Review: Abe: Abraham Lincoln and his Times by David S. Reynolds

David S. Reynolds is one of the premiere historians on 19th-century American figures, writing biographies on Walt Whitman and John Brown, as well as a cultural biographies of the Age of Jackson and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is no surprise that he would eventually land on Abraham Lincoln, the man of sixteen-thousand-plus biographies, and utilize his expertise in all things cultural to encapsulate a better understood Lincoln than we have ever seen before.

Reynold’s Lincoln is at once a man of his times and man outside his times, capable of harnessing the cultural spirits of his era to forge a political identity even as they were still, in many respects, shaping the politician he would become. “Conditions make the man and the man the conditions,” Lincoln once said, but as Reynold’s argues, his foray into politics from multiple other professions (and lifestyles) showed he also “believed firmly in the power of human effort to modify the environments which surround us.” His peculiar upbringing, one that saw him travel between states and the rural/urban divide, provided many contexts and lifeways to draw from as he grew from lawyer and congressman into President. “He redefined democracy precisely because he had experienced culture in all its dimensions,” Reynolds notes, “from high to low, sacred to profane, conservative to radical, sentimental to subversive.” 1David S. Reynolds, Abe: Abraham Lincoln and His Times, Penguin Press, New York, 2020, xv.)

For a historian to prove the influence of cultural phenomena on the mind of an historical actor from the 19th-century is a tall ask. Reynolds possesses a deep comprehension of the cultural mood of the nation ca. 1850, most notably the rivalries between Puritan Stock (Roundheads) and Virginia stock (Cavaliers), two competing bodies that became diametric bodies of influence in the politics of Lincoln’s home state of Illinois. The most effective tool utilized by the author (other than direct thoughts from Lincoln himself) is marrying the speeches and legislation Lincoln passed with books, plays, and other cultural media that he knows Lincoln encountered or consumed. This distant cousin of literary criticism attempts to use the works to better understand the man rather than deciphering the author to better comprehend the book.

The book follows a general chronological timeline, yet, as more an analysis of a character than a political narrative, we are often shuffled back and forth from the 1840’s and 1850’s until we stabilize somewhat in the 1860’s. Through these decades we meet stalwarts of mid-19th-century culture that are relatively obscure today. Reynold’s encyclopedic knowledge of the era allows deep forays into seemingly omittable facts of Lincoln’s rise to the Presidency. Yet, after Reynolds presents his cast of characters, from the Clary’s Grove Boys to the Benevolent Empire to the Bowery Boys, it seems unfeasible to tell the story of Lincoln without them.

In this era of heightened partisanship, it was especially refreshing to read about Lincoln’s political style, a self-deprecating tone in speeches and a reliance on wit rather than the outrageous, short and direct rather than long-winded and obscure. A speech as he ran for the Illinois legislature presents all three:

“Fellow citizens, I presume you all know who I am – I am humble Abraham Lincoln. I have been solicited by many friends to become a candidate for the legislature. My policies are short and sweet, like the old woman’s dance. I am in favor of a National Bank, I am in favor of the internal improvement system, and a high protective tariff. These are my sentiments and political principles. If elected I shall be thankful; and if not, it will all be the same.” 2Pg. 126

Still, Reynolds writes, “he could be a blistering orator. When he was called an elitist, as many Whigs were, he crept closer to his opponent before ripping open his opponents shirt, displaying the shirt frills and gold jewelry associated with aristocracy.” 3Pg. 171.

Lincoln was cautious throughout the late 1840’s and 1850’s not to reveal too much about his radicalism (relative to Illinois politics, that is), so much so that he became synonymous with Charles Blondin, a famous daredevil of the era who often traversed Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Political opponents and frustrated allies alike often disavowed Lincoln for always straddling a line, refusing to bend to far one way or another on issues such as temperance, women’s rights, and, of course, slavery. As Lincoln rose to national prominence, he crystallized his viewpoints on many of these issues, yet it is his opposition to slavery that was most vociferous and became the focal point of his upcoming presidency. (Speaking of temperance, one of my favorite nuggets from the book was when members of Lincoln’s inner circle pointed out that General Grant was known to imbibe. After a meeting on the subject, Lincoln ended it by asking “by the way, gentlemen, can either of you tell me where General Grant procures his whiskey? Because, if I can find out, I will send every general in the field a barrel of it.” 4Pg. 181.

Reynolds argues that Lincoln’s guiding light was the Declaration of Independence, a document that bestowed freedom and equality of all Americans. This appeal to a higher law, one higher than the Constitution, was a conflict to Lincoln’s because, he was quick to note, anyone could use a “higher law” to defend just about anything. (Many would point to southern slave owners’ biblical defense of slavery, for instance.) Yet, higher law was necessary because humans were fallible, and their laws often contradicted what he held to be true on a universal level, most notably that blacks were humans and not property.

“Is the center nothing?” Lincoln had once asked President Taylor. As Lincoln continued to grow as a national figure in the 1850’s he proved, for the moment, that the center was important in that it allowed him to grow as a politician. Reynolds argues multiple times that if Lincoln was more radical, if he gave speeches by what was in his heart and not as political tools to gain power, he would have drastically curtailed his political career. During these instances in the book it is hard to tell if Reynolds himself is a Lincoln apologist – he at times seems loathe to let criticism or doubt stand when a subtle yet unverifiable claim substitutes just fine. (There are more “must have” and “could have” or “appears to” quotes than you would expect in a standard biography.) Regardless, as Lincoln ascended to the Presidency, “he would teach the world that in a deeply divided time, the center is everything – the center, that is, with an eye always trained on pushing the nation in a strongly progressive direction.” 5Pg. 320

The book is a monster read, almost one thousand pages with the introduction, yet you would expect no less for a book of this caliber with a focus on cultural phenomena. (The index is a hefty thirty-plus pages itself.) The various political cartoons and portraits throughout are well worth the price of admission on their own, and this book will have a permanent place on my bookshelf for years to come.   

Abe by David S. Reynolds
Abe by David S. Reynolds

David S. Reynolds is a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography, winner of the Bancroft Prize and the Ambassador Book Award. His other books include Beneath the American Renaissance (winner of the Christian Gauss Award), John Brown, Abolitionist, and Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America. He is a regular book reviewer for The New York Review of BooksThe New York Times Book Review, and The Wall Street Journal.