment of land grant colleges. Lincoln personally approved the most significant projects down to test-firing rifles that would prove decisive on the Gettysburg battlefield. The technological foundations that Lincoln laid were the basis of the explosive growth in manufacturing that soon made the U.S. the world leader.

How did the U.S. under Lincoln win the Civil War? Certainly, it required his political genius. Then, it took four years for him to find General Grant. But there was something else that was central. It was Lincoln’s deep commitment to technological breakthrough and his understanding that the advancement of science was intrinsic to progress and a larger emancipation. One statistic tells the story. During the war, Lincoln’s government issued more than 30,000 patents while the Confederacy only issued 266.

Lincoln first saw a telegraph work in 1857 in a hotel lobby in Pekin, Illinois and approached the operator, a young man appropriately named Charles A. Tinker. “Mr. Operator,” said Lincoln, “I have always had a curiosity to see the telegraph work. You don’t seem to be very busy, and as I have a half-hour or so to wait for dinner, I wonder if you would not explain it to me?” Tinker replied, “Certainly, sir: I should be pleased to do so,” and as he recalled, “inviting him inside the gate, I proceeded to show him the ‘working of the telegraph’ — explained the battery and its connection to the instruments, and the wires leading thence out of the window and away to the world without. I was encouraged by the readiness with which he comprehended it all. He seemed to grasp its intricacies, and remarked: ‘How simple it is when you know it all.’”

By May of 1862, Lincoln had built the telegraph office inside the War Department next to the White House and commissioned the U.S. Telegraph Service. It was the first Situation Room and the first branch of the U.S. government based on electronics. Lincoln virtually moved into the telegraph office, monitored the movements of the armies in real time, communicated directly with generals, and projected himself into tactics and strategy. As it happened, he discovered Charles A. Tinker working there. For Lincoln, the telegraph was a revolutionary tool. He also sometimes took naps on a couch in the telegraph office. And it was here that he forged his most revolutionary tool, writing the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. One of the telegraph operators recalled, “He would look out of the window a while and then put his pen to paper, but he did not write much at once. He would study between times and when he had made up his mind he would put down a line or two, and then sit quiet for a few minutes. After a time he would resume his writing, only to stop again at intervals to make some remark to me or to one of the cipher operators as a fresh dispatch from the front was handed to him.”

Throughout the war Lincoln frequently sought the advice of Dr. Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the nation’s leading scientific center. Henry was an eminent physicist, who had conducted early experiments on electricity and whose contributions made possible the telegraph. Dr. Henry introduced Lincoln to Professor Thaddeus Lowe, who was experimenting with balloons to determine the weather. Lowe speculated about making a transatlantic voyage by balloon. He also wrote a memo about how military intelligence could be conducted by balloons from which more than twenty miles of countryside could be observed. Lincoln commissioned Professor Lowe to head the U.S. Army Balloon Corps, the first air force anywhere in the world. On June 16, 1861, Lowe ascended 500 above the Independence Mall in Washington near the Smithsonian with a telegraph wire running to the ground and then trailing all the way to the White House. “I have pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station,” Lowe tapped out in Morse code to Lincoln.

Lincoln and Dr. Henry also tested flashing light signals as a means of military communications one night from the top of the Smithsonian tower. The next day, a diligent Union officer marched into Lincoln’s office at the White House with Dr. Henry as his prisoner in tow. “Mr. President,” said the officer, “I told you a month ago Professor Henry is a rebel. Last night at midnight he flashed red lights from the top of his building, signaling to the Secesh. I saw them myself.” “Now you’re caught!” exclaimed Lincoln. “What have you to say, Professor Henry, why sentence of death should not immediately be pronounced upon you?” But once he had his little joke Lincoln informed the officer that he had been complicit with Henry in experimenting with the mysterious signals. The officer sheepishly retreated. Lincoln and Dr. Henry resumed their conversations.

