A. Lincoln: A Biography

A. Lincoln: A Biography

by Ronald C. White


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“If you read one book about Lincoln, make it A. Lincoln.”—USA Today

The Washington Post • The Philadelphia Inquirer • The Christian Science Monitor • St. Louis Post-Dispatch.


Everyone wants to define the man who signed his name “A. Lincoln.” In his lifetime and ever since, friend and foe have taken it upon themselves to characterize Lincoln according to their own label or libel. In this magnificent book, Ronald C. White, Jr., offers a fresh and compelling definition of Lincoln as a man of integrity–what today’s commentators would call “authenticity”–whose moral compass holds the key to understanding his life.

Through meticulous research of the newly completed Lincoln Legal Papers, as well as of recently discovered letters and photographs, White provides a portrait of Lincoln’s personal, political, and moral evolution. White shows us Lincoln as a man who would leave a trail of thoughts in his wake, jotting ideas on scraps of paper and filing them in his top hat or the bottom drawer of his desk; a country lawyer who asked questions in order to figure out his own thinking on an issue, as much as to argue the case; a hands-on commander in chief who, as soldiers and sailors watched in amazement, commandeered a boat and ordered an attack on Confederate shore batteries at the tip of the Virginia peninsula; a man who struggled with the immorality of slavery and as president acted publicly and privately to outlaw it forever; and finally, a president involved in a religious odyssey who wrote, for his own eyes only, a profound meditation on “the will of God” in the Civil War that would become the basis of his finest address.

Most enlightening, the Abraham Lincoln who comes into focus in this stellar narrative is a person of intellectual curiosity, comfortable with ambiguity, unafraid to “think anew and act anew.”

A transcendent, sweeping, passionately written biography that greatly expands our knowledge and understanding of its subject, A. Lincoln will engage a whole new generation of Americans. It is poised to shed a profound light on our greatest president just as America commemorates the bicentennial of his birth.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812975703
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/04/2010
Pages: 816
Sales rank: 97,493
Product dimensions: 6.52(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.75(d)

About the Author

Ronald C. White, Jr., is the author of two bestselling books on Abraham Lincoln: The Eloquent President and Lincoln’s Greatest Speech, a New York Times Notable Book. White earned his Ph.D. at Princeton and has lectured on Lincoln at hundreds of universities and organizations, and at Gettysburg and the White House. He is a Fellow at the Huntington Library and a Visiting Professor of History at UCLA. He lives with his wife, Cynthia, in La Cañada, California.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

A. Lincoln and the Promise of America

He signed his name "a. lincoln." a visitor to abraham lincoln's Springfield, Illinois, home at Eighth and Jackson would find "A. Lincoln" in silvered Roman characters affixed to an octagonal black plate on the front door. All through his life, people sought to complete the A-to define Lincoln, to label or libel him. Immediately after his death and continuing to the present, Americans have tried to explain the nation's most revered president. A. Lincoln continues to fascinate us because he eludes simple definitions and final judgments.

Tall, raw boned, and with an unruly shock of black hair, his appearance could not have been more different from that of George Washington and the other founding fathers. Walt Whitman, who saw the president regularly in Washington, D.C., wrote that Lincoln's face was "so awful ugly it becomes beautiful." But when Lincoln spoke, audiences forgot his appearance as they listened to his inspiring words.

He is one of the few Americans whose life and words bridge time. Illinois senator Everett Dirksen said fifty years ago, "The first task of every politician is to get right with Lincoln." At critical moments in our nation's history, his eloquent words become contemporary.

As a young man, he won the nickname "Honest Abe" when his store in New Salem, Illinois, "winked out." Rather than cut and run from his debts in the middle of the night, as was common on the frontier, he stayed and paid back what he called his "National Debt." His political opponents invented a long list of denunciations, ranging from "the Black Republican" to "the original gorilla" to "the dictator." His supporters crafted monikers of admiration: "Old Abe," affectionately attached to him while he was still a relatively young man, and the "Rail Splitter," to remind voters in the 1860 presidential campaign of his roots in what was then the Western frontier. During the Civil War, admiration became endearment when the soldiers he led as commander in chief called him "Father Abraham." After his controversial decision to sign the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day 1863, grateful Americans, black and white, honored him with the title "the Great Emancipator."

Each name became a signpost pointing to the ways Lincoln grew and changed through critical episodes in his life. Each was an attempt to define him, whether by characterization or caricature.

