Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume 1, by Michael Burlingame

Nine stars

By choosing one of, arguably, the three most important US presidents, Burlingame seeks to offer up a thorough and all-encompassing exploration into the life of a man whose important supersedes his profile on the penny. There is so much to explore in the life of Abraham Lincoln that Burlingame must divide the biography into two volumes, each a monstrosity that surpasses 1400 pages. This first volume explores the life of Honest Abe from his birth in 1809 through to his departure for the White House in 1861. Chock full of stories and anecdotes, the patient and attentive reader will discover three themes Burlingame presents to describe his subject. Abraham Lincoln comes across as extremely generous to those deserving his aid, grounded in his personal beliefs, and inherently political. Any reader who is able to set aside the time to absorb this book will leave not only wanting more, but also find new and exciting aspects about the 16th President of the United States. A stellar piece of biographic material not to be missed by any with a passion to learn.

Abraham Lincoln’s generous nature is one of Burlingame’s repeated themes throughout this volume. Lincoln saw past the greed that permeated his childhood home, showing graciousness and gratitude through his formative years. Burlingame mentions Lincoln’s scholastic years, thinking nothing of offering insight and assistance wherever it might prove beneficial. The kind sentimentality continued when Lincoln entered the workforce, including time as a postal clerk, storekeeper, and legal mind once he passed the Illinois Bar. Burlingame expands his narrative significantly around Lawyer Lincoln (not to be confused with the legal character modern crime author Michael Connelly developed) and discusses not only cases the man fought, but also the courtroom drama that ensued. Lincoln would help anyone who sought him out and could pay his fees, which seemed moderate for the time. As Lincoln became more political, his views towards helping the less fortunate are not lost on the attentive reader. Burlingame posits that this generosity, cultivated his entire life, was not only Lincoln’s desire to help the ‘little man’, but that there was a strong believe in the future president that slavery was horrid and those who were treated as chattel must shed themselves of their shackles, both literally and figuratively. While not a professed strong believer in Christianity (even though he read and memorised biblical passages in his youth), Lincoln could turn the other cheek from those who sought to bring him down and offered insightful ways to have them better understand him. A man who would give the shirt off his own back and the last morsel of food he had, Lincoln’s generous nature appears throughout the biography. 

While Lincoln did want to open his mind and prove a helpful individual, he did hold certain truths to be his own and from which he would never stray. Burlingame offers key examples throughout this tome, beginning with young Abraham’s sense that reading was the key to knowledge. In an era when point-and-click research was impossible, the only way to open one’s mind was through reading and absorbing that which came from the written page or the spoken word. Lincoln ostracised himself, preferring a book to attending social gatherings or interacting with the fairer sex. As Burlingame elucidates throughout, Lincoln felt reading and comprehending opposing views would pave the way to much success. This viewpoint continued when he was called to the Bar without having formally studied under any lawyer, but read the eminent texts repeatedly. Lincoln’s firm beliefs from here led him into the crazy world of politics, where having a stance can both differentiate a man from his opponents, but also pigeonhole him with the electorate. That Lincoln developed some of his strongest truths from reading Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence explains much and is repeated throughout the biography. Lincoln pulled from the Declaration a set of passionate views surrounding equality, shaped by his upbringing and life experiences, but also a sense of fairness to all men, extending this definition to those of all skin colours, which might have been vague when penned and delivered to the British decades earlier. Burlingame allows the reader to soak up Lincoln’s personal beliefs through numerous anecdotes and tales of the man’s countless interactions with others, though does not make the future president seem aloof or condescending when holding such strong views. There is no way for the reader to miss Burlingame’s repeated mention of Lincoln’s sentiments about slavery, something to which even the most simplistic history text makes reference. This core belief proves not only a theme through the biography, but also pushed Lincoln through his most exciting years as a member of the Whig and Republican parties, both as an office holder and policy advocate. A passionate man with a quiver full of personal ideals, Lincoln defended them adamantly and would not stray, no matter the adversary before him. 

