Interview with David S. Reynolds regarding his new book “Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Time”

Sara Gabbard:  You excel  in putting historical figures into the context of their times.  In terms of date of birth, Abraham Lincoln was born on the cusp between Enlightenment and Romanticism.  Were there traces of both in his life?

David Reynolds: He was shaped by both movements. From the Enlightenment, he derived his interest in reason, inventions, mathematics, and free thought. Several people remarked that reason was his preeminent quality. William Herndon wrote, “His reason ruled despotically all other faculties and qualities of his mind. His conscience and heart were ruled by it. His conscience was ruled by one faculty— reason. His heart was ruled by two faculties— reason and conscience.”

Enlightenment rationalists had put a high premium on inventions and mathematics. Lincoln is the only president who has a patented invention—a method of lifting boats above shallow places with inflatable bags.  Although in his rudimentary schooling he didn’t get beyond basic algebra, he spent time in adulthood learning geometry. During his long trips on the Illinois law circuit, he brought along works by the geometrician Euclid. In time he mastered the propositions— all 173 of them—contained in the first six books of Euclid’s Elements. Euclid’s principle of the equality of angles and sides of certain figures gave solid basis to Lincoln’s famous “proposition” of human equality at Gettysburg.

There was a sharply skeptical side of Enlightenment thought that also influenced him. Several of the founding fathers—Jefferson, Franklin, Thomas Paine, and others—were Deists, or rationalists who placed all religions on the same level, arguing that they all were man-made systems constructed out of fear of the unknown. In this view, the Bible was not supernaturally inspired but was rather a sound moral guide. This was Lincoln’s view too, especially early on. When he was in his 20s in New Salem, Illinois, he wrote “a little Book on Infidelity” in which he attacked the super­natural underpinnings of the Bible, such as the Virgin Birth, the miracles of Christ, and the Resurrection. A friend found the book so controversial that he threw it into the fire, aware of the opprobrium it would bring upon Lincoln.

As attracted as he was to Enlightenment rationalism, Lincoln also appreciated the themes of 19th century romanticism. He shared with Poe, one of his favorite writers, an interest in the darker side of human nature, which was a preoccupation of some of the Romantic writers. Given to bouts of depression, Lincoln wrote a moving poem on suicide, which was published in an Illinois newspaper in 1838. Two later poems that he wrote, “My Childhood Home I See Again” and “The Bear Hunt,” were also portraits of the irrational. The childhood poem in particular dwells on the madness of one of Lincoln’s childhood friends, Matthew Gentry, who suddenly went insane and tried to kill his parents and himself. This is dark Romanticism of the Poe variety. Also like other Romantics, Lincoln meditated on death and transience. His favorite poem was William Knox’s “Mortality,” a long string of quatrains that expand on the theme that every human being, from the weakest to the strongest, poorest to richest, meets the same end: death. He also liked a similar death poem, William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” and his favorite song was the nostalgic “Twenty Years Ago” about a man and a friend visiting childhood haunts that have totally changed over time. Lincoln was obsessed by this idea of time passing, which is one reason why he loved the dark passages in Shakespeare, such as “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow/creeps in its petty pace from day to day,” full of “sound and fury/signifying nothing.”

There was an optimistic side to Romanticism that shaped Lincoln as well. Romanticism’s belief in human perfectibility fed into his conviction that both society and individuals could improve; its intensely democratic spirit nurtured his faith in the common man; its benign view of religion lay behind his belief in brotherhood and charity. But he rejected the Romantic idea that there was a higher law that transcended human laws. Lincoln was a pragmatist who clung to statute law and the Constitution.  As president, he sought to establish a constitutional foundation for even his most controversial actions, such as suspending habeas corpus.

 SG:  In your research, did you find things about Lincoln that you either didn’t know…or that made you say: I never thought of it that way?

DR: I found out plenty of things about Lincoln I didn’t know. In the largest sense, I discovered how extraordinarily responsive Lincoln was to his surrounding culture.  The standard view is that Lincoln, born in a log cabin, with undistin­guished parents and less than a year of formal schooling, rose to the pinnacle of power through hard work, intelligence, political shrewdness, and a good amount of luck. David Herbert Donald in his well-known biography of the president typically portrays Lincoln as the quintessential self-made man, who displayed “enormous capacity for growth, which enabled one of the least experienced and poorly prepared men ever elected to high office to become the greatest American president.” Stating that his is “a biography written from Lincoln’s point of view,” Donald argues that Lincoln “was only indirectly con­nected with the economic and social transformations of the period.” Some version of this single-handed climb from primitiveness to greatness narrative informs other biographies as well. In this view, nineteenth- century America offered few nurturing materials.

