Lincoln believed that when Thomas Jefferson wrote of the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, he meant precisely that. On his way to Washington to take up the burdens of the presidency, Lincoln spoke at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on George Washington’s birthday. “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence (Great cheering),” said the soon-to-be sixteenth president. These sentiments were not confined to
the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time (Great applause). It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance (Cheers).
Lincoln acknowledged that Jefferson and the other Founders who signed the Declaration “did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects.” They did not even “mean to assert the obvious untruth” that all people in 1776 were equal in rights and opportunities. Rather,
they meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be…constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.
No one has ever offered a better definition of equality in its American historical context. It speaks to the idealism of Americans when governed by the better angels of our nature—which, alas, has not been often enough, in Lincoln’s time or ours. But the ideals themselves have a powerful appeal. They have done more for our positive self-image and our positive image in other lands—when we have had one—than all of our economic and military might.
Another facet of the Lincoln–Obama connection sprang from the ability of many Americans to overcome the legacy of racism and vote for a black presidential candidate, thereby “augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.” Both the timeliness and timelessness of Lincolns’s expression of the American dream in his life and words surely help answer the question of why Americans remain fascinated by him.
The clarity and eloquence of Lincoln’s rhetoric provide another part of the answer. Even if his deeds were to be forgotten, his words will live as long as there is a United States. Lincoln was only half right when he said at Gettysburg that “the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” The world has not forgotten what he said.
Ronald C. White has written two splendid books analyzing Lincoln’s speeches,6 and the power of Lincoln’s words provides a central theme in his elegant new book, A. Lincoln: A Biography. Fred Kaplan’s Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer also offers penetrating insights on Lincoln’s ability to explain complex ideas in language accessible to a broad range of readers and listeners. Mark Twain was once described as the “Lincoln of our literature”; it is equally true, writes Kaplan, that “Lincoln was the Twain of our politics.” Kaplan is especially effective in tracing the influence on Lincoln’s literary style of his lifelong course of self-education by reading English-language classics: the King James Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, the poetry of Robert Burns and Lord Byron, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Aesop’s Fables.
Lincoln had a unique ability to write for both the eye and the ear. His words are equally lucid on the page and eloquent to the listener. Although he occasionally tried his hand at writing rhymed poetry, he soon recognized that this medium was not his forte. But his best writings are a form of prose poems, as set forth in an ingenious little book by the late Sidney E. Zimbalist.7The American Heritage Dictionary of the American Language defines “prose poem” as “any literary composition written with an intensity or beauty of language more characteristic of poetry than of prose.” That description fits many of Lincoln’s writings and speeches. Consider the peroration of his first inaugural address, as parsed by Zimbalist:
We are not enemies, but friends.
We must not be enemies;
though passion may have strained,
it must not break
our bonds of affection.
The mystic chords of memory,
stretching from every battle-field,
and patriot grave,
to every living heart and hearthstone,
all over this broad land,
will yet swell the chorus of the Union,
when again touched, as surely they will be,
by the better angels of our nature.
Or the opening lines of the Gettysburg Address, which Carl Sandburg called the “great American poem”:
Four score and seven years ago
our fathers brought forth on this continent,
a new nation,
conceived in liberty,
and dedicated to the proposition
that all men are created equal.
Ronald C. White considers the second inaugural address “Lincoln’s greatest speech,” and it is also one of his most poetic, as indicated by this passage:
Fondly do we hope—
fervently do we pray—
that this mighty scourge of war
may speedily pass away.
Yet, if God wills that it continue,
until all the wealth
piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years
of unrequited toil,
shall be sunk
and every drop of blood drawn with the lash,
shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,
as was said three thousand years ago,
so still it must be said,
“the judgments of the Lord,
are true and righteous altogether.”
In 1841, feeling profoundly depressed about the breaking of his initial romantic relationship with Mary Todd, Lincoln told his friend Joshua Speed that he would be more than willing to die except “that he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived.”8 By 1865 he had done many things that gave people everywhere reasons to remember that he had lived. If Lincoln’s life had continued through the biblical span of three score and ten years (to 1879), he would be remembered today as the savior of the Union, the Great Emancipator, and author of the Gettysburg Address. But we probably would not have two hundred statues of him around the country and the world or the majestic marble monument on the mall in Washington.