Yet how did Lincoln define himself? He never kept a diary. He wrote three brief autobiographical statements, one pointedly in the third person. As the Lincolns prepared to leave for Washington in the winter of 1861, Mary Lincoln, to protect her privacy, burned her correspondence with her husband in the alley behind their Springfield home. In an age when one did not tell all, Lincoln seldom shared his innermost feelings in public. Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon, summed it up "He was the most shut-mouthed man that ever existed." Yet when Lincoln spoke, he offered some of the most inspiring words ever uttered on the meaning of America.

Each generation of Americans rightfully demands a new engagement with the past. Fresh questions are raised out of contemporary experiences. Does he deserve the title "the Great Emancipator"? Was Lincoln a racist? Did he invent, as some have charged, the authoritarian, imperial presidency? How did Lincoln reshape the modern role of commander in chief? How are we to understand Mary Lincoln and their marriage? What were Lincoln's religious beliefs? How did he connect religion to politics? As we peel back each layer of Lincoln's life, these questions foster only more questions.

Actually, Lincoln did keep a journal, but he never wrote in a single record book. What I call Lincoln's "diary" consists of hundreds of notes he composed for himself over his adult life. He recorded his ideas on scraps of paper, filing them in his top hat or his bottom desk drawer. He wrote them for his eyes only. These reflections bring into view a private Lincoln. They reveal a man of intellectual curiosity who was testing a wide range of ideas, puzzling out problems, constructing philosophical syllogisms, and sometimes disclosing his personal feelings. In these notes we find his evolving thoughts on slavery, his envy at the soaring career of Stephen Douglas, and the intellectual foundations of his Second Inaugural Address.

Lincoln's moral integrity is the strong trunk from which all the branches of his life grew. His integrity has many roots-in the soil, in Shakespeare, and in the Bible. Ambition was present almost from the beginning, and he had to learn to prune this branch that it not grow out of proportion in his life. Often, when contemporary Americans try to trace an inspired idea or a shimmering truth about our national identity, again and again we find Lincoln's initials carved on some tree-AL-for he was there before us.

Lincoln was always comfortable with ambiguity. In a private musing, he prefaced an affirmation, "I am almost ready to say this is probably true." The lawyer in Lincoln delighted in approaching a question or problem from as many sides as possible, helping him appreciate the views of others, even when those opinions opposed his own.

In an alternative life, Lincoln might have enjoyed a career as an actor in the Shakespearean plays he loved. As a lawyer, he became a lead actor on the stages of the courthouses of the Eighth Judicial Circuit of central Illinois. As president, he was a skillful director of a diverse cast of characters, civilian and military, many of whom often tried to upstage him. Although his military experience was limited to a few months in the Black Hawk War of 1832, Lincoln would become the nation's first true commander in chief, defining and shaping that position into what it is today.

Lincoln is the president who laughs with us. His winsome personality reveals itself in his self-deprecating humor. As a young lawyer and congressman, his satire could sting and hurt political foes, but later in life he demonstrated a more gentle sense of humor that traded on his keen sense of irony and paradox. During the Civil War, some politicians wondered how Lincoln could still laugh, but he appreciated that humor and tragedy, as portrayed in Shakespeare's plays, are always close companions.

Recently, the question has been asked with renewed intensity: What did Lincoln really believe about slavery? Born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana, and becoming a politician in Illinois, Lincoln answered this question differently in his developing engagement with slavery throughout his life. One of the reasons he hated slavery was because it denied the American right to rise to African-Americans. In debates with Stephen Douglas and conversations with African-American leader Frederick Douglass, Lincoln understood that in doing battle with slavery, he was wrestling with the soul of America.

Lincoln has often been portrayed as not religious, in part because he never joined a church. How to reconcile this, then, with the deep religious insights of his second inaugural address, given only weeks before his death? Where are the missing pieces in his spiritual odyssey? One clue is a private musing on the question of the activity of God in the Civil War found after his death by his young secretary, John Hay, in a bottom drawer of his desk. A second is a religious mentor in Washington who played a largely overlooked role in the story of Lincoln's evolving religious beliefs.

Lincoln would have relished each new advance in the information revolution. Before the modern press conference, he became skilled at shaping public opinion by courting powerful newspaper editors. During the Civil War he learned how to reach a large audience through the writing of "public letters." He understood the potential of the chattering new magnetic telegraph, which allowed him to instantly communicate with generals in the field and become a hands-on commander in chief. In the last year and a half of his life, he surprised members of his cabinet by accepting a clearly secondary role in the dedication at Gettysburg, only to deliver a mere 272 words that stirred a nation.

