February 15, 2021 [Presidents Day]
Ronald C. White
In 1856, Abraham Lincoln penned a note on a small piece of paper. In it, he compared himself to Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas. Deeply wounded by his defeat in a bid for the state’s other Senate seat, Lincoln confessed his feelings in a note he never expected anyone to see.
Twenty-two years ago Judge Douglas and I first became acquainted. We were both young then; he a trifle younger than I. Even then, we were both ambitious; I, perhaps, quite as much so as he. With me, the race of ambition has been a failure – a flat failure; with him it has been one of splendid success.
Lincoln wrote this private note only four years before he would be elected the sixteenth president of the United States.
Diaries reveal hidden personal dimensions of a public person’s life. Jon Meacham, in Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, offered his “first and greatest thanks” to the 41st President “who granted me access to his diaries.” Using the diaries of both George and Barbara Bush afforded Meacham the opportunity to write an inside story of Bush.
I often wished Lincoln had kept a diary. Perhaps he did. What I have taken to calling Abraham Lincoln’s Diary are the reflections he wrote on little slips of paper, sometimes on the backs of envelopes, throughout his entire adult life.
Willie Herndon described his senior law partner as “the most shut-mouthed man who ever lived.” In these notes Lincoln opens his mouth to express not only his ideas, but his feelings and fears in ways he never did in public. Lincoln used his notes to debate the moral, political, social, and religious issues swirling around him.
Seeing them in their totality–as opposed to the isolated treatment they have received in the past–offers a fresh perspective on Lincoln, just when we thought there was nothing new to say about this titanic figure.
In these fragments, Lincoln reflected on a wide variety of subjects: the wonders of nature prompted by a visit to Niagara Falls, notes for a law lecture, the birth of the Republican Party, the role of government, the struggles over sectionalism, and the 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision.
The purpose of this new book to expand our understanding of Lincoln’s character and thinking. Reading these notes that he wrote for his eyes only can give us a better understanding of the private Lincoln behind the public Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln’s Diary will be published by Random House in 2020.