Author: David Herbert Donald
To all outward appearances, he was less prepared to be president of the United States than any other man who had run for that high office. Without family, tradition or wealth, he had received only the briefest of formal schooling. Now fifty years old, he had no administrative experience of any sort; he had never been Governor of his state, or even mayor of Springfield. A profound student of the Constitution and of the writings of the Founding Fathers, he had limited acquaintance with the government they had established. He had served only a single, less than successful term in the House of Representatives, and for the past ten years had held no public office. Though he was one of the Founders of the Republican Party, he had no close friends and only a few acquaintances in the populous Eastern states, whose vote would be crucial in the election. To be sure, his debates with Douglas had brought him national attention, but he had lost the senatorial election both in 1955 and 1859. Dismissing his chances for the presidency, one of Hatches’ Boston correspondents remarked scornfully: “As for Lincoln, I am afraid he will kick the beam again, as he is in the habit of doing.” Pg. 236
Lincoln by David Herbert Donald is the fourth biography about an iconic president that I’ve read through the first sixteen. Along with Washington, Jefferson and Jackson, Abraham Lincoln is a subject that everybody reading comes into with a head start as far as the major plot points in his life. As the previous paragraph summarizes though, Lincoln’s pre-presidential years were unremarkable by political standards, his post presidential years non-existent, and his term in office dominated by a single conflict. I was curious to see if I would come away as impressed by him as I was by Washington, who seemed to have done ten times as much as he is credited for doing in the history books with no precedent for any of it, or underwhelmed like I was by Jefferson who lucked into his greatest contribution to America through a French government needing to make money. In the end, I came away viewing Lincoln much like Andrew Jackson, a man who deserves to be recognized as a titan in the Oval Office, but one who also did not quite live up to his gigantic reputation. Here’s how the president scores on my presidential grading rubric:
Born into – Lincoln’s mother’s heritage is difficult to trace, with the possibility that she may have even been illegitimate. His father’s family came from successful land owner/farmers in Virginia. The family owned three farms in Kentucky, moved to Indiana because it didn’t allow slavery and the land deeds/titles were clearer than they were in Kentucky. After Lincoln’s mom died from drinking bad milk (cows had eaten a poisonous root), his father remarried and Abraham loved his new mom. Compared to his father, who Lincoln never had a kind word to say about, Lincoln and his step mom were closer than either Lincoln was to his father or his stepmother was to her own biological son. In terms of coming from little, Lincoln’s in line with Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan as coming from humble origins, but not quite as impressive as Andrew Jackson’s rags to riches. 4 out of 5.
Pre-President – Obviously there’s more information available for guys like Lincoln and Washington as children than for lesser known presidents, and this book provided a good overall view of Lincoln from a young child onward. For education, Lincoln went to nearby cabin houses for schools for three separate years, but never full time. He estimated he only had about one entire year of education as a child. Growing up he developed ideas on politics early, and was very much Anti-Jackson (he would read anti-Jackson papers) and very pro Henry Clay (pro internal improvements/forming a national bank). He took a variety of jobs before settling down, including as a riverboat pilot (navigator) and store clerk. People always trusted Lincoln, and as a clerk he got to know his community in Illinois (he moved there as older teenager).
Lincoln’s first political run was for state legislature, where he finished 8th out of 13 candidates (losing, just the top four advanced). He was asked to run by others, so his interest in politics was still not immediately apparent. Following his loss, he enlisted in the militia for the Black Hawk War, and was chosen to be an officer by 2/3 of his fellow soldiers. Lincoln never saw any combat or Indians, and would mock his military experience in later political campaigns. His first political appointment was Village postmaster; this was not an important appointment as Lincoln (a Whig) was appointed by Jackson’s (Democrat) party. Because the job paid so little, Lincoln also began working as an assistant surveyor. He ran for office again for the State House of Representative (the author argues) primarily for monetary concerns. Lincoln didn’t reveal his positions on political issues to help bolster his chance of being elected. This second bid was successful. Lincoln began studying law once he was elected. This book glossed over his admission to the bar, just stating Lincoln partnered with another attorney and was one of busiest in Springfield.