It was the manner of his death that elevated him above all others in the American Valhalla. Coming five days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, John Wilkes Booth’s shot heard round the world changed triumph into a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Occurring on Good Friday, the assassination also caused instant comparisons of Lincoln to Christ—a comparison still powerful a half-century later in the mind of Leo Tolstoy. Lincoln’s martyrdom at the moment of victory assured him of an immortality achieved by no other American.
But it also turned him into an icon, a man of marble and bronze rather than a human being. The great value of the biographies by Ronald C. White and Michael Burlingame is their humanizing of Lincoln and explorations of contradictions in his character. A melancholy man subject to depression, he entertained friends and strangers alike with a limitless fund of humorous stories and apt anecdotes. Awkward with women, he experienced many ups and downs in his marriage to Mary Todd, whose mercurial temperament was probably exacerbated by his indifference to social niceties and his prolonged absences from home on the legal circuit and campaign trail.
A man of generous instincts toward political adversaries who famously called for “malice toward none” in his second inaugural address, he had also written many anonymous newspaper articles cruelly satirizing opponents in his early career. He ceased this practice only after one such article brought him to the brink of a duel in 1842. Ambitious for high political office, he failed to achieve a desired appointment under President Zachary Taylor and was twice defeated in contests for the United States Senate until the exceptional political circumstances of 1860 unexpectedly catapulted him into the highest office. Gregarious and a good listener, he had few close friends and made his most important presidential decisions in lonely contemplation. All of these and many other character traits of this complex human being are explored in the Burlingame and White biographies.
The two thousand closely written pages of Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln may be truly described as “definitive” in both the positive and negative senses of the word. The author knows more about Abraham Lincoln than any other living person. These two volumes are valuable as an encyclopedic reference work. But Burlingame has crammed too much of what he knows into the narrative. The reader sometimes gets lost in the verbiage and in a dozen or more quotations to sustain each point where two or three would do.
The narrative is also marred by a relentless hostility to Mary Lincoln, who had, he writes, “many symptoms associated with narcissism and with borderline personality disorder,” including manic depression. She made Lincoln’s domestic life “a burning, scorching hell” as “terrible as death and as gloomy as the grave.” Burlingame goes on for page after page like this, quoting almost every negative portrayal of Mary Lincoln he found and almost nothing from the numerous sympathetic appraisals that other historians and biographers have cited. Ronald White’s biography errs in another way, for it has little to say about Mary Lincoln or about the quality of their marriage and family life—a subject of intense interest to many readers.
For a balanced profile of Mary Lincoln one should turn to a new biography of her by Catherine Clinton, where we encounter a sensitive treatment of a woman who (like Abraham Lincoln) endured the death of her mother when she was a child and watched helplessly the deaths of three of her four sons in childhood and youth—not to mention the assassination of her husband by her side. It was little wonder that she sometimes seemed to go off the rails. But she had many positive traits as well. Mary’s “unconditional love sustained Lincoln’s growth to greatness,” writes Clinton.
She was a woman of intense intellect and passion who stepped outside the boundaries her times prescribed, and suffered for it. She was someone who endured more personal loss and public humiliation than any other woman of her generation.
Clinton provides a fuller, fairer portrait of the Lincolns’ marriage than any of the biographies of Abraham. Together these books offer a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood Lincoln who comes down off his marble pedestal to join the rest of us frail humans who have known success and failure, satisfaction and frustration, joy and anger, life and death, just as he did. And because we encounter him as a human being, not an icon, we appreciate his extraordinary achievements even more.
Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (Simon and Schuster, 2002) and The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words (Random House, 2005).↩
The Prose Poems of Abraham Lincoln (privately printed, 2008).↩
Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis (University of Illinois Press, 1998), p. 197.↩
Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (Simon and Schuster, 2002) and The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words (Random House, 2005).↩
The Prose Poems of Abraham Lincoln (privately printed, 2008).↩
Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis (University of Illinois Press, 1998), p. 197.↩