Book Review: Lincoln in Private by Ron White

Lincoln in Private: What His Most Personal Reflections Tell Us About Our Greatest President   By Ronald C. White, 2021

Book Reviewed by: E. Phelps Gay

In this short, highly readable volume, Ronald C. White examines “fragments” left behind by our 16th President, who made a lifelong habit of writing notes to himself. These thoughts and musings, ranging from a famous sentence (“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master”) to a little-known speech not delivered to fellow Kentuckians on his pre-inaugural train ride from Springfield to Washington, illuminate the mind of Lincoln as a lawyer, politician, and president. In assembling all 111 of Lincoln’s private notes in one volume and in writing short chapters examining twelve of them,  White has taken a very good idea and made it into a very good book.

One need look no further than his 1862 “Meditation on the Divine Will” to recognize that Lincoln sometimes consulted (or at least drew from) these notes when the time came to compose an important letter, formal address, or presidential message. Indeed, parts of the Second Inaugural (“The Almighty has His own purposes” and “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”) eerily echo this meditation he scribbled to himself (many believe) two and a half years earlier after the Second Battle of Bull Run. (“In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party” and “God wills this contest and wills that it shall not end yet.”)

And yet, as White points out, many of these notes do not reappear in later speeches. Instead, they are “building blocks that can help us reconstruct Lincoln’s thought processes as he approached history-altering decisions.” Some read like dialectical exercises wherein questions and answers go back and forth in Lincoln’s mind in an effort to get to the nub of a matter, such as this gem believed to have been written in July, 1854:

If A can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B—why may not B snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A? You say A is white, and B is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be a slave to the first man you meet, with fairer skin than your own.

Through these fragments Lincoln sought to preserve his “best thoughts.” In 1846-1847, for example, he privately set down “on eleven foolscap half sheets of paper” his thoughts on tariffs. Thirteen years later, when protectionism formed a key part of the 1860 Republican platform, he stuffed these pages in an envelope addressed to his campaign manager, David Davis, with instructions to send them to Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron.

To be sure, these notes aren’t new. They can be found in John G. Nicolay and John Hay’s 1890 Abraham Lincoln: A History and in their 1905 Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln; in Roy P. Basler’s 1953 Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln; and in the online Papers of Abraham Lincoln, a project begun in 2001. But not until now have they been collected, with color copies of several originals in Lincoln’s handwriting, to form the focus of a prominent scholar’s book.

White begins with Lincoln’s “lyrical” reflections upon seeing Niagara Falls in 1848 after giving a series of campaign speeches in Massachusetts for presidential candidate Zachary Taylor. Typically, Lincoln is curious about the effect produced by that much water pouring down in a “perpendicular jog,” then being lifted up by the sun. A philosopher, he imagines, would feel “overwhelmed in the contemplation of the vast power the sun is constantly exerting in quiet, noiseless operation of lifting water up to be rained down again.” More prosaically, asked by his law partner William Herndon to share his impressions upon seeing this natural wonder, Lincoln replied: “The thing that struck me most forcibly . . . was where in the world did all that water come from?”

But Lincoln’s thoughts turn to the “roaring” of Niagara Falls over the “indefinite past.” “The eyes of that species of extinct giants, whose bones fill the mounds of America, have gazed on Niagara, as ours do now.” Over that long stretch of time, Niagara was “never still.” It “never dried, never froze, never slept, never rested.”

As with all these notes, White “sets the scene” by providing historical and cultural context, including reflections by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens on their visits to the Falls. He also shows us the magnificent 1820 oil canvas by Alvan Fisher, “a father of landscape painting,” entitled A General View of the Falls of Niagara.

Whether this note qualifies as Lincoln’s “most poetic,” as White suggests, may engender some debate, but there is no question we are dealing with a thirty-nine-year-old man of remarkable intellectual curiosity who was moved to express his thoughts on paper. That this fragment has survived for our reading pleasure (as, White posits, many did not) is a gift to Lincoln enthusiasts.

In this regard White reminds us that immediately after his father’s assassination Robert Lincoln wired Lincoln’s friend and campaign manager David Davis, then a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, asking him to take charge of his father’s affairs. Lincoln’s secretaries, Hay and Nicolay, collected the president’s papers, and Davis had them shipped to his hometown of Bloomington, Illinois, for deposit into a bank vault. Hay and Nicolay had to wait nearly a decade before being allowed to review them.

