by 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.