When we think of history, we often think of the great events that shaped our world. But what about those moments in history where a single person’s life was changed forever? What if someone had never written a book or created a painting, but instead lived out their life as they saw fit?
The barnes history is a book written by John Barnes. It is about the author’s reflections on his life and thoughts.
Ronald C. White delves into an aspect of the 16th president that has been neglected.
Abraham Lincoln is widely regarded as the greatest orator in the history of the United States. While Lincoln’s speeches are well-known, his lifelong practice of jotting notes for his own eyes alone is less so. Although many of these private notes were thought to be destroyed, some were discovered after Lincoln’s death and published in John Nicolay and John Hay’s 10-volume Abraham Lincoln: A History. Ronald C. White Jr. examines these surviving notes in Lincoln in Private: What His Most Personal Reflections Tell Us About Our Greatest President (Penguin Random House, 2023) and invites readers to draw their own conclusions about how Lincoln felt about the great issues of the day and how he found the courage to ask his fellow countrymen to accept a new America.
ACW: Nicolay and Hay classified Lincoln’s notes as fragments on occasion. Why?
RCW: Because many seem to start or finish a sentence in the midst. Some notes finish with a comma, suggesting that Lincoln was called away to another task and never returned to the note in question. While the notes he wrote while in the White House are more official and dated, they were still penned only for his eyes.
(Photo credit: Ronald C. White Jr.)
ACW: Among the surviving note pieces is one describing a journey to Niagara Falls written in 1848, during Lincoln’s sole time in Congress. Discuss how Lincoln’s private character and thinking processes are revealed in this panegyric to America’s first tourist destination.
RCW: One of the goals of the book is to demonstrate the breadth of Lincoln’s thought and writing. We think of him as logical and reasonable, which he was, yet his visit to Niagara Falls inspired him to write in lyrical or poetic words about it. It reminds me of Henry David Thoreau. This phrase is well-known among Lincoln historians because to a remark made by William Herndon, Lincoln’s lifelong legal partner in Springfield, Illinois, who stated, “I know Lincoln better than anybody.” Herndon was unimpressed by Lincoln’s remarks on the Falls. “He had no regard for the scene’s majesty and grandeur—for the rapids, the mist, the raging waves, and the whirlpool’s roar.” Lincoln, according to Herndon, was unconcerned with beauty or wonder. Herndon obviously didn’t know Lincoln very well, since the whole purpose of the piece is to demonstrate Lincoln’s appreciation of beauty and wonder. That is why I contend that the public Lincoln we meet in conventional biographies had a private side.
ACW: Another section that you selected to emphasize gives young attorneys useful guidance. It does not comment on current events, but it does provide insight into Lincoln’s aspirations. You and biographers disagree on when it was written. What did he want to achieve?
RCW: Keep in mind that Lincoln worked as a lawyer for 24 years before becoming a politician for just 12 years. He returned from Congress in 1849 and practiced law full-time for the following five years, traveling extensively across Illinois’ 8th Judicial Circuit, which was twice the size of Connecticut. Many aspiring attorneys wanted to learn with Lincoln, but I believe he decided he didn’t have time to teach law students since he was on the circuit 175 or 185 days a year. This passage explains how Lincoln sees himself. “I am not an accomplished lawyer,” it starts. I find just as much material for a lesson in the areas where I’ve failed as I do in the areas where I’ve been somewhat successful.” This reveals a lot about Lincoln’s personality. He was a seasoned attorney. Can you imagine a modern-day leader, a CEO, or a college president stating, “I find just as much content in my failures?” He’s not afraid to admit, “I learnt from my own mistakes.” This is why, despite being a 19th-century figure, Lincoln continues to speak to us today.
ACW: Abraham Lincoln’s political career was launched in 1854 when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, allowing people in those large areas to vote on whether or not to legalize slavery. How did Lincoln respond to Senator Stephen Douglas’ claim that the expansion of slavery into additional states was legal because of “popular sovereignty”?
