There have been an estimated sixteen thousand publications about the life and times of Abraham Lincoln, and a number of comprehensive biographies appeared during the Lincoln bicentennial birth year of 2009. Thus, while Ronald C. White, Jr., is among the most important of contemporary Lincoln scholars, it is reasonable to question whether A. Lincoln: A Biography stands out from the sizeable collection of analogous material. White provides a fresh approach by integrating Lincoln’s “log cabin” origins with his religious views to develop a more comprehensive account of the politician’s influences. He traces the effects of these influences both on his early political career and on his years in the White House.
Lincoln’s early years have long been a subject of his numerous biographies. He was born February 12, 1809the same day as Charles Darwin, the towering nineteenth century scientific figurein Kentucky, not Illinois, which is sometimes mistaken for Lincoln’s birthplace. His earliest recorded English ancestor, Samuel Lincoln, arrived in New England in 1637, one of thirteen thousand people who left Europe during that decade. Samuel Lincoln’s descendents traveled progressively farther south and west, moving through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and eventually Kentucky, where the future president’s grandfather and namesake, Abraham Lincoln, settled near what is now Louisville. Lincoln’s grandfather was killed during a Shawnee raid, leaving the six-year-old Thomas Lincoln fatherless. A man of average height, Thomas Lincoln was a typical young pioneer of the dayan active (Baptist) church member, a member of the local militia, and a man who believed the path out of poverty was through the accumulation of property. When he was twenty-six years old, Thomas Lincoln married Nancy Hanks in 1806. They moved to Elizabethtown, where Thomas built a log cabin on property he owned. Their first child, Sarah, was born the following year, followed a year later by Abraham.
In his 1860 autobiography, Lincoln described his family as “undistinguished.” Neither Thomas nor Abraham himself had any more than a rudimentary formal educationwhich was hardly atypical for the time. Though he had purchased land equivalent to three farms, Thomas Lincoln became a victim of the indeterminate surveying methods used in many of the regions west of the mountains. Titles were frequently in error, and sales routinely involved overlapping properties. Like many of the settlers in the region, Lincoln lost title to the property he had purchased. Rather than disputing the issue in court, the Lincolns moved to Indiana.
Two major issues influenced the early settlers to the region and ultimately shaped the thinking of the future president. One was the search for open land. The other was that of slavery. Slaves were owned by relatives or households in the families of both of Lincoln’s parents. Little is recorded concerning Thomas and Nancy Lincoln’s feelings about slavery, but indirect evidence suggests that both opposed the practice.
White’s contribution to the Lincoln story begins with this story of the future president’s roots. The biographer attempts to answer questions about Lincoln’s interior thoughts and beliefs, such as his true feelings about slavery and African Americans. He also addresses much more personal inner questions, such as Lincoln’s feelings about his wife Mary and their marriage. In some respects, White discusses these questions in the context of twenty-first century culture and attitudes.
Dissection of Lincoln’s evolving private thoughts is a challenge. His law partner, William Herndon, considered Lincoln “the mostshut-mouthed man that ever existed.” Mary Lincoln burned much of their correspondence before leaving for Washington. As White points out, however, while Lincoln kept no diary, he did compose and keep a large volume of notes on whatever subject was on his mind at the time. Many of these primary sources were later used by Lincoln’s secretary John Hay in the biography he composed following the president’s death.
White arguably addresses Lincoln’s view of religion in greater depth than do other biographers, discussing both Lincoln’s beliefs and the role those beliefs played in shaping his political and personal life. Lincoln invoked religion and God in his most important speeches, including the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural...
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