Surely we all know Abraham Lincoln by now.
The subject of over 10,000 books, Lincoln has become our most familiar president. He is also one of the most popular. A Post editorial in 1961, claimed that people around the world, “feel for Old Abe a reverence, trust and affection that they reserve for their truest friends. He… always steps down from his monuments and—plain, decent, wise, tolerant, good and great—puts out his hand to help us.”
The problem with this image is that it doesn’t fully agree with the evidence. In fact, it often contradicts the accounts of people who knew him well. In his 1959 essay on Lincoln, Jacques Barzun offered the personal recollection of William Herndon who worked closely with Lincoln for years as his law partner. Herndon had known Lincoln the man before he became the martyr and national icon.
He said that Lincoln was a man of sudden and violent moods, often plunged in deathly melancholy for hours, then suddenly lively and ready to joke;
that Lincoln was self-centered and cold, not given to revealing his plans or opinions; and ruthless in using others’ help and influence;
that Lincoln was idle for long stretches of time, during which he read newspapers or simply brooded;
that Lincoln was a man of strong passions and mystical longings, which he repressed because his mind showed him their futility, and that this made him cold-blooded and a fatalist.
As we know from other sources, Lincoln was subject to vague fears and dark superstitions… He was subject, as some of his verses show, to obsessional gloom about separation, insanity and death.
None of which denies that Lincoln could be sociable, funny, or statesmanlike. But there was undeniably a side of Lincoln that he kept hidden, even from his closest friends. The key to understanding this hidden side, Barzun believed, was knowing the one thing Lincoln valued all his life: language.
Not one but several persons who remembered his childhood remarked on the boy’s singular determination to express his thoughts in the best way. [According to] his stepmother… “He didn’t like physical labor. He read all the books he could lay his hands on. . . . When he came across a passage that struck him, he would write it down on boards if he had no paper and keep it there till he did get paper, then he would rewrite it, look at it, repeat it.”
Years later, Herndon said Lincoln could be a “very patient man” but when people began talking to him in vague abstractions, glittering generalities, and misty ideas, he could become enraged.
Language was vitally important to Lincoln. He spent hours mastering his skills of expressing himself powerfully through deceptively simple language. His legal studies helped him sharpen his genius for expression.
Legal thought encourages precision through the imagining and the denial of alternatives. The language of the law foresees doubt, ambiguity, confusion, stupid or fraudulent error, and one by one it excludes them. [It must avoid] misunderstanding, and this is the foundation of any prose that aims at clear expression.
His ability to convey complex ideas to any audience, said Barzun, set him apart from his peers and convinced him he was marked for a special destiny. If you read Lincoln’s words, his letters, speeches, and debates, he added, you realize Lincoln’s personality was not that of a shrewd, humorous, saintly man, but a combination of traits that are found in the biographies of great artists:
passionate, gloomy, seeming-cold, and conscious of superiority.
Lincoln’s faith in his power to communicate led him to believe in a great personal destiny. The opinion of others was less important to him than his relationship with the greater Lincoln he felt inside himself. He believed his talent for expression had set him apart for greatness. It had lifted him up from a life of splitting rails and running a failing grocery store. It enabled him to distract listeners from his early struggle, his election failures, and his occasional gloom and doubts.
As he focused increasingly on the man of destiny inside himself, he grew detached from others.
In conduct, this detachment was the source of his saintlike forbearance… Lincoln’s detachment was what produced his mastery over men.
Had he not towered in mind and will over his cabinet, they would have crushed or used him without remorse. Chase, Seward, Stanton, the Blairs, McClellan had among them enough egotism and ability to wreck several administrations. Each thought Lincoln would be an easy victim.
[Yet] their dominant feeling was exasperation with him for making them feel baffled. They could not bring him down to their reach.
John Hay, who saw the long struggle, confirms Herndon’s judgments: “It is absurd to call him a modest man. No great man was ever modest. It was his intellectual arrogance and unconscious assumption of superiority that men like Chase and Sumner could never forgive.”
Lincoln’s extraordinary power was to make his spirit felt—a power I attribute to his peculiar relation to himself.
He regarded his face and physique with amusement and dismay, his mind and destiny with wonder. Seeming clumsy and diffident, he also showed a calm superiority, which he expressed as if one half of a double man were talking about the other.
It may be that, even after another 10,000 books, the true, inner nature of Lincoln will remain unknown to us. But if he always remains a mystery to us, it’s possible that it was always a mystery to himself.
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