RCW: It’s important to remember that Lincoln was on a quest to understand slavery. It began when he was 19 years old and went to New Orleans, where he was shocked to witness how slaves lived. Fragments written between 1854 and 1860 enable us to follow his path, first as he learned about the horror of slavery and what it causes to African Americans, and then as he learned about what a slave society does to white owners. While not much of the wording from the notes regarding Kansas-Nebraska made it into his speeches during the 1858 debates with Senator Douglas, they did help him think through how he was going to argue that slavery was wrong—especially in states entering the union. “If A can show, however convincingly, that he may, by right, enslave B, why may not B seize the same reasoning, and prove similarly, that he may enslave A?” Lincoln wrote in a famous fragment, probably dated July 1, 1854. A is white, while B is black, according to you. Is it therefore a matter of color, with the lighter having the authority to enslave the darker? Take precautions. According to the guideline, you must serve the first guy you encounter who has a fairer skin tone than you [your own].” Lincoln, in a deft move, flips the argument around on itself.
ACW: Although Lincoln seldom expressed his emotions in public, his notes sometimes reflect his real sentiments.
RCW: During his discussions with Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln buys a best-selling book named “Slavery Ordained by God” by a Presbyterian preacher from Alabama, the Rev. Frederick Augustus Ross, which summarizes all of the biblical reasons used to defend slavery. Lincoln never mentions this book in any of his discussions with Douglas, but you can see his rage building in a letter to himself about Ross’ book. “It’s a good thing slavery is strange.” It is the one nice thing that no one wants for his own benefit. Nonsense! Wolves eating lambs not for their own hungry maws, but for the sake of the lambs!!!”
ACW: In the debates, did Lincoln get what he wanted?
RCW: There are no remarks in the pieces regarding whether Lincoln thought he was successful in the arguments. We do know, however, that Lincoln ensured that 50,000 copies of the debate transcripts were printed. In some ways, Lincoln recognized early on that living and running for office in the same state as Douglas was a disadvantage; yet, after a time, he realized that being Douglas’ main political opponent was a benefit since the debates brought him prominence that he had never had before. Douglas and the debates were important in establishing Lincoln as a national political figure.
ACW: Why is the 1858 fragment on democracy so essential to understanding Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery and his choice to join the newly formed Republican Party?
RCW: This fragment’s tale is fascinating in and of itself. In their examination of Lincoln’s papers, Nicolay and Hay were unable to locate it. Instead, Mary Lincoln retained it and presented it to Myra Bradwell, Illinois’ first female lawyer, in 1875, after Bradwell assisted Mary in obtaining her release from the insane hospital to which her oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, had put her. “I would not be a master if I were not a slave. This is how I see democracy. Anything that deviates from this, to the degree that it deviates, is not democracy.” If the date of this piece is accurate, and it was written during the debates with Douglas, Lincoln had realized that the issue isn’t only what slavery does to the slave, but also what slavery does to the owner.
ACW: After winning the election, Lincoln continued to jot down his views. Between November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861, a portion of his letter with future Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens remains. Lincoln wanted to persuade Stephens to join him in opposing secession. How?
RCW: During the 30th Congress, Lincoln and Stephens were colleagues and friends. ‘Well, here is a moderate Southerner he might convince to join his Cabinet,’ he reasoned after learning Stephens had spoken out against secession. “Do the people of the South really harbor concerns that a Republican government will directly or indirectly meddle with their slaves, or with them concerning their slaves?” he writes to Stephens. If they do, I want to reassure you, as a former friend and, perhaps, still not an adversary, that you have nothing to worry…. You believe slavery is good and should be expanded, whereas we believe it is immoral and should be limited. That, I guess, is the crux of the matter. It is, without a doubt, the one significant distinction between us.”
Using military force to keep the Union together, Stephens tells Lincoln, would be “nothing short of consolidated tyranny.” He urges the president-elect to “do everything you need to do to preserve our shared nation.” “A word fitly uttered by you would be like apples of gold in pictures of silver,” Stephens cites Proverbs. Lincoln does not respond, although he does use Stephens’ metaphor in a fragment about maintaining the Union. Lincoln suggests that the parallel might be applied to the Republic’s fundamental ideals. Gold is the most expensive metal, and it is associated with the Declaration of Independence, which states that all men are created equal. The allusion to silver, which has a secondary value, is seen by Lincoln as being linked to the Constitution. He believes that the Declaration’s call for “liberty for all” is the fundamental premise of the American system. He viewed this as a rebuke to slavery, which led to his ultimate break with Stephens.