On the social scene, his first fiancé was Ann Rutledge; she died while waiting for Lincoln to complete his education and before they could tie the knot (probably of Typhoid fever). Most of Lincoln’s efforts as State Representative were toward making Springfield the new state capital, an endeavor he and his friends were ultimately successful at. Lincoln continued to practice law during this time, and tried 300 cases before the highest Illinois court during his career. His practice was varied, representing clients as different as slaves seeking freedom, and slave-owners seeking return of slaves. At this time there was a devised plan within Whig party for House of Representatives (National level) candidates to only seek one term in office; Lincoln had earlier helped endorse the plan when it wasn’t yet his turn to run for the office apparently to help cycle through candidates until it was his turn to run. It paid off when Lincoln was elected to the House during Polk’s term. As a Whig, he made numerous anti-Mexican American War speeches which would haunt him later in his career and spent most of his energy trying to get Taylor elected the following year, which seemed very hypocritical for a person so against the war.
Lincoln’s view on Slavery while he was in the House was to vote to allow discussions of it, but to vote against actual restrictions on slavery. He even devised a plan while in the House of eliminating slavery in D.C. by banning it after 1850, keeping those that were slaves as slaves but allowing them to be sold to the government, and those born after 1850 would be free. Looking to others for feedback, nobody else would support it and he never brought it to the floor. Lincoln sought and was offered other positions after his term, the most interesting being the Governor of Oregon, but instead he returned to his law practice when his term was over. The experience in Washington helped his practice, which began generating high income and notoriety for successfully arguing railroad cases. Lincoln mostly stayed out of politics besides arguing for Winfield Scott’s candidacy until running for office again in 1856.
Up until he was President, Lincoln supported the idea of sending freed blacks back to Africa as the best solution to the slavery problem. He lost in his first bid for U.S. Senator, lost in a bid for the Vice Presidency, and was actually elected to the Illinois House of Representatives but declined it because it would have disqualified him from running for Senatorial office. He switched from Whig Part to Republican in time for the 1856 Presidential election, which rejuvenated his political career. Lincoln was the major politician present in crafting the platform of the Republican party which borrowed from Whig, Abolitionist, Know-Nothing and Free Soil platforms. During this time, Lincoln debated against Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas several times before eventually running against him for Senatorial seat in 1858; Douglas’s spot was in jeopardy due to heavy Anti-Nebraska (those against the Kansas-Nebraska act) sentiment. Over a total of seven debates held throughout the state, all of which received substantial media coverage, the two showeded their main differences as candidates was Douglas extreme Pro-state’s sovereignty position versus Lincoln’s belief in fundamental human rights for all individuals, blacks included.
The final result in the election was very close with Republicans edging Democrats by a plurality, however election of Senator was done by the state legislature at that time which still had a democrat majority, so Douglas won. Lincoln tried to maintain the illusion that he wasn’t interested in Republican nomination for president, however he had a book about his debates published as well as an autobiography prior to election cycle to promote himself (at this time, it was still considered bad form to campaign yourself to be president). Lincoln, despite little experience as an elected official, was a name many papers and people supported as a candidate, first due to his role in forming the Republican party in Illinois, and second because of his notoriety from debates and speeches made regionally prior to the election. Lincoln’s destiny as a potential presidential candidate was yet again tied to Stephen Douglas. If the Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas as their candidate, Republicans would likely nominate somebody from the West as well for their candidate. The Democrat party ended up being split, with half supporting Douglas and half supporting Breckinridge. The result was that though Lincoln received less than 40% of the popular vote (with Douglas, Breckinridge and the National party candidate 4th), he easily won the electoral vote. This was despite not receiving a single electoral vote from a slave state. With that, the inexperienced one term former Congressman was President. 2/5
Presidential Career – Lincoln’s goal coming into office was to balance his Cabinet with former Whig and former Democrat Republicans. He also considered having somebody from south for his cabinet, but the only individual it was offered to declined as he required Federal protection for slavery in the territories as condition of his acceptance of the position. From the start, Lincoln seemed to underestimate the threat of secession, even believing the raising of arms in South Carolina to be beneficial event for quelling any eventual rebellious sentiment. Lincoln made no public speeches prior to taking office in an effort to not further agitate Southern sentiments. He ended up picking William Seward as Secretary of State and lead voice in his Cabinet, a man who disagreed with many of Lincoln’s views (Seward wanted to go further than Lincoln to conciliate the South).
