Beloved and Hated, but Mostly Friendless ; Abraham Lincoln Kept the Nation Together, but Held His Friends at Arm's Length

Article excerpt

Here's a man with real intimacy issues: a father who ignored him, a beloved mother who died when he was only 9, and a childhood with no known close friends.

"If we have no friends, we have no pleasure," Abraham Lincoln once said, "and if we have them, we are sure to lose them, and be doubly pained by the loss." According to William Herndon, his Illinois law partner of 16 years, Lincoln "was the most reticent and mostly secretive man that ever existed: he never opened his whole soul to any man."

In one sense, nothing should be wrong with giving Lincoln his privacy. He ended slavery, preserved the Union, and usually wins those polls of historians asking who was the greatest American president. That should be enough. And as historian David Donald ultimately concludes in "We Are Lincoln Men," having close friendships - while they could have eased the burden of office - would probably have made little difference in Lincoln's actions on important issues.

He was deaf to personal appeals once he decided on a course of action. Apparently, he knew of Aristole's dictum that a king has no friends - or, as we say today, it's lonely at the top.

The reason to learn about Lincoln's friendships, then, lies more in our eternal fascination with this complex human being than in revealing why history took the turns it did.

As an astute politician, Lincoln was a man with many "friends," Donald says. In his letters, for example, Lincoln refers frequently to acquaintances, even political enemies, as "my personal friend."

Nor was Lincoln cold and standoffish. He loved to tell stories and listen to others tell theirs. But "those who knew him best came to realize that behind the mask of affability, behind the facade of his endless humorous anecdotes, Lincoln maintained an inviolable reserve," Herndon says.

Donald, a Pulitzer Prize winner for earlier biographies of abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner and author Thomas Wolfe, profiles six men who had a claim to being really close to Lincoln: Joshua Speed, Herndon, Orville Browning, William Seward, John Hay, and John Nicolay.

Speed, who may have been his closest friend, was a roommate when they both were in their 20s. As often is the case, they drifted apart after each married.

Browning was a senator from Illinois and for a time Lincoln's closest Washington confidant. …