In working on my book I discovered that Lincoln, far from distanced from his time, was thoroughly immersed in it. His contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that Lincoln was the “most remarkable example” of “a great style of hero” who “draws equally all classes, all the ex­tremes of society, till we say the very dogs believe in him.” When Lincoln entered the presidency, he was neither inexperienced nor unprepared. To the contrary, he rede­fined democracy precisely because he had experienced culture in all its dimensions— from high to low, sacred to profane, conservative to radi­cal, sentimental to subversive.

Like every culture, Lincoln’s had its time- specific phenomena that were strongly influential at the moment but then were largely forgotten by later generations. New England Puritans versus Southern Cavaliers; the backdrop of Oliver Cromwell versus Charles I; Daniel Boone; the Crockett almanacs; Quakerism; the new sermon style; intemperate temperance reformers; Phineas T. Barnum; popular songs like “Home Sweet Home” and “Dixie”; British and American poetry; ministers like Theodore Parker; the higher law; John Brown; the tightrope artist Charles Blondin; the working- class figure known as the b’hoy; the drillmaster Elmer Ellsworth and his Zouaves; the military strategist and political pamphleteer Anna Ella Carroll; the humor character Pe­troleum V. Nasby; the retailored Thanksgiving and Christmas; the American acting style; the writings of Thoreau, Robert Burns, and Harriet Beecher Stowe— these and other cultural markers are crucial for under­standing many aspects of Lincoln’s life. My book describes such previously neglected contexts and their significance for Lincoln.


Lincoln Riding the Circuit 71.2009.081.0493

SG:  Was Lincoln a successful lawyer?

DR: He was involved in more than 5,000 cases between 1836, when he took up the law, and 1860, when he ran for the presidency. Herndon and others called him an excellent case lawyer who was, however, uninterested in deep study of law books. Lincoln’s common sense put him in good stead to succeed in court cases, which he did more often than not. He had such an expansive vision that he would study the opponent’s case just as closely as he studied his own; that way he always felt prepared in court. “When I have a particular case in hand,” he explained, “I love to dig up the question by the roots and hold it up and dry it before the fires of the mind.” Once he was in court, he used the various performance tools that were his forte: rational persuasion, storytelling, and humor. He was not above telling a sentimental story to sway the emotions of his listeners, and in the next breath he could drop an off-color joke that would have the court in stitches. Court cases were popular entertainment in that day, and the little towns and villages that Lincoln and his associates visited in their biannual riding on the circuit came out in droves to witness trials, which were often noisy and raucous affairs. Lincoln knew how to play a crowd, and he put both his reason and his wit to good use as a lawyer.

He was also very fair. He divided the money that he earned with his law partner Herndon, even though Herndon’s role in most cases was not as important as his. He made a good living as a lawyer, but he never gouged his clients and in fact was accused by fellow lawyers for holding fees down by charging lower-than-normal prices for his services. He was the opposite of ambulance chasers today who want clients to sue just to make money. He advised aspiring lawyers to “dis­courage litigation.” He insisted that no one was “more nearly a fiend” than the lawyer who tried “to stir up litigation.” His sterling sense of honor led him to declare that “a moral tone ought to be infused into the profession” of law. He went so far as to advise against taking up the law if it meant sacrificing one’s honesty. He wrote, “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 “consent to be a knave.”

SG:  Is there evidence of the feelings of the Todd family towards Mary’s husband?

DR: When the Todd family first met Lincoln in the 1830s, some of them recoiled from what they regarded as his crude ways. The Todds, stemming from a wealthy, respectable family of slaveholders in Lexington, Kentucky, kept up their upper-class lifestyle when some of them moved to Springfield, Illinois. They lived in a large home on what was known as Aristocracy Hill. One of them, Elizabeth Todd Edwards, warned her sister, Mary Todd, against getting involved with the low-born, ungainly Lincoln. Elizabeth reportedly tried to break up the relationship for two years. She recalled, “I warned Mary that she and Mr. Lincoln were not suitable. Mr. Edwards and myself believed they were different in nature, and education and raising….They were so different that they could not live happily as man and wife.” But Mary Todd, who had vowed since childhood that she would someday marry a man destined for the presidency, saw great potential in the honorable, ambitious Lincoln, and she rejected a rival for  her affection, Lincoln’s perennial opponent Stephen A. Douglas.

