Articles - Michael Burlingam
Monument to Lincoln
from Connecticut college magazine, Spring 2009
In 1997, Professor Michael Burlingame signed a contract to deliver a new biography of Abraham Lincoln in time for the bicentennial of Lincoln´s birth, Feb. 12, 2009. He just made it: Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Johns Hopkins University Press) was published in December.
by Alex Barnett
Described by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin as a “profound and masterful portrait,” the 2,024-page, two-volume biography is a major contribution to Lincoln scholarship, and a crowning achievement to a long career devoted to the 16th president.
In January, Alex Barnett spoke with the May Buckley Sadowski ´19 Professor Emeritus of History about the new book and the enduring legacy of Lincoln.
Q: What led you to write a new biography of Lincoln?
A: In 1984 I started a psychological study of Lincoln, which was published as The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln in 1994. That was a series of essays dealing with such topics as his marriage, his relations with his parents and his children, his depressions and his midlife crisis. When I began that book I assumed — falsely as it turns out — that everything important about Lincoln had long since been published. As soon as I started looking at unpublished sources, I found new material. I kept on poking around in manuscript collections and old newspapers and eventually discovered an enormous amount of new information. Most revealing were interview notes taken by the early biographers, who spoke with people who had known Lincoln. Also valuable were scores of anonymous articles in all likelihood written by Lincoln that appeared in a Springfield, Ill., newspaper in the 1830s and 1840s. I thought, somebody really ought to take this new material and incorporate it into a detailed, multi-volume, cradle-to-grave biography.
Q: What have you learned about Lincoln in the process?
A: One theme that I emphasize very much is Lincoln´s psychological maturity, balance and wholeness. Lincoln has been traditionally held up as an inspirational figure for people born into poverty. There´s a lot of truth in that — Lincoln really was raised in hardscrabble poverty.
But I think he can also be an inspiration for people who suffer not so much from economic poverty as emotional poverty. When you think of the psychological burdens that Lincoln overcame, it´s really remarkable. His mother died under very painful circumstances when he was only 9 years old. His father was an unsympathetic soul, from whom Lincoln was estranged. His two siblings both died, one as a baby and one as a teenager. His sweetheart died when they were engaged to be married. He wrestled with depression, and on two occasions was so depressed that his friends feared that he would commit suicide. He suffered many setbacks and defeats in his career. On top of that, he had a very troubled midlife crisis and a truly woe-filled marriage.
Despite all those difficulties, he evolved not just to become a powerful man and a world-celebrated figure, but he was so psychologically mature, so balanced and whole, that I think he can be an inspiration for everybody. You can overcome emotional poverty — if Abraham Lincoln did it, you can do it.
Q: Are there surprises for the general reader in the book?
A: The most controversial aspect of the book, I think, will be the portrait of the marriage. Mary Todd Lincoln is more to be pitied than censured, but it must be acknowledged that she behaved very badly. She physically abused her husband, she insulted him in public. As first lady she accepted bribes and kickbacks and engaged in expense account padding — all kinds of unethical conduct. Lincoln told one of his closest friends that he was constantly worried that his wife would do something to humiliate him publicly, and she did.
Q: Many people today draw parallels between Lincoln and Obama. Why is that?
A: They are the only politicians from Illinois ever elected president. They´re both tall; they´re both gifted writers and eloquent. They both entered the White House with two small children, and they both took office at a time of national crisis. All of that adds up to a fairly striking set of parallels.
Q: Are there aspects of Lincoln´s character that Obama would do well to emulate?
A: Yes. One of Lincoln´s greatest strengths as president was his psychological balance, and one of the hallmarks of that balance was his lack of egotism. Most people have a needy ego, and people in politics have particularly needy egos. But Lincoln was able to overcome that: Lincoln didn´t have a needy ego. One of the ways that manifested itself is that he wouldn´t take criticism or disagreement personally.
Q: Why is Lincoln still so important?
A: I think it´s his character and his personality. He´s admired and revered for being the savior of the Union, for being the great emancipator and the vindicator of democracy — all of which is true, and extremely important. But I think beyond that, there´s something about his character, his magnanimity, his humor, his fundamental decency, his eloquence and his down-to-earthness that endears him. There are figures in American history who are admirable but not entirely lovable; George Washington is a conspicuous example. Lincoln has a lovable quality, because he´s so accessible and humorous and decent. I think it´s a reflection on our national character that we find someone of that sort so revered.