From the beginning there was disarray in the office, as the Fort Sumter crisis came to a head. Many criticized Lincoln for not knowing how things worked (he tried communicating orders directly to naval commanders, and attempted to establish a Militia branch on his own), and for not having a definite plan. Part of this was that Lincoln continually underestimated the likelihood of the South seceding. His plan was also very reactive, so it genuinely could appear he didn’t really have a plan. He did preserve the historical upper hand though by making the first shots come from the south in retaliation for non-violence by the Union (attempting to bring provisions to the Fort). After the loss of Fort Sumter, Lincoln began acting more decisively, suspending Habeas Corpus and ordering 75,000 troops to be raised. Lincoln tread carefully at first to avoid provoking middle states like Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. Later in the war he would even imprison news paper editors for advance reporting on the draft (causing gold speculation). Obviously Lincoln saw war time as an acceptable excuse to infringe on any constitutional rights necessary to preserve the Union.
As the Civil War began, Lincoln would struggle (and continue to do so) with his picks for head General. Winfield Scott was too old to take the field and was forced to resign after some early struggles. George McClellan was young and looked the part but was constantly criticized for not being aggressive enough and failing to take note of the topography in making his plans. McClellan also didn’t like Lincoln and criticized him privately, and even refused to see Lincoln when the president visited him at his residence. Lincoln was consistently criticized for not having a policy or not being assertive enough, particularly regarding his relationships with generals. Lincoln allowed McClellan to not reveal what his military plans were, and consistently deferred to McClellan even when he strongly disagreed with the general’s strategy. Even Lincoln’s detractors praised him for being honest and having good intentions though. I would agree with the good intentions compliment, however the author cited tons of examples where Lincoln would claim ignorance of areas to avoid having to discuss his policies and orders (I picture Phil Hartman’s Ronald Reagan impression) that seemed to contradict that Honest Abe reputation. Lincoln took his time removing McClelland in favor of Halleck, then went back to McClelland. Afer McClelland’s second removal, the post went to Burnside, then to Hooker, all of them focusing on Richmond and reasons why they could not engage Lee’s army despite Lincoln’s prodding otherwise. Lincoln’s first success with the position came with Meade, who Lincoln initially chastised for not pursuing Lee after Gettysburg before coming to his senses and praising the military victory. However, even Meade proved too reluctant to pursue battle, so Lincoln brought in Grant from the west. Lincoln supported Grant more than any of the other generals, for the primary reason that he actually was willing to fight with what he had, and did not send constant requests for more troops. His first few months on the job involved tens of thousands of casualties, but we all know how the final results went.
The main international incident of Lincoln’s presidency occurred when Southern delegates were caught via the search of a British naval vessel. Initially Lincoln and all but one of his cabinet members were happy that it happened and underestimated the view the British would take. It soon became apparent that it could be the catalyst for a war with Britain if the delegates were not released and an apology issued. That was the route Lincoln ended up taking as he could not risk a second war with Great Britain. In general, the event showed his limited grasp of Foreign relation issues, and he either delegated or took the advice of others on these issues for the rest of his term.
Lincoln tried to maintain the position early and often that the sole issue of the War was Union or Disunion. Despite requests by many Republicans (including Vice President Hamlin) to either confiscate slaves from rebels or declare them free, Lincoln resisted because of worries of how it would play with middle states and southern Union supporters. The issue came to a head when the Governor of Missouri issued a proclamation doing what Lincoln would not; Lincoln considered this more helpful to the Confederates than their victory at Bull Run. When the Governor’s (Fremont) wife (the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton) came to discuss this with Lincoln, he dismissed her as a female trying to discuss politics. Lincoln stayed firm and made sure that all positions and policies on slavery came only from him. In addition to Fremont, Trumball and others tried to drive legislation through to abolish Slavery prior to Lincoln during the war. Lincoln was slow to decide how to approach this issue, spending time considering sending Slaves to Africa, then to Central America, before ultimately deciding to offer compensation for states that voluntarily abolished slavery over set time tables (ranging from 1860’s to 1890’s). Lincoln was continually approached by abolitionists and Republican Generals about emancipating slaves in the South; Lincoln resisted doing so until it seemed the tide was against him in war and in public opinion. Still, he needed a military victory before making any announcement, so he waited until after Antietam for the Emancipation Proclamation. Even after doing this, Lincoln met with Black leaders to discuss the colonization option with them, and not surprisingly they were not on board. The author indicated that Lincoln did that so he could deflect his shift in positions on this topic; my guess is that Lincoln still thought it was the best option and was genuine in trying to sell blacks on it. Lincoln eventually decided to allow black soldiers in the Union Army, but it was done very reluctantly, with the position they would just be used to garrison or perform additional non-combat duties.