Lincoln’s most fateful intervention into the development of technology, with the most far reaching consequences, arose around the invention of a new type of warship. The Confederates salvaged a scuttled U.S. warship, the Merrimack, and refitted it with armored plate, as the first ironclad warship, renamed the Virginia. Learning about the Confederate progress in building the Virginia, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who Lincoln dubbed “Father Neptune,” called for designs for a U.S. ironclad. One of those producing a model was an inventor, John Ericsson, who had designed the navy’s first screw-propelled ship, the Princeton. Unfortunately, in 1844 when a cannon on the Princeton was tested, it exploded, killing the Secretary of the Navy, the Secretary of State, six others, and nearly President John Tyler. Ericsson was unfairly blamed. Now Ericsson’s design for an ironclad made its way to Lincoln’s desk. He decided he would attend the meeting of the newly-formed Ironclad Board that would render judgment. Naval commander after commander raised various objections to Ericsson’s peculiar model. Lincoln overruled them. “All I can say,” Lincoln told the Ironclad Board, “is what the girl said when she stuck her foot in the stocking: It strikes me there’s something in it.” And Lincoln maintained constant oversight of the process.

On March 8, 1862, the Virginia steamed out into Chesapeake Bay at Norfolk, destroyed two U.S. frigates, and ran another aground, the worst defeat in the history of the U.S. Navy until Pearl Harbor. The next day, Secretary of War Stanton, who Lincoln dubbed “Old Mars,” ran to the White House in a panic. He shrieked that the Virginia would burn Washington and bombard Philadelphia and New York. “I have no doubt that this minute the monster is on its way to Washington,” Stanton said. He sent messages to the governors that their ports would soon be under attack from the unstoppable menace. But at the very moment that Stanton was issuing apocalyptic warnings, a low-slung, flat bottomed ironclad with a moveable turret following Ericsson’s design steamed out into the water to meet the Confederate behemoth. The engagement of the Monitor and the Merrimack, or the Virginia, in the Battle of Hampton Roads, ended in a draw, but really a defeat for the Virginia, which was now neutralized. Two months later, when Union forces captured Norfolk, its crew blew it up.

The launching of the Monitor was the beginning of mass production of its prototype. The Monitor itself had included at least 40 new patents. To manufacture more demanded revolutions in technology, metallurgy, fabrication, spare parts, specialized skills, and a new system of military contracting. More than 84 ironclads were constructed, 64 of which were of the Monitor class. According to the naval historian Craig Symonds, the Ironclad Board and Monitor system “allowed the nation to develop what economists call the second stage of a modern industrial system.”

So it was that a patent lawyer and inventor from Illinois won the war and created a modern nation. Lincoln’s intense quest for knowledge, his insistence on hard facts and evidence, his respect for science and the scientific method, and his inquisitiveness about how things really worked never faltered. At the height of his power, he still had the same curiosity he had always had when he was arguing patent cases.

Lincoln’s old friend Joe Gillespie recalled how he won one such case: “His faculty for comprehending and understanding machinery I afterward saw exemplified when I heard him argue a patent case in the United States Circuit Court at Springfield. A number of models representing different machines had been introduced in evidence and they were upon the floor before the jury. During his argument, to get a better view of the different parts of the invention, he knelt down, and several of the jurors for the same purpose came to where he was and also got upon their knees. I had taken a vacant chair near Jackson Grimshaw, [the opposing lawyer, though a political ally of Lincoln] … I heard Grimshaw say to Archibald Williams, his colleague, in a low tone, ‘I guess our case has gone to hell; Lincoln and the jurors are on their knees together.’”

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Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal is the author of All the Powers of Earth, The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln 1856-1860, A Self-Made Man, and Wrestling with His Angel, the first three volumes in his five-volume biography. He is a former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. He has been a national staff reporter for the Washington Post, Washington editor and writer for the New Yorker, and a contributor to the Washington Monthly.