BOOK SUMMARY: Lincoln in Private: What His Most Personal Reflections Tell Us About Our Greatest President

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Lincoln in Private: What His Most Personal Reflections Tell Us About Our Greatest President, By Ronald C. White

Brief Overview

Each weekend, there always seems to be one or more segments on C-SPAN about the Civil War.  If the Civil War particularly is still important in the minds of many Americans, Abraham Lincoln really fascinates. There is a cottage industry of books about Lincoln covering a range of issues, including his thoughts on religion and partisan politics.  

Lincoln in Private tries to provide something new.  Ronald White has written and spoken much about Abraham Lincoln. He argues that an overlooked resource is Lincoln’s private notes, fragments of his thinking on a range of issues.  They provide a window into the “private Lincoln.”

Ten chapters, usually with one fragment covered a chapter, look at how these notes provide insights in his life as a lawyer, politician, and president.  The author provides an analysis of the times when the notes appear to have been written to help add context.  This background material included a thumbnail biography of Lincoln’s life and the times he lived in.

The main part of the book is about 175 pages (with many pictures mixed in) with the appendix that provides all the fragments being over 100 pages.  The notes in the appendix range from about 1840-1865, but the examples analyzed in detail range from about 1848-62.  

Favorite Quote of the Book

I often wished he had kept a diary or journal.  Perhaps he did.  But for now, the closest thing we have are these 111 private notes.  

The book provides an ability to “look over Lincoln’s shoulder as he thinks.”  It provides the reader a chance to look at Lincoln’s private thoughts, with Ronald White adding context.   

Should I Read It?  

This book is ideal both for the average reader who is interested in Abraham Lincoln and a specialist. The average reader will find the book a pleasant read with short chapters and photographs providing background on the private notes discussed in the book.  The centerpieces are colorful copies of Lincoln’s own handwritten notes.  Charming for a Lincoln or history buff.

Some speciality readers will particularly appreciate the complete collection of fragments and notes that make up the Appendix.  Pages of notes on possible appointments and the like might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a helpful comprehensive resource.  

I am not sure how much the book (the core of the book is under 175 pages and that includes many pictures) will provide new information for those familiar with Lincoln’s life and times. Those who wish a more in depth look of the subject might wish to look elsewhere.  

And, there is not enough space for a deep analysis of each fragment.  Much space is spent discussing background details such as extended aside on Mary Todd Lincoln.  This is not like another book by the author that is just about Lincoln’s second inaugural address.   Some might be upset that more time is not spent on the notes themselves.  

The book is also not a general look at “private writings” and how they influence what the writer publicly shares.  While explaining Lincoln’s specific writings and thought processes, some general themes do arise.  Nonetheless, this is not a general guide on how public figures operate.  

But, for those who wish to have a look into a great man’s private thoughts, including those that influenced various public acts and writings, this is a helpful book as well.  

Comprehensive Summary

Prologue 

Abraham Lincoln regularly wrote down his “disconnected thoughts” on scraps of paper that he saved for future reference.  These private reflections have been largely overlooked by scholars and general readers.  These “fragments” provide a window into Lincoln’s private thoughts as he considered the issues of the day.  They provide a look at the “private Lincoln.”

Part One: Lincoln the Lawyer 

The first two chapters examine notes written while Lincoln was a lawyer.  

Very few of the private fragments survive from the 1830s and 18840s (seven of 111), from early in his career.  This is likely largely a result of his solitary single lifestyle, from his early adulthood as well as his constant travels as a married lawyer in the 1840s.  Lincoln very well might have used private notes in this period that somehow were lost along the way.   

The Lyrical Lincoln

The first fragment is an atypical poetic discussion by Lincoln after a visit to Niagara Falls in 1848.  This wonder of nature-inspired many of the era.  

Others often did not see that poetic side of Lincoln, so this provides insight into his own private thoughts.  Lincoln’s sense of wonder at the Falls is a mixture of the secular and “the agency of God in the pages of history.”  This latter theme would arise again in Lincoln’s public speeches.  

The Humble Lincoln: A Lawyer’s Vocation

This chapter discusses some notes that Lincoln wrote for a law lecture sometime in the 1850s.  Lincoln’s life as a lawyer is discussed, including his self-teaching, legal and political ambitions, and travels as a legal “circuit rider” in Illinois.  

The note begins with a bit of humility about Lincoln not being “an accomplished lawyer” though he clearly was by this time.  The notes show what Lincoln thought were important values to promote: humility, diligence, and effective oration.  Speaking skills were especially important in that era.  He also opposes unnecessary litigation.  We see a self-portrait of Lincoln as a lawyer.

Part Two: Lincoln the Politician  

Lincoln served around a quarter of a century as a lawyer while serving fourteen in state and federal political offices. The seven fragments covered in the next five chapters, however, show how politics dominated his adult years.  

The notes often began as a result of some question he was pondering.  He would often save notes for later when he might have a use for them.  So, if a political question arose (such as tariffs), he could refer to previous notes and/or pass them along to share his views with others.  

Lincoln not only used personal notes to think things through but also to consider things that might be too politically unpopular to discuss publicly. 

The “private Lincoln” at times was not as moderate as the public one.  Lincoln was a politician and knew the importance of a careful public image.  We should not assume everything he said publicly was what he personally thought about a subject.   

