Abraham Lincoln - innocent hero

Abraham Lincoln is known to Britons, but almost more as myth rather than history. This review of the biography by David Herbert Donald puts flesh on the myth.

Abraham Lincoln's name is familiar to Britons, but his image is vague - more famous for having been assassinated than for the life he lived. American history is rarely taught in British schools. However, we sense that Lincoln must have been a great man to inspire such reverence for his memory. Few men have been honoured with a larger statue than the one which graces his monument in Washington. Lincoln was a large man, but not an attractive one. Colonel Lyman's description of him as "the ugliest man I ever put my eyes on" was not a unique view, nor was it a prejudiced opinion, since the same Union officer recorded that "I am well content to have him at the head of affairs". For the most part, 'old Abe' had the support of the army, which struggled through five years of civil war to establish the principles that Lincoln held dear.

My knowledge of Abraham Lincoln grew exponentially when I began poring over "Lincoln", the weighty paperback biography written by David Herbert Donald. To declare it compulsive reading implies sensationalism, but Donald never stoops to that. Nor does he descend into hero worship or gilding the image in order to set up the murdered President as icon or martyr. His objective, as declared in the Preface, was to focus on what Lincoln "knew, when he knew it, and why he made his decisions". He does not look at grand acts or mighty achievements, but at the small steps by which a reasoning man conducts his life. Steps that may cumulatively add up to giant leaps but which were arrived at one pace at a time. Lincoln was a great man, but not in miraculous ways or by mysterious means which other mortals are incapable of understanding. By reading Donald's book I began to understand Abraham Lincoln as a human being … an ordinary man who worked his way patiently through extraordinary circumstances and said of himself - "I claim not to have controlled events, but plainly confess that events have controlled me."

Lincoln's name is inextricably linked with the American Civil War, an event that he did not cause, but which was already inevitable from the beginning of his presidency. When this sixteenth president of the United States made his inaugural speech, a rival president had already been selected by the seceding states that formed the Confederacy. No president had faced a more daunting prospect, and no previous incumbent of the presidency had travelled through life with less expectancy of reaching that high office. He was the first Chief Executive to have been born West of the Appalachians and had the poorest upbringing and the least formal education of any president before or since. His background was neither aristocratic nor wealthy. He had won no military honours; he had limited experience in national politics and held no major office in his home state. He was, however, an effective public speaker with a sense of the public mood and a skill with simple language that spoke to the heart. His first term election was on a wave of popular support in the Northern states. His second term victory, in the midst of civil war was an even greater expression of popular acclaim in the face of tremendous opposition from the political classes in his own Republican party and among the Democrats.

Lincoln was the first Republican president, because the party had only just emerged from an uncertain collaboration between former Whigs, abolitionists (of slavery), and various shades of nationalist and protectionist opinion. It was a quarrelsome alliance, which first tested Lincoln's ability to strike a middle path between extreme opinions. Continuing moderation during his White House years won him many enemies from conservatives and radicals who were each inclined to see him as 'the other side'. But he steadily won respect by his persistent honesty and consistent stability and courage. He was a guileless man, recognised by the masses as a man who was true to himself, but an enigma to 'political' types more accustomed to ambition, power-seeking and intrigue.

Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentuckyraised in a farming community where livelihoods were won by hard work and physical effort. His family later moved to Illinois. Lacking a long-term formal education, he soaked up knowledge and worked at learning until he became a moderately successful lawyer. As an admirer of the Whig politician, Henry Clay, he became involved in small town politics and won a seat in the primitive state legislature. His term was brief but, after a period away from the political scene, he returned to minor prominence and served an undistinguished term in the United States Congress. He was not a man of strong or extreme views and was slow in developing his opposition to slavery, for which he is most gratefully remembered. His eventual candidacy for the presidential race was a surprise for him and a compromise for many of those who promoted his cause. But the compromise candidate won.

Donald's book traces Lincoln's life and career through minute details that reveal painstaking work with a mountain of source material. The close-typed "Sources and Notes" alone cover eighty-six pages at the end of this book. However, the book does not get bogged down in detail, but uses these minute observations to paint a clear picture of a man I can respect and even understand. He was a great man, though he would never have thought of himself in such grand terms. History would still have viewed him as 'great' even if he had walked safe out of Ford's theatre on the night of April 14th 1865. But he was carried out, bleeding from the assassin's wound, a martyr to the cause of the US constitution and a hero to Black Americans, freed from slavery at last.

© Derrick Phillips - 2000