Flashback

The Truth About Abe Was Astonishing Enough: Apr. 2000

Lincoln: Our greatest hero.

By From the April 2000 issue

Wikipedia
Send to Kindle

In honor of president's day, the Spectator will be republishing this week essays and reviews on our nation's best — and worst — leaders.


Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln
By Richard Slotkin

Henry Holt/478 pages/$27.50

Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest
By Jan Morris

Simon & Schuster/205 pages/$23

It has been said that Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was born in a log cabin that he had built with his own hands; and one can be pretty sure that Lincoln, who was notoriously given to outbursts of horse-laughter that more decorous men found unseemly, would have appreciated the joke. No one knew better than he how readily legend could be made to outdistance the truth of the matter, leaving mere fact far behind in a cloud of triumphal dust. Although Lincoln recalled his youth as nondescript, typical of “the simple annals of the poor,” his countrymen favored a more heroic view of their political leaders’ humble beginnings, and his handlers new just how to oblige them. At the Illinois Republican convention in 1860 supporters lugged into the hall a couple of rails purportedly taken from a fence Lincoln had helped build thirty years before; the crowd went wild, as crowds are known to do, and henceforth Lincoln had himself a sobriquet and an image of the sort that helps mark a man as presidential timber: the Rail Splitter, dauntless son of toil, tamer of wilderness, exemplary noble hayseed.

This brand of demotic panegyric attained perhaps its loftiest and most insufferable expression in the dubious eloquence of Carl Sandburg's biography, Abraham Lincoln; The Prairie Years and The War Years (1926-1939): "In wilderness loneliness he companioned with trees, with the faces of open sky and weather in changing seasons, with that individual one-man instrument, the ax." In fact, as David Herbert Donald has pointed out in his magisterial 1995 biography, Lincoln was only too happy to put his bumpkin upbringing well behind him; he companioned with his ax no longer than he absolutely had to, made his way up in the world with the help of influential men who took a shine to him, and enjoyed a distinguished and prosperous legal career, arguing hundreds of cases before the Illinois Supreme Court, earning substantial fees as advocate for railroads, then the biggest business going in America.

All the mythic folderol aside, the truth about Lincoln is quite enough to astonish. The most superb writer among American presidents had less than a year of schooling; he learned to read and write amid the cacophony of a Knob Creek, Kentucky "blab school," where the students would all read their lessons aloud to themselves so that the teacher could be sure they were hard at work. The accomplished lawyer studied the law pretty much on his own; that he learned the essentials from a copy of William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England he dug out of a barrel of junk sounds like make-believe, but he did regularly walk the twenty miles from New Salem, Illinois, to Springfield and back in order to borrow the books he needed, and he pored over them every chance he got, while manning the counter at a village store. To say that he overcame the most severe disadvantages would miss the point; he enjoyed all the disadvantages, as only a man gifted with the supreme advantages— genius and courage and tenacity—can. Life tried him, and hard; but he sought out the trials as often as the trials sought him out, and only rarely was he found wanting.

Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln, by Richard Slotkin, a professor of American Studies at Wesleyan University and an honored scholar, undertakes to show how Lincoln's youth shaped his formidable mind and character. Slotkin's boy Lincoln possesses an animal vitality that lights up his intelligence and that causes him to crave knowledge as a predator craves prey. On Abe's first day at school, when the teacher points out the letters that make up Abe's name, the six-year-old pupil goes on full mental alert: "The boy's white-blue eyes widened and he leaned forward in a way that was almost wolflike; his hands rose and the fingers spread a little as if some energy were filling and lifting him. It almost seemed as if he would spring and snatch the proffered gift from the Master's mouth." The growing boy has an insatiable desire for the world he finds in books: "He didn't just run the words through his eyes, he studied over them, puzzling till he got clear to the bottom."

However, bookish youngsters are of no particular use on the frontier, and Abe's father is determined to teach his son what a real man's work is. So far Abe's story might sound something like Tonio Kroger's or Stephen Dedalus's, though in rather a different milieu; but in this case the thoughtful and dreamy boy is not cut out to be an artist. Abe resolves to prove he is as manly as his father or any other rough- hewn pioneer. Joining the hunt for a rogue bear; watching his mother's horrible illness and death, which convince him that God more nearly resembles the cruelest men he knows than the tender Father his mother used to tell him about; slaughtering hogs; splitting those fabled rails; whipping all corners at wrestling, he makes himself a paragon of backwoods virility.