There’s evidence that Mary’s father, Robert Smith Todd, appreciated Lincoln. Although the two men were not close, they respected each other—not the least because of their shared admiration for Robert Todd’s friend Henry Clay. After the birth of his namesake, Robert Todd Lincoln, Mary’s father visited Springfield—something he never did for his three other married daughters in Illinois. He gave the Lincolns $200 a year until his death, and he supplied Mary an addi­tional $120 annually for her own use. He bought a large land lot for the couple south of Springfield that Mary sold in 1854 for $1,200, and he had his son‑in‑law represent him in recovering a small debt and let him keep the amount he collected.

 SG:  Can Thomas Lincoln be labeled a subsistence farmer?  Was he a fairly typical pioneer?  Has history treated him fairly?

DR: History has not treated Thomas Lincoln fairly. He is normally presented as a lowly, ignorant rube who was lazy, unambitious, and resistant to the young Abe’s penchant for reading. Several biographies of Lincoln use his father as the bogeyman against whom Lincoln vigorously rebelled. The facts, however, say otherwise. Tom Lincoln was known as a solid, upstanding, honest man who provided for his family even in hard times, such as the economic downturn that succeeded the panic of 1819. Farmers and carpenters like Tom Lincoln were actually in good shape during recessions, since they lived off the land anyway. During those periods, Tom had a subsistence lifestyle.

Biographers sometimes quote Lincoln’s phrase “I used to be a slave” to suggest that he felt terribly oppressed by his father, who put him to work on the farm in various activities. But that was par for the course on the frontier in that era. Social historians have shown that all members of a frontier family except toddlers were expected to contribute to the family’s survival. A young man was expected to work for the family until he became independent at 21. By the time the family moved to Illinois, Tom Lincoln did settle into a rather indolent lifestyle that made some people compare him to poor white trash. He did not visit Lincoln or his wife while they were in Springfield, and Lincoln did not go to see his father when he was dying in 1851. But it’s wrong to paint a portrait of complete estrangement between the father and the son. Certainly in the earlier part of his life, in Kentucky and Indiana, Lincoln had good reason to respect his father. When he described his past to the lawyer Leonard Swett, he “told the story of a happy childhood….His own description of his youth was that of a joyous, happy boyhood.”

 SG:  Did you use William Herndon as a source?  Is he reliable…or is he simply “the only one we have?”

DR: William Herndon, who was Lincoln’s law partner in Springfield for nearly two decades, got to see Lincoln up close in many different circumstances. He stands as a valuable witness to Lincoln’s life. To some degree, he is an unreliable source. After Lincoln’s death, he came into sharp conflict with Mary Todd Lincoln. The two had never been close. Mary was repelled by Herndon’s alcoholism, and the relationship became toxic in 1866, when Herndon shocked the world by saying that Lincoln had never loved Mary but instead had always been devoted to the memory of Ann Rutledge, the young woman he had courted while living in New Salem in the 1830s until her untimely death in 1835. There’s now general agreement that Herndon overstated Lincoln’s preference of Ann to Mary. Yes, Lincoln had loved Ann Rutledge, and on some level stayed in love with her, but he was also in love with and deeply committed to his wife, who, despite her quirks, remained fiercely loyal to him and a bastion of support in his political career.

Another of Herndon’s overstatements relates to Lincoln and religion. Herndon insisted that Lincoln was an agnostic, possibly an atheist. While it’s true that Lincoln never joined a church and disbelieved in creeds and doctrines, he was by no means an atheist. He believed that human affairs were in the control of a God who remained unknowable yet all-powerful. He read the Bible regularly and memorized a number of its passages. He issued a total of nine public proclamations of prayer, fasting, or thanksgiving during his presidency, and he even considered the idea of adding God to the Constitution by an amendment. It was under Lincoln that the words “In God We Trust” were first stamped on American coins.




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On many issues, however, Herndon is an invaluable source. In the years immediately following Lincoln’s assassination, Herndon took it upon himself to interview scores of people who had known Lincoln from an early age—relatives, friends, associates in law and politics. Herndon in many cases got written reminiscences from these people, and at other times took scrupulous notes during interviews with them. The result of his research is a book that has been published in recent times as Herndon’s Informants, edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis. Because many of Herndon’s interviewees were recalling Lincoln from the retrospective vantage point of several decades, their comments cannot always be taken at face value. But if you read through Herndon’s Informants you do get a detailed, realistic composite portrait of the young Lincoln and his evolution. Then, too, the three-volume biography written by Herndon and Jesse Weik in the late 1880s is another valuable source, one that contains a lot of information about Lincoln and his contemporary culture that was useful to me when I wrote my book.

