A. Lincoln: A Biography

“A. Lincoln” was the way our greatest president most often signed his name, providing the title of Ronald C. White Jr.’s new biography. Maybe that modest job of rebranding will make White’s interpretation look more idiosyncratic to history buffs, and if so, Random House will say hosannah. Anything to stand out from the truckloads of Lincolnania rumbling toward bookstores in the bicentennial year of his birth.

You may have heard Chris Matthews effusing once or twice last month about how that milestone has been given fresh pizzazz by the recent inaugural of another lanky enigma from Illinois. Not least because B. Obama owes A. Lincoln in more than one sense, I’m wishing him the best. So far as his 19th-century role model goes, however, it’s tempting to ignore the punctuation mark and think of White’s A. Lincoln as A Lincoln instead.

That’s because, as White himself concedes, defining “the” Lincoln has stayed above any would-be interpreter’s pay grade since the day he was assassinated. Call it our bum luck William Shakespeare not only lived in the wrong country but died a few centuries too early to take a crack at the job.

To understand why, consider the distance between the two representations of White’s subject most familiar to Americans. First comes the Abe on the humble penny, an unpretentious co-citizen we’ve seen fit to commemorate on the commonest of U.S. coins. It might not still be in circulation if the image weren’t so democratically iconic.

The other, though, is the Lincoln enthroned in shadows in the most moving of our capital’s memorials. Magnificent, somehow terrible — and in his isolation, unmistakably unique — he’s also unfathomable. No other statue in Washington, D.C., makes visitors so conscious of looking up at it, one reason the place’s usual hush often has underpinnings of disquiet.

What makes him such an uncanny figure in our history is that for once his compatriots can’t make life easy on themselves by saying that the truth must lie between the two extremes. In fact, it encompasses them both. The cracker-barrel Lincoln did exist, not always to his contemporaries’ delight. One brutal cartoon during his presidency — and there were many of those — had him saying, “That reminds me of a funny story,” as he contemplated the Civil War’s rising death toll. But his Mark Twain side masked a calm skill in manipulating other people’s goals and motives to his own ends that would have impressed Machiavelli.

Nor is that all, since the innermost Lincoln would have been at home — and felt at home, whether we care to dwell on it or not — in the world of Poe and Melville. It’s not just that his prose’s somber cadences make him their literary equal. At his most mysterious — or most “fundamental and astounding,” if you like — our Honest Abe was also Honest Ahab, pursuing his one overwhelming goal at all costs: “Until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” to quote the Second Inaugural again. If Poe had been elected president in his place — and don’t blink, since they were born all of three weeks apart — the author of “The Raven” couldn’t have come up with a malediction more frightening.

In Lincoln’s case, like Ahab’s, the cost included his own martyrdom. Unlike the Pequod‘s maniacal master, though, he died knowing that he’d won, most likely with secular sainthood included in the bargain. And call us Moby-Dick, since we were the soiled whale he’d saved instead of killing it: something also in his power, as he knew. Those were the stakes.

As you may not be shocked to hear, the hero of A. Lincoln has no streaks of alarming Poe-like morbidity or Melvillian obsessiveness to speak of. Nor does Machiavellian guile rate more than a hasty nod or two. Though it’s absorbing and clearly the product of devoted (meaning, I’m afraid, both assiduous and blinkered) research, White’s version stays inside the David McCullough school of patriotic biography. Said school’s unstated rule is that on no account must America’s giants ever disturb us.

Our past’s great men do get granted a few quiddities, since they wouldn’t hold our interest if they were all bonnet and no bee. They’re even praised for their pleasantly moth-eaten — that is, inconsequential to modern readers — intellectual complexity. By the final curtain, though, they always stand revealed as selfless agents in a great project: the creation or, by Lincoln’s time, the preservation of a nation.

Not only is the project’s grandeur, as we used to say, self-evident. Out of bounds is any suggestion that our forefathers were more than intermittently goaded (and never primarily, of course) by the same impulses as their counterparts in wicked Europe all through history. You know: an itch for fame, a hunger for power, a craving to validate their outsized sense of their own capacities on the biggest possible stage. As Lyndon Johnson learned to his sorrow, believing that great good can come from schemers is anathema to our DNA.

No wonder two of the most revealing comments on Lincoln by admirers who knew him well appear nowhere in White’s text. Both make dandy correctives to secular sainthood, desentimentalizing Lincoln without debunking him. Here’s William Herndon, his Springfield law partner and posthumous biographer: “His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.” And here’s his White House secretary, John Hay: “No great man is ever modest. It was his intellectual arrogance and unconscious assumption of superiority that men like Chase and Sumner could never forgive.”

Chase was Salmon P. Chase, the Treasury secretary Lincoln later packed off to the Supreme Court. Sumner was haughty Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the Senate’s leading abolitionist. What they had in common with the president who outmaneuvered them both was that all three were career politicians. The difference was that Lincoln was a peerless one: “cold and deliberate, reflective and brilliant,” in Gore Vidal’s — favorable, understand — characterization.