For all that, he still hates his father, his father still hates him, and books still enthrall him with the prospect of the splendid life he hopes he might someday live. Among the books that his stepmother gives him are the very ones that reveal what he is made for:

Each [book] had special powers.... But the Orator and the Elocution, they were the keys: for their teaching was how a man should speak when he rises an equal among the citizens of the republic—how he should stand, how he should say words, how he should reason, and with plenty of pictures and examples in case you didn't take the idea right off.... All a boy had to do was learn to speak like a republican man, and there wasn't anything he couldn't be or do.

There is considerable truth in this discovery; yet Lincoln still has to learn first-hand certain unfragrant truths about the republic that his beloved books overlook.

A journey down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans, when he is 19 years old—his first sight of the world beyond Kentucky and Indiana—provides the needed instruction; a flatboat is his Yale and his Harvard. Along the way Abe makes the acquaintance of a free-thinking, proto-feminist lady; fights for his life, and beats a man nearly to death; surrenders his virginity to a five-dollar whore, top-of-the-line goods, and with a heart of gold; is rapt by a performance of Richard III starring the renowned actor Junius Brutus Booth, who happens to be the father of John Wilkes Booth.

Most important, Abe comes to feel and to comprehend the malign power of slavery. This lesson is not easily learned; Abe has a lot to overcome. When the refractory manner of a woman slave reminds him of his stepmother's manner toward his father, shame overwhelms him. To think that the two women might be alike in any respect at all strikes him as a mortal insult to his Ma. Moral ugliness and danger abound on the Big River, and they are unforgettable teachers. A plantation owner low on cash offers Abe and his fellow boatmen a night with one of his slaves in exchange for a barrel of meal and a keg of whisky; incensed by their refusal, he calls them a bunch of "nigger-lovin' Yan- kee sumbitch[es]," and later terrorizes them with the backing of a posse of vigilantes, asserting that the black man traveling with them has been stolen. That black man, Sephus, claims to be the sole survivor of an attack on another boat bound from Kentucky to New Orleans; only gradually does Abe realize that Sephus must have murdered his master, a man Abe knew. Despite this realization, Abe tries to see that Sephus is turned over to an enlightened owner, who would arrange his slave's emigration to Haiti and freedom. However, the business instincts of Abe's bosses foil his solicitous plan; they seize the chance to make a killing by selling Sephus into the hardest bondage. Before Abe's baptismal adventure is over, he is mistaken for an uppity mulatto by New Orleans police, and in making his escape he triggers a riot by a hitherto festive crowd of blacks. His sad experience moves him to reflect on might and right:

In a world of Wolves, if you want to help the Lambs you need to be more than a little Wolf yourself. What was the good of knowing the right thing to do, unless you had the power to do it?... He remembered the riot in the street, how he stood higher than the crowd and they all looking up at him, listening, and if he'd known what to do with them... [ellipsis in the original] the rage rising in him, rage not like a sin but like a blessing, rage that comes of knowing in your soul you deserved to get justice and meant to have it or die.

Slotkin's Abe is a ripping good yarn, vividly and sometimes brilliantly written, morally serious in intention. However, the evident nobility of purpose does have a certain slickness to it, appealing not so much to the better angels of our nature as to hot-button liberal reflexes; the effect can be cliched or even preposterous, as in the gruesome depiction of the pioneers' slaughter of passenger pigeons, the description of clearing the land as "the war against the trees," the sage Indian mentor who keeps Abe from swallowing whole the white man's foolishness, and Abe's earnestly inquiring of his whore what he can do to ensure a woman's pleasure. This young Lincoln has crossed the very long bridge to the twenty-first century; Abe might have been titled Al: Patriotic Gore. Still, if one is willing to make allowances for the usual nonsense—such allowances must be made for just about any novel one is likely to read these days —and if one does not mind a historical novel that takes more liberties with the truth than most—the account of the trip downriver is largely one stretcher after another — Slotkin's tale is an impressive and moving piece of work.