All in all, William Herndon left a treasure trove of first-hand accounts that, along with other contemporary accounts–by witnesses like Lincoln’s law associate Henry Whitney, the journalist Noah Brooks, and the president’s wartime secretaries John Hay and John P. Nicolay—provide an ample body of evidence about Lincoln.

SG:  You speak of the emergence of antislavery sentiments.   Was Lincoln fairly typical of this movement….not a radical abolitionist but a man who gradually came to believe that slavery was wrong?  Was he in step with sentiments in Central Illinois?

 DR: Lincoln always loathed slavery, even from his early childhood. His parents had been members of an antislavery Baptist group that broke off from the regular Baptist Church in the area of Kentucky where Lincoln grew up. Lincoln probably also witnessed the horrors of slavery around him in Kentucky and later on when he traveled twice to New Orleans in a flatboat.

In 1854, he said that he “hated slavery . . . as much as any Aboli­tionist.” But in central Illinois, where he then lived, many voters were moderates who despised radical abolitionism. Lincoln thus denounced radicals who, in his words, “would shiver into fragments the Union of these States; tear to tatters its now venerated constitution; and even burn the last copy of the Bible, rather than slavery should continue a single hour.”  – a reference to the Garrisonians, who rejected the church, the Constitution, and the US government, all of which, they believed, supported slavery. Lincoln argued that, even though some of the founding fathers had been slave owners, the Constitution was fundamentally devoted to human rights, and the founders envisaged the ultimate extinction of slavery. He thought this process would be a slow one that might take a century. He emphasized that the abolition of slavery must take place within the electoral system that the founders had established. For this reason, he opposed those who called for immediate emancipation. He was a pragmatist, and he knew that uprooting so deeply entrenched an institution as slavery would be a torturous process. That’s why he and his fellow Republicans in the 1850s tolerated slavery where it already existed but stood firmly opposed to its spread into the Western territories. They wanted to contain slavery so that it would eventually die out like rotten fruit on the vine. For a time he supported colonization, or the removal of black people to Liberia or elsewhere. But he realized that this program was impractical and unlikely, and he eventually abandoned it.

Personally, he was on familiar terms with many black people. African Americans such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Delany described him as the least prejudiced white person they had ever met. He ended up leading a war that began as one to preserve the Union but increasingly became one to end slavery. Despite fierce right-wing criticism, he intensified the antislavery war after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. By 1864 he was firmly dedicated to amending the Constitution so that it abolished slavery altogether. He was the first president to publicly support the vote for African Americans.

All told, despite his long period of public reticence on slavery, he was truly progressive, and without him slavery would not have disappeared as soon as it did.

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SG:  What was his relationship with his son Robert?

DR: Lincoln and his wife had a relaxed attitude toward parenting.  They weren’t big on physical punishment or severe reprimands. Lincoln once described Robert (known as Bob or Bobby) as  “a little rascal” who over time became “a very decent boy.”

Lincoln was right about Bob’s youthful rascality. Bob came to be known among other children as the “head of pranks.” Once he and a few friends tried to repro­duce animal tricks they saw at a circus by going into the Lincoln barn and attempting to train dogs to stand on their hind legs and bark, the way the circus lions roared. When all else failed, the boys looped ropes around the dogs’ necks and suspended the animals from rafters. A neighbor heard a ruckus and ran to Lincoln in his law office. He rushed to the barn, scat­tered the boys, and cut down the dogs, two of which had died.

But Bob had a sober side, and he had to endure ridicule from his peers, who called him Cockeye or Cross-eyed Bob because of his con­dition of right esotropia, a form of strabismus in which the right eye turns inward (his father had left hypertropia, or an upward- turning left eye).

Once senses that during the Springfield years Robert felt distanced from his father, who travelled on the Illinois law circuit for more than half of each year. Bob recalled that his father “was almost constantly away from home.” Also, Bob was occupied with his education. In 1853, he entered the preparatory academy of Springfield’s newly formed Illinois State University and two years later became a freshman at the university. Although he got better grades in math and science than in the humanities, he was, like his parents, an avid reader. In 1859, he took the entrance exam for Harvard but failed it, upon which his parents sent him to Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hamp­shire. After a year there, he was accepted into Harvard, where he grad­uated in 1864. He was away at college through most of the White House years.

This is not to say that the father and son were alienated from each other. In 1861, Robert was with his parents was on the historic train ride that Lincoln took from Springfield to Washington DC to assume the presidency. At the end of the Civil War, Robert wanted to join the Union army, and his father secured him a captaincy under Ulysses S. Grant. On April 14, 1865, the last day of Lincoln’s life, the twenty-one-year-old Robert breakfasted with his father, to whom he described the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, which Robert had witnessed.