Besides the Civil War, there were a few other interesting incidents during Lincoln’s terms. A Sioux uprising led to over a hundred settler deaths in Minnesota. A few hundred Sioux Indians were rounded up and sentenced to death; Lincoln reviewed all the charges/paperwork and commuted all but 28 of the executions. Congress also established the Homestead act, the national banking system with paper currency, and the Department of Agriculture during Lincoln’s tenure, though his involvement in those appears to have been minor if at all. Seward and Salman Chase (Head of the Treasury) both tried to resign their cabinet positions, but Lincoln would not accept either one and even manipulated Chase into admitting he exaggerated strife in the cabinet to the Senators he had previously been complaining to. Chase later was angling for nomination against Lincoln, and Lincoln again allowed him to connive against the President. Beacuse Chase was successful running the Treasury for the cabinet, he was kept on despite the problems caused by his ambitions, until his third submitted resignation; Chase was actually surprised when Lincoln accepted it.
Lincoln began addressing the public more after a Congressman was arrested for inciting desertion; the reaction was so positive he continued to do so throughout his presidency and began consulting his cabinet less. Besides the things he is best known for, this precedent was adopted by later presidents. His Gettysburg Address came a few weeks after the battle, and was a very short speech that followed a few hour long oration by the previous speaker. Those that heard it were caught off guard as to its brevity, but as it was recirculated and evaluated it ended up representing a turning point in both Lincoln’s perspective and the public perspective on the need for the war; no longer just Union or Disunion, but about equal fundamental rights for all men. Lincoln’s most impressive actions as president came in steering reconstruction. Even prior to being reelected, Lincoln made it known that abolition of slavery would be condition of any peace agreement. This was a controversial position, however Lincoln stayed strong on it for the reason that it would be wrong to go back on his promise made to those that came north and were fighting in the army (200,000 blacks by that point).
The only political rival Lincoln worried about when his reelection campaign happened was Ulysses S. Grant; Grant however was very supportive of Lincoln and had no interest in running against him. Donald straddles line of what Lincoln and his people did to insure he was elected (holding out naming Supreme Court Justice, furloughing soldiers to go vote) versus what he didn’t do but could have (rushing additional pro Union states in the west into existence, suspending the election due to the rebellion) to make the case that Lincoln was completely ethical in his handling of the election. Surprisingly to Lincoln, he won in a landslide, with only three states voting against him.
According to Donald, Lincoln had limited involvement in getting the 13th amendment passed by Congress. He was obviously in favor of it, however there was also enough sentiment in Congress that he did not need to take an active role in getting it passed. Lincoln was more involved however in working to get it ratified by ¾ of states. As late as 1864, Lincoln was in favor of paying $400,000 to south in exchange for 5 year gradual elimination of slavery but was talked out of it by cabinet. Throughout the entire war, Lincoln held firm in his position of never recognizing confederate states government, but this caused problem at the end of the war with whom to recognize to discuss terms of surrender. The eventual settlement on “gentlemen that served as representatives to rebellion” struck a balance between efficiency and principal. Lincoln’s final plans for reconstruction (essentially putting the rebellious confederate leaders back into Congress) were opposed by most of his cabinet, and he withdrew them along with his initial pledge to Virginia to recognize its leaders in effect during Civil War. He did become first president to state formally that some blacks should be granted the right of suffrage (educated ones who served in military). On same day he believed the war to finally be over he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth as part of plan to kill both Johnson and Seward as well (Seward was attacked and injured, Johnson’s attacker never followed through). 4.5/5
Vice President – Hannibal Hamlin was Lincoln’s first Vice President. Hamlin never met Lincoln until after both men won their nominations. The two met for three days in Illinois where the two discussed forming the cabinet and seemed to get along well. Like most Vice Presidents of that era, Lincoln did not include him in discussing policy or in important cabinet decisions. At once point during Lincoln’s first term, Hamlin was encouraged to abandon Lincoln and run for president himself by unhappy Republicans, however he chose to support the President instead which gives him a memorably contribution to the office that most early Vice Presidents lacked. Hamlin was much more radical than Lincoln regarding abolition, and Lincoln used to joked nobody would kill him because the Vice President was even more entrenched in the positions than he was. 4/5.
