David Herbert Donald is one of the deans of American history. He has won Pulitzer Prizes for books on Charles Sumner and Thomas Wolfe. His Lincoln’s Herndon (1948) is widely regarded as the definitive biography of Abraham Lincoln. In “We Are Lincoln Men”: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends Donald turns his considerable expertise to the question of friendship in Lincoln’s life and presidency.
As a lawyer and politician, Abraham Lincoln knew and worked with thousands of people. The nature of his calling enforced gregariousness. Lincoln thrived in this atmosphere of enforced talk and bonhomie. He became famous for his folksy manner and humorous tall tales. Yet for all that, Lincoln always maintained a profound reserve in his dealings with other people. His legal partner William Herndon believed Lincoln was one of the most secretive men who ever lived. Lincoln was a man who could speak eloquently to a nation, but found it impossible to unburden himself to an individual.
Donald explores this paradox in Lincoln’s character. He speculates that Lincoln’s emotional constraint may date back to the sudden death of his mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln, when he was only nine years old. Such a trauma at an early age can make it difficult for children to reach out to others as they grow older. Reinforcing this may have been the fact that as Lincoln grew up on the Indiana frontier, there were very few other boys his age with whom he could become friends. Thus by the time Lincoln grew into manhood, he was already a person of profound interiority. Donald devotes most of his book to exploring Lincoln’s relationships with men he called friends. But with none of these men could Lincoln achieve sustained emotional intimacy. A man of the people, Lincoln in the most profound sense lived alone.