Monday, May 17, 2021

Booknotes: Lincoln in Private

New Arrival:
Lincoln in Private: What His Most Personal Reflections Tell Us About Our Greatest President by Ronald C. White (Random House, 2021).

The author of Lincoln's Greatest Speech (2002), The Eloquent President (2005), and a full biography published in 2009, Ronald White continues his scholarly fascination with Lincoln's words in Lincoln in Private: What His Most Personal Reflections Tell Us About Our Greatest President. Lincoln famously filed away notes and letters that were either never meant for public consumption or were intended to be such but withheld for some reason or another. Those insights into the man and president are the focus of this book.

From the description: "A deeply private man, shut off even to those who worked closely with him, Abraham Lincoln often captured “his best thoughts,” as he called them, in short notes to himself. He would work out his personal stances on the biggest issues of the day, never expecting anyone to see these frank, unpolished pieces of writing, which he’d then keep close at hand, in desk drawers and even in his top hat. The profound importance of these notes has been overlooked, because the originals are scattered across several different archives and have never before been brought together and examined as a coherent whole."

White could have approached this project in different ways. Space considerations might make examining them all in a single volume a pretty superficial exercise, but one could alternatively take a selection of them (gathered by theme or importance) for in-depth discussion. For Lincoln in Private, White wisely opts for the latter.

More from the description: White "walks readers through twelve of Lincoln’s most important private notes, showcasing our greatest president’s brilliance and empathy, but also his very human anxieties and ambitions. We look over Lincoln’s shoulder as he grapples with the problem of slavery, attempting to find convincing rebuttals to those who supported the evil institution (“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”); prepares for his historic debates with Stephen Douglas; expresses his private feelings after a defeated bid for a Senate seat (“With me, the race of ambition has been a failure—a flat failure”); voices his concerns about the new Republican Party’s long-term prospects; develops an argument for national unity amidst a secession crisis that would ultimately rend the nation in two; and, for a president many have viewed as not religious, develops a sophisticated theological reflection in the midst of the Civil War (“it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party”)."

Though the main analytical part of the book is selective, White does provide a valuable additional service by including the text of the entire collection of private notes, a number of which are quite lengthy, others fragmentary, and some only a single sentence in length. "(I)n a historic first, all 111 Lincoln notes are transcribed in the appendix, a gift to scholars and Lincoln buffs alike."

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