Shaping a leader
David Herbert Donald has added a valuable supplement to his recent biography of Abraham Lincoln. “We Are Lincoln Men”:Abraham Lincoln and His Friends explores Lincoln’s friendships for which sufficient evidence has survived to permit meaningful analysis. Expressing in his introduction genuine surprise that Lincoln had so few such friendships, Donald then defines friendship in ways both classical and modern that exclude mere comrades and acquaintances. In the United States we have long described as friends people we see frequently at work or play; Donald obviously means much more than this. Drawing on ancient wisdom and modern psychology, he posits three types of friendship: shared interests, especially hobbies and other pleasurable activities; mutual support in pursuing common goals; and, most powerful of all, the deep friendship “in which there is free sharing of ideas, hopes, wishes, ambitions, fears.”
Four Lincoln friends receive a chapter each: Joshua F. Speed, William H. Herndon, Orville H. Browning, and William H. Seward. A concluding chapter considers two intimate friends who were much younger than Lincoln — John George Nicolay and John Hay, the president’s private secretaries.
Speed shared lodgings with Lincoln when both were young bachelors in Springfield; their close friendship never ended entirely but attenuated after Speed’s permanent return to his native Kentucky, the friends’ respective marriages, and the immersion of each in his career. But Speed served Lincoln well during the Civil War, helping keep Kentucky loyal, and his brother James eventually served as Lincoln’s second attorney general.
Herndon, of course, was Lincoln’s chosen partner for 18 years practicing law in Springfield, as well as a tireless if somewhat eccentric biographer.
Browning, a native of Kentucky and resident of Quincy, had served in the state Legislature as a Whig. Long a respected acquaintance in law and politics, he became Lincoln’s close friend and advisor after the election of 1860, especially after Gov. Richard Yates appointed him to serve the balance of Stephen A. Douglas’ term in the U.S. Senate. A determined Unionist, Browning was a pillar of strength until Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. As the war to save the Union became also a war to end slavery, friendship ended. By that time, Lincoln felt sufficiently comfortable with his young secretaries that they became friends as well as employees.
Meanwhile, rather against anyone’s expectations, Secretary of State Seward had become Lincoln’s closest friend in his cabinet. This took several months, during which Lincoln quietly taught Seward how thoroughly he had underestimated him.
Lincoln’s youthful friendship with Speed was probably the closest to perfect friendship he ever came. The brilliant and eccentric Herndon obviously maintained the longest active friendship with Lincoln. Theirs was a mutually beneficial relationship and probably a necessary part of Lincoln’s ascent to greatness. During the 18 months in which Lincoln and Browning were pursuing common goals, their political cooperation blossomed into genuine friendship, but the friendship could not survive when their goals sharply diverged. Lincoln’s friendships with Seward and his secretaries were tragically cut short by his assassination. Much later, the two private secretaries would honor the president’s memory with their fine biography.
Another book in this crop that adds significantly to Lincoln biography is William C. Harris’ Lincoln’s Last Months. This is a narrative history that, with occasional backward glances, begins in July 1864 and ends on April 15, 1865. The major topics covered are the election of 1864, Congress’ passage of the 13th Amendment, coping with the new swarm of office-seekers, Lincoln’s second inauguration and his briefest and arguably best address, plans for reconstruction, peace negotiations, Western Indian affairs, border warfare with Canada, France in Mexico, trade in cotton and other goods with the fading Confederacy, Lincoln’s semivacation in Virginia, and his death. By concentrating on eight months, Harris succeeds in vivifying familiar unfamiliar material that rarely finds its way into Lincoln biographies, such as Lincoln’s fondness for playing with kittens. Lincoln is, as is usually the case these days, seen as wise, patient, and adroit at balancing competing political factions. He is also often verging on exhaustion. Harris draws a sympathetic portrait, but his Lincoln is not perfect. The president earns low marks for his inattention to the already desperate plight of Great Plains Indians and for his overgenerous granting of special licenses to trade with the rebels. An authority on Reconstruction, Harris realizes that Lincoln’s policies for the postwar South were chiefly framed during the war and motivated by the desire to achieve peace and reunion as rapidly as possible. Lincoln succeeded in ending slavery — no mean feat — but at the time of his death he had scarcely made a beginning of securing anything like equality for the newly freed.
Larry T. Maihafer’s War of Words joins Michael Burlingame’s recent editions of Civil War journalism by John Hay and Noah Brooks, demonstrating that Abraham Lincoln worked long and imaginatively at finding sympathetic reporters, editors, and publishers who would influence the American public to see things his way. The late Col. Maihafer was a graduate of West Point, held a journalism degree from the University of Missouri, and wrote many books and articles, chiefly on military history. One of these, The General and the Journalists: Ulysses S. Grant, Horace Greeley, and Charles Dana (Brassey’s, 1998), enjoys a partial recapitulation in the current volume.
War of Words might be described as a history of the Civil War as reflected in the Northern press, for Maihafer offers plenty of quotations from newsmen hostile to Lincoln and the Republicans, even if his main interest and sympathies are with those supporting the president. A special feature of the book is the attention paid to reporting battles. Then, as now (and perhaps always), most generals regarded representatives of the press as little better than enemy spies and preferred to drum them out of camp. But Lincoln, eager as he was to cultivate as much of the press as possible, was necessarily at odds with that disposition. In the case of Gen. Grant, Lincoln negotiated an unorthodox deal whereby Charles Dana traveled with the Army of the Potomac and filed news through Washington, informing first the president and then Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune of Grant’s progress.
Maihafer can stray a bit from his main business, as he does at the end of his book. After reviewing three lamentations on the death of Lincoln from major newspapers, the author concludes by citing in its entirety a private letter of condolence to Mary Lincoln from Queen Victoria. This was certainly news, but not journalism.
