Book Review: “Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life” by William Herndon and Jesse Weik

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu   1/17/14
I had heard about this book many years back, but had never seen it in bookstores. Maybe this was because most of the bookstores I frequented were in Asia. However using that miracle of the modern age, Kindle, I was able to download both volumes of this biography for free. In this review I will deal with the first volume.

To understand the context of this book, one must know that William Herndon met Lincoln in about 1837 and was Lincoln’s junior law partner from 1844 until Lincoln’s death in 1865. The only other person who had a more constant and intimate relationship with Lincoln was probably his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.

In addition to his personal contact and knowledge of Lincoln, Herndon used numerous original source documents. These included Lincoln’s public speeches, personal and private correspondence, as well as written and oral comments from others with whom Lincoln had personal and public contact. Additionally, various accounts from Newspapers and notes from reporters who knew Lincoln were also cited and/or quoted.

Herndon did not get around to organizing his materials until late in his life and by that time, he decided he needed help. He worked with Jesse Weik, who wrote most of the text and is responsible for the overall literary style. Readers are fortunate in this as the book is an easy read without the ponderous language so often found in biographies and history books written in the late nineteenth century.

Unlike many hagiographies which have dealt with Lincoln, Herndon’s book describes the real man. It does not try to glorify Lincoln’s humble beginnings. It treats them as they should be treated, truthfully. His poverty is not cast in a wonderful light. He father is shown to be somewhat shiftless and his mother was an illegitimate child. Although she died when he was about ten he rarely mentioned her in later years. It appears she did not have a great influence on him. He was much closer to his stepmother Sarah.

In spite of his poor beginnings and education, Lincoln did not lack for ambition and drive. The image of the “Rail Splitter” which has come down to us is only partially true. At one time, he was a surveyor which is something he had in common with Washington. Although Lincoln was forced to do various jobs until he lit upon the law, he loathed physical labor and according to Herndon was quite lazy. What Lincoln did like to do is talk. He was good at this and it was his glib tongue along with his great strength which first brought public attention to him and helped prepare his way in the world.

For all that has been written about Lincoln, Herndon makes clear that the only job which ever interested Lincoln was politics. From the time he moved from his father’s house, Lincoln was keen on receiving public acclaim and respect. Other Illinois settlers, such as Stephan Douglas, were of a similar disposition. As Illinois grew, so did Lincoln. And he made sure he was well known throughout his locality and the State. Before gaining the national stage Lincoln was elected to the Illinois legislature a couple of times and for years was deeply involved in both local and State politics. One of the reasons Lincoln became a lawyer was to ride the circuit so he could meet more people in the State. The modern notion that Lincoln was a simple artless man with no ambitions, is put to rest by Herndon. He was not the angelic “Father Abraham,” which has been handed down through history. Lincoln was constantly doing his utmost to gain in public stature. He was always ready to give a speech or debate others on the topic of the day. It didn’t matter whether the venue was a country store or the State House. He was never at a loss for a folksy story or joke. In today’s terms, I believe Lincoln would be known as a “good ole boy.”

Not a handsome man, Lincoln had little luck with the fairer sex. According to Herndon, Lincoln’s one true love was Ann Rutledge. Unfortunately she died young and Lincoln never had the same feeling for another woman. Since Herndon had a strained relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln, it might be thought that his judgment, in this matter, could be off base. However, if one considers the fact that Lincoln once left Mary at the altar, and takes into consideration the content of Lincoln’s personal correspondence with friends regarding the relationship, I believe Herndon is correct. In any case, it is clear, that the Lincoln’s marriage was pretty much a fiasco. That being said, Herndon gives Mary Todd significant credit for Lincoln’s success. Not only was she as ambitious as he, she also came from a wealthy family with good connections and the ability to operate in “better” society which Lincoln lacked.

During the years covered in the book, Lincoln is relentlessly striving for political success. And although he appeared to become an opponent to slavery in theory, he did not spend much energy on the subject or strongly express his disapproval of the “peculiar institution.” The reasons for this reticence could be numerous, but the fact that many voters were not overly invested in the question must be taken into account. A politician cannot be too far ahead of his constituents. Herndon, an ardent abolitionist, felt this was a fault, but that Lincoln later made up for his early failings. According to Herndon, Lincoln was a slow, but thorough, thinker and not one to act impulsively. One can see this characteristic in Lincoln’s personal growth. Slow and steady.

In reading the review so far, one might get the impression that Herndon was not a great admirer of Lincoln. This is absolutely wrong. As the younger man, Herndon had great respect for Lincoln. He particularly admired Lincoln’s absolute honesty and sense of justice, as well as his ability to get to the “nub” of any question. Nevertheless, Herndon wished to show Lincoln the man as opposed to the false caricature which developed after Lincoln’s assassination. Herndon lays out his intent in the preface:

“You should not forget there is a skeleton in every house. The finest character dug out thoroughly, photographed honestly, and judged by the standard of morality or excellence which we exact for other men is never perfect. Some men are cold, some lewd, some dishonest, some cruel, and many a combination of all. The trail of the serpent is over them all! Excellence consists not in the absence of these attributes, but in the degree in which they are redeemed by the virtues and graces of life.”

