The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, by Michael Burlingame and Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet, by Wayne C. TempleSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln. Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1994. xxviii + 380 pp., notes, index.
Wayne C. Temple, Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet. Mahomet, Ill.: Mayhaven Publishing, 1995. xviii + 446 pp., illustrations, notes, index.
Michael Burlingame's book is surely the more controversial of the two under review. The "inner world" it reveals is also in many of its facets the darker side of Abraham Lincoln. Each of its nine chapters argues for some trait, quality, influence, or lifelong psychological configuration that made Lincoln the unusual man he was. Rather than list the chapter titles (all but one highly descriptive of their contents) in their proper sequence, it may be helpful to group them more categorically. Thus "Lincoln's Midlife Crisis: From Party Hack to Statesman," "Lincoln's Anger and Cruelty," and "The Most Ambitious Man in the World" address his legal and political careers, identifying the evident compulsions and sometimes ignoble means through which he worked his way up from day-laborer to president of the United States. Drawing closer to developmental, Freudian, and Jungian psychologies, Burlingame draws from Lincoln's early and irreconcilable conflicts with his father in two of his most imaginative chapters: "'I Used to Be a Slave': The Origins of Lincoln's Hatred of Slavery" and "Surrogate Father Abraham." The early loss of his mother, the later death of a beloved sister, awkward courtships, and a tempestuous marriage provide the raw material for the psychosexual chapters, "Lincoln's Depressions: 'Melancholy Dript from Him as He Walked,'" "Lincoln's Attitude toward Women: The Most Striking Contradiction of a Complex Character," and "The Lincolns' Marriage: 'A Fountain of Misery, of a Quality Absolutely Infernal.'"
Directly or indirectly, Burlingame worked on this book for many years; however controversial his hypotheses, they arise from a Page [End Page 52] knowledge both wide and deep of the sources and secondary literature. As have others in recent years, Burlingame has revisited the sketches, reminiscences, and musings that appeared during the three or four decades following Lincoln's martyrdom, especially those gathered by William Herndon and Ward Hill Lamon. He explains in "A Note on Sources" that the constraints of "scientific history" kept a long generation of Lincoln historians away from information written down years after the events or situations being reported. That Burlingame is not alone in pushing back the frontiers of admissible evidence may be seen by the fact that a fine new Lincoln biography by David Herbert Donald fully accepts the reality of Lincoln's courtship of Ann Rutledge in New Salem and his devastating sorrow over her sudden, untimely death. Donald's mentor James G. Randall had insisted that there was inadequate trustworthy evidence to suggest even that Lincoln had ever courted Miss Rutledge.
Burlingame places Lincoln's midlife crisis in the years from 1849 to 1854. Any standard biography makes clear that Lincoln was less active in politics during these years than either before or after them. Burlingame further notes the deaths of Lincoln's son Eddie and his father and also the presumably established fact that all men must confront the prospect of their mortality on entering their forties. Lincoln was, so Burlingame argues, a changed man thereafter: his anger might burst forth in rare moments and under high provocation, but all traces of personal partisanship faded as he addressed the slavery issue as a matter of high principle. Other traits, long established, persisted. Thus Lincoln, a son who had always resented his father's discipline, continued to be the most gentle and undemanding of fathers to his remaining sons and a nurturing father figure to Billy Herndon and a host of other promising young men in need of professional and political guidance. Functionally, the mature President Lincoln was a patriarchal figure: Father Abraham indeed.
Of the three things most emphatically missing from Burlingame's Inner World, religion is the one whose absence seems most inexplicable. It is as if Burlingame could not imagine that Abraham Lincoln's relationship to his creator might be as essential a part of his inner makeup as his relationships with parents, siblings, women, and young men. Of course the historian's personal beliefs have nothing to do with the case. Richard Nelson Current, who, so far as I know, has never made a public profession of religion, wrote an illuminating chapter on Abraham Lincoln's religion in The Lincoln Nobody Page [End Page 53] Knows, a volume that may resemble Burlingame's more than any other predecessor. And in Patriotic Gore, his magisterial literary history of the Civil War, Edmund Wilson, who made unmistakable public professions of his atheism, nevertheless endorsed and explicated Alexander H. Stephens's observation that Lincoln's love of the Union was a species of religious mysticism. Far from being irrelevant, the deep and abiding religious concerns and compulsions of men and women are choice material for the psychohistorian.
