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Lincoln as I Knew Him: Gossip, Tributes, and Revelations from His Best Friends and Worst Enemies


What was Lincoln really like?

Depends on whom you ask...

Here are first-hand recollections from the famous (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne) to the not-so-famous to the downright infamous (John Wilkes Booth).

Military men on Lincoln's leadership: "The President is nothing more than a well meaning baboon."


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What was Lincoln really like?

Depends on whom you ask...

Here are first-hand recollections from the famous (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne) to the not-so-famous to the downright infamous (John Wilkes Booth).

Military men on Lincoln's leadership: "The President is nothing more than a well meaning baboon."

—General George McClellan

Journalists on Lincoln's character: "No man living has a kinder heart."

—Noah Brooks

Artists on Lincoln's appearance: "Mr. Lincoln had the saddest face I ever attempted to paint."

—Francis Bicknell Carpenter

Lady friends on Lincoln's courtship manners: "Mr. Lincoln was deficient in those little links which make up the great chain of womans happiness."

—Mary Owens

Advance Praise for Lincoln As I Knew Him:

"Inspiring ... A collection that sheds light not only on Lincoln but also on his times."

—Publisher's Weekly

"A pleasing admixture of the strange and the familiar, of poignance and humor, of iron and irony."

—Kirkus Reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Parade Magazine
"[A] revelatory little book." —Parade Magazine
Chicago Tribune
“There are gems throughout.” —Chicago Tribune
The Civil War News
"Wonderfully thorough . . . even the most well-read of Lincoln lovers is sure to find something they have never read before." — The Civil War News
From the Publisher
"[A] revelatory little book." —Parade Magazine

“There are gems throughout.” —Chicago Tribune

"Inspiring . . . A collection that sheds light not only on Lincoln but also on his times." —Publishers Weekly

"Wonderfully thorough . . . even the most well-read of Lincoln lovers is sure to find something they have never read before." — The Civil War News

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565126817
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 2/10/2009
  • Pages: 281
  • Sales rank: 962,305
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 6.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Harold Holzer is one of the country’s leading authorities on Abraham Lincoln and the political culture of the Civil War era. He has published over thirty books, including "The New York Times" Complete Civil War (Black Dog and Leventhal), and is the recipient of numerous awards, among them the Lincoln Prize and the National Humanities Medal. He lectures widely, appears on television frequently, and has written for the New York Times, American Heritage, and America’s Civil War. Most recently he served as co-chair of the United States Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and is senior vice president for external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Find him online at

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Read an Excerpt

"A Splendid and Imposing Figure"

William H. Herndon


Law Partner

Lincoln's last law partner and one of his most important biographers, Herndon devoted the years after the assassination to laborious research, gathering personal reminiscences from his old friend's earliest acquaintances. When it came to firsthand observations of Lincoln, however, Herndon was perhaps the most valuable witness of all. He shared a Springfield law office with his senior (but equal) partner from 1844 until Lincoln departed for Washington to take the oath of office as president in 1861. Their partnership was never formally dissolved; on paper, at least, it survived until Lincoln's death in 1865.

Herndon was also one of Lincoln's most ardent admirers. More liberal on the slavery question, he later claimed to have moved Lincoln politically, but probably exaggerated his influence. Herndon experienced no end of difficulty gathering together Lincoln's biography. His book, subtitled The True Story of a Great Life, did not appear until 1889, by which time its author was fighting a losing battle against alcoholism and poverty. Although some scholars have dismissed the effort as sensationalist, and fatally clouded by his hatred for Mary Lincoln, the book does contain incontestably valuable passages-like the following recollections of Lincoln the talented attorney and indulgent father.

