‘Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times,’ by David S. Reynolds: An Excerpt

Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that genius lies in “being altogether receptive; in letting the world do all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind.” For Lincoln, this meant traversing a culture’s idioms—what Emerson called “the whole scale of the language, from the most elegant to the most low and vile.” In Emerson’s words, “A great style of hero draws equally all classes, all the extremes of society, till we say the very dogs believe in him.” The person who most fully represented this breadth of vision, Emerson wrote, was America’s sixteenth president:

Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the most remarkable example of this class that we have seen—a man who was at home and welcome with the humblest, and with a spirit and a practical vein in the times of terror that commanded the admiration of the wisest. His heart was as great as the world, but there was no room in it to hold the memory of a wrong.

Indeed, Lincoln was unusually responsive to the spirit of the hour, and this responsiveness fostered his practicality and his compassion. His close friend Joshua Speed commented, “Lincoln studied and appropriated to himself all that came within his observation. Everything that he saw, read, or heard, added to the store of his information”; nothing “was too small to escape his observation.” The Illinois lawyer Leonard Swett reported that Lincoln, who on the law circuit talked endlessly with average folk by day and pored over Shakespeare or Euclid by night, was the “most inquisitive man I have known,” one for whom “life was a school; . . . he was always studying and mastering every subject which came before him.”

Lincoln believed that the surroundings shape the person. According to his law partner William Herndon, he often said, “Conditions make the man and not man the conditions.” But, Herndon emphasized, Lincoln also “believed firmly in the power of human effort to modify the environments which surround us.” Fate and free will, then, combined in Lincoln’s outlook. There were times when he felt that fate had taken over. At a trying moment during the Civil War, Lincoln wrote, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” At other times, though, he took an active and aggressive stance toward the world: he became a shaper and a creator, not just an observer or a receiver. Lincoln declared, “He who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.” As this book shows, Lincoln constantly molded popular opinions and language and redirected them toward what he regarded as order, justice, and fairness.

[ Return to the review of “Abe.” ]

Cultural biography reveals an engaged, fully human Lincoln. It works from the premise that cultural and social surroundings infiltrate the mind and shape behavior, motivation, and expression. Every human life is culture‑specific and time‑specific. Outside influences saturate innermost thoughts. Although we all share virtually the same genome, as individuals our behavior and our cognition are products of the intersection of our genes and the unique environment around us. The cultural biographer’s task is to describe that environment as fully as possible with the aim of revealing cross‑influences between the individual and the outside world.

Cultural biography reveals not only self-making but also culture-making. Culture fashioned Lincoln; he in turn fashioned it. From a young age, he reacted creatively to the cultural materials available to him. He responded to a culture alive with subversive passions and fertile images of the sort that energized America’s greatest writers— Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, Mark Twain, and others—and that produced Lincoln’s all‑absorbing vision, which enabled him to guide the nation through its most turbulent period.

Political victory frequently comes to candidates who best tap into cultural attitudes. Few in American history have done so as effectively as Lincoln. Much of his greatness lay in his thoughtful response to his teeming, unstructured nation. Emerson called America “the ungirt, the diffuse, the profuse, procumbent, one wide ground juniper, . . . it all runs to leaves, to suckers, to tendrils, to miscellany, . . . formless, has no terrible & no beautiful condensation.” Thoreau, likewise, remarked on what he called the “confused tintinnabulum” of “this restless, nervous, bustling” nineteenth‑century America.”

America’s formlessness reflected a democracy that before the Civil War had few established institutions. In an era of a weak central government, the only federal agency that touched the lives of average Americans was the postal service. American Protestantism, liberated in the atmosphere of religious freedom, spawned so many new denominations, sects, and self‑styled prophets that Tocqueville wrote, “In the United States there are an infinite variety of ceaselessly changing Christian sects.” In the absence of organized police forces and effective crowd control, mob scenes broke out regularly from the 1830s, when Lincoln denounced the “mobocratic spirit . . . abroad in the land,” right up to the second year of the Civil War, when the New York City draft riots erupted with deadly violence. Periodic slave rebellions, such as those by Nat Turner in Virginia and the Amistad rebels at sea, created a terror in the South that turned into widespread panic when John Brown invaded Virginia in 1859 to spark insurrections.

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