The Fiery Lincoln: Slavery and a Reentry to Politics 

This chapter examines two fragments that help provide context on Lincoln’s thinking as he re-entered politics in the mid-1850s.  

The first fragment goes to the heart of what is used to justify enslaving people.  

Each justification is turned against the slave owner as an open-ended argument.  If slavery is justified because of color, is a somewhat darker in shade person (still considered white) also someone who we can enslave?  Those less intelligent?  Maybe, it is in someone’s interest to enslave white people in certain cases.  Again, does that make slavery okay?

The second fragment does not only show his colorful use of language and metaphor (even the ant can feel the injustice of slavery), but seems to be an insight on his reading habits.  Lincoln is answering various arguments from the other side, showing his study and knowledge of the issue.  

The Defeated Lincoln: Failure and Ambition

This chapter starts with a short note that expresses Lincoln’s ambitions and feelings of failure in obtaining a national office.  The chapter is more widely a discussion of his political experience from the 1830s-1850s, including his failures to become a U.S. senator.

The Republican Lincoln: The Birth of a Party

This section deals with Lincoln’s decision to join the Republican Party in the 1850s.  Lincoln was a lifelong Whig, Henry Clay his hero, but the Whig party had collapsed.  

One fragment is a discussion on how the parties have divided on the question of slavery in the territories. The allegation that Republicans alone are a “sectional” party on the issue is unfair.  Democrats repeatedly are shown to be more supportive of one section as well.  

A second fragment argues the Republicans have a special obligation, to the U.S. and the world, to stop the spread of slavery.  

The Principled Lincoln: A Definition of Democracy

A few sentences provide a core of Lincoln’s idea of democracy: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”  Lincoln rejects Stephen Douglas’ definition that would leave slavery to be decided by majoritarian will.  

His wife Mary seemed to understand the importance of this note by giving it as a part of a thank you gift to those who helped her after his death.  

The Outraged Lincoln: Pro-Slavery Theology

Frederick Ross was a Presbyterian minister who published a major religious defense of slavery in 1857.  This chapter’s fragment, perhaps written in 1858 after Dred Scott was handed down, provides a strong rejection of that argument, singling out Rev. Ross by name.  

It provides an example of Lincoln’s strong feelings (“Nonsense! Wolves devouring lambs … because it is good for the lambs!!!”) and a “private pressure valve” to let off steam.    

Part Three: President

The Unity Lincoln: Secession and the Constitution

After Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860, the future vice president of the Confederacy (Alexander Stephens) spoke out against secession. Lincoln served with him in Congress and saw Stephens’ words as a positive reflection of Southern Unionism.  

Lincoln wrote Stephens, trying to find a bridge between the two sides.  Stephens’ reply was strongly critical of Republicans.  The fragment was an attempt to help formulate a reply to Stephens, spelling out Lincoln’s thoughts on how Union was essential to uphold both the principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.  

The Kentuckian Lincoln: An Undelivered Speech to the South

Lincoln took an extended trip from Illinois to Washington D.C. on the way to his inauguration, crossing various states.  He wished to make a detour to Kentucky, an important border state for which he and his wife had family connections.  He wrote some notes for a planned speech. 

The notes appeal to Lincoln’s Kentuckian origins and their personal honor.  He explained that he did not submit to pressures to violate his principles, supposedly necessary and proper to safeguard the Union in the “secession winter” of 1860-1.  Lincoln says elections are how to settle disputes, even if one thinks the people were wrong the first time around.  

The Theological Lincoln: A Meditation on the Divine Will

The final chapter examines a fragment (written perhaps September 1862) considering the will of God during the Civil War.  Lincoln is unsure about the will of God, but expects that it supports the Civil War in some fashion.  The notes provide insights that pop up in Lincoln’s second inaugural (March 1865).  The chapter also examines Lincoln’s overall religious beliefs.  


Epilogue

The epilogue highlights Lincoln’s carefully thinking out the issues of the day and how this could serve as a model for our times and personal behavior.  

Appendix: Lincoln’s Fragments and Notes  

This is a complete collection of Lincoln’s 111 private fragments and notes.  

Points to Ponder

Ronald White suggests that Lincoln took perhaps an hour or two to write the fragments (that might take about a page or two of space), carefully thinking through his words, pondering the material.  This surprised many high schoolers.  What does this amount of contemplation say about Lincoln?  Do people still spend this much time carefully considering their thoughts?  

One thing noted in the book was how Lincoln carefully studied different sides. He read newspapers that were for and against slavery.  He listened to ordinary citizens (“public opinion baths”). The author notes Lincoln’s open-mindedness. How did this help Lincoln?  Lincoln is often considered to be something of a political moderate.  Did these qualities matter much? 

About the Author

Ronald C. White received his Ph.D. in Religion and History from Princeton University.  He has taught at various universities and Princeton Theological Seminary.  White has lectured about Lincoln in several countries (on multiple continents).

His other books are:

  • A. Lincoln
  • The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words
  • Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural
  • American Ulysses: A Life Of Ulysses Grant
  • Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: A Biography (Forthcoming) 

Is Lincoln in Private a Reliable Source?

The author is a Lincoln scholar.  The material goes beyond Lincoln to details of his times.  But, a Lincoln scholar also would particularly be informed about that as well.  

The book is well-sourced, both with endnotes and an extended (select) bibliography. We also have full transcripts of Lincoln’s fragments, not mere summaries.  I found the book reliable. 

By Joe Cocurullo

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