Lincoln as I Knew Him: Gossip, Tributes, and Revelations from His Best Friends and Worst Enemiesby Harold Holzer
Forget what you think you know about Abraham Lincoln. Yes, he was a brilliant orator, a shrewd politician, and a determined leader who guided us through the bloodiest war in American history. But he also was a terrible dresser, rarely bothered to comb his hair, annoyed his colleagues by constantly reading out loud, loved raunchy stories, and let his kids run all… See more details below
Forget what you think you know about Abraham Lincoln. Yes, he was a brilliant orator, a shrewd politician, and a determined leader who guided us through the bloodiest war in American history. But he also was a terrible dresser, rarely bothered to comb his hair, annoyed his colleagues by constantly reading out loud, loved raunchy stories, and let his kids run all over him.
Author and Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer sifted through nineteenth-century letters, diary entries, books, and speeches written by people who knew Lincoln and offers up the real skinny on the man who was arguably America's greatest president. From the famousNathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Ulysses S. Grantto the not-so-famousWhite House secretaries, artists, bodyguards, childhood pals, and a rejected fiancéethis collection presents a revealing, and at times contradictory, view of our sixteenth president, from his boyhood through his White House years. These firsthand anecdotes and recollections strip away the myths and legends to uncover the authentic Abraham Lincoln before the history books got hold of him.
“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
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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Read an Excerpt
"A Splendid and Imposing Figure"
William H. Herndon
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 st 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.
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 www.haroldholzer.com.
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