The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Vidal’s way of characterizing Lincoln’s genius is one of the finest achievements of his novel. The president is often viewed through the fresh eyes of his young secretary, John Hay, who first learns about politics from his employer. Because Lincoln is so careful not to disclose too much of his strategy or of his emotions, his secretary is forced to scrutinize the politician’s posture, his gestures, the small physical signs of his state of mind: “As a hundred men saluted, the President raised his hat, eyes on the road, head and neck pushed slightly forward, always a sign of anxiety, Hay now knew.” Another way of characterizing Lincoln, especially his sly side, becomes available through the many pages devoted to Salmon P. Chase, a fierce abolitionist, Christian ideologue, and pompous aspirant to the presidency. Chase disdains Lincoln’s apparent lack of command, his unwillingness to confront directly the major issues of his time and to take the initiative away from his opponents. Chase prides himself on his public stands and on his astute management of his political career, which are abetted by the bold maneuvers of his devoted daughter Kate. In private, he often compromises and is at least as hypocritical as Lincoln—if not more so, since Chase lacks his competitor’s self-knowledge. The secretary of the Treasury eventually destroys his chance to be his country’s leader by failing to restrain the clumsy efforts of his supporters, and Lincoln, who has...

(The entire section is 556 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States. The Lincoln portrayed here, nicknamed “The Tycoon” by close associates in the White House, is a complex man. Not only is he the Lincoln usually portrayed in biographies—the jesting, self-deprecating backwoods sage—but he also is a complex, calculating man of genius with an acutely accurate awareness of what the American people support. Thought to be a country bumpkin by such cabinet members as Salmon Chase and William Seward prior to his arrival at the White House, he soon amazes them with his wily command of politics and situations. His love and concern for the Union soldiers fighting the battles of the Civil War is as deep as the love he shows for his eccentric wife, Mary, and his children.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln, Lincoln’s wife, nearly as complex a character as her husband. An opinionated and strong-willed woman who often clashes with her husband’s associates, Mary is distinctly a liability to Abraham’s political fortunes. He deflects criticism of her, loyally supporting her bad moods and extravagant spending to the end of his life.

John Hay

John Hay, President Lincoln’s Harvard-trained personal secretary and confidant. A good-natured, often high-spirited young man, as well as an aesthete in a White House filled with philistines, Hay is portrayed as an invaluable source of...

(The entire section is 567 words.)