books History

The Road to Lincoln Aeternus: David Reynold’s “Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times”

Before Abraham Lincoln became a man for all time, he was a man of his time. So argues David Reynolds in his new biography, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times. We are accustomed to the usual biographies and histories of Lincoln: the courageous log cabin lawyer who ascended to the Presidency in America’s most trying moment and defeated the forces of secession, abolished slavery, and became forever remembered as the new founding father of the new nation born in the aftermath of 1865. Reynolds takes us on a different course than the usual political hagiographies that influence our memory of the sixteenth president. While Reynolds is certainly hagiographic in his treatment of Abe, he focuses on the cultural time in which Lincoln lived which brings out a new, exciting, and stimulating read on one of America’s most indispensable great men.

Every so often, a great individual in history breaks free of the times in which they lived and enters the pantheon of immortality. We fancy endlessly debating and musing over how that individual entered the gates of eternal fame and glory: the principles, the ideas, the actions that they took which we ought to emulate in our own striving for transcendence. Yet every person who has passed through the gates of immortality was an individual of their time, born, raised, and saturated in the current of day.

David Reynolds attempts to return us to the antebellum and Civil War period of Abraham Lincoln’s life, rather than muse and pontificate about the eternal principles that have etched him into marble to sit forever on the West End of the National Mall. As Reynolds says, “Cultural biography reveals not only self-making but also culture-making. Culture fashioned Lincoln; he in turn fashioned it.” So we are treated to the making of Abe from the cultural realities that informed the man who would become the sixteenth president.

The strongest aspects of Reynolds’s biography is the part of Lincoln’s life that is either deeply mythologized or glossed over in favor of the usual political hagiography we’re familiar with. In fact, Reynolds throws shade at the usual Lincoln “phoenix” story: “Call it the Lincoln phoenix story, after the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes. Abe Lincoln takes up the practice of law in 1837, settles into domestic life in Springfield, and spends two years in Washington as an undistinguished congressman. Frustrated…he abandons politics and resumes the law in Illinois. In 1854 he emerges as a new being: an astonishingly eloquent antislavery politician.” While true, to some extent, Reynolds explains that this “ale, often recycled in Lincoln literature, ignores important factors that made this a period not of political flameout and sudden resurrection but rather a steady growth toward antislavery flowering.”

In detailing the cultural currents that Lincoln swam in, we are returned to an even older dialectic of understanding American history and politics than Jefferson vs. Hamilton: Puritan vs. Cavalier. Indeed, the Puritan-Cavalier dynamic was prevalent until the late nineteenth century when Jefferson and Hamilton took over. The Puritans, in this cultural story, informed the moral sentiments of the Yankee north and that moralism and abolitionism were the fruits of Puritanism. The Cavaliers, chased out of England and settling the Middle Atlantic and the coastal south after the English Civil War, bequeathed to America (but especially the South) the culture of honor, institutional conservatism, and codes of social conduct. But these two peoples were antithetical to one another, “two different races” destined to clash.

Lincoln, befitting his day and age, was a proud inheritor of both legacies. He had southern honor and gentlemanliness (through, ironically, sexual impurity that birthed Nancy Hanks, Lincoln’s mother) mixed with the moral sentiments of his original Puritan ancestors. But the cultural divisions between Puritan and Cavalier led Lincoln to claim Quaker ancestry in a bid for unity since the Quakers were not a divisive people and everyone got along well with them. Privately, though, Lincoln seemed to take pride in his Puritan and Cavalier ancestry.

Concerning Lincoln’s evolving sentiments on slavery, becoming that ardent antislavery politician nominated by the Republican Party in 1860, we enter the backwater world of rural Kentucky Baptist country. Lincoln’s family, courageously, split from the apathetic and proslavery Baptist churches in their region and joined a lone, but courageous, antislavery Baptist church: Little Mount Church. The small Baptist congregation “believed that the Bible stood opposed to slavery—a highly unusual view for that day, especially in Hardin County.” Although Reynolds points out that Lincoln never joined a church and oscillated between a cultural Christianity and rationalist theology, Lincoln was nevertheless deeply moved by the antislavery preaching of his youth.

On the topic of the Bible and religion, Reynolds also explains that—unlike today—Lincoln saw great stock in cultural religiosity as a unifying force, a place where all Americans could meet and worship as one. While religion could be divisive, Lincoln wanted to avoid divisions by never joining a formal church, the value of religious instruction, preaching, and reading proved instrumental in forming the sensibilities and style of Lincoln. Lincoln’s dabbling in poetry was often modelled after the Bible, religious poetry, and Christian stories. One of his favorite books was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. And while Lincoln could poke fun at religious hypocrisy, Reynolds insists that Lincoln owed a great debt to his rural Christianity even if he remained a heterodox Christian at best.

The frontier, though, formed Lincoln in his intellectual maturity. The child of the woodlands, rivers, and farming plains, Lincoln’s language reflects that rural upbringing. He apparently read Thoreau and Emerson. And while embracing the Whig ideology of internal improvement and economic development, never forsook the naturalism that he loved as a child. “Lincoln even applied nonhuman imagery to himself,” Reynolds writes when reflecting on Lincoln’s voluminous writings (even in the midst of the Civil War). So while Lincoln eventually left behind the frontier life for a more settled existence in the booming Springfield and, eventually, Washington, he never severed himself from his roots.

Moreover, a terrible winter in 1830-1831 in which Lincoln nearly froze to death, led him to his first encounter with the law that John T. Stuart (1807-1885) would later nurture: “In February 1831, he set out for the cabin of William Warnick, the sheriff of Macon Country for whom he split rails. While crossing the Sangamon River, Abe fell through the ice…With the aid of home remedies applied by Mrs. Warnick, he slowly recovered…Warnick…helped stimulate his interest in the law.” Thank God for a blizzard, otherwise Lincoln may have remained aloof from the practice of the law.

In the twenty-first century, we recoil at the cultural phenomenon of minstrel songs and performances. But Reynolds cautions us against blind woke outrage. Minstrel songs and performances often had a humanizing spirit, could prove subversive, even progressive, and helped create Lincoln the pop-culture fanatic. Lincoln’s love of music and storytelling, captured so brilliantly in Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), was largely owed to minstrel performances he enjoyed watching. The humor and comedic ambience made a great impression on Lincoln, who often employed humor in the courtroom as a lawyer and during most social events he attended and presided.

So the Reynolds treats us through Lincoln’s life, en route to the Presidency, with wonderful episodes of Lincoln’s life as informed by the culture of the nineteenth century. Once Lincoln enters Washington and the Union tears itself apart, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times devolves into more of the same though not without moments of humor, laughter, and candor. However, the true treat of Reynolds’s biography is the road to the Lincoln Presidency.

The path to Lincoln aeternus, Reynolds reminds us, was not the product of an idealist Lincoln standing above the times and embracing supposed transcendent and eternal principles, but a Lincoln who was very much a creature of his times who managed to utilize all that he had learned as a child, a young man, and as an adult, to help preserve the Union and ensure the United States would be that essential “arsenal of democracy” in the twentieth century that helped defeat fascism and communism. Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times is a welcome addition to the ever-growing library of Lincoln literature. And one that all should read to get a glimpse into the America Lincoln traversed and was the President of.

Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times
David S. Reynolds
Penguin Press, 2020; 1088pp.

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