A NEW TAKE ON LINCOLN
March 18, 1998
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, engages Douglas Wilson, author of Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, in a discussion about the previously unknown details of Abraham Lincoln's life.
DAVID GERGEN: Doug Wilson, more books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than about anybody else in history, except for Jesus Christ and William Shakespeare. And, yet, here you come along and the critics say that you have a fresh take on Abraham Lincoln. Tell us about it.
DOUGLAS WILSON, Author, "Honor's Voice:" Well, first of all, Lincoln's early life is a story that we think we know, at least in the outlines. He started out poor, uneducated, and he was unsophisticated. And he brought himself up by his own bootstraps. He educated himself. He taught himself law. He got into politics. He proved himself a leader. He married into the aristocracy. He got elected to Congress. He became a distinguished lawyer. He was in the right place finally to get nominated for President. It's a tremendous success story. The early life Lincoln, the self-made man, is a true story. The outlines of it are absolutely true. He did all of those things, pretty much the way the legend tells us that he did. But what I discovered in editing the reminiscences about Lincoln--that's what I've been doing for the last eight years--I discovered that there were a lot of other things that you could get glimpses of the man behind the legend.
DAVID GERGEN: It seemed to be more of a struggle, his early years. You focused on--in his 20's.
DOUGLAS WILSON: What's wrong with the legend is it doesn't take account of a struggle. He did rise. He did succeed. He did get ahead. He did prove himself and distinguish himself. But there were struggles along the way that either are given very little attention, or are not known about that I think are quite important.
DAVID GERGEN: He had to struggle first to prove his manliness when he moved from Indiana to Illinois, a young boy, he was 21 years old.
DOUGLAS WILSON: Coming into a new community on the frontier you had to be ready, because you were going to be tested, and he was tested. And he was up to the task. So the first hurdle of manhood, I think, was not difficult for him. He was strong. He was hardy. He had self-confidence. And he was able to prove himself in that way.
DAVID GERGEN: But partly through his wrestling.
DOUGLAS WILSON: I think so. You had to do it physically. You had to be willing to beat other men in combat to prove your manliness, and he could do that. He was very good at that.
DAVID GERGEN: Long arms help.
DOUGLAS WILSON: Long arms help. He had an advantage really.
DAVID GERGEN: But he had other tests that went beyond that, that were tougher.
DOUGLAS WILSON: Yes, that's right. He--he didn't think a person of education--he had almost no schooling--didn't think a person with his kind of education could study law. He'd like to be a lawyer. He tried out giving arguments in the justice of the peace court to help defend people. But he was encouraged by his friend John T. Stewart, who loaned him law books, and he read and he read and he finally presented himself and got himself--passed the bar and then he had to struggle to learn the law once he had got himself admitted, but he did that, and he eventually proved himself not only an adequate but a very good lawyer.
DAVID GERGEN: But the greatest struggles seemed to be with himself, his inner self, and also with women.
DOUGLAS WILSON: Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: Tell us more about that.
DOUGLAS WILSON: Well, I think that he didn't realize until he got involved with Ann Rutledge--he fell in love with Ann Rutledge--he courted her, and they were engaged to be buried, and when she died, he kind of went to pieces--and I don't think he realized that he had an emotional vulnerability of that kind, but it was very painful, and he reacted very strongly. Some of his friends thought he was suicidal. But he got himself back together, and he held on.
DAVID GERGEN: How old was he then?
DOUGLAS WILSON: That was in 1835, and so he would have been twenty--
DAVID GERGEN: Twenty-seven or so.
DOUGLAS WILSON: --twenty-seven years old, something like that.
DAVID GERGEN: But then along came--he had other relationships.
DOUGLAS WILSON: Yes. And then he went on and he got involved in another woman a year later, Mary Owens, and she was a well-educated woman. She was in many ways a very good catch, they would have said. But he--in this case we have his letters, so we know what he was saying to her, and he's just--can't make up his mind whether--he keeps advising her not to accept him. Well, he's proposing to her that they should consider having a life together, but maybe you shouldn't do that, maybe you wouldn't like it. You'd have to be poor; you'd be--you're not used to that, and so forth. So you can see that he's not sure of himself. He writes a letter explaining this whole situation, and it's kind of a comic letter, so it's hard to know exactly how serious to take it, but he does analyze himself, and he says, here I was courting this woman I wasn't really in love with, and I finally proposed to her, and when she refused me, I was disappointed, and I realized that maybe I was in love with her all along.
DAVID GERGEN: The pivotal time appears to come when he meets Mary Todd Lincoln, a pivotal time not only in his relationship with women but, indeed, in his life, itself, in his inner struggles.
DOUGLAS WILSON: I think that's right. What happened there was the opposite of the Mary Owens affair. He got involved with Mary Todd. He courted her. She thought they had some kind of an arrangement. He saw somebody else and wanted to back out, and she said, well, that isn't honorable; you have to honor your commitment to me. He went through a big crisis of inner strength and resolution, and he eventually, it seems to me, solved this problem. He said to his friend, Speed, "The gem of my character was my ability to keep my resolves once I made them, and I lost that. And you know how that happened," referring to his engagement or his imbroglio with Mary Todd, as it was called. And he said, "Until I get it back, I don't think I can make any decisions. I've got to know that I can keep my decision once I make it." And I think what happened is that he decided that since Mary Todd expected him--still expected him to honor his commitment to her that he was going to do that as a way of demonstrating that he could keep his promise, and so that he was making a bigger decision just--than just to get married.
DAVID GERGEN: So it was a double thing. Not only was he getting married, but he was also rescuing his sense of honor.
DOUGLAS WILSON: His self-respect.
DAVID GERGEN: And he was also convincing himself that he could keep his resolves once he made a pledge.
DOUGLAS WILSON: Yes. And thereafter, we see a lot of irresolution in that period, but thereafter, he becomes known as a resolute man. His friends say this man is very determined. Once he puts his foot down, it stays down. And I think that's what earned him his greatness as president. He could hold off when people wanted to give up and wanted to change course, and we now see that it was his resolution that undergirded his presidency.
DAVID GERGEN: So, in some ways, you know, Eric Erickson, in his book about young man Luther talks about an identity crisis that comes in people's lives, especially as they move from adolescence to maturity. In some ways, it seemed to me that that crisis with Mary Todd, breaking it up and coming back and deciding to get married, even though he didn't really love her, resolved his identity crisis.
DOUGLAS WILSON: I believe that's true. He had to decide who he was going to be. And he couldn't decide. He was afraid to decide. And when he finally did decide, he defined himself.
DAVID GERGEN: There was a quote you use in your book about his belief in resolution.
DOUGLAS WILSON: He told a young man who was studying law after he'd gone through this--was a successful lawyer--always remember that the most important thing is your own resolution to succeed. And I think he was there stating his own experience.
DAVID GERGEN: Doug Wilson, thank you very much for helping us to understand Abraham Lincoln, the young Abraham Lincoln.
DOUGLAS WILSON: Thank you for having me.
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