Of greater interest (from this lawyer’s biased perspective) is the Fragment: Notes for a Law Lecture, sometimes called Notes on the Practice of Law. Nicolay and Hay assigned them a date of July 1, 1850, accompanied by a question mark, and Basler retained the date “in the absence of satisfactory evidence to the contrary.” Persuasively, White suggests it was probably written “some years later” after Lincoln had gained more experience and prominence in his practice. This comports with the view expressed by the editors of the 2000 The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition who suggest Lincoln may have written these notes after receiving invitation in 1858 to give a lecture at Ohio State and Union Law College in Cleveland.

Regardless of when written, these Notes have today become required reading for persons seeking to enter the legal profession. They begin with trademark humility (“I am not an accomplished lawyer”) and end with an eloquent injunction not to yield to the “vague popular belief” that lawyers are “necessarily dishonest.”

Let no young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief—resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.

White notes that a “fresh examination” of Lincoln’s work as a lawyer began in the 1980s, with the Lincoln Legal Papers Project scouring the records of county courthouses across Illinois, unearthing thousands of new Lincoln documents. Undoubtedly, these records have increased our understanding of Lincoln’s law practice. Yet, “as valuable as they are,” White contends, they “do not include anything as revelatory as this fragment,” which offers us “an intimate look at how Lincoln understood his vocation as a lawyer.”

Here I should note that Ron White shares with his subject two characteristics of good writing: clarity and concision. Instead of weighing us down with facts and figures, or lengthy descriptions of particular cases (as we know, several good books have recently been written on cases such as Effie Afton and “Peachy” Quinn Harrison), White deftly summarizes Lincoln’s career as a lawyer, spicing up his account with vivid images such as Lincoln’s carpetbag (“the first mass-produced luggage”) and his “large cotton umbrella” purchased for seventy-five cents. In homes out on the prairie, White informs us, people welcomed traveling lawyers with “a latchstring on their doors.”

White also highlights the lessons Lincoln learned from his scholarly second law partner Stephen Trigg Logan, who counseled him thoroughly to examine the merits of his opponent’s case. In addition, Logan “never encouraged litigation, but as a friend and neighbor strove for the peaceful adjustment of all controversies.” Consistent with this theme, in his Note Lincoln observes: “As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man.”  He denounces lawyers who review the register of deeds looking for defects in titles, averring that “a moral tone ought to be infused into the profession which should drive such men out of it.”

White moves on to five fragments Lincoln wrote as a politician re-energized in 1854 by opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which presented the prospect of slavery expanding westward into the territories. He begins with the aforementioned gem wherein “You” tries to justify slavery but is admonished by the writer to “take care” lest his logic come back to haunt him. White points out that during the summer of 1854, before jumping into the political fray, Lincoln spent hours poring over the history of slavery in the statehouse library across the street from his office. This “period of intellectual gestation” ultimately led to his September and October speeches in Bloomington, Springfield, and Peoria.

A separate Fragment on Slavery, also assigned a date of July 1, 1854, consists of a single page cut off from a more complete document. It begins with “dent truth” (which White suspects was a next-page continuation of “self-evident truth”) and ends with “of ship, and steamboat, and rail-.” Basler speculates these notes may have been omitted from the speech Lincoln gave in Cincinnati on September 17, 1859.

This fragment contains Lincoln’s well-known observation that “although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself.” It ends with another “call and response” between “they” who said men were too ignorant for self-government, and “we” who “propose to give all a chance; and we expect the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant, wiser; and all better, and happier together.”

What gave rise to these reflections? White believes they may have been written in response to Lincoln’s reading a book called Sociology of the South, or the Failure of Free Society, written by a Virginian named George Fitzhugh. Herndon confirms this book “aroused the ire” of his law partner, and White notes that Lincoln (consistent with Logan’s advice) was determined to understand pro-slavery arguments in order to expose their defects. According to White, these fragments show Lincoln writing in private what he was not yet ready to say in public.

Next is a Fragment on Stephen A. Douglas dated December 1856, showing Lincoln at a personal low point. By this time Lincoln had lost his 1855 race for U.S. Senate. He had also been badly treated by a prominent Ohio lawyer named Edwin Stanton in the McCormick wheat-reaper patent case tried in Cincinnati. By contrast, his rival Douglas was a prominent, influential Senator whose name was nationally known and who was frequently mentioned as a potential presidential candidate.

Lincoln writes that he met Judge Douglas twenty-two years ago. Both were ambitious, but “with me, the race of ambition has been a failure—a flat failure;” with Douglas it has been a “splendid success.” In this private note Lincoln “gives voice to his rawest feelings.”

