‘A. Lincoln,’ Writ Large and Long

Posted February 9, 2009 at 3:27pm

Ronald C. White Jr.’s “A. Lincoln” is a detailed, descriptive and in-depth biography of Abraham Lincoln. In a story that lasts for nearly 700 pages, Lincoln grows from a poor, uneducated small-town boy to the 16th president of the United States.

Some of White’s research is based on the hundreds of notes written by Lincoln, which were probably meant for his eyes only but have made it possible to discover the private person. With all of this information, White paints Lincoln as steadfast, loyal, driven, a prankster and a bookworm.

However, White also exposes Lincoln’s insecurities. In letters to friends, Lincoln writes about his lack of luck with women, and his language shows indecisiveness at times.

But the strongest image that comes through White’s biography is a picture of Lincoln as an undyingly eager learner. Though he attended school for less than two years, Lincoln later began to educate himself and became a lawyer.

We get a fresh look at the home that nurtured Lincoln, especially the support from his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, who was important in the development of his character and fostered his interest in learning. His father, Thomas Lincoln, an uneducated farmer, had not received any support from his own home, and as a result, father and son were estranged throughout their lives.

During his childhood, Lincoln’s family moved several times. One reason was Thomas Lincoln’s opposition to slavery in the South, and another was his search for better lands. The view concerning slavery came to be an important issue in Lincoln’s career and the subject that divided him in debates with many of his opponents.

We also see Lincoln as a very young man, developing a love of the spotlight: At 21, Lincoln got on a stage in Decatur, Ill., to deliver a response in a debate, not as much to the previous speakers as to the crowd.

When he finally did begin his career in politics, Lincoln experienced both success and defeat. He left after his first term in Congress because of his unpopular stand against the Mexican War, and he showed his deep disappointment in a letter to a friend: “How hard it is to die and leave one’s country no better than if one had never lived.”

He returned to the political stage in 1854 with a firm stand against slavery. But his attempts to win a seat in the U.S. Senate were unsuccessful. However, his outstanding public speaking, in particular his “House Divided” speech, was one reason he was chosen as the Republican presidential candidate.

The stories of Lincoln as president have been told often. We know, for instance, that he was frequently questioned and challenged by opponents as well as friends. But it’s still useful to be reminded of the world Lincoln lived in.

On April 24, 1861, the New York Times pointed out in an editorial that every crisis needed a leader who was able to put his ideas, emotions and aims into action and ended with the charge, “No such hero at present directs affairs.”

Time has changed that image of Lincoln, of course.

Some may ask whether yet another biography of Lincoln is really needed, but this work adds another dimension to the ongoing portrait of a great man.