Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography

By William E. Gienapp | Go to book overview
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“LINCOLN NEVER poured out his soul to any mortal creature at anytime and on no subject,” his longtime law partner, William Herndon, once declared. “He was the most secretive—reticent—shut-mouthed man that ever existed.” Judge David Davis, who had known Lincoln for many years from his practice on the judicial circuit and who served as a close adviser in Illinois politics, agreed. Using almost the same words, Davis confirmed that, “he was the most reticent—Secretive man I Ever Saw—or Expect to See.” With considerable understatement, Lincoln himself conceded in 1861, “I am rather inclined to silence.”

Abraham Lincoln is a di Ycult subject for a biographer. Born into an undistinguished frontier family, he grew up in obscurity and left almost no written record until he entered politics as a young man. He said little about his family or youth, even to friends. Leonard Swett, who had practiced law with Lincoln on the judicial circuit and who was a longtime political associate, recalled that he “never heard himspeak of any relative, except as connected with his boy history.” Indeed, Swett sheepishly acknowledged that he did not even know Lincoln had had a step-brother. Our knowledge of his formative years comes almost entirely from the series of interviews and recollections that Herndon collected in the years after Lincoln's death. Most of these recollections were written down years after the events described, and while invaluable they are difficult to use as historical sources. Few of these early acquaintances were as candid as George Spears, who, when asked about Lincoln's career as a shopkeeper in New Salem, admitted, “At that time I had no idia of his ever being President therefore I did not notice his course as close as I should of had.”


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