Of interest is whether the somewhat self-pitying tone of this Note is “rescued” by its ending. Lincoln “affects no contempt” for Douglas’s eminence, adding that if he (Lincoln) had reached such a lofty perch “so that the oppressed of my species, might have shared with me in the elevation,” he would be more gratified than he would to “wear the richest crown that ever pressed a monarch’s brow.” White interprets these lines as Lincoln making a “final, decisive comparison with Douglas.” Another view might be that, while Lincoln was struggling to console himself, the real impetus for this Note was to give vent to his feelings of disappointment.

Of course, as White points out, at the time he wrote these words Lincoln had no inkling that in less than two years he would achieve national prominence through debates with Douglas in seven venues across the state, debates which would help catapult him to the White House.

White examines two fragments in which Lincoln responds to charges of “sectionalism” lodged against the Republican Party. He summarizes the Party’s history, “born out of protests against the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act.” As usual, Lincoln paused and pondered before joining, worried about the Party’s apparent appeal to intolerant “Know-Nothings” and concerned about its limited northern and western base (in contrast to the Whig Party which included many southerners).

In his Fragment on Sectionalism dated July 23, 1856–written, White believes, in preparation for a speech he was to deliver in Galena, Illinois the same day—Lincoln responds to criticism over the party’s recent nomination of John C. Fremont of California and William L. Dayton of New Jersey, for president and vice-president, which supposedly revealed Republicans as sectional and therefore “disunionist.” While it has been a “custom,” he writes, for one nominee to hail from a free and the other from a slave state, this was not always the case. The Democratic Party nominated two men from slave states in 1828, and since 1844 it had not nominated a southerner. Colorfully, he notes that northern men nominated by the Democratic Party have been “each vying to outbid the other for the Southern vote—the South standing calmly by to finally cry going, going, gone, to the highest bidder.” Lincoln suggests the Democratic Party is truly sectional. To northern men, the South says: “Give us the measures, and you take the men.”

Eight months later, in a fragment dated February 28, 1857, Lincoln seems to have banished such concerns. He expresses pride in a party whose members “were drawn together by a paramount common danger.” Although they did not win the 1856 election, “they stood up, an army over thirteen hundred thousand strong,” an army, he adds (foreshadowing a phrase he would later make famous) that is “the best hope of the nation, and of the world.” Lincoln has accepted the reality that the country is indeed sectionalized over the slavery issue, and (as he would later note) “the tug has to come.” The momentous issue can no longer be avoided.

In the three-sentence fragment called “Definition of Democracy,” conjectured to have been written on August 1, 1858, after writing “as I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master,” Lincoln adds: “This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”

White informs us that while nearly all of Lincoln’s notes remained unknown until Nicolay and Hay began serializing their biography in Century Magazine in 1886, this one emerged in 1875. Why? This scrap of paper fell into the hands of Mary Lincoln, who later gave it to a pioneering woman lawyer named Myra Bradwell. With her husband James, Myra mounted a successful campaign to have Mary released from Bellevue Place sanitorium in 1875 after four months of confinement. As a token of her gratitude, Mary gave the Bradwells this priceless fragment.

White walks us through Douglas’s allegedly “democratic” answer to the possibility of slavery expanding westward—namely, let the people in the territories decide. To Lincoln the issue was more basic: slavery by definition is “no democracy.” In denying the humanity of a human being, it is the antithesis of democracy.


White elucidates another fragment on slavery dated October 1, 1858, which again has Lincoln thinking to himself. Continuing to familiarize himself with the pro-slavery position, Lincoln read a book entitled Slavery Ordained of God, published in 1857, written by a Presbyterian minister named Frederick A. Ross. Its thesis was that the southern slave “is elevated and ennobled compared with his brethren in Africa,” and God entrusted southern masters to “give them civilization.”

Lincoln responds:

So, at last, it comes to this, that Dr. Ross is to decide the question. And while he considers it, he sits in the shade, with gloves on his hands, and subsists on the bread that Sambo is earning in the burning sun. If he decides that God wills Sambo to continue a slave, he thereby retains his own comfortable position; but if he decides that God wills Sambo to be free, he thereby has to walk out of the shade, throw off his gloves, and delve for his own bread. Will Dr. Ross be actuated by that perfect impartiality, which has ever been considered most favorable to correct decisions?

As James McPherson established in his famous essay, “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphors,” Lincoln rarely restricted himself to abstract argument, preferring to illustrate a point through story and image.

White concludes this remarkable book by considering three more fragments, two Lincoln wrote as president-elect, one written as a war president.