Robert turned into a reserved, rather stuffy man.  In the years after Lincoln’s assassination, he became estranged from his mother. Appalled by what he considered her bizarre behavior, some of it associated with her spiritualist visions, he committed her in 1875 to a Batavia, Illinois, asylum, the upscale Bellevue Place, where she stayed uneventfully for four months. Robert, a lawyer and businessman, went on to serve as secretary of war under James A. Garfield and Chester Arthur and as an ambas­sador to England under Benjamin Harrison. He died at eighty-two in 1926 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.       

SG:  How does President Lincoln rank as a Commander-in-Chief?

DR: If we take an overview of his performance during the whole Civil War, we can say that Lincoln was an excellent Commander-in-Chief. At the start of the war, he was a tyro, because his only previous it military experience was a brief term serving in the Black Hawk war back in the 1830s. Largely self-taught in military matters, he read numerous military handbooks and journals. He made some appointments that in retrospect seemed dubious. People in his time and ours wonder why he stuck so long with Gen. George B. McClellan, who failed infamously in the Peninsula campaign and then did not reinforce general John Pope at Second Manassas. But though McClellan was often ineffective on the battlefield, he could inspire and train troops brilliantly. And so Lincoln retained McClellan, who at Antietam in September 1862 stopped Robert E. Lee’s northward advance through Maryland. Lincoln was furious when McClellan did not pursue the retreating Lee, and he fired him.

He went through a succession of other generals, including Ambrose Burnside and Fighting Joe Hooker, until he found the gritty warriors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. It is to Lincoln’s great credit that he gave Grant and Sherman, truly aggressive generals, great leeway in conducting the war according to their own strengths. He also distributed copies of General Order 100, the code of war fashioned by the military theorist Francis Lieber. In the code, Lieber called for a hard, unrelenting war aimed at emancipating America’s enslaved millions while discounting the use of torture, poison, and wanton destruction of enemy property. Lieber’s code in effect became Lincoln’s code, as when the president favored hard war over what he dismissed as war fought “with elder- stalk squirts [that is, squirt guns], charged with rose water.” Lincoln hired Gen. Henry Halleck as a military advisor but when Halleck lost nerve and leadership capabilities the president assumed many of his strategic duties.

Always interested in inventions, Lincoln had an undying curiosity in new weapons, such as an early version of the machine gun known as the coffee mill gun. Unfortunately, many of the new weapons that attracted Lincoln’s attention proved too expensive to produce during wartime, and so the large majority of field weapons for the U.S. Army were muskets, which were clumsy to load and fire. However, Lincoln pushed for the use of breech-loading rifles, which greatly facilitated the North’s victory during the last year of the war. In military strategy, Lincoln wisely turned from concentrating on capturing enemy locations to overwhelming enemy troops at different locations simultaneously. This multipronged attack on Confederate forces led eventually to the victory of the Union.

SG:  Your favorite speech?  Why?  Please comment on his mastery of the English language.

DR: My favorite? What else? The Gettysburg Address.  At 272 words, it is one of the shortest political speeches in history, but it is also one of the most suggestive. Its marvelous brevity shows that Lincoln was a master of what the neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux calls parsi­mony in art—that is, explaining much with little, finding a pattern in the midst of apparent disorder. In art, Changeux detects “a certain economy of means revealed as a bold line, a convincing brushstroke, a contrasting juxtaposition of colors, all creating sensory consonance, and endowing a work of quality with its own unique harmony.” The rhythmic sentences of the Gettysburg Address are literary brushstrokes that deliver timeless truths about human equality and justice.

In his opening sentence Lincoln affirmed equality by fusing images of religion, the earth, and the body: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedi­cated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The words “four score and seven years” directed nineteenth-century American culture’s im­pulse toward biblical rewriting into a phrase that updated Psalms 90:10: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sor­row”— a biblical dictum that had appeared in Civil War sermons and speeches. In July 1861, Galusha Grow, the newly elected Speaker of the House, had declared, “Fourscore years ago, fifty-six bold mer­chants, farmers, lawyers and mechanics” had “met in convention to found a new empire, based on the inalienable rights of man.”