ACW: Although the exact date of composition is unknown, one of Lincoln’s most famous pieces seems to have been written at a period of tremendous stress, perhaps early September 1862. Can you explain what the note, which has become known as the “Meditation on the Divine Will,” means?
RCW: Lincoln is on a journey in every area of his life. Scholars, on the other hand, haven’t gone into great detail about his conversion to Christianity. In his childhood, he turned away from his parents’ Baptist Church’s evangelistic zeal. However, his views on religion shifted as a consequence of life events, such as his sorrow at the death of his second son, Eddie, in 1850 at the age of 32, and his third son, Willie, in the White House in 1862 at the age of 11.
He was also profoundly impacted by the Civil War’s crucible. In the middle of this horrific carnage, Lincoln started to ponder the meaning of God. He starts to stroll across Lafayette Park to New York Avenue Presbyterian Church for worship services on a more regular basis. I believe the missing person in the Lincoln narrative in Washington is the preacher, Phineas Densmore Gurley. Lincoln calls an emergency Cabinet meeting after the Union loss at the Second Battle of Bull Run on August 28-30, 1862. Three of those there maintained journals, and one of them, Attorney General Edward Bates, reported that Lincoln informed the group that he felt “nearly like hanging himself.” On the afternoon of September 2, 1862, I believe the president sat down to compose this remarkable letter.
One unanswered issue regarding Lincoln is his religious beliefs. In 701 words, he acknowledges God 14 times, cites the Bible four times, and urges prayer three times in his Second Inaugural Address. Some historians believe that this was not truly Lincoln, but rather a cunning politician speaking to a spiritually minded audience. So, how do we respond to that query? I believe the solution may be found in Hay’s “Meditation on the Divine Will.” We hear the logical Lincoln at the start of this fragment: “In major conflicts, each side professes to operate in line with God’s will.” Both may be true, but one must be incorrect. It is impossible for God to be both for and against anything at the same time. It’s conceivable that God’s purpose in the current Civil War is different from the goals of either side…. I’m nearly ready to conclude that this is probably true—that God intends for this competition to continue.”
“He might have either preserved or destroyed the Union without a human contest…,” Lincoln says at the conclusion of the passage. … now that He’s started, He might give either team the ultimate win on any given day.” Do we know why he never made this information public? Lincoln is implying that God might hand the Confederates the ultimate triumph just as readily as the Union. This piece, I believe, represents a significant milestone in Lincoln’s spiritual journey.
No one knows this paper exists on March 4, 1865, the day of his Second Inaugural. In Chapter 10, I compare the main points of the Meditation with the Second Inaugural Address side by side. The reader will see how closely they resemble one other. It’s one of the most important pieces in understanding the private Lincoln behind the public Lincoln, in my opinion.
ACW: The paper Lincoln composed in August 1864, sealed, and had each Cabinet member sign is one of the most renowned of Lincoln’s private writings. He admitted in it that he was unlikely to be reelected and that it would be up to him and his Cabinet to work with the next government to win the war before the new president was sworn in. He says unequivocally that the next president will have campaigned and been elected on a platform of Confederate independence. Was it anything from the shards?
RCW: All 111 surviving pieces are presented in their full in the book’s index. One of these is the letter Lincoln sent in August 1864 after learning that he would lose the 1864 election during a Republican National Committee meeting in New York. I had the honor of seeing the document in the Library of Congress.
ACW: How has your research into Lincoln’s personal papers influenced you?
RCW: It inspired me to jot down thoughts for myself, often at 3 a.m. on a pad I keep by my bedside. I’m worried that our addictions to our phones and computer displays, as well as everything else going on in our lives, are causing us to become so distracted. What fascinates me about Lincoln is that he took the time to compose these messages despite his hectic schedule. Do we devote that much time? Or do our ideas get away from us? Lincoln didn’t want his thoughts to run away with him. I’ve started doing it myself in the hopes that my ideas won’t escape.
Nancy Tappan is a senior editor at America’s Civil War.
The barnes and noble american history is a book that was written by the author, James Truslow Adams. It is about examining his most personal reflections of American History.
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