Shedding Light on a Great Liberator

He adored Shakespeare, liked to write limericks and managed to convince former rivals to serve his own purposes. Three biographers offer new perspectives on Abraham Lincoln.

"Lincoln, The Biography of a Writer," by Fred Kaplan, Harper Books, 406 pages, $28

"A. Lincoln, A Biography," by Ronald C. White, Random House, 796 pages, $35

"Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," by Doris Kearns-Goodwin, Simon & Schuster, 944 pages, $23

February 12, 2009, was the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth. On January 20, the United States' first black president was inaugurated. It didn't take much imagination for people to link the two events and declare both of them crucial turning points in the history of the American people.

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met the new president at the White House in May and they appeared before reporters, millions of television viewers could see who President Obama wanted at his side: On his right (on one side of the fireplace) stood a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr.; to his left was a portrait of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

The official celebration of birthdays and other commemorative events does not necessarily prove that their historiographic "products" have won acceptance. Yet, when the whole world is exalting in the miraculous and revolutionary changes that have taken place in the character and behavior of the American people, 150 years after slavery was abolished, not many people are going to delve deeply into the "liberator's" complex and problematic policies.

Is it possible that until the day he died, Abraham Lincoln held racist perceptions - or at least perceptions that would be considered racist today - regarding the abilities and limitations of the black man? Is it possible that this much-admired president had doubts about the positive qualities of the former slaves and their ability to integrate into American society as equal and productive citizens?

Ever since Lincoln was assassinated, following his election to a second term in office, piles of biographies and studies have been written about him. The shelves devoted to the 16th president in major American presidential libraries are laden with thousands of publications - academic and popular, in multiple volumes and in adaptations for youth. Lincoln's speeches and letters have been collected and printed; every event in his life has been recorded and dissected.

Ostensibly, there is no need for another biography, yet every new American generation rediscovers Lincoln and disseminates a different sort of account. At the same time, there are still many issues related to his life and personality that arouse controversy and consideration - including fundamental and crucial questions concerning the nature of his religious faith and his attitude toward slavery, as well as more general queries about the status and conduct of the United States among the nations of the world in Lincoln's day, the principles and the advantages of its democracy, and the future of the republic.

The most prominent book in this year's literary celebration of Lincoln is without a doubt the comprehensive biography by Ronald White - which is, regrettably, very disappointing. It would seem that the author, an unrivaled authority on the president's life and actions, was overwhelmed by the task. When reading the book, one gets the feeling that the subject was simply born as president. The Lincoln of this new biography hardly changed his opinions throughout his life. Here, the venerated saint, the symbol, overpowers the complex statesman who evolves while navigating a demanding, difficult path.

The static dimension of this biography underlines the sense (which is never stated explicitly) that Abraham Lincoln was the envoy of the U.S. minister of history, and was charged with neutralizing the time bomb left by the founding fathers, who sought to establish the republic and ensure its liberty. They left slavery in place, even though there is more than one indication that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and their colleagues knew that sooner or later their country would have to resolve this issue and expunge the stain. Despite the fact that he is portrayed as being very different from the founding fathers, White's Abraham Lincoln seems to gravitate toward this conclusion almost against his will.

Man of the book

I was able to find the unfolding drama that was so lacking in White's work in a smaller, atypical biography of Lincoln by Fred Kaplan, who combines literary and biographical research, and promises his readers a portrait of Lincoln "the writer." This is not simply a literary analysis of Lincoln's "works" - most of them political declarations and speeches, well-written and scrupulously edited - but rather a combined discussion of the nature and character of the texts Lincoln himself read, and their influence on the compositions he wrote.

Kaplan insists on calling Lincoln a "writer," which is necessary for the purposes of this particular account of the president's legacy. And indeed, the most exciting and original chapters in this work focus on various aspects of his education, from his childhood until his dying day. It turns out that Lincoln "the writer" never ceased to evolve or to ponder fundamental problems of faith and worldview.

Lincoln's formal education boils down to a few months of sporadic attendance at a country school that confined itself to instilling the basics of reading and writing, and some arithmetic. The fact that reading was the greatest passion of the mythological president is seared in the American historical consciousness. Indeed, every child has heard about the young lawyer who roamed about with his head in a book, about the man who was never caught without some written material in his possession.

Kaplan looks over the shoulder of that famous reader, perennially sunk in thought, and tells us what he sees. It is astounding to discover, for example, that the epigrams and limericks Lincoln read in the one-room schoolhouse, which were ostensibly exercises to teach the alphabet to farmers, eventually became the building blocks of a fully formed, solid and complex worldview. In those texts - readers for beginners - Lincoln encountered his first Bible verses, poetry and William Shakespeare, the writer he most admired and who "accompanied" him throughout his life. Perusal of excerpts in the children's anthologies led to a reading of the complete works, and from the moment he discovered them, Lincoln developed what, in Kaplan's opinion, was an important personality trait: a love of language and the belief in its ability to change the world.