A Law office is a dull, dry place so far as pleasurable or interesting incidents are concerned. If one is in search of stories of fraud, deceit, cruelty, broken promises, blasted homes, there is no better place to learn them than a law office. But to the majority of persons these painful recitals are anything but attractive, and it is well perhaps that it should be so. In the office, as in the court room, Lincoln, when discussing any point, was never arbitrary or insinuating. He was deferential, cool, patient, and respectful. When he reached the office, about nine o'clock in the morning, the first thing he did was to pick up a newspaper, spread himself out on an old sofa, one leg on a chair, and read aloud, much to my discomfort. Singularly enough Lincoln never read any other way but aloud. This habit used to annoy me almost beyond the point of endurance. I once asked him why he did so. This was his explanation: "When I read aloud two senses catch the idea: first, I see what I read; second, I hear it, and therefore I can remember it better." He never studied law books unless a case was on hand for consideration-never followed up the decisions of the supreme courts, as other lawyers did. It seemed as if he depended for his effectiveness in managing a law suit entirely on the stimulus and inspiration of the final hour. He paid but little attention to the fees and money matters of the firm-usually leaving all such to me. He never entered an item in the account book. If any one paid money to him which belonged to the firm, on arriving at the office he divided it with me. If I was not there, he would wrap up my share in a piece of paper and place it in my drawer-marking it with a pencil, "Case of Roe vs. Doe.-Herndon's half. . . .

. . . He exercised no government of any kind over his household. His children did much as they pleased. Many of their antics he approved, and he restrained them in nothing. He never reproved them or gave them a fatherly frown. He was the most indulgent parent I have ever known. He was in the habit, when at home on Sunday, of bringing his two boys, Willie and Thomas-or "Tad"-down to the office to remain while his wife attended church. He seldom accompanied her there. The boys were absolutely unrestrained in their amusement. If they pulled down all the books from the shelves, bent the points of all the pens, overturned inkstands, scattered law-papers over the floor, or threw the pencils in the spittoon, it never disturbed the serenity of their father's good-nature. . . . Had they s—t in Lincoln's hat and rubbed it on his boots, he would have laughed and thought it smart. . . . Frequently absorbed in thought, he never observed their mischievous but destructive pranks-as his unfortunate partner did, who thought much, but said nothing-and, even if brought to his attention, he virtually encouraged their repetition by declining to show any substantial evidence of parental disapproval. . . .

Mr. Lincoln never had a confidant, and therefore never unbosomed himself to others. He never spoke of his trials to me or, so far as I knew, to any of his friends. It was a great burden to carry, but he bore it sadly enough and without a murmur. I could always realize when he was in distress, without being told. He was not exactly an early riser, that is, he never usually appeared in the office till about nine o'clock in the morning. I usually preceded him an hour. Sometimes, however, he would come down as early as seven o'clock-in fact, on one occasion I remember he came down before daylight. If, on arriving at the office, I found him in, I knew instantly that a breeze had sprung up over the domestic sea, and that the waters were troubled. He would either be lying on the lounge looking skyward, or doubled up in a chair with his feet resting on the sill of a back window. He would not look up on my entering, and only answered my "Good morning" with a grunt. I at once busied myself with pen and paper, or ran through the leaves of some books; but the evidence of his melancholy and distress was so plain, and his silence so signifcant, that I would grow restless myself, and finding some excuse to go to the court-house or elsewhere, would leave the room.

The door of his office opening into a narrow hallway was half glass, with a curtain on it working on brass rings strung on wire. As I passed out on these occasions I would draw the curtain across the glass, and before I reached the bottom of the stairs I could hear the key turn in the lock, and Lincoln was alone in his gloom.

One phase of Lincoln's character, almost lost sight of in the commonly accepted belief in his humility and kindly feeling under all circumstances, was his righteous indignation when aroused. In such cases he was the most fearless man I ever knew. I remember a murder case in which we appeared for the defense, and during the trial of which the judge-a man of ability far inferior to Lincoln's-kept ruling against us. Finally, a very material question, in fact one around which the entire case seemed to revolve, came up, and again the Court ruled adversely. The prosecution was jubilant, and Lincoln, seeing defeat certain unless he recovered his ground, grew very despondent. The notion crept into his head that the Court's rulings, which were absurd and almost spiteful, were aimed at him, and this angered him beyond reason. He told me of his feelings at dinner, and said: "I have determined to crowd the Court to the wall and regain my position before night." From that time forward it was interesting to watch him. At the reassembling of court he arose to read a few authorities in support of his position. In his comments he kept within the bounds of propriety just far enough to avoid a reprimand for contempt of court.

