The World That Made Lincoln

While progressives and conservatives argue over his legacy, a sprawling new biography explains “Abe” via the surprisingly rich culture that forged him.

However much Americans boasted about the superiority of their republican political institutions in the Victorian Era, we never managed to escape the accusation that our politics had been bought at the price of cultural inferiority. “The Americans are a brave, industrious and acute people,” conceded Sydney Smith, the British clergyman and critic, but “who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play? Or looks at an American picture or statue?”

This image was not improved in European minds when, on the cusp of a national civil war, Americans inaugurated as their president a common trial lawyer with no university degree, a heavy backwoods twang, and a reputation for vulgar story-telling. “Abraham Lincoln,” announced one British Tory parliamentarian, was a “railsplitter, bargee, and attorney…a man brought up in a rough way, a clever woodcutter” and “an incapable pretender.” He was proof (according to the then-current Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston) that putting “Power in the Hands of the Masses throws the Scum of the Community to the Surface.”

A great deal of this contempt, both for Lincoln and for 19th-century American culture, was cruelly undeserved. The same decades that bracket Victoria and Albert, Smith, and Palmerston were also the decades of a new American literature (from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Harriet Beecher Stowe), a new art (from the portraiture of the Peales to Frederic Edwin Church), and new music (Henry Bristow’s and William Henry Fry’s symphonies). And alongside these manifestations of high-brow culture, Americans exhibited a bumptious middle-class and vernacular culture, “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.”

No one has been a better chronicler of 19th-century American culture than David Reynolds, a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His break-out book in 1995, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (which won the coveted Bancroft Prize), eschewed the kind of literary history which treats texts like tapestries whose threads have to be pulled tediously apart. He did not merely itemize Whitman’s ancestry; he placed it in the context of a kind of parentage in 19th-century Brooklyn. His Whitman did not merely write for newspapers; he entered into a dizzying world of temperance orators, roughneck Bowery “b’hoys” (a slang Irish term for rowdy working-class males), dark-alley mystery novels, and political oratory. “In the carnivalized atmosphere of antebellum America, rigid cultural hierarchies did not yet exist,” Reynolds wrote, and Whitman embraced “a fluid exchange between…Shakespeare’s plays” and “minstrels, farces, songs and so on.” I am large, Whitman said, I contain multitudes, and so did Reynolds.

In Abe: Abraham Lincoln In His Times, (New York: Penguin Press, $45), Reynolds embarks on a similar project for re-imagining the sixteenth president. His 1008-page re-imagining begins with the bluntness of the title – Abe – since no one, once Lincoln had achieved adulthood, ever dared to address him as “Abe.” To his closest friends, he was always Lincoln; even to his wife, he was Mr. Lincoln. His correspondence was invariably signed A. Lincoln, as though he found even Abraham overly familiar. Only on his most important state papers did he write out his name in full. But to the country at large, he was indeed Abe – Uncle Abe, Old Abe, Honest Abe, Abe Lincoln of Illinois. Good god you goin to shake with me Uncle Abe, was the cry of an astonished soldier to whom Lincoln stuck out his hand at a review. “Hey! Uncle Abe are you joking yet,” was the satirical title of a political song in 1864.

This was partly a response to the way he was perceived – the homely jokester, the most common of self-made Americans, the approachable statesman who had malice toward none, charity for all. No better name existed for that Lincoln than Abe. But it was also an image which Lincoln helped confect himself. Born of the frontier, with no particular education, with cadaverously homely looks, and a squeaky-voiced Border-State accent that (to the horror of Julia Ward Howe) made heard into heerd, Lincoln saw himself very clearly as others were likely to see him — and to scoff at him. And so he let them scoff, enticing them into underestimating him, luring them into complacency and arrogance with what Reynolds calls his “Uncle Abe persona” and his Barnumesque “ugly man act” (171, 512). Those who were thus fooled presently found themselves outfoxed, out-thought and out-maneuvered. “Any man,” said his old lawyer friend, Leonard Swett, “who took Lincoln for a simple minded man would very soon wake up with his back in a ditch.”