In Lincoln’s Constitution Daniel Farber offers a modern successor to James G. Randall’s classic Constitutional Problems under Lincoln (University of Illinois Press, 1926; revised 1951). In addition to reflecting current ways of looking at the subject, Farber concentrates on the principal issues involved, making his work somewhat less historical and more philosophical than Randall’s. In spite of the unavoidable complexities of constitutional issues, Farber manages to write a highly readable book.
In every instance in which Lincoln has been accused of acting in a plainly unconstitutional way, by many of his contemporaries and some subsequent writers, Farber believes that Lincoln was justified by a combination of precedents and the circumstances in which he acted, with one exception: Farber finds the censorship of hostile Northern newspapers unacceptable. Although the worst cases — arresting Clement Vallandigham and shutting down the New York World — were instigated by overzealous military authorities, they could defend their actions with references to Lincoln’s general orders. In discussing central issues such as sovereignty, state’s rights, nullification, and secession, Farber displays a thorough command of the ideas of the founding generation and, insofar as can be determined, how its members understood and applied the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. In considering difficult cases that arose during the Civil War, Farber looks backward again but also forward to the ruling of courts and the behavior of presidents down to the present. Rather than present only those arguments he finds most compelling, Farber makes the strongest possible arguments for positions, such as Calhoun’s nullification or Confederate secession, with which he finally disagrees.
Michael S. Green’s book is the longest and the most expensive of the six books under consideration here; it also is one of the most interesting. Green has a thesis, contained in his book’s title — Freedom, Union, and Power: Lincoln and His Party during the Civil War — and he rarely carries the reader through a chapter without repeating it. This is a study of the working and reshaping of the basic ideology of the Republican Party from 1861-1865.
As a party formed in opposition to the Democrats, Republicans had to mature and change with the responsibilities and opportunities posed by taking power and meeting the worst crisis since the founding of the nation. Green’s first two chapters set forth this thesis in considerable detail — the conclusion arrives before the detailed demonstrations in the rest of the book. Republicans believed in the complete interdependence of freedom, union, and power: the first two could not flourish without the third, and the third could not be justified without the first two. The seceding South was surely wrong to dedicate itself to the preservation of slavery. But if Green is correct, the South understood the Republican Party of 1860 better than did many of its own members: Its fundamental beliefs set it irreversibly on the way to abolishing slavery. This appears more plausible when Green points out that steps to end slavery began early in the war and a large majority of the party supported each more advanced step. Within the party there were rivalries, animosities, and even violent disagreements enough, but Green insists that these were either caused by clashes of personal ambition — Chase’s wishing to be president, for instance — or by different opinions on how best to win the war — Sen. Ben Wade and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War believing in its rightful duty to supervise the president and his Army, for instance.
To illustrate this thesis, Green spends most of his long and dense book on a political history of the war, especially emphasizing the give-and-take of hammering out positions among active Republicans, be they in the administration, the Congress, state governments, the press, or the Army. Green does not minimize Lincoln’s skills in leading his party but strongly implies that the party did, in fact, wish to be led, so long as its basic goals could be reached.
In Abraham Lincoln’s Political Faith, Joseph R. Fornieri maintains that Lincoln had developed a distinctive “American civil theology” by the time he re-entered politics in 1854: “The cogency of Lincoln’s civil theology can be attributed to the depth of his thought, to his command of the English language, and, perhaps most important, to his profound understanding of the Bible.”
Books on Lincoln’s religious beliefs have never been in short supply, but this one is unusual for the author’s own knowledge of the Bible, as well as his understanding of the patristic tradition of the theology based on it. The book is, among other things, a treasury of Lincoln’s Biblical references, analogies, and patterns of thought. An especially interesting chapter introduces readers to the pro-slavery theology of the South, a subject with its own extensive literature that rarely receives this sort of attention in Lincoln studies. Fornieri argues that rather too much has been made of Lincoln’s address to the Springfield Lyceum in 1838, especially by the Freudian Charles B. Strozier and the Straussian Harry V. Jaffa. Although he does not deny the importance of the Lyceum address as a milestone in Lincoln’s growth, Fornieri leans toward the idea that it chiefly means what it says: that true patriots should guard the Republic as handed down from the fathers from bold and charismatic leaders who might hypnotize the majority into abandoning a government of reasoned laws and justice. It was a cautionary look back at Andrew Jackson and the lynch mobs of the 1830s rather than a prophecy of his own revolutionary role in the early 1860s.
Fornieri spends several pages analyzing Lincoln’s long speech in Peoria on Oct. 16, 1854, “an indispensable historical, legal, political, and moral case against slavery from the founding era to the sectional conflict of the mid-nineteenth century.” This was one of many instances, culminating the Second Inaugural Address, of what Fornieri calls Biblical Republicanism.
Besides enriching our understanding of Lincoln’s “political faith,” this study reminds one that Lincoln scholars, and scholars in general from the Progressive Era onward, have usually been more concerned with material factors and related political beliefs in history, as opposed to the efforts of men and women to base their politics on transcendent religious principles. David Donald’s work is a good example of this: “We Are Lincoln Men” contains not a word about Lincoln’s philosophical and theological friendship with the Rev. James Smith of the First Presbyterian Church in Springfield. The only quotation in which Lincoln testifies in favor of Christianity is followed by Donald’s elaborate questioning of its veracity.
More striking still is Michael Green’s deep and probing book, which, however, takes no notice of the role organized religion and its highly articulate ministers played in the Republican Party and, more broadly in the American and British anti-slavery movements.