Abraham Lincoln was "not only a champion of freedom, democracy and national unity" but continues to be a source of personal inspiration to millions, writes Michael Burlingame in his definitive two-volume 2024-page biography, "Abraham Lincoln: A Life." I recently had the privilege to hear a talk by Dr. Burlingame at McIntyre's Bookstore in Fearrington Village. His book is full of new information about our 16th president. Burlingame began the talk by reading his book's concluding paragraph:
One of the reasons Lincoln sympathized with slaves, Dr. Burlingame suggested, was that as a child he had been forced to work like a slave, a serf, a domestic animal, and hand over his earnings to his father, a course and brutal man who Abe deeply and naturally resented. "I used to be a slave," Abe declared in one 1856 speech. “I have seen a good deal of the back side of this world,” he wrote a friend. He recognized that slavery was harmful not only to slaves but to slave-owners. “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master,” he said.
Abe felt shame that his mother had a reputation for "unchastity." He was accused by the fundamentalists of his day of "scoffing at Christianity" due to his irreverant sense of humor. He had difficulty spelling ("cheerman" for "chairman") and pronouncing words properly. His clothes were poorly made and frequently did not fit his gangly frame.
I asked Dr. Burlingame what would have happened to the nation if Lincoln had not been assassinated. Some cynics have suggested that Lincoln would not have been made into a secular saint, that indeed he might have been impeached just as his successor Andrew Johnson was, in the bitter debate over how to manage Reconstruction. But Lincoln was a much better politician than Johnson was, Burlingame said. It's possible that a kindler, gentler implementation of Reconstruction by Lincoln might have led to a civil rights movement in the 19th century akin to what happened nearly 100 years later with the 20th century civil rights movement. So, one can argue that Abraham Lincoln's assassination set the nation back nearly 100 years.
Update: For Memorial Day, Andrew Sullivan culls a great quote from a speech by Lincoln in 1858 on American ideals, what we fight for -- "the love of liberty which God has planted in us" -- against the "cunning tyrants" who would destroy the spirit that yearns for liberty, keeping them (us) in "chains of bondage."
- Michael Burlingame's website (includes video interviews)
- Abraham Lincoln: A Life on Amazon.com
- Burlingame discussing his Lincoln biography on BookTV (9:40)
- Bennett Place Tale Schools a Scholar (Durham News) -- Burlingame Visits Spot Where the Civil War Actually Ended (not Appomattox)
- Civil War Memory Blog: Reflections of a High School History Teacher and Civil War Historian: Burlingame on Lincoln, along with other interesting links on Lincoln and interesting posts from Kevin Levin
- My American History Blog Links
- Abraham Lincoln Blog
- Lincoln's Emancipation, by Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic.