“Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times” by David S. Reynolds. Penguin Press. 1,066 pp. $45. Review provided by The Washington Post.
There are about 16,000 books about Abraham Lincoln, more than any historical figure except Jesus Christ, and yet new perspectives continue to emerge. Such is the case with David S. Reynolds’ massive new biography, “Abe.” A Bancroft Prize-winning author of works on such other 19th-century luminaries as Walt Whitman, John Brown and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Reynolds writes what he calls cultural biography – not life and times but life in times, as the subtitle of his new book states.
Lincoln “had experienced culture in all its dimensions,” Reynolds observes, “from high to low, sacred to profane, conservative to radical, sentimental to subversive.” By teasing out those connections and contexts, whether in the realms of the frontier, education, religion, law, marriage or politics, Reynolds deepens our understanding of Lincoln’s life.
One of his keenest insights concerns Lincoln’s upbringing. “It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life,” Lincoln warned when he ran for president. Reynolds accepts the challenge.
Lincoln knew his lineage dated to New England on his father’s side and Virginia on his mother’s. Those conflicting ancestral strands may not have played well politically, so, according to Reynolds, “he pruned his family tree, emphasizing facts that made him attractive to a broad spectrum of voters.”
Many 19th-century Americans viewed the North-South divide as a rivalry between Puritans and Cavaliers, the descendants of those who fled religious persecution by King Charles I and settled New England versus those expelled by the Puritan Oliver Cromwell who settled the South.
Reynolds suggests that Lincoln drew on both traditions: a love of freedom derived from his father’s side and fealty to honor from his mother’s. His gift was to transcend the cultural divide. “He was a Southern-born man, raised in what was then the West, who came to adopt Northern attitudes,” Reynolds acutely observes.
If Lincoln played down his sectional origins, he also masked his religious roots. Though his lineage was Congregationalist and Baptist, he claimed Quaker ancestors. Reynolds proposes that Lincoln did so because, unlike the Baptists, who split on the issue of slavery, Quakerism was “not a source of intense sectional tension,” although Quaker involvement in the moral reforms of the day sparked controversy.
Lincoln must have found the denomination’s opposition to slavery appealing. “I am naturally anti-slavery,” he declared in 1864. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel.” But while Lincoln may have always been anti-slavery, he was not always an abolitionist.
Political, social and cultural shifts in the late 1840s and early 1850s led to dramatic changes in Northern attitudes toward slavery, including Lincoln’s. The literature of the era offered nothing less than what Reynolds dubs “an Anti-slavery Renaissance,” headed by “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which stirred a profound emotional response in its readers. Published in 1852, the book sold more than 300,000 copies by year’s end.
Lincoln’s transformation can be gleaned from two letters. In 1841, he wrote about seeing 12 enslaved people chained together on an Ohio river steamboat and remarked how cheerful and seemingly happy they were. Fourteen years later, he recalled the event differently. The scene, he confessed, “was a continual torment to me” and held “the power of making me miserable.”
The North’s anti-slavery awakening spawned a pervasive racist backlash. Countless tracts and broadsides ranted against “Negro rule” and amalgamation. In the political realm, Lincoln was caricatured in pulp fiction as Abraham Africanus I, and Democrats coined the word “miscegenation” in opposition to his reelection in 1864.
That Lincoln won a second term, Reynolds argues, owed something to cultural spectacle as well as military victory. For example, he highlights the links between Lincoln and Charles Blondin, a French tightrope walker who amazed Americans by his feats, which included crossing Niagara Falls with his manager on his back.
Cartoonists portrayed Lincoln as a political Blondin, balancing himself as he traversed a fraught political landscape. Recovering the cultural meaning of the acrobat is typical of the volume’s originality, and Reynolds performs a similar feat with other portraits, including those of P.T. Barnum and the Bowery Boys (B’hoys).
An even closer relationship between Lincoln and popular culture was to the humorist David Ross Locke, who wrote under the pen name Petroleum V. Nasby, a vicious lout who lampooned Northern Democrats for their support of the Confederacy. Lincoln read Locke aloud to his Cabinet and friends. After the war, one politician claimed the rebellion had been put down by “the Army, the Navy and the Nasby Letters.”
Reynolds argues that Lincoln employed Locke as a surrogate for his own views. This meshes with a larger theme in “Abe” that frequently depicts Lincoln as someone who posed as a moderate and packaged “progressive themes in conservative stylistic containers.” Reynolds concludes that Lincoln possessed “a radically progressive self” and held “an underlying radicalism on race.”
To make this case, Reynolds must excuse Lincoln’s support for Whig enslavers such as Henry Clay and Zachary Taylor, and, although he acknowledges that Lincoln’s early denigration of black suffrage was “reprehensible,” he dismisses Lincoln’s racist statements as being made “reluctantly.”
Lincoln might best be seen, however, not as a radical cloaked in moderate garb but as someone who radicalized over time. He craved unity and cherished democracy. By 1863, achieving those goals meant freeing enslaved people, authorizing the enlistment of Black men as soldiers and publicly endorsing Black suffrage. Elements of the culture drove him toward those actions, yet as is always the case in the dialectic of character and circumstance, Lincoln transformed the times.
In 1909, Leo Tolstoy observed that Lincoln’s “genius is still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding.” “Abe,” consistently learned and illuminating, goes a long way toward helping us fathom his transcendence.
– Reviewed by Louis P. Masur, who is distinguished professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University and the author of “The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America.”