He characterized the continued rulings against him as not only unjust but foolish; and, figuratively speaking, he pealed the Court from head to foot. I shall never forget the scene. Lincoln had the crowd, a portion of the bar, and the jury with him. He knew that fact, and it, together with the belief that injustice had been done him, nerved him to a feeling of desperation.

He was wrought up to the point of madness. When a man of large heart and head is wrought up and mad, as the old adage runs, "he's mad all over." Lincoln had studied up the points involved, but knowing full well the calibre of the judge, relied mostly on the moral effect of his personal bearing and influence. He was alternately furious and eloquent, pursuing the Court with broad facts and pointed inquiries in marked and rapid succession. I remember he made use of this homely incident in illustration of some point: "In early days a party of men went out hunting for a wild boar. But the game came upon them unawares, and scampering away they all climbed the trees save one, who, seizing the animal by the ears, undertook to hold him, but despairing of success cried out to his companions in the trees, 'For God's sake, boys, come down and help me let go.'" The prosecution endeavored to break him down or even "head him of," but all to no purpose. His masterly arraignment of law and facts had so effectually badgered the judge that, strange as it may seem, he pretended to see the error in his former position, and finally reversed his decision in Lincoln's favor.

Use of this excerpt from LINCOLN AS I KNEW HIM may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice:

Copyright c 1999 by Harold Holzer. All rights reserved.

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Table of Contents


A Grand Composite Picture

1. Memories from Family

Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln

Dennis Hanks

John Hanks

Elizabeth Todd Grimsley

William Wallace Lincoln

Mary Lincoln

2. Memories from Personal and Political Friends

Joseph Gillespie

Joshua Fry Speed

Isaac N. Arnold

Mary Owens

Carl Schurz

3. Memories from Fellow Lawyers

Henry Clay Whitney

William H. Herndon

John H. Littlefield

Leonard Swett

4. Memories from Journalists and Humorists

Noah Brooks

Henry Villard

David R. Locke

Sylvanus Cadwallader

Horace Greeley

5. Memories from Foreign Observers

Ernest Duvergier de Hauranne

Edward Dicey

William Howard Russell

The Marquis de Chambrun

6. Memories from Foes

George B. McClellan

Stephen A. Douglas

Alexander H. Stephens

John Wilkes Booth

7. Memories from Military Men

Charles A. Dana

E.W. Andrews

William Tecumseh Sherman

Ulysses S. Grant

8. Memories from Authors

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Walt Whitman

Harriet Beecher Stowe

9. Memories from Artists

Leonard Wells Volk

Thomas D. Jones

Francis Bicknell Carpenter

10. Memories from African-Americans

Sojourner Truth

Frederick Douglass

11. Memories from White House Intimates

John G. Nicolay and John M. Hay

Henry W. Knight

Elizabeth Keckley

Julia Taft (Bayne)

William Osborn Stoddard

Thomas T. Eckert

Salmon P. Chase

William H. Crook








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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2011

    Excellent Read

    Harold Holzer is a master and this book is just another example of his fine work. Very interesting to read so many views of Mr. Lincoln from those with whom he lived and worked. I highly recommend this easy read to learn more about the man.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 13, 2009

    I Also Recommend:


    To be able to strip away some of iconic attitudes which have grown up around our 16th President is delightful. Reading the first hand accounts from his co-workers, family, friends, and colleagues is revelatory. Although many of the anecdotes have been read in other places previously, to have them combined in one book is appreciated. As we reflect on the debt we owe to Lincoln in this bicentennial year of his birth, and contemplate the respect given to him and his accomplishments by our current president, we can at least touch briefly, his humanity and what REALLY made him tick through these personal accounts.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2000

    Short Stories Of A Lincoln Life

    If you want something you can read in small doses, this is it about Lincoln. Character, attitude, lifestyle. You will see it all first hand with these great stories lived by the actual people who knew Abe. It is a good one. Great price, and a great read.

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