Lincoln was also known as an admirable speaker; many of his most famous addresses have become American classics. He never spoke without a written text in front of him. Every line, every expression and every idiom were examined and weighed before being uttered. Indeed, Lincoln frequently praised the value of reading aloud. He liked to hear what he was reading, and especially what he had written.

His admiration and profound love for Shakespeare were also rooted in the schoolbooks that taught him and his peers proper English. The young Lincoln never stopped reading the Bard's great tragedies and frequently quoted them in his speeches. Indeed, one of the legendary images of the president is a painting showing him as a young lawyer on an errand on behalf of the court, with a volume of Shakespeare's plays in hand.

Generally, Lincoln is known for his beautifully constructed speeches and for his ability to encapsulate in a few words the spirit of the nation and its mission - as evident, of course, in the Gettysburg Address. But poetry was his greatest love. Kaplan relates that the president tried his hand at it and at least one of his poems was published during his lifetime. He may not have been a great poet, but he was adept at using limericks and rhymes, which won him a reputation as being a man of the people and someone with a sense of humor. However, his rivals - especially those from respectable families - would mock Lincoln for his sloppy dress, crude language, clumsy manners and "common" wisdom.

Ironing out wrinkles

While White tries to iron out these wrinkles and make them disappear from his respectable portrait, Kaplan deals with Lincoln the writer, thus quoting his rather playful poems - some of them quite salacious and racy. Indeed the author notes that at country celebrations, Lincoln's neighbors liked to hear him recite his witticisms. Apropos raciness, Kaplan also concludes from Lincoln's correspondence and literary efforts that before he married Mary Todd, a respectable woman, Lincoln enjoyed the affections of prostitutes.

White devotes much attention to the subject that has always split Lincoln's biographers into different camps: his religious faith. White also knows the president deliberately refrained from officially joining any of the denominations of the Christian Church; as a young man, he even demonstratively refrained from attending services, which prompted severe criticism from his neighbors and friends. During his presidency, he did, however, occasionally attend a church near the White House. He had many reservations about the religious establishment, and never ceased to ponder questions of faith.

While he reflected on the Creation, on various divine phenomena and the existence of a god who created the universe, Lincoln's questioning - Kaplan asserts - reflected a belief in Divine Providence that had nothing to do with Christianity. Furthermore, it was not by chance that Lincoln emphatically refrained from citing the basic tenets of that religion; when he did quote the New Testament, it was mainly to demonstrate some moral or philosophical assertion.

White, however, tells a story of how Lincoln became more religious, and writes that the president was a devout Christian at his death. The biographer reminds readers that on various occasions, and even as he was dying, Lincoln expressed a wish to visit Jerusalem - a desire which, in the book under review, is interpreted as having relgious motivations.

A political creature

The 2009 Lincoln celebrations brought back yet another important book to the best-seller lists - one that originally came out in 2005 and immediately aroused great interest. Historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize laureate, is considered an authority on the U.S. presidency; she was also very close to president Lyndon Johnson and served him loyally. Her firsthand experience in the White House no doubt provided her with much insight for writing her quasi-biographical works - about Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt (some of the most interesting chapters in the latter book are actually about his wife, Eleanor).

Kearns-Goodwin's book about Lincoln's terms in office is unique because it focuses on aspects that are not emphasized or illuminated in the writings of other admiring biographers. Her Lincoln is a political animal, full of cunning and with finely honed senses. The man who came into the White House with very little experience in local politics, and who knew even less about the institution of the presidency, quickly began to understand that he had to build himself up as president based on the broad support of the traditional political leadership. He dismissed all those from his own Republican Party (which had only recently been founded) who were seeking benefits and jobs, and recruited people who until that point had been considered his greatest rivals and unbridled detractors.

It is not hard to imagine why they hitched themselves to his wagon: it was a combination of lust for power and respect, and the belief that the day was not far off when the inexperienced country-bumpkin president could be manipulated to serve their own needs. However, Lincoln was well aware of their motives and succeeded in harnessing them to his own purposes - to honor their desire for respect and lead them ultimately to serve his own objectives. Thus, Abraham Lincoln became the hero of an effective and energetic team, and in this respect was among the shapers of the institution of the U.S. presidency.

When Kearns-Goodwin adds to this complex political plot descriptions of the White House during Lincoln's presidency, the regal habits of his wife Mary and her attempts to shore up her status as the First Lady - the readers receive a fascinating, variegated story and feel a nearly unmediated proximity to the president and his home. For example, the author describes in stunning detail the open-house days at the White House, when the masses burst in, in the hope of receiving a handshake from the president, and in so doing damaged or destroyed everything in their path.

This is not the end of efforts dedicated to contemplating Abraham Lincoln, his personality, his presidency and his role in shaping the United States. There will certainly be events and celebrations that will merge the zealousness of publishers with academic interest in and intellectual curiosity about him. The works by Fred Kaplan and Doris Kearns-Goodwin reviewed here will certainly provide Lincoln's next biographer with building blocks, which will ensure that the next portrait of the president - perhaps 10 years from now - will be more nuanced and complex than the biography by Ronald White.

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is a historian, and editor of the Ofakim series at the Am Oved publishing house.