Book Review: Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, Vol. II

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu   2/6/14
by William Herndon and Jesse Weik  •  Volume II of this biography continues with a chapter recounting Lincoln as a lawyer. During these years Lincoln did his best to establish a firm financial base for his family and himself. While never a man overly interested in money, Herndon says he was tight fisted with the money he had. Lincoln did not speculate in land or anything else as did many of his contemporaries in the Illinois legal profession.

Herndon writes, Lincoln “never studied law books unless a case was on hand for consideration-never followed up the decisions of the supreme courts, as other lawyers did. It seemed as if he depended for his effectiveness in managing a lawsuit entirely on the stimulus and inspiration of the final hours. He paid but little attention to the fees and money matters of the firm…He never entered an item in the account book. “

It is clear that the minutiae of the law and business held no interest for Lincoln. As regards the law, it was his sense of justice which impelled him. This is stressed when Herndon quotes Judge David Davis who wrote “The framework of his mental and moral being was honesty, and a wrong case was poorly defended by him……In order to bring into full activity his great powers it was necessary that he should be convinced of the right and justice of the matter which he advocated.”

Interestingly, Herndon stresses that the Law was merely a tool by which Lincoln could achieve political success when he says, “Lincoln’s restless ambition found its gratification only in the field of politics. He used the law merely as a stepping-stone to what he considered a more attractive condition in the political world.” And as could be expected, with his growing political exposure and popularity, he gained more legal clients and with them a reasonable standard of living. Herndon mentions that he earned about $3,000 a year.

What drove Lincoln’s return to national politics was the repeal of the Missouri compromise in the form of Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Act. This law, which would have effectively allowed slavery in every new State, coalesced anti-slavery sentiment throughout the Northern USA. Because of its enactment, Lincoln finally came off the fence as regards the slavery question. Against the advice of others, he drew a line in the sand with his “House Divided” speech in which he unequivocally maintained that America would become all one thing or another: all slave states or no slave states.

Douglas was seen to be the most effective Northern proponent of slavery and the presidency was his goal. The anti-slavery Lincoln saw the need to counter Douglas’ growing influence. To do this, he called out Douglas during the 1858 Senatorial election campaign in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Although Lincoln lost the election to Douglas, he gained stature politically and his name was heard nationwide. Of course he had desired to win the Senate seat, but already during the debates, he made clear to his confidants that he had larger aims in mind.

Most importantly, Lincoln wanted to insure that he could do enough damage to Douglas’ stature with the Southern Democrats to insure Douglas would never be elected President. Lincoln did this by asking Douglas if, as a matter of law, the Federal government could prohibit slavery in a territory. Douglas had to answer to the affirmative and this answer destroyed his standing with the Southern Democrats. And as a bonus, while destroying Douglas’ presidential chances in the election of 1860, Lincoln advanced his own.

The book carries on, detailing the events which brought about Lincoln’s nomination as the Republican candidate and eventual election to the presidency. There is some mention of Lincoln’s time as president, but the book does not go into any detail regarding the actual war except for some insider information on Lincoln’s thoughts regarding the First Battle of Bull Run. If one is looking for a sketch of Lincoln as war-time president, this is not the book for you.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is, by far, the best book I have ever read on Lincoln. Unlike many biographies, this book deals almost exclusively with the person and doesn’t get lost in dealing with “the times”. Because it is written by Lincoln’s law partner and protégé the author does not have to rely on third hand information. He knew his subject from the feet up, literally. Perhaps unusually, he was willing to portray him in an honest, straightforward manner.

For my money, the last chapter of the book is the single best distillation of a historical character I have ever read and I have read many. In it, the author gives a recap of Lincoln’s life, physical attributes and character traits. He sums up who Lincoln was, how he got to his final destination and why he was the right man for the time. If you have any interest in Lincoln the man, read this book. • (1025 views)

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2 Responses to Book Review: Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, Vol. II

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    The Lincoln-Douglas race was 1858, not 1856. The current occupant of the seat is Richard Durbin. Allen Guelzo, in his study of the race, agrees that the House Divided speech doomed him with the key swing districts (the old Whig areas in the middle of the state, which ironically were Lincoln’s original political base). Note that in 1854, Lincoln also became the Republican candidate against incumbent Senator James Shields; in the end, free-soil Democrat Lyman Trumbull was elected. (This is the seat now occupied by Mark Kirk.) Shields later became Senator from Minnesota (for a short while), and then a Union general during the War of the Rebellion. (He won a rare victory against Stonewall Jackson at Kernstown, though apparently actual field command was held by one of Shields’s brigade commanders, Nathan Kimball.)

    Incidentally, David Davis played an important role in the controversy over the 1876 election. When the electoral commission was formed with 5 Senators (3 Republicans and 2 Democrats), 5 House members (3 Democrats and 2 Republicans), and 5 Supreme Court Justices (2 Republicans, 2 Democrats, and one other to be agreed on by the others), Davis was intended to be the 15th member. It’s generally thought that he was unlikely to take a completely partisan stance, and thus would probably have voted with the Democrats over at least one set of state returns (most likely Louisiana, where the Republicans had a pitifully weak case). But then the Democrats who were in temporary control of the Illinois legislature named Davis to the Senate, and his replacement (Joseph Bradley) voted the straight Republican party line, thereby electing Hayes.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “The Lincoln-Douglas race was 1858, not 1856.”

    Thanks for the correction. Don’t know why I typed 1856 as it was two years before the 1860 presidential election.

    “Allen Guelzo, in his study of the race, agrees that the House Divided speech doomed him with the key swing districts”

    Herndon makes clear that this was the general consensus among Lincoln supporters at the time. But he implies Lincoln hinting he was looking at the long game.

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