Hamlin was not renominated as Vice President as there was no excitement toward him at Republican convention in 1864. Lincoln was very guarded about who he wanted as his Vice President, but all indications are he was happy with Hamlin and also with candidate Andrew Johnson. Andrew Johnson was the only southern senator (Tennessee) to continue serving once war broke out, which is a pretty neat fact. Also neat is that Johnson got drunk before he was inaugurated as Vice President and made a fool of himself. Lincoln even asked that Johnson not be allowed to talk outside following the inauguration. 2 out of 5.
First lady – Mary Todd Lincoln was rumored to be courted by Stephen Douglas prior to marrying Abraham; after they were married she always called her husband “Mr. Lincoln” so you can tell right away she was a wacko. Mary Todd came from a wealthy family of southern slaveholders, which would cause many to question her loyalty once the war broke out. Lincoln got land and a yearly income from Mary Todd’s father after marriage during marriage.
Mary Lincoln was described as being the most prevalent First Lady since Dolly Madison, and the woman that the term “First Lady” was coined for. That might have been because she was so disliked. Her large contributions to the presidency consisted of going so far over budget on redecorating the White House that Congress has to authorize twice to go extend additional funds to cover purchases she already made… this while soldiers were freezing during a Civil War. She also was accused of revealing a sensitive document to a reporter, but the reporter later indicated the gardner showed him and the matter was dropped.
Two of Lincoln’s children died before Lincoln; Eddie who was four years old and died in 1850, the author didn’t spend a lot of time on, aside from mentioning that Lincoln may have written poetry about it. The death of Willie was incredibly tragic. He was 12 years old and was sick for weeks due to bad water (termed Bilious fever) and continued wasting away. Lincoln was in the office, and Mary Todd Lincoln chose this time to host her largest soiree, so both parents took turns coming upstairs to check on Willie. He died a few days later, while little brother Tad was also bedridden with the flu. I can only imagine how awful it must have been consoling nine year old Tad when his brother had just died and he was sick with the same flu, not knowing if he would recover. After Willie’s death, Mary Lincoln retreated in mourning and stopped hosting large get-togethers.
Mary conducted multiple séances at the White House to speak to her dead son, even getting Lincoln to sit in on one but Lincoln remained unconvinced. Despite the tragedies, she continued to be disliked and distrusted by those in Washington. Mary Lincoln also embarrassed herself when accompanying Lincoln to visit Grant’s troops. She was late arriving and Lincoln was accompanied by an attractive young woman on a horse and Mary berated her in front of everybody. Overall, she was the worst/least likable first lady I’ve read about, even beating Franklin Pierce’s wife. 1 out of 5.
Post Presidency – **Crickets** N/A
Book Itself – Donald set out with the goal (per the intro) of writing a book that focused on what Lincoln knew when he made decisions and why he made them. For the most part, the book read like a standard biography, but it also read pretty fairly. When given an opportunity to interpret Lincoln’s actions, Donald would generally try to present both sides but would land on the most favorable interpretation to Lincoln. The result was a portrait of a man who came into office with impossible circumstances out of his control and stood firm in the face of that opposition. I don’t know that Lincoln was extraordinary in his accomplishments, as all of his most notable actions were supported by or attempted by other members of his party prior to Lincoln acting on them, but certainly history supports the timing of his decisions as the North won the war and slavery was abolished. For such an iconic figure, it was a very fair biography. 5/5.