- Abraham Lincoln: A Life
- The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2024 pp.
A Massive Tome, but Still Lacking
The latest award of Britain’s Man Booker prize for a novel was, says the chief judge, “based on the sheer bigness of the book.” Using that criterion, Michael Burlingame’s hefty new biography of President Lincoln deserves the Pulitzer prize for history. With little question, Burlingame thinks he deserves it. Carl Sandburg won the Pulitzer in 1940 for his multi-volume work on Lincoln, and Burlingame writes that he has used far better sources—and that “Sandburg was a poet, I am a scholar.” Indeed, Professor Burlingame is one of America’s foremost Lincoln scholars. Perhaps no one has ever published more about Lincoln than he has: a dozen books before this one, during his more than three decades as professor of history at Connecticut College. (He moved to the University of Illinois at Springfield earlier this year.)
The new biography is certainly one of the most carefully researched, and best written, of the many works of Lincolniana that have appeared as we have celebrated the bicentennial of the President’s birth in 1809. That said, the Burlingame biography is disappointing, in a number of ways; but the pluses outweigh the minuses.
Burlingame begins his account of the President with a section on Lincoln’s ancestry. He quotes Lincoln’s stated belief that he was descended from the Samuel Lincoln who left England to settle in Hingham, Massachusetts, in 1638. A certain amount is known about Samuel Lincoln, who apparently came from a prosperous family in England, and about his descendants who moved south over several generations from New England into Pennsylvania and then Virginia. Our biographer says little about Samuel and nothing about his forebears, skips three later generations entirely, and takes up the Lincoln line with the President’s paternal grandfather. This is unfortunate, since Abraham Lincoln believed he had inherited good qualities from his maternal grandfather, an unidentified “Virginia planter or large farmer” who was said to have seduced his maternal grandmother, Lucey Hanks. One imagines he was at least equally proud of his Lincoln forebears—at least up to his shiftless father, Thomas Lincoln, with whom he had no contact in Thomas’s final years in Illinois.
If any reader should doubt that Abraham Lincoln grew up poor, our author documents the fact with quotations from not just two or three but eight sources. Lincoln had little schooling; he learned to read, write, and cipher to “the rule of three.” This last was a means to solve a proportion, e.g. 3 is to 9 as 2 is to X. (Our author uses other numbers: “34 is to 15 as 7 is to X—what is the value of X?” The answer, Dr. Burlingame, is roughly 2.625; are you saying Abraham got into decimals?)
Perhaps the greatest value of the new biography is to document thoroughly a number of important facts that too many other Lincoln authors have ignored or skimmed over. One of these is the strong anti-black sentiment that then prevailed in many Northern states. Today’s average reader may think of the antebellum North as a land of abolitionists, but in 1848 the State of Illinois banned black suffrage and then prohibited black immigration into the state. Illinoisans, Burlingame tells us, were among the most bigoted of all Northerners. Throughout Lincoln’s political career he viewed slavery as an abomination, but it was an institution with Constitutional protection and Lincoln had to work very carefully to gain and keep political support. He succeeded in good part because while making clear his hatred of slavery, he also said clearly in the prewar days that he did not think blacks equal to whites. (In the fourth of his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said that as long as blacks and whites remained together “…there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”)
If there is a villain in this book it is the President’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. The average reader knows that she caused him serious embarrassment, in her shopping sprees and her loudly-expressed jealousies of other women. Burlingame tells us much more. There were a number of cases of mental instability in her family. Among her half-brothers who supported the Confederate cause one, David Todd, was clearly sadistic—and he was in charge of Richmond’s military prisons during the war!
Abraham Lincoln, as Burlingame brings out, was often shy and awkward with women, and it was far from clear that he would carry through with his promise to marry Mary Todd; he had broken his engagement to her once. Then suddenly he did marry her, on a few hours’ notice. Burlingame makes a good case for this having happened only after she had forced the issue by seducing him. When he was dressing for the ceremony someone asked him where he was going. He replied that “I guess I am going to hell.”
In many ways, the marriage that ensued was indeed hell. On occasion his wife would slap him; she hit him with a broomstick and even with a piece of firewood. She lashed out at other people as well, and not just verbally; she often struck her servants and her children. It is no wonder that when Lincoln the lawyer rode the Eighth Judicial Circuit in Illinois for weeks on end, he seldom went home on weekends as his colleagues did. Most readers will know that years after Lincoln died, their surviving son Robert Todd Lincoln had his mother committed to an insane asylum for some time. Burlingame has found that Robert, too, had problems; in 1906 he wrote a friend that he was “trying to recover from a nervous breakdown.”
The biography traces in interesting detail the rise of Abraham Lincoln in law and in politics. There was some ugliness in the man. Burlingame identifies Lincoln as the probable author of a string of anonymous press articles that appeared over the years in Illinois, attacking—sometimes viciously—various contemporaries. One may question whether Lincoln really was the author of all of these, but there can be no question that Lincoln in his thirties was what our author terms him: “the slasher-gaff politico who reveled in sarcasm and excelled at ridicule.”