Even though we have no audio record of Lincoln's words, he still speaks to us through his expressive letters and his eloquent speeches. Lincoln may not have read the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle's Treatise on Rhetoric, but he embodied his definition that ethos, or "integrity," is the key to persuasion. Even when Lincoln disappears in his speeches-as he does in the Gettysburg Address, never using the word "I"-they reveal the moral center of the man.

Lincoln was conservative in temperament. As a young man he believed that the role of his generation was simply to "transmit" the values of the nation's founders. Over time he came to believe that each generation must redefine America in relation to the problems of its time. By the end of 1862, Lincoln would declare, "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present." In the last two and a half years of his life, Lincoln began to think in the future tense: "We must think anew, and act anew." However one decides to define Lincoln, whatever questions one brings to his story, his life and ideas are a prism to America's past as well as to her future.

Table of Contents

List of Maps ix

Cast of Characters xi

Chapter 1 A. Lincoln and the Promise of America 3

Chapter 2 Undistinguished Families 1809–16 7

Chapter 3 Persistent in Learning 1816–30 23

Chapter 4 Rendering Myself Worthy of Their Esteem 1831–34 43

Chapter 5 The Whole People of Sangamon 1834–37 61

Chapter 6 Without Contemplating Consequences 1837–42 79

Chapter 7 A Matter of Profound Wonder 1831–42 99

Chapter 8 The Truth Is, I Would Like to Go Very Much 1843–46 119

Chapter 9 My Best Impression of the Truth 1847–49 139

Chapter 10 As a Peacemaker the Lawyer Has a Superior Opportunity 1849–52 167

Chapter 11 Let No One Be Deceived 1852–56 187

Chapter 12 A House Divided 1856–58 223

Chapter 13 The Eternal Struggle Between These Two Principles 1858 257

Chapter 14 The Taste Is in My Mouth a Little 1858–60 291

Chapter 15 Justice and Fairness to All May 1860–November–1860 331

Chapter 16 An Humble Instrument in the Hands of the Almighty November 1860–February 1861 349

Chapter 17 We Must Not Be Enemies February 1861–April 1861 381

Chapter 18 A People's Contest April 1861–July 1861 411

Chapter 19 The Bottom Is Out of the Tub July 1861–January 1862 437

Chapter 20 We Are Coming, Father Abraham: January 1862–July 1862 467

Chapter 21 We Must Think Anew July 1862–December 1862 495

Chapter 22 What Will the Country Say? January 1863–May 1863 531

Chapter 23 You Say You Will Not Fight to Free Negroes May 1863–September 1863 563

Chapter 24 A New Birth of Freedom September 1863–March 1864 591

Chapter 25 The Will of God Prevails March 1864–November 1864 617

Chapter 26 With Malice Toward None, with Charity for All December 1864–April 1865 647

Acknowledgments 677

Notes 681

Selected Bibliography 745

Illustration Credits 765

Index 769

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Looking for a comprehensive birth-to-death bio? This is the answer.”USA Today

“Does the world really need another Lincoln bio? White’s exhaustive yet accessible work tips the scales to yes.”People

“This thoroughly researched book belongs on the A-list of major biographies of the tall Illinoisian; it’s a worthy companion for all who admire Lincoln’s prose and his ability to see into, and explain, America’s greatest crisis.”The Washington Post Book World

“This brilliant account of the man and his times will be the standard for biographers.”San Francisco Chronicle

“A page-turner . . . White has managed a complex narrative with the ease and zest of the novelist.”The Buffalo News

“While this is a serious, weighty book, it’s also enormously readable, illuminating Lincoln’s intellectual prowess and personal magnetism in a way we’ve rarely seen before.”Chicago Tribune (10 Top Books About Lincoln)

“Comprehensive . . . an admirable account of the life in full.”Los Angeles Times

“A vivid and readable narrative . . . [White] is that rarity: a scholar who can tell a good story.”The Miami Herald

“The torrent of Lincoln books past and present . . . means that the bar is necessarily set high. A. Lincoln . . . [is] among the most substantial new entrants.”The Economist

