Understanding the American Past: American History and Its Interpretation

By Edward N. Saveth | Go to book overview

Lincoln and the Governance of Men

by JAMES G. RANDALL

[From The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, VI ( June 1951), 327- 352. Reprinted by permission of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Springfield, Illinois.]

There are tendencies in the writing of biography, perhaps more than any other form of history, for the biographical historian to want (or not want) to establish rapport with the central figure; to go out of his way to defend or condemn. This is true of Lincoln biographers although such tendencies have been brought under increasing control with the entrance of the professional historian into the field of Lincoln studies.

Lincoln's first biographer, Josiah G. Holland, made him into a model youth and an almost perfect man. Holland wrote of a religously-orthodox Lincoln "developed by the providence of God."1 Very different in tone was Ward Hill Lamon's The Life of Abraham Lincoln, a departure from the highly moral Lincoln portrayed by Holland. Based in considerable measure upon information furnished by Lincoln's law partner, William H. Herndon, it presented Lincoln's mother as illegitimate and suggested that Lincoln was too; Thomas Lincoln as an improvident good-for-nothing; Lincoln, himself, as a sometimes unethical politico, with a liking for off-color anecdotes; Mary Lincoln as a shrew, and the married life of the Lincolns as anything but a desirable relationship. The Lamon biography first developed the legend that Ann Rutledge of New Salem was the only woman Lincoln ever loved and that Lincoln left Mary waiting at the church the first time they planned to marry. Lamon found Lincoln wanting in religious orthodoxy, and--Lamon be-

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