What a wonderful thought. How we could profit from taking this to heart. As some of you may know, I am convinced one of the greatest problems facing this country is the fact that the “pursuit of excellence” which was so much a part of this country, is sadly missing in our present day.

Among the many false notions our society has swallowed from Leftists sophists is the idea that since nobody can be perfect, we needn’t worry about trying to be our best. Mediocre equality is what we can all attain without any effort. Society needs to snap out of its trance and realize the Left is lying to us and those leading it are taking advantage of the increasing indolence of our people. Leftists are cashing in on the gullibility of those who reject and deny standards of excellence. After all, if more people fall for Leftist cant, there will be fewer competitors in areas which require effort. To a pack of Leftist wolves, tame sheep are less troublesome than a bunch of independent Grizzlies.

Thank God Lincoln was not a slacker and continued to pursue excellence throughout his life. Given his antecedents and early life, he could have ended up in a bottle like so many others of his time. I look forward to reading the second volume. • (1830 views)

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4 Responses to Book Review: “Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life” by William Herndon and Jesse Weik

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    We have several biographies of Cousin Abe, but not this one. I have read that there is some dispute over his objectivity, especially regarding Mary Todd Lincoln. I notice his mention of Lincoln’s ability to get to the heart of an issue, which is one thing I especially admire in him. A particularly good example is his explanation of the sectional difference on slavery: One side thought it was right and ought to be expanded, the other thought it was wrong and should be kept from expansion and eventually ended. (Expansion was the key issue in 1860.)

    One thing it would be interesting to discuss further is Lincoln’s racial views. In 1858, challenged on blatantly racist terms by Douglas over the “house divided” speech (which Allen Guelzo thinks cost him the Senate race that year), he did admit that blacks were inferior — though he was rather vague about what that inferiority was. People forget that he was a politician seeking victory in a racist state. I gather that Frederick Douglass later decided that Lincoln in person was remarkably free of racial bias.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Frederick Douglas was a righteous and outspoken man who would frankly and sparingly apply a swift kick to Lincoln’s ass regarding the sins of slavery as the opportunity or need presented itself. But the politics of ending slavery were far more complicated.

      All the biographies I’ve read are plain about the idea that Lincoln absolutely hated slavery. But seeing the black men as he always saw him (in stupid toil and degradation), it would have been a rational conclusion that such men, although they may be deemed to have equal rights, were not of equal stature (if even just social stature).

      People such of Frederick Douglass begged to differ and was a living example that the black man was indeed fully human and could be educated. And it is a fact that Douglass understood that Lincoln didn’t have a racist bone in his body. But it would not have been an illogical conclusion at the time to see the black man as inferior — just as those on the Left see nothing but a “mass of tissue” when they look at the unborn.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Good review. And I like the quote you chose from the book.

    Oh, if only we lived in an age of “fair and balanced.” Alas, it is difficult to avoid the infectious disease of mindless zealotry and partisanship, living in the Leftist world as we do.

    The Left has worked very hard to revise our heroes (as have libertarians, in the case of Lincoln). In the name of getting to the “real” truth, they have done nothing but throw muck. There has often been a counter-reaction to this muck-throwing (understandable it may be) which has led those who are not on the Left to automatically, and with little balance or reflection, stick up for the targets of the Left, including George Bush and the U.S. Military, for example. Either extreme should be avoided…but hopefully never with the presupposition that there isn’t something great (or awful) to be discovered.

    Lincoln is a complex man. But he is understandable. So many knew him. So much is written by and about him. And the thing for me is, that at the end of Lincoln’s life, he is a man who has truly transcended his faults by the virtues and graces of his life. Those, such as Seward, who were great and bitter rivals at one time, often came (as Seward did) to consider Lincoln not to be the best politician he had ever met but to be the greatest and most moral man he had ever met.

    Some (such as the poisonous and dastardly left) are motivated to get to “the real Lincoln” only in order to try to besmirch him. Others, surely of the Herndon and Weik type, want to get past the mythology and exaggerations that will always erupt around great people. Such was the case with St. Francis, for example. His body wasn’t cold before they were making up great tales about him. This is why it takes reading several biographies of a person to begin to get a real sense of the person.

    And yet, if we are not careful, we may counter-balance too well and and take the greatness out of people by parsing their characters into the myriad events of the mundane. We may say that “the real Lincoln” or “the real St. Francis” is the one pointed out to us by people who say that they are seeing beyond the glorified veneer. In the case of Lincoln, I would say that those very real gritty bits in his history are real indeed. But unless one understands Lincoln’s life as moving from a young, atheistic, unrefined man to literally Father Abraham (whose last State of the Union message was like a sermon), there is no understanding the man in the whole by looking at mere parts.

    And in some ways, as it was for St. Francis, the greatness of these people rises because we see that they have been very human in the past.

  3. steve lancaster says:

    I recommend the “Writings of Abraham Lincoln” also available at Amazon as a Kindle download. It is in seven volumes from 1832 to 1865. Some of the letters are very enlightening about Lincoln’s struggle with his abhorrence of slavery and his personal belief that the Black Man was inferior.

    Additionally, during the war Lincoln almost routinely commuted the death sentence for Union soldiers charged with desertion. Those executions that were carried out most often dealt with soldiers charged with other crimes, rape or murder. Even with these Lincoln seems to have some misgivings.

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