Some people, however, insist on preferring truth to legend. Jan Morris, the noted Welsh travel writer and popular historian, observes in her Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest that if the young Lincoln was outraged by the Peculiar Institution, he kept his feelings to himself for a long time: "His sensibilities may perhaps have been affronted, as myth said, by what he saw during his river voyages into the deep South, but he seems to have expressed no particular thoughts about slavery until he was well into his forties." Actually he did express himself on the matter before then, but probably not in the way one might expect after reading Slotkin. In March 1837, Lincoln and the other Illinois state assemblyman from Sangamo County presented the House with a protest against a recently passed abolitionist resolution: Although slavery was "founded on both injustice and bad policy," the protest read, incendiary talk is likely only to make things worse, and in any case the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the rights of individual states to uphold the rights of slave-masters to their possessions. As Morris notes, "slavery was never mentioned by name in that hallowed code, but slaves presumably came under the category of property, and property was sacrosanct."  

But in the fullness of time he was to order men to war, and men do not go off to fight and die animated by reason alone. Lincoln cultivated a way of reasoning that touched the noble passions, in himself and in the men of the Union. The reasoning was not always clear even when the rhetoric was most effective; it took Lincoln a long time to settle his own mind on what reasonable men ought to do about slavery.

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which contravened the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and permitted residents of the western territories to vote for slavery, and the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision of 1857, which declared that blacks could not be American citizens, Lincoln perceived as logical steps on the way to forbidding any state in the Union to exclude slavery. This understanding put him in an intellectual and moral fix, and he lunged this way and that in his struggles to get himself and a nation out of it. A house divided against itself cannot stand, he would aver in a famous 1858 speech; but the division extended to his own heart and mind, as Morris astutely observes. Lincoln invoked the moral supremacy of the Declaration of Independence, with its unqualified assertion that all men are created equal, but he also maintained that this assertion was limited strictly to equal treatment under the law; he believed that blacks were a physically, mentally, and morally inferior race, that blacks and whites could never live happily together, and that everyone would be better off if American blacks were to be repatriated to Africa or to found a colony of their own, in Colombia perhaps, or on a Caribbean island. In any event, he also held that the Constitution did not allow for abolition; when he finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he claimed that military necessity empowered him to do so.

He did not say so, but it was also most likely military necessity that confined the Emancipation Proclamation to those states still in rebellion; it did not apply to those border states —Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware —where slavery also existed but which were loyal to the Union.

Even more than with most other political men, it is hard to tell how far Lincoln's words and actions reflected his personal convictions. From 1838 he was on the record as saying that slavery was an egregious injustice; in 1862 he told a Committee of Colored Men that American blacks were suffering "the greatest wrong inflicted on any people" (then suggested how much sweeter life would be in, for instance, Liberia). Yet at least until the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln never did say that the war was being fought to free the slaves; saving the Union was the only war aim he publicly professed. Circumstances required the most delicate sense of what was politically feasible; to lead effectively meant being careful, not to get too far ahead of the multitude. So one wants to believe in any case.

Morris is right on the mark when she sizes up the problem of political maneuver that Lincoln had to deal with. "Lincoln said himself that the task he faced was harder than anything Washington was up against. From first to last his presidency was a balancing act. His principal opponents were the extreme abolitionists, mostly within his own party, who thought he never went far enough; the opposition Democrats, who thought he went much too far; and miscellaneous political dis- contents who merely wanted him out of the way." Lincoln's presidential career may have been a moral tangle, but it was a magnificent political triumph. He probably had often to bite back the words he wanted most to say, to refrain from doing the things he wanted most to do. Some of the things he did say are nothing less than appalling to any decent person today; his reputation suffers because of them. All the same, his glory is undeniable, for some- how he got the most important things done—perhaps the most important things, except for the founding, in our history. Legend would have him be the best of men, and he most likely was not that; but he was the best man for the task to hand, and that makes him, one can say unreservedly, our greatest hero.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Algis Valiunas is a Florida-based writer and critic.