But the term psychohistorian does not apply to Wayne C. Temple. An industrious Lincoln scholar for half a century, he works in the common-sense tradition of empirical history, gathering data, subjecting it to critical scrutiny, then arranging a narrative pattern informed by common-sense judgments and conclusions. His book supersedes previous useful studies of Lincoln's religion through its almost relentlessly overwhelming thoroughness. We have, for example, a thorough account of the religious affiliations of Lincoln's known ancestors in old England, New England, Pennsylvania (Quakers), Kentucky, and Indiana. Mary Todd Lincoln's religious background enjoys similar scrutiny. Abraham Lincoln never joined a church, but his wife did: the First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, where Lincoln rented a family pew, attended services, and became a good friend of the ministers. In Washington, D.C., the Lincolns attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. By the time his life had ended, Lincoln had been on close terms with several of the reverend clergy.
Wherever possible, Temple gives detailed sketches of the religious beliefs and affiliations of men and women important in Lincoln's life. In addition to many significant relatives and clergymen, we learn much of Lincoln's neighbors and business associates, political allies, and rivals in Illinois, as well as cabinet officers during his presidency. There is an anecdotal as well as a genealogical quality to much of this, making Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet perhaps a trial for the impatient who seek only information about Lincoln himself. But the book is of extraordinary value for placing Lincoln's religious beliefs and practices within the context of the communities in which he pursued his career. Especially valuable from this point of view are the detailed descriptions of the religious services Lincoln attended, including joyous weddings, solemn funerals, and special occasions, such as the largely religious services held at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the dedication of the burial grounds for fallen soldiers. Valuable too are many of the sermons Lincoln heard, often reproduced in their entirety. Page [End Page 54]
Temple's conclusions about Lincoln's religion are entirely compatible with Current's chapter published in 1959 and Donald's 1995 biography. Something of a free-thinker and skeptic as a young man, Lincoln never outgrew his early dislike for and perhaps distrust of the elaborate creeds and confessions of the various churches around him. But after 1854, especially during the course of the Civil War, he become increasingly devoted to the Bible and obsessed (the word is surely not too strong) with the idea that Almighty God (not sheer mindless cosmic force) was guiding the nation through the terrible Civil War for purposes of justice and redemption. Obsessive too was his view that he himself, President Abraham Lincoln, was an instrument of those divine purposes. Like the first Abraham, and like Moses, Lincoln positively sought divine guidance, even to the point of giving great weight to dreams and visions. Page [End Page 55]
During the course of demonstrating the increasing frequency and elaboration of his invocations of the Almighty, Temple convincingly points out that Lincoln minimized the specifically Christian doctrines related to the triune God. Mention of the Son was rare indeed in Lincoln's religious utterance, and one may fairly conclude, with Temple, that the dual nature of the historic Jesus—both God and man—was one of those complicated Christian doctrines that Lincoln doubted.
To describe the subject matter of Temple's book is to indicate a subject that cries for consideration in Michael Burlingame's, precisely because its title proclaims it a treatise on the "inner world"—not just some interesting parts of the inner world—of Abraham Lincoln. Two other aspects of that inner world may well have escaped Burlingame's scrutiny because they seem, on the surface at least, to be part of Lincoln's outer world. First, Lincoln was acutely aware of the difference between southern upland yeoman culture, based on strenuous agricultural labor and the assumption that the future will chiefly recapitulate the past, and the "yankee" or "modernist" culture he greatly preferred. He aspired to be an educated professional, hobnobbing with the elite of whatever community in which he lived and working for the progressive transformation of the republic into a sort of disciplined and educated Utopia. Second, and requiring separate study although clearly derived from Lincoln's cultural goals, is the choice, reached by trial and error in his twenties, of law and politics as the field in which he would distinguish himself. It is significant that Lincoln tried his hand at various aspects of trade and politics before realizing that a legal career held the best promise for his advancement. Almost as significant were the choices never attempted, even though he had precocious talents that, with application, promised success in any or all of them: education, journalism, literature, or religion. The position taken here is that Lincoln's cultural aspirations and professional relationships were just as "inner" as his primary family relationships. Parents and siblings are just as "external" as social and professional relationships; conversely, social and professional relationships become internalized in direct proportion to the ardor and success with which one pursues them: In Lincoln's case, his success was phenomenal.