Reynolds’s complaint about Lincoln biography, in general, is that too much of it assumes that politics and political ideas were his only life. This politicized Lincoln is not entirely wrong: after all, his law partner of a quarter-century, William Henry Herndon, insisted that “Politics were his Heaven, and his Hades metaphysics.” But Herndon was not entirely right, either, and Reynolds’s great service in the sprawling, alluvial landscape of Abe is to open up the cultural environments that Lincoln inhabited, the cultural artifacts he manipulated, and the cultural signs he appropriated to his uses.

Reynolds’s Lincoln emerges as an amalgam of two cultures – the Cavalier who was descended from 17th-century royalist gentlemen, and the Puritan whose ancestry was rooted in their psalm-singing Cromwellian opponents – which haunted antebellum literature. He inherited the Cavalier (or believed he had inherited it) from a Virginia “nobleman” who had fathered his illegitimately-born mother, and at its lowest level, Cavalier culture formed the milieu in which he came of age in Kentucky and Indiana, a culture of honor-fights, drunkenness, tall tales and casual violence. The Puritan Lincoln grew from a different soil – his father’s Calvinism, a loathing of slavery, and a thirst for self-transformation that embraced alike Shakespeare and the Declaration of Independence. As president, he was a habitué of the theater and traded professional Shakespeare criticism with foreign visitors; yet he also loved clownish joke-books and compared his political tactics to a circus act (Charles Blondin’s high-wire crossings of Niagara Falls). Like Whitman, Lincoln was large, he contained multitudes.

Abe is not a conventional Lincoln biography: Lincoln’s twenty-something years in New Salem, Illinois, are compressed into a single paragraph; the 1864 election occurs without any particular explanation, including the voting results. And there are moments when Reynolds’s lengthy digressions into the emergence of Santa Claus as a Christmas icon or the strategic recommendations of Anna Ella Carroll, a wealthy Maryland pamphleteer, threaten to make Abe into a cultural history of the Civil War rather than Lincoln. But Reynolds has struck a seriously-overlooked vein of gold in understanding Lincoln’s embrace of natural law, and when Reynolds turns his attention to Lincoln as an orator his analysis of Lincoln’s “parsimony in style” at Gettysburg, and the elegant balance of the Second Inaugural is without peer in the Lincoln literature.

Lincoln biography has struggled with mounting levels of cynicism, much of it directed at Lincoln’s record on race and much of it coming from a mixed chorus of progressives and libertarians. Against these criticisms, Reynolds shoves back energetically. Against the late Lerone Bennett, the long-time editor of Ebony Magazine and author of the militantly anti-Lincoln manifesto Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (2000), Reynolds denies the charge of covert white supremacy. Against Richard Hofstadter, he insists that Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation made him “a demigod among black people,” while his proposals for black colonization were actually “a stalling tactic” to protect emancipation.

Even so, it is not certain that Reynolds will be able to persuade either progressives or libertarians that Lincoln deserves their respect, if only because modern terms like progressive or conservative, much less libertarian, do not readily fit themselves to the shapes of 19th-century politics. As much as Reynolds yearns to paint Lincoln in current progressive colors, Lincoln’s notion of progress was closer to John Stuart Mill than modern liberals like John Rawls. Reynolds would like to believe that Lincoln favored a “big-spending activist government,” but most of Lincoln’s “big-spending” was on the war, and even then never amounted to more than 1.8% of real GDP. Nor did even that much last for long: as historian Mark Neely wrote in Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation a decade ago, “the minimal enhancement of executive power in the Civil War had no lasting effect.”

What Reynolds has nevertheless done wonderfully is fill in a vast uncolored space around Lincoln, surrounding him with the carnival, the spectacle, and the sound of American culture in an era of slavery and freedom, of Cavaliers and Puritans, of poets and b’hoys. Sydney Smith and Lord Palmerston should have taken closer note; they might have found that culture, and Abraham Lincoln, more interesting than Victoria and Albert.

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Allen C. Guelzo

Allen C. Guelzo, a senior research scholar at Princeton University, is a Civil War historian and three-time winner of the Lincoln Prize.