To have a passion for politics is one thing, but to be able to transform those sentiments into becoming the vessel for change is something altogether rarer. Lincoln’s path to becoming the 16th President of the United States in 1861 was not a clear path in which he rose to become a preeminent statesman through a series of political positions, each one more demanding than the last. While Lincoln did hold office in Illinois and served a single term in the US House of Representatives, a great deal of his political success came from behind the podium where he used his masterful abilities to pull individuals over to his side or to sway large sections of an audience. While Lincoln did have a number of men who shaped his aspirations, specifically fellow Kentuckian, Senator Henry Clay, he stood alone in his pathway and chose to forge new and unexplored ground in his beliefs and the means by which he presented them. While Lincoln’s political aspirations came by aligning himself with many, his greatest successes came in opposition to Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. By this time, both men called the state home, allowing Lincoln and Douglas to have numerous clashes over the years, predominantly around the issue of slavery. Both men were able to score key victories, though the scorecard remains vague in both camps. Lincoln espoused his strong beliefs against slave holding and Douglas held firm in relation to the class system within America, where whites held supremacy over all others. These two men had their respective camps through many political campaigns and ran against one another in the 1858 senatorial election in Illinois. It is worth noting for the political astute reader, while direct elections of senators did not come until 1913 under the 17th Amendment, Lincoln and Douglas debated, seeking to sway the electorate to choose individuals for the state legislature, who would then cast votes for the state’s US senator. As Burlingame elucidates, the ’58 contest was one for the ages and saw Douglas defeat Lincoln after a collection of gerrymandered districts failed to properly proportion votes into state seats. Burlingame offers detailed and insightful views throughout the biography into the various events that included Lincoln’s passionate addresses, politicking, and seeking to sway large portions of the electorate. Supporters and detractors alike would flock to hear Lincoln speak, even if they could not stand behind the rhetoric presented. Lincoln’s apparent meteoric rise to fame came from these well-documented clashes with Douglas, which received not only statewide but national (and sometimes) international press. Slavery was surely a hot button issue in the United States and Lincoln’s strong views earned him much support amongst Republicans, which led to the surprising candidacy coming out of the 1860 Republican National Convention, where Lincoln encountered another political foe, William H. Seward of New York. Seward hailed from the powerful state and Lincoln had to use all his political aplomb to ensure he could keep Seward in line on Election Day. Burlingame illustrates this struggle, as well as the renewed clashes with Stephen A. Douglas in the General Election. Two mainstream party candidates vying for the White House from the same state is a feat rarely, if ever, seen in a presidential election. Lincoln political rise to power was less a direct path than one that zigged when needed and zagged to remain firmly out of the clutches of the Democrats. However, even after the November battle, Lincoln could see that trouble awaited him as southern states began passing resolutions to leave the Union. Burlingame uses the final two chapters to instil a sense of panic with the President-elect, not only as states drew lines in the sand, but to choose a Cabinet that might keep a country together that was in the midst of tearing itself apart. Lincoln’s passion for all things political is seen throughout, though he may have been naive as to the minefield into which he walked when assuming the role of Commander-in-Chief.

One cannot complete the review of this tome without discussing a few other aspects that did not necessarily fit neatly into the themes above. While many politicians would have not only a strong political base but also a supportive household, Burlingame shows that Lincoln’s home life was far from ideal. While she likely did have some positive traits, Mary Todd Lincoln comes across not only as a complete control freak, but also as a woman well beneath what Abraham deserved. Her abusive nature, directed towards their children and the future president both, come out in much of Burlingame’s narrative dealing with Lincoln’s family. How Lincoln remained with such a horrid woman baffles me, though surely he was no peach with whom to live. Burlingame does describe how Lincoln would spend as much time away from the house as possible and that his correspondence with his wife while out on the road was minimal at best. Not that political spouses need be vapid, but Mary Todd Lincoln seems to take things to the opposite extreme. In addition Mrs. Lincoln’s abusive sentiments, Burlingame is able to capture the strength of the pushback against black equality at the time. While students of history may know that the South was strongly opposed to ending slavery, the extent to the complete degradation and abuse dished out to the black population stunned even me. I have read and seen much related to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but it surely paled as compared to the poisonous rhetoric that was being presented in newspapers and during stump speeches by well-respected politicians. Whether Burlingame sought to highlight the extensive racist and imbecilic views presented is not known, though one must weigh this against the mainline views of the times. Surely there has been much progress made in 150 years, though the knowledgeable reader will understand that there is a long way yet to go. These are but two additional areas that deserved some mention amongst scores of others that will pique the reader’s interested while making their way through the biography.

So much passion and attention to detail went into this volume that one can only hope the second instalment is as powerful. Surely there is to be a minute account of Lincoln’s Civil War presidency, as the second volume covers a much short time period, 1861-65. If it is anywhere as powerful as this tome, the reader is in for a treat beyond measure. The narrative is woven together so seamlessly that the long chapters seem to fly by, which are supported with many references and direct quotations from those who lived with or reported on Abraham Lincoln. Burlingame is on his game in putting together such a detailed piece of biographical work and should be praised for his dedication to the cause. I do not think I have read such a detailed biography since examining the life of the other US president who sought to quell relations with blacks, LBJ. The detail, the anecdotes, the varied means of presenting Lincoln’s character. All of these help to formulate a story of Abraham Lincoln that shows the numerous aspects of the 16th President of the United States. I remained in a state of constant shock as the narrative peeled back some of the lesser known facts about the man and his personal creed. How blessed I am to have found and devoured such a wonderful book, which still has a second volume to complete the tale of this superb political figure. I am eager to sink my teeth into it and learn about the minutiae of America’s darker days as Burlingame continues to make his case that Lincoln’s importance to America places him amongst the top three presidents of all time.

Kudos seems too small a praise to offer you, Mr. Burlingame. I am sure to praise this book for years to come and recommend it to anyone who wishes to see how a stellar biography ought to have been written.  

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