Accepting that Lincoln considered marriage to Ann Rutledge, Page [End Page 56] there is an unmistakable pattern in his subsequent failed courtships of Mary Owens and in his successful courtship of and marriage to Mary Todd. In all of these cases, Lincoln was attempting to ally himself with leading American families. This was no simple crass matter of trying to acquire through marriage rather than effort the instant wealth and status of the fabled latter-day young man who marries the boss's daughter. Family connections, social recognition, and influence need not be sinister in themselves. Young Abraham Lincoln was a sincere, hard-working, social and professional climber. He understood fully his responsibility to provide for the young women he pursued. Precisely because they were accustomed to a degree of wealth to which he had only aspired so far, he was committing himself to a more, rather than a less, strenuous life than he might have led.
Connecting himself as an adult with the leading families of Springfield, a bustling town of increasingly Yankee-style cultural values, was, to a large degree, to cut himself off from the quite different traditional culture of his father. By detailing so thoroughly and imaginatively both the proved and possible conflicts between Thomas and Abraham Lincoln, Burlingame leaves an impression, perhaps unintentional, that their relations were mostly unpleasant until, by Abraham's choice, they became virtually nonexistent. Yet young Abraham did not leave home until he came of age, and he often visited his father and stepmother in later life, sometimes also assisting them in material ways. One might usefully compare him to the seventeen-year-old Benjamin Franklin, who broke the spirit if not the letter of the law by running away from Boston and causing great anxiety to his parents, who had bound him as an apprentice to one of their older sons.
Burlingame suggests that Lincoln spent much of his life during the 1840s and 1850s practicing law away from home (riding the judicial circuits of Illinois) in order to avoid his hectoring wife as much as possible, and that in driving her husband away from home Mary Todd Lincoln was probably an essential factor in advancing his career. He does, however, recognize, however briefly, that there was more to the relationship than that: "Not simply as a shrew making home life unbearable did Mary Lincoln help pave her husband's way to the White House; she was also a useful goad to his wavering ambition" (325). But as others have pointed out, Lincoln was much in Mary's debt for making him presentable to a world in which such incidentals as proper clothing, manners, and home decor mattered. However frequently Mary Lincoln lost her temper, she did some- Page [End Page 57] how manage to make the sort of respectable home for Lincoln that he needed, and if one views his arduous pursuit of legal business as serving to advance his income and his political influence as well, Mary Lincoln, left alone to raise the boys and run the household, may well be defined as more a helpmate than a goad. In conclusion, Burlingame's insights into the influence of Lincoln's early and later home life seem partial as well as original.
The study of Lincoln's public life also seems deficiently informed by a sense of the political culture (to use the currently fashionable phrase), or what an older generation of historians might simply have called the conventional ways of thinking and acting in politics. Daniel Walker Howe included a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in his valuable book-length study of the political culture of American Whigs, and he returned to the subject in a paper read before the Abraham Lincoln Association and published in this journal. Howe's explanations and definitions address more fully and dispassionately than any others the real cultural differences that separated Whigs from Democrats in Jacksonian America. That Whiggery led to Republicanism in the northern United States is a commonplace to all who learned American history when it was chiefly a tale of past politics. But the characterization of Republican political culture as essentially that of rich men has been cast backward on the Whigs on the basis of Republican leadership in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Rich men scarcely existed in Jacksonian America, and it is by no means clear that leading Whigs were wealthier than leading Democrats. Howe explains:
The Whigs celebrated the artificial ideal; the Democrats, the natural one.... Both traditions descended from Thomas Jefferson and proudly claimed him as patron. Jefferson had celebrated human nature in its uncorrupted purity but had also demanded its proper nurture through widespread public education. Beginning with the opposition between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, the two halves of Jefferson's vision, nature and nurture, were pitted against each other in partisan rhetoric.