Lincoln’s next phrase—“our fathers”—revealed a key point Lincoln was making about the American past. He differed from many antislavery Northerners, for whom the nation’s original fathers were the Mayflower Pilgrims. For example, Lincoln’s friend Charles Sumner, whose Pilgrim ancestors in­cluded Plymouth Colony founder William Bradford, wrote a widely reprinted letter in which he insisted that there were two fundamental historical referents in America: the May­flower, which carried “the Pilgrim Fathers, consecrated to Human Lib­erty,” and the Dutch ship that carried nineteen slaves to Virginia around the same time. “In the holds of those two ships,” Sumner wrote, “lay the germs of the present direful war, and the simple question now is between the Mayflower and the slave ship. Who that has not forgotten God can doubt the result? The Mayflower must surely prevail.”

Gettysburg Address 1.2009.081.1995

By contrast, Lincoln at Gettysburg wanted to implant the radically egalitarian principles of Revolutionary fathers deep in the national soil. The date he fixed as the nation’s Ur moment was neither 1620, when the Mayflower landed, nor 1787, when the Constitutional Convention met, but 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Lincoln’s phrase “brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty” anchored American liberty in the body and na­ture. (One reviewer, seeing sexual connotations in the words “con­ceived” and “birth of freedom,” mocked the address as “Obstetrics.”) The continent of the United States was a symbol of unbreakable unity for Lincoln, as in his 1862 message to Congress, where he called the continent “our national homestead,” which “demands union, and ab­hors separation.” By referring in the Gettysburg Address to liberty as “brought forth on this continent,” he grounded the very meaning of the United States in the indissoluble land itself. In a concise piece of earth- based rhetoric, Lincoln wiped out the rationale behind secession.

In the last phrase of the first sentence—“dedicated to the proposi­tion that all men are created equal”—he used a word that established equality as a mathematical law. Lincoln had learned from Euclidian geometry that things equal to the same thing are equal to each other. In his use of the Euclidian term “proposition” at Gettysburg, he presented a striking political syllo­gism: all humans are equal; blacks are human; therefore, blacks are equal to whites.

Although Lincoln made no explicit reference to race in the address, he did not have to. He had gone on record earlier in 1863 affirming that the military service of blacks proved that they were human. A conservative critic denounced the Gettys­burg Address as a perverse announcement of racial equality. Objecting to “the introduction of Daw­dleism [political partisanship] in a funeral sermon,” the writer called the address “an insult” to the Gettysburg dead and “a perversion of history so flagrant that the most extended charity cannot regard it as otherwise than willful.” The writer denounced Lincoln’s “proposition” of equality and de­clared that those who died at Gettysburg gave their lives for the Union, not for the rights of black people. The critic blasted Lincoln in racial terms: “How dared he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the govern­ment? They were men possessing too much self- respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”

In the thirty words of the Gettysburg Address’s opening sentence, therefore, Lincoln integrated the ideal of racial justice into the fabric of democratic America, which, as he had called it, was “the last best hope of earth.”

In the rest of the address, Lincoln continued to apply his long-standing oratorical strategies to making sense of the Civil War and its relation to the nation. His logical side emerged again in the sentence in which he said that the war was “testing” if “any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure.” If the nation’s survival was a test, it was one that must be pursued to an egalitarian solution by living Americans. First, however, he addressed those who died at Gettysburg. He simul­taneously honored them and put them in the past. He had often uttered concepts in negatives (“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” “We must not be enemies,” etc.), and he did so here as well: “we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow— this ground [italics added].” The brave men who fought at Gettysburg did so “far above our poor power to add or detract.” Here Lincoln, who often uti­lized humility rhetorically, projected his humble persona on his North­ern audience—the “we” with “our poor power.”

He then made the transition to the future: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that we take in­creased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” That “cause,” as Lincoln had established in his first line, was human equality.

The cause, if attained, would bring about national regeneration. If Americans worked hard, “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom,” so “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln’s image of a “new birth of freedom” revived the spirit of unified commitment that had brought political opponents together in the weeks just after Fort Sumter, when a journalist wrote, “Regenerated as by a new birth of freedom, and purified by trial, we shall emerge from the clouds which at present surround us to a career of glory and prosperity never dreamed of before.” It also caught the patriotic emo­tion of a New York Times reporter who had lost his son in the Battle of Gettysburg and had written, “Oh, you dead, who at Gettysburgh [sic] have baptized with your blood the second birth of Freedom in Amer­ica, how you are envied!”