Granted, at one level that assessment suggests how much Vidal, no less than the mawkish eulogists he’s rebuking, began his search for Lincoln’s best qualities by looking in the mirror. But with the enormously touching exception of “Father Abraham’s” leniency to the Union deserters whose death sentences he so often commuted, it would be hard to cite a single important presidential decision Lincoln made based on sentiment.

The truth is, if he’d been wrong instead of supremely right about all the important things — in other words, if he’d had Jefferson Davis’s job, not an impossible scenario; we’re just lucky the Lincolns chose to migrate north from Kentucky soon after Abe’s birth, while the Davises opted for Dixie — we’d remember him as diabolical. No other White House occupant equals him in caginess, tenacity, keen intuition of the forces in play or acute sense of what the traffic will bear.

The best evidence is the Emancipation Proclamation, justly remembered as a mighty step forward in making good on our ideals. Yet in everything from its timing to its hedged application only to the Confederate states, not to mention the devious military-necessity pretext that let Lincoln claim he was acting in his role as commander in chief, it was also a masterstroke of bald-faced opportunism. That’s not a quality we’re used to praising in our oddly Ahab-bearded demigod.

Predictably, White does genuflect once or twice to Lincoln’s “political genius.” So long as the term’s meaning stays cloudy, it’s safely part of the legend. But White doesn’t show much interest in elucidating A.’s M.O., which it isn’t altogether clear he even understands. We’re told more than once that the secret of the pre-presidential Lincoln’s effectiveness as a public speaker was his supposedly thoughtful readiness “to engage in the hard task of examining an opponent’s arguments fully and fairly…his ability to attribute the best motives to those who were his opponents.”

All this is news to me. What White doesn’t seem to grasp is that the rhetorical tactic Lincoln is employing in every example we’re given is that of Julius Caesar‘s Mark Anthony: “For Brutus is an honorable man,” and so on. Not only was he steeped in Shakespeare, but it plainly wasn’t mere leisure reading.

The larger point that’s gone MIA in A. Lincoln is the degree to which the sublime achievements for which we venerate Lincoln were made possible only by the canniness and even ruthlessness of Honest Ahab’s political gifts. Instead, White goes the old-fashioned hymnal route by hailing Lincoln’s “moral integrity” as “the strong trunk from which all the branches of his life grew,” so help me. Such corn is still less inane than his claim that “Lincoln is the president who laughs with us,” a fortunately undeveloped line of thinking that had me planning to greet John Wilkes Booth with open arms and a sob of frenzied gratitude.

The problem with singling out moral integrity as Lincoln’s strong suit is that, in itself, it was hardly an outstanding quality at the time. Countless upright Unionists and abolitionists shared his principles, and plenty of them did so not only with considerable eloquence but more zeal than he ever allowed himself to display. None of them had anything as subtle as his sense of the ripe moment or ability to reframe an issue for maximum leverage — culminating, of course, in the Gettysburg Address’s majestically sneaky substitution of the Declaration of Independence for the Constitution as American holy writ. Abolitionists who faulted Lincoln for insufficient radicalism never realized they were noisy men comparing themselves to a horse whisperer.

White, though, has other priorities. They’re signaled up front by his allusion to Lincoln’s “spiritual odyssey,” which 500-odd pages later has become a full-blown “religious pilgrimage.” That’s the propagandist rather than the scholar in him speaking, since Lincoln’s religious skepticism before he entered politics is so well documented that even Phyllis Schafly couldn’t ignore it.

Even the mounting references to “God” and “the Almighty” in his wartime speeches — as well as one private note found after his death, which White naturally prizes as the smoking-incense proof of A.’s fealty — don’t place him in the bosom of conventional Christianity. Right up to the end, his unfailingly gloomy “Almighty,” whose most useful role as a foil is that He’s always taking matters out of Lincoln’s hands, sounds a lot like what 18th-century deists called Providence and Greeks and Romans called the Fates.

Anyhow, two things should always be kept in mind when evaluating Lincoln’s sayings and writings. One is his audience; the other, his purpose. We’ll never be able to guess his intentions for either when it came to the manuscript of Infidelity, a youthful refutation of Christian dogma his far-sighted employer at the time promptly burned. (White hurries past the episode.) But by 1858 if not much earlier, Lincoln more than understood a not quite self-evident truth: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.”

White quotes that analysis without pausing to reflect that anyone capable of such a perception is unlikely to set too high a value on unadorned candor. Not even while jotting down notes to himself in a White House sitting room, at least if you ask me. Pen to paper is the decisive ingredient here.

At a workaday level, White does a lot of things well. One major virtue is a well-organized narrative that keeps us appraised of the big-picture stuff — the Dred Scott case, the Republican party’s emergence — without losing track of Lincoln’s progress. Future key players in his career are introduced in just enough depth to ensure we’ll remember them down the road.