The character type that Lincoln respected and pursued was artificial—the conscious, willed creation of the individual participant. Lincoln not only pursued that character type in private life, but he also celebrated it in public. To put it another way, Lincoln preached what he practiced.  Page [End Page 58]
The antislavery views of the Whigs were sufficiently mild and muted as to seem, from the unsympathetic perspectives of the late twentieth century, to be just what the Garrisonians accused them of being, evasions that had the net effect of defending slavery. Yet Lincoln's antislavery was precisely that of Henry Clay's or the mainstream Whigs, and that, rather than his relationship with his father (no friend to the institution of slavery himself), explains and defines the Springfield lawyer's antislavery views. It was, after all, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the southern demand for protection of slavery in all U.S. territories that restarted Lincoln's political career in 1854.
Whiggery defines Lincoln's political principles but not his ambition. I have no explanation for that other than the obvious fact of its existence. But given that existence, other issues that Burlingame raises may be explained more simply and directly. Burlingame dedicates an entire chapter to Lincoln's shyness, awkwardness, and downright avoidance of young female companionship. But steeped as he is in a multitude of known facts about Lincoln's life, Burlingame also acknowledges Lincoln's unusually great success in making friends with males of all ages and classes. Now it should be tolerably clear that even though the Whig Lincoln progressively desired that women might vote, he knew that they in fact did not. Political culture in Lincoln's Illinois was a man's world, and it was the world in which he operated continually. Lincoln learned quickly enough how to act in situations where he wished to act. The expanding but politically secondary world of upper-class women was of relatively little interest to him. He knew little of fashion, he declined to read novels, and more urgent affairs constantly claimed his attention.
In this sounds rather negative, it is clearly not going to limit the circulation of The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, which has already become a sort of bestseller. In the fashion of many products of American historical scholarship, its conclusions may be seriously questioned, but there is much to be learned from both the exhaustive digging that went into it and the provocative points of view Burlingame develops.
Less needs to be said about Wayne Temple's book, although in its prosaic way it may well be the more enduringly valuable of the Page [End Page 59] two studies. Only two cautions seem necessary concerning the mainly sensible conclusions it sets forth with sufficient repetition and clarity to make them memorable.
Although I agree entirely with the view that Lincoln developed a deep and abiding sense of religious mission in the latter years of his life—the view shared by such authorities as Edmund Wilson, Richard N. Current, David Herbert Donald, and no doubt many others, there remains the fact that the characteristics of religiosity were simply all-pervasive in the United States of the Civil War era. Hundreds of allusions and dozens of observances cited in Temple's text surely testify more to the conventions of the age than to the religious beliefs and feelings of any particular person. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, in a far less religious age, regularly invoked the Deity in their public addresses, and the former free-thinker Benjamin Franklin perhaps saved the Constitutional Convention in 1787 by suggesting a temporary surcease from bickering in favor of prayer.
In fairness to Temple, he everywhere makes it perfectly clear when conventional religious sentiments and gestures are being described. The cavil here is that he also cites conventional formalities as if they were further evidence of Lincoln's deepening religious convictions. Indeed, he may be correct in all or very nearly all cases. But there was surely also the element that Edmund Wilson noted: invoking God on behalf of his policies was a politically prudent way to keep the support of a religious people.
Finally, although it hardly detracts from the value of his study, Temple cannot refrain from giving his private endorsement to Lincoln's religious views, especially with respect to the somewhat belabored issue of the divinity of Jesus Christ. One often sees the same thing in the semiworshipful praise given for Thomas Jefferson's rationalized and enlightened Christianity, as if someone like Timothy Dwight, to the extent that he still believed that God the Father begot God the Son before the Creation, endorsed a primitive form of superstition. That such concepts as Original Sin, the Atonement, and the Resurrection might actually have serious and enduring meanings for people simply escapes the attention of some historians.
Meanwhile, although there was, arguably, a pure and innocent ardor in Abraham Lincoln's exalting the Union with religious fervor, the same thing, as he knew, was going on in the Confederate States of the America, and it has gone on, before and since, in justification of countless conquests and oppressions. Page [End Page 60]
- Daniel Walker Howe, "Why Abraham Lincoln Was a Whig," Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 16 (Winter 1995): 32–33.