No fewer than twelve sources for the phrase “of the people, for the people, by the people” have been suggested. The most likely ones, given Lincoln’s preferences, were either Daniel Webster, who in his Sec­ond Reply to Hayne praised “the People’s Government; made for the People; made by the People; and answerable to the People,” or Lincoln’s favorite minister, Theodore Parker, in a sermon Lincoln was said to have marked in 1858: “Democ­racy is direct self-government, over all the people, by all the people, for the people.” Whatever its source, the final line made the demo­cratic process timeless through its controlled language. Lincoln’s fluid trochees—“of the people, by the people, for the people”— gave wings to the rhythmically bumpy phrases of Webster and Parker. Turning their platitudes into poetry, Lincoln drove home his belief that the goal of human equality, proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence, could be approached only through a democratically elected government, as established by the Constitution.

Democracy was holy for him. His speech invested democracy with religious meaning through words like “consecrated” and “hal­low.” Nor can we forget the phrase he apparently added extemporane­ously in the last line: “under God.” Since early in the war, he had made religious proclamations in order to foster cultural unity. At Gettys­burg, cultural religion merged with personal faith.

 SG:  Readers will be intrigued by two chapter titles….”The Isms and the Woolly Horse” and “Blondin, Barnum, and B’hoys.”  Please explain.

DR: The collapse of the Whig Party in the early 1850s let loose what Lincoln called an array of “strange, discordant, and even, hostile ele­ments,” many of which slowly regrouped as the Republican Party. During the transition period, Democrats pilloried the emerging Republican Party as an amalgam of what one journalist called “the various isms and fanaticisms that have infected our country,” including nativism, women’s rights, socialism, spiritualism, prohibitionism, and what was branded as “negro worship.” The anti-ism argument was repeated by many Democrats who wanted to present the Republicans as dangerous fanatics.  Lincoln responded to this charge by carefully distancing himself from radical movements that were associated with the isms.  He unified his party by reducing its goal to stopping what he termed “Douglasism”—the Democratic Party’s effort, under Stephen A. Douglas, to open the way for the westward spread of slavery. “That ism,” Lincoln wrote, “is all which now stands in the way of an early and complete success of Republicanism.”

To highlight the Republicans’ supposedly Negrophile tendencies, Democrats seized on an unusual symbol they associated with them: the Woolly Horse. The showman Phineas T. Barnum, always on the lookout for curi­osities, made a sensation when he exhibited a brown, curly-haired horse that the explorer John Frémont had allegedly captured in the West. When Frémont became the Republican Party’s candidate for the presidency in 1856, his political enemies called him the Woolly Horse—woolly in the sense of being an abolitionist who defended black people.  Soon the Republican Party was branded as the party of “Woolly Heads” who wanted to bring about a racial reversal in America by which African Americans would reign over white people. The Woolly label resurfaced in 1860, when Lincoln was the Republicans’ presidential candidate. One of Lincoln’s Democratic opponents typically said of the Republican Party that you might “simmer it down, and then dissolve it in a fluid, and all you could find would be ‘WOOLLY- HEAD, WOOLLY-HEAD,’” and that America should be “ready for dis­union in the case of Lincoln’s election.”

Actually, however, Lincoln maintained a moderate public stance on race and slavery that made him palatable to a large swath of Northern voters. He was compared to Charles Blondin, a famous tightrope artist whose daring crossings of Niagara Falls (sometimes while pushing a wheelbarrow or carrying a man on his back) provided a metaphor for Lincoln, who carefully maintained a balance between extremes in order to avoid inflaming the partisan passions of his divided culture. Cartoonists of the day often portrayed him as Blondin, poised in the middle between radical abolitionism on the left and conservativism on the right. Lincoln picked up the image and likened himself to Blondin, always balanced on a political tightrope.

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Another important phenomenon of the 1860 election was the culture of spectacle created by the impresario P. T. Barnum. Lincoln’s opponents capitalized on his physical idiosyncrasies–his swar­thy complexion; unruly black hair; and long arms and legs–to compare him to Barnum’s chief exhibit that year, “What Is It?” a microcephalic  black man who was billed as the missing link between apes and humans. Lincoln’s supporters, on the other hand, made much of his image as Abe the Illinois Rail-splitter. The rail-splitter craze began when a relative of his toted into a political convention in Decatur, Illinois, two fence rails Lincoln had allegedly cut many years previously, when he was a frontiersman. Throughout the 1860 campaign, frontier images were everywhere. Republican parades and rallies featured rails, rail makers, log cabins, blacksmiths, and flatboats. People sent Lincoln frontier-related gifts: axes, mauls, wedges, pieces of rails and cabins, and the like—so many that his Springfield office became, in the words of John Nicolay, “a perfect museum” of curiosities. The image of Abe as the rough common man held special appeal for young voters, who were then a large element of the electorate. Lincoln saw the crucial importance of winning what he called the “shrewd wild boys about town,” a reference to the so-called b’hoys, working- class men— butchers, wagon drivers, day laborers, and so on— who were always in a “muss” (a brawl) and ever ready to run with their “masheen” (a hand-drawn fire engine) to fight fires in fierce competition with other b’hoy companies. Dressed in colorful shirts and stovepipe hats (like Lincoln’s hat) and with hair cut short in back and waxed long in front (hence the nickname Soap Locks), the b’hoy, generically called Mose or Sikesey, was unruly but good- hearted, loyal to his friends and to his g’hal, the working- class woman who walked with confidence and defiance. Although unlearned, the b’hoy and g’hal were ’cute (acute). They aped the tastes and manners of the upper class, and they enjoyed Shakespeare as much as they did melodramas or minstrel shows.

