A Jack Miller Center Pathway to the Founding Essay
The year 2008 is not quite over yet, but already, by the annual tally I do for our Civil War Era Studies website at Gettysburg College, 244 Civil War-related books have issued forth from publishers’ presses. And just as daunting, thirty of those are about some aspect of the life and presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Yes, that’s just one, as-yet-unfinished year. That only adds to the burden of sorting-out the approximately 16,000 other books which have been published about Lincoln since his death in 1865. So where, in this bewildering thicket, should someone begin reading about Abraham Lincoln?
Although it was published in 1952, Benjamin P. Thomas’s Abraham Lincoln remains the best and most-readable of all single-volume Lincoln biographies. Thomas was the executive secretary of the Abraham Lincoln Association, with a PhD in diplomatic history from Johns Hopkins University. He served as a major contributor to the three-volume Lincoln Day-by-Day(a key reference work begun in 1933 which tracked every recorded movement of Lincoln from 1809 to 1865), wrote a short account of Lincoln’s early years in New Salem, Illinois, and published a collection of biographical sketches of major Lincoln biographers. Thomas also the first modern Lincoln biographer to have access to the Robert Todd Lincoln Papers – the vast collection of White House papers which Abraham Lincoln’s sole surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, had secreted in trunks in his New England mansion, and only donated to the Library of Congress under the condition that they not be opened to researchers until 21 years after his death.
For those who want to probe more deeply into the ‘private’ Lincoln, nothing beats Michael Burlingame’s The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (1994). Although Burlingame was constantly advised that nothing new was likely be discovered about Abraham Lincoln which was not already known, it occurred to Burlingame that Lincoln biographers of earlier generations could scarcely have crammed all of what they knew into single books. There were bound to be documents, letters and interviews which these earlier biographers had either left unused or simply filed away. And so Burlingame went a-digging in the archives and manuscript collections of Lincoln biographers (starting with the turn-of-the-century ‘muckraker’ journalist, Ida Tarbell) and turned up reams of unused and previously unknown materials on Lincoln – lost interviews with Lincoln’s friends and associates, clippings from obscure newspapers, and so forth. Burlingame brought this relentless pursuit of new Lincoln material together in The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, which is really a series of formidably-researched essays on the Lincoln marriage, Lincoln and slavery, examples of Lincoln’s anger and (occasionally) cruelty, Lincoln’s “melancholy,” and Lincoln’s “ambition.” Not only are these essays path-breakers, but the footnotes are almost as interesting as the essays themselves.
Professionally, Lincoln was a lawyer, practicing law for 25 years in the Illinois circuit courts, appeals courts, and federal district court. Comparatively little was known about the dimensions of his law practice, however, because so much of the paperwork was squirreled away in dimly-lit basements of small county courthouses scattered around Illinois. It was not until the 1980s that a major project to collect and codify all of Lincoln’s legal papers was launched by the Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency. And as the ‘Lincoln Legals’ project brought more and more of Lincoln’s legal papers to light, the overall shape of his legal practice finally could be identified and analyzed. The full documentary record of the Lincoln Legal Papers project was published in 2000 on DVD. But the best and most accessible overall survey of that teeming mass of documents – over 100,000 papers from 5600 cases in which Lincoln participated – is Mark E. Steiner’s An Honest Calling: The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln (2007). Written by a law professor with a keen eye for the context that makes sense of all the details, Steiner neatly situates Lincoln in the history of American law and provides an easily-understood overview of the various facets of Lincoln’s law practice, from two-dollar trespass cases to corporate law suits.
But Lincoln was more than a lawyer. He was an Illinoisan (at least by transplant when he was 20 years old), and that made him part of ‘the West’ in the 19th century; he was a Kentuckian by birth, which made him part of an important social circle in the Illinois state capital of Springfield; and he was a Whig (until the Whig party collapsed in 1856 and Lincoln joined the new Republican party). Tying together the ‘social history’ of Abraham Lincoln requires an extraordinarily fine-grained knowledge of Lincoln’s social milieu in Illinois, his friends, his associates, and how much Lincoln conformed to the patterns of ambitious and forward-looking Americans in the decades before the Civil War. All this has been tied very neatly together by Kenneth J. Winkle’s The Young Eagle: The Rise of Abraham Lincoln (2001). Winkle has worked out the inter-connected social circles of Lincoln’s adult world, graphed and coded them, and let us see the same society Lincoln saw everyday when he walked to his office.
But above all, Abraham Lincoln is the great champion of democracy – the enemy of human slavery and the defender of the American democracy when it was threatened, not by outside invasion, but by inward dissolution and anarchy. No single event in Lincoln’s life cast his political ideas in a starker light than the series of seven debates he conducted with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 as they both campaigned for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. And no one has ever laid out the ideas behind those debates better than Harry V. Jaffa in Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1959). For Jaffa, the Lincoln-Douglas debates are the nearest American equivalent to Plato’s Symposium, and his magisterial treatment of the great debates shows Lincoln in his greatest moment, defending equality, natural law, and liberty as no other American before or since has done.
I do not expect that writing about Abraham Lincoln will stand still, or that these will always remain the five greatest Lincoln books of them all (Michael Burlingame is, in fact, shortly to release a two-volume biography of Lincoln which will likely throw all previous Lincoln biographies of any shape or size into the shade). But as we stand at the doorway of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in 2009, Thomas, Burlingame, Steiner, Winkle and Jaffa are the top seeds for anyone looking to strike up a worthwhile and exciting acquaintance with Mr. Lincoln – and they probably will be for many years to come.