White also has an eye for vivifying detail, something David Herbert Donald’s otherwise superior 1995 Lincoln — still the benchmark for modern biographies of A. — too often lacked. Since we always picture Lincoln frock-coated, his 1848 appearance “in a long linen duster” at a Whig rally in Worcester, Massachusetts, jolts us into recalling that then Illinois still qualified as the frontier.

A decade later, when Lincoln debates Stephen Douglas, White is at his best. He animates the Great Waxworks Moment we know from so many textbooks by concentrating on the specifics of their encounters: the variations in local attitudes toward slavery at each stop, the debaters’ relative state of exhaustion. As he says, “In the 1850s, in rural and small towns across Illinois, politics was often the only show in town.” He brings that out by giving us what amounts to a good job of ex post facto sportswriting.

A. Lincoln has other nice touches, including the cross-cutting between Lincoln’s and Jefferson Davis’s train journeys to their respective inaugurals. It’s not on a par with the grander contrast between them that opens Shelby Foote’s monumental The Civil War, but it’s effective. Even more so is White’s use of Frederick Douglass as a sort of instant commentator on each stage of A.’s frustratingly slow — to Douglass, anyhow — public evolution from Unionist to Great Emancipator. In hindsight, Lincoln’s caution looks expertly modulated. But Douglass’s frequently dismayed opinion of his pokiness can’t be gainsaid.

All the same, White’s limitations get more obvious once A. is in the White House. His account of how the Emancipation Proclamation came to be pulls out all the stops: the midnight oil, the hesitations, the brooding. But he never brings up Lincoln’s pressing tactical motive — the need to forestall France and Britain, both anti-slavery but craving southern cotton, from recognizing the Confederacy.

In general, foreign affairs stay just that to White. Even Mexico, then occupied by Napoleon III’s glum troops, is largely off his radar. Still, his provincial bias is unlikely to bother American readers much; they mostly share it, after all. Far more annoying is the way his determination to give us a Father Knows Best Lincoln includes attributing likable human frailties to him that he didn’t in fact possess.

One bizarre example is White’s treatment of a minor episode in Lincoln’s presidency: his decision to sack his first secretary of war, the problematic Simon Cameron. In fretful tones, White wonders whether A. took too long to remove him. Then he sagaciously informs us that “Lincoln’s loyalty was a strong character trait that sometimes overrode his judgment.”

In this case — and White cites no others — that’s nonsense. Lincoln had no personal or even professional ties to Cameron, who’d been included in the Cabinet out of expediency. (Pennsylvania needed a plum.) Once he’d turned out to be more trouble than he was worth, his boss delayed removing him only until he hit on a solution that would placate Cameron’s partisans — to wit, naming him ambassador to Russia. So far as I can tell, the humanizing element White introduces here is a concoction.

Making the passage even more noteworthy is its contrast with A. Lincoln‘s reticent handling of two men who, unlike Cameron, were genuinely close to Lincoln — but who, for different reasons, don’t fit White’s pious agenda. During William Herndon’s two decades as Lincoln’s law partner, they talked about everything under the sun. That’s why Herndon’s Lincoln is an unparalleled source of opinionated observations that are based all the same on an intimate acquaintance with the pre–White House Lincoln’s actual words and behavior in unguarded circumstances.

The drawback for White is that Herndon often gives us a Lincoln too gamy to be reproduced in marble — a Lincoln, for instance, who apparently confided to Herndon that he’d caught a case of the clap in his bachelor days. All this plainly won’t do, and since White can’t dissect the relationship without getting into dangerous shoals, he downgrades and marginalizes Herndon instead.

The other Lincoln intimate whose important but indeterminate role in his life goes ostentatiously unexamined is Joshua Speed, with whom A. not only shared quarters before his marriage but — famously, to gay scholars on the trail of Lincoln’s sexuality — a bed. Whatever the nature of their emotional bond, which stands out even on the very short list of Lincoln’s close friendships, Speed meant enough to Lincoln that, unlike Herndon, he was offered several government appointments once A. was in office. This would actually give White some backup for the claim he doesn’t substantiate otherwise about Lincoln’s loyalty sometimes overriding his judgment.

Want to guess why he doesn’t use it? It would have been one thing for him to sift the murky but very enjoyable evidence that Speed was the love of A.’s life and decide it’s inconclusive, which it is. What’s indefensible is White’s refusal to so much as tip off his readers that any ambiguity exists when even coy Carl Sandburg, back in euphemistic 1926, noted “a streak of lavender” in the relationship. Once again, our priggish biographer isn’t acting as a scholar but a propagandist.

As a citizen, White has as much right as any of us to a Lincoln he can call his own, I suppose. Some of you may like Gay Abe; me, I’m fond of Honest Ahab. But A. Lincoln is one more proof that the biography that can accommodate every last one of them — “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” you could say — will probably never be written, which may be A.’s real monument. Personally, my only objection to the Lincoln Memorial is that it’s much too small.