The question for any Lincoln biographer is how and when Lincoln rose beyond this to become a statesman. He spent two years in the U.S. House of Representatives and in 1849, at the age of forty, came home to Illinois where, Burlingame says, he passed through “a fiery psychological trial at midlife.” Burlingame, as he writes in an Author’s Note, is strong on psychological interpretations. That is very well and good but his chapter on Lincoln’s life from 1849 to 1854, entitled “Midlife Crisis,” fails to demonstrate that there was such a crisis, although Lincoln worried if he would die before accomplishing much and he was heartbroken when his three-year-old son Eddie, Robert’s younger brother, died in 1850. It would be truer to say that—as Burlingame shows—in the years after he returned from Congress Lincoln became a skilled trial lawyer, an even better appellate lawyer, a friend and mentor to younger colleagues, and a man fairly prosperous despite the modest fees he charged. He was, in a word, maturing.
Perhaps, though, we are missing something. The author stresses that we have little documentation of Lincoln’s personal life: no diary, and few revealing confidences preserved either in letters or in the reminiscences of friends. One thing missing from the book is the question of Lincoln’s possible bisexuality or homosexuality. Speculation about this is based in part on the fact that during the first four years he lived in Springfield, Lincoln slept in a double bed together with his friend Joshua Speed. Gore Vidal has written that there was a “love affair” between the two men; C.A. Tripp argued that Lincoln was homosexual in his book The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln. Many, probably most, scholars do not believe the President was either bisexual or homosexual. Burlingame need not have gone far into the question—but he should at a minimum have mentioned it.
Nor does Burlingame mention another interesting question, that of the possible effect on Lincoln’s personality of a popular medicine he is widely reported to have used in his Springfield years. The medicine, known as “blue mass,” was made from varying recipes, but they all had one active ingredient: mercury. Indications are that Lincoln did not continue taking blue mass after he entered the Presidency; but did he suffer at all from mercury poisoning?
Nor does our author discuss the suggestions that have been made that Lincoln may have suffered from either Marfan syndrome or Sipple’s syndrome, which are serious disorders. We can probably not get beyond speculation on this; but a Lincoln biographer should not ignore the question.
The author is similarly remiss in not mentioning the fact that while practicing law, Lincoln worked part-time as a credit reporter for a predecessor of Dun & Bradstreet. Did he report on his law clients? If so, was it not a conflict of interest?
Burlingame’s second volume is entirely devoted to Lincoln’s final four years, the years of his Presidency and our Civil War. Never perhaps has there been such a masterful account of the man’s failures—and successes—in this country’s most taxing job. Look what Burlingame says he did in just his first hundred days in office: “…he raised and supplied an army, sent it into battle, held the Border States in the Union, helped thwart Confederate attempts to win European diplomatic recognition, declared a blockade, asserted leadership over his cabinet, dealt effectively with Congress, averted a potential crisis with Great Britain, and eloquently articulated the nature and purpose of the war.”
The author gives an exhaustive account of the appalling spoils system, which Lincoln did not devise but continued in operation. He made many poor appointments, beginning with his first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, but these were not entirely his fault. As he told Thurlow Weed, the New York political boss, he had been hampered in choosing his Cabinet by his want of acquaintance with prominent men. What might be added is that there was then no White House personnel office that might have vetted candidates for both higher- and lower-ranking jobs, and identified at least some of the unworthy or unqualified ones. Nor, of course, was there then any career Federal service. (Burlingame has found that a surprising number of women—more than four hundred—became postmasters during Lincoln’s administration. One guesses that many of these were in small places, and that so many women got the jobs because so many men had gone to the war.)
Burlingame makes clear at the beginning of this book that “The focus here remains Lincoln himself.” He does not make clear why he could not, while maintaining his focus, find room to tell us a little more about the great battles of the Civil War. As the war went on and the failures of his generals multiplied, Lincoln became an increasingly active commander-in-chief. Why then do Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg get such brief mention, no more than a paragraph or two per battle?
The book ignores some other questions of interest. There is, for example, the author’s treatment of Ward Hill Lamon. The burly Virginian had been a law partner of Lincoln and served part-time as his wartime bodyguard, even sleeping, armed to the teeth, on the floor outside the President’s bedroom. Lincoln sent Lamon to Charleston before the attack on Fort Sumter, and Burlingame makes clear that Lamon said the wrong thing in his talk with South Carolina’s governor. Four years later, though, as the war was ending and after Lincoln had visited captured Richmond, the President had enough faith in Lamon to send him on a follow-up mission to Richmond. Burlingame mentions Lamon’s trip briefly, seemingly finding it unimportant. Lamon himself indicated otherwise. A key question was whether a Virginia state convention might make the Old Dominion the first rebel state to return to the Union—and Lamon wrote that he went “on business for Mr. Lincoln connected with the call of a convention….” The President was assassinated while Lamon was away—and Lamon also wrote that before leaving Washington he had warned Lincoln that he should not, in any case, go to the theater! But Lamon’s interesting if perhaps questionable account is not mentioned by Burlingame.
One wonders, too, whether Burlingame knows the story of the Union’s wartime “secret diplomatic service.” Secretary of State William Seward eventually told the U.S. Senate—three years after the war had ended—that during the war a number of Americans had gone abroad ostensibly as private citizens but in fact as government agents, to counter Confederate efforts to win the world to the Southern cause. It was an interesting group. One of them was the Catholic Archbishop of New York, John Hughes; another was the Episcopal Bishop of Ohio, Charles McIlvaine; still another was Samuel B. Ruggles, one of the wealthiest and most prominent residents of New York. Seward paid them high tribute, saying that “The national life might have been lost but for their services.”
The new biography is a major addition to the literature on Abraham Lincoln, and a major resource for any reader interested in the President. It is unfortunate that eleven years’ labor did not produce a work more balanced and—one may say despite its length—more comprehensive in content.