“Impressive.”U.S. News & World Report

“Comprehensive . . . Taking advantage of newly available resources . . . Mr. White delivers a strong narrative . . . [aimed] at the general reader.”The Wall Street Journal

“Lincoln is endlessly chronicled because he is, like the nation he saved, endlessly fascinating. Ronald C. White has written a splendid, sprawling biography of a man we can never know too much about.”—Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson and American Lion

“Ronald C. White, an acknowledged expert on the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, has now taken in hand a full-length biography. To this task he brings the careful reading, patient attention to context, and special sensitivity to complex questions about Lincoln's religion that characterized his earlier books. The result is a first-rate study that will probably be THE biography of the Lincoln Bicentennial Year.”—Mark A. Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History, University of Notre Dame

“Having given us two masterful studies of Lincoln's eloquence, Ronald C. White now delivers a riveting biography. This page-turner narrates all the major events of Lincoln's public career, including his military decision-making, but it does much more. No other book has so completely captured the elusive temperament of the man— his humility and confidence, heart and intellect, religious spirit and secular sensibility. If you thought you knew Lincoln already, you'll know him better after reading this patient, probing work. A portrait for the ages.”—Richard Wightman Fox, Professor of History, University of Southern California

“Ron White’s A. Lincoln is a superb biography of America’s greatest leader. It is fully fleshed, thoughtful, provocative, and scholarly. Lincoln is never out of fashion. After a generation during which three comprehensive one-volume Lincoln biographies appeared—Benjamin P. Thomas’s Abraham Lincoln: A Biography in 1952; Stephen B. Oates’s With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln in 1977; and David Donald’s Lincoln in 1995—A. Lincoln: A Biography, with its rich detail, will be the standard text for years to come. The author includes the religious connections to his subject like no other biographer. This is a remarkable Lincoln biography by an outstanding writer.”—Frank J. Williams, Founding Chair of The Lincoln Forum and Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court

”Lincoln’s bicentennial will bring a flood of books about the sixteenth president. Anyone seeking an expansive, thoroughly engaging biography should turn to Ronald C. White’s gracefully written narrative. It does full justice to the complexity and drama of the era and allows readers to understand how Lincoln ultimately triumphed in guiding the nation through its greatest trial.”—Gary W. Gallagher, John L. Nau III Professor of History, University of Virginia

“Ronald C. White’s A. Lincoln is the best biography of Lincoln since David Donald’s Lincoln. In many respects it is better than Donald’s biography, because it has incorporated the scholarship of the past fourteen years and is written in a fluent style that will appeal to a large range of general readers as well as Lincoln aficionados. The special strengths that lift this work above other biographies include a brilliant analysis of Lincoln’s principal speeches and writings, which were an important weapon in his political leadership and statesmanship, and on which Ronald C. White is the foremost expert, having written two major books on Lincoln’s speeches and writings.  Another strength is White’s analysis of Lincoln's evolving religious convictions, which shaped the core of his effective leadership, his moral integrity. White’s discussion of Lincoln’s changing attitudes and policies with respect to slavery and race is also a key aspect of this biography. Amid all the books on Lincoln that will be published during the coming year, this one will stand out as one of the best.”—James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom

“A beautifully written, deeply personal story of Lincoln’s life and service to his country. Ronald C. White’s moving account is particularly strong in its analyses of Lincoln’s rhetoric and the process by which the president reached decisions.”—Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

“Each generation requires–and seems to inspire–its own masterly one-volume Lincoln biography, and scholar Ronald C. White has crowned the bicentennial year with an instant classic for the twenty-first century. Wise, scholarly, evenhanded, and elegant, the book at once informs and inspires, with a rewarding new emphasis on the complex meaning and timeless importance of Lincoln’s great words. Brimming with new anecdotes and informed interpretations, White’s superb study brings vivid new life to an American immortal.”—Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln: President-Elect, and co-chairman, Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission

Reading Group Guide

1. What characteristics of the young Lincoln stood out to his boyhood friends in Indiana?

2. Beginning with Lincoln’s announcement of his candidacy for state office in 1832, what qualities marked his four terms in the Illinois State Legislature?

3. In Lincoln’s single term in Congress why and how did he criticize President James Polk’s policies in the Mexican-American War?

4. How would you characterize Lincoln’s self-understanding as a lawyer in the years 1849-1854?

5. Why did Lincoln reemerge into politics in 1854 and what is new about his political message and style?

6. It has been suggested that Lincoln won the debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858. What are the bases of this claim?

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