Originating in urban street culture, the b’hoy had become a national figure when he merged with other masculine types. The journal­ist George Foster wrote in 1850, “The b’hoy of the Bowery, the rowdy of Philadelphia, the Hoosier of the Mississippi, the trapper of the Rocky Mountains, and the gold- hunter of California are so much alike that an unexpected hand could not distinguish one from the other.” When Walt Whitman sought a national type from which to fashion the per­sona of the quintessentially democratic Leaves of Grass, he chose the b’hoy. Whitman’s description of himself as “one of the roughs”—swag­gerer, idler, boaster—was patterned after the b’hoy, which explains why early reviewers dubbed him “Walt Whitman the b’hoy poet” and  “the Bow­ery B’hoy in literature.”

If Whitman tried to redirect the energy of the b’hoy in poetry, Lin­coln did so in politics. Lincoln was aware that his Republican Party was at a disadvantage in winning over the “shrewd wild boys.” In the competition for the b’hoys and their ilk nationwide, the Democrats had taken an early lead. The popularity of Lincoln’s Democratic opponent Stephen A. Douglas resulted largely from his com­bative style, which was immensely attractive to the male voters who made up Young America. Feisty yet genial, the whiskey-swigging, tobacco-chewing Douglas, known as “the favorite son of Young America,” used words as if he were engaged in a bare-fisted brawl or in an eye-gouging fight. A journalist remarked, “He ap­peals to the rowdy element, the wild types. Mr. Douglas and the b’hoys are similarly matched.”

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In time, Lincoln succeeded in attracting Young America, formerly Democratic, to the Re­publican side. He declared in an 1859 speech, “We have all heard of Young America. He is the most current youth of the age.” Lincoln described an updated Young America, one “very anxious to fight for the liberation of enslaved nations and colonies.” Lincoln, in the persona of Abe the frontiersman, was a b’hoy writ large. If, as George Thompson wrote, the b’hoy had proliferated nationally as the Indiana Hoosier, the western trapper, and other male types throughout the nation, Lincoln was, in the words of a campaign song, the rail- splitting “son of Ken­tucky, / The hero of Hoosierdom through; / The pride of the Suckers [Illinoisans] so lucky.” If the b’hoy loved both Shakespeare and minstrel shows, so did he. If the b’hoy was ill-educated yet shrewd, he brandished his lack of education. He earned great political capital from his identification with average Americans. His uncle Charles Hanks tried to shock the public when during the 1860 campaign he recalled Abe as “nothing more than a wild harum scarum boy,” and lazy to boot, but this combination of disorder and idleness held great attraction for young roughs.

And the roughs were ready to channel their energy into tightly fo­cused action when he ran for president.  This was the new Young America, pro-Lincoln and pro-Republican. The clubs that backed Lincoln had names in which “Wide Awake,” “Young,” and “Young America” were used interchangeably, as in rallies represented by the Young Men’s Lincoln Club, the Upper Alton Wide Awakes, and the Young America Lincoln Club of Alton. When organized as the Wide Awakes, these young Republicans, wearing long oilskin coats and carrying torches, formed huge nighttime pa­rades holding placards and banners that read “Lincoln Against Slavery,” “Free Soil and Free Men,” and the like. Mass demonstrations by the Wide Awakes became a defining feature of the campaign to elect Lincoln and his running mate, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine.

 SG:  What is your next project?

DR: I’ve begun to do research toward a book tentatively titled My Mayflower Family: A Historical Memoir.  I’m descended from nineteen Mayflower passengers. The idea of the book is to explore these nineteen people—their lives, their beliefs, their social and political views–as case studies of the Puritan origins of America. I’ll intertwine my stories about them with reflections on my experiences as child growing up in New England and, later, as a historian making ever-growing discoveries about the American past.


David Reynolds is Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  He won the Bancroft Prize for Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography.


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