In his chapter on Lincoln’s Fragment on the Constitution and the Union, believed to have been written in January, 1861, we learn how and why Lincoln came up with the image of the Constitution as a “picture of silver” framed around the Declaration’s “apple of gold.” This can be traced to Lincoln’s friendship with Georgia’s Alexander Stephens during his one Congressional term (1847-49). Years later, when as president-elect Lincoln learned that Stephens had given a speech urging southerners not to secede, Lincoln wrote his old colleague asking to see a copy. On receiving it, Lincoln responded with a nice note, adding, “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.”

Apparently taken aback, Stephens sent a “sharp reply” imploring Lincoln to say a few words of reassurance to southerners in order to “save our common country.” Drawing from Proverbs, 25:11, Stephens wrote: “A word fitly spoken by you now would be like ‘apples of gold in pictures of silver.’”

Lincoln did not reply to this letter, nor did he break his resolution not to make public statements prior to delivering his inaugural address. At the same time, White maintains, Stephens’s reference to this proverbial image “jump-started” Lincoln’s “flexible mind” as he contemplated the importance of preserving the Union. The Declaration’s principle of “liberty to all” was, he wrote, the word “fitly spoken” which proved to be an apple of gold around which the Union and Constitution, pictures of silver, were framed. “So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken.”

As we know from the First Inaugural, in which Lincoln re-worked closing lines suggested by William Seward, he had a remarkable ability to adapt ideas and images offered by others to refine his own (sometimes different) thoughts and express them with surpassing eloquence.

A few weeks after writing this note, Lincoln stood in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall to declare: “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”

In Notes for an undelivered Kentucky speech (a five-page fragment, on the back of which Lincoln pasted paragraphs from a first draft of his inaugural address), Lincoln addresses widespread criticism that “I could in my position, by a word, restore peace to the country.” He responds:

But what word? I have many words already before the public; and my position was given me on the faith of those words. Is the desired word to be confirmatory of these; or must it be contradictory to them? If the former, it is useless repetition; if the latter, it is dishonorable and treacherous.

Why did Lincoln not give this speech? We do not know. White notes that although a Kentucky stop was not listed on the Great Western Railroad’s Time Card, Lincoln wanted to “make a detour.” In the fragment’s first sentence he refers to “your invitation” to appear before an audience in his native state. Whose invitation? Possibly Joshua or James Speed, but again we do not know. Clearly, Lincoln wanted to cross the Ohio River at Cincinnati to explain his silence over the past few months and appeal to the integrity of his “fellow Kentuckians.”

Although available in the Lincoln records, White notes with regret that this fragment has rarely been mentioned and has been “nearly erased from public knowledge.” Thankfully, that is no longer true.

The author, who has a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, saves the best fragment for last. Discovered by John Hay in Lincoln’s desk drawer (and given a title), “Meditation on the Divine Will” is well-known to Lincoln devotees. White notes that Hay did not hold it in reserve for his and Nicolay’s 1890 biography, but instead revealed it to audiences in a series of lectures he gave in 1871 and 1872. “I have here a paper written by him,” Hay said, “in a time of profound national gloom, with religious soul-searching . . . You shall see how this patriarch and prophet wrestled in secret with his God.”

White leads us into an interesting discussion of the difference between fatalism and providence, the former described as a “distinct system of unbelief,” the latter rooted in “belief in a God with personality, who loves human beings, and acts in history.” White traces Lincoln’s growth from youthful dalliance with fatalism (sometimes called “the doctrine of necessity”) to his later point of view in which a providential God has a purpose, one perhaps “different from the purpose of either party” fighting the Civil War.

Questions remain about when Lincoln wrote this fragment. Like Basler, White believes it was probably penned in early September of 1862, after the Second Battle of Bull Run, when, according to Attorney General Edward Bates’s diary, Lincoln “seemed wrung by the bitterest anguish—said he felt almost ready to hang himself.” But White duly notes that Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson disagrees, believing the meditation is “chronologically much closer to, and perhaps even belongs to, the year 1864,” when, after three full years, the war dragged on.

White concludes this small meditation not only presages Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, it holds “the key to the long-debated riddle of Lincoln’s religious faith.”

In an Appendix the author provides all 111 fragments, which include a detailed chart of legislative districts Lincoln hoped to win in the Senate campaign of 1858 and a Note Regarding Conditions for Peace dated April 5, 1865.

In the end, the best way to know Lincoln is to hear from him first-hand, through his letters and speeches. Now, we may also know him through his notes and fragments. Although always available, thanks to Ronald White they have been brought on to center stage for our consideration and enjoyment.

Book reviewed by E. Phelps Gay, who practices law in New Orleans, LA.

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