For the past five years I have been writing “The Secret War Diaries of Abraham Lincoln – Including His Recurring Dreams.” The fourth volume will be published next month. It is what some call “faction” — part fact, part fiction. Lincoln’s remarkable legacy deserves to be studied in schools and his admirable character emulated by American presidents.
In 1810, soon after Lincoln was born, the third U.S. Census was conducted in 27 states and the District of Columbia. It showed 7,239,881 people in the United States, of which 1,191,362 were slaves. By the eighth Census of 1860, the population reached 31,443,322 in 33 states, District of Columbia and 10 territories. Of that total, 3,953,762 were slaves.
When Lincoln was born, slaves were 16.4 percent of the population. When president, the percentage was 12.5 percent, and slavery was the burning issue of the day. A traditional Whig, he became the first Republican elected president. He personally abhorred slavery but was never an abolitionist. His first official act was to swear in John G. Nicolay as private secretary. He conducted the Civil War with just Nicolay and two other overworked assistants, John Hay and William Stoddard. Hay would go on to become minister to Great Britain and secretary of state.
Lincoln never took a day off. Cabinet meetings were held almost daily, even on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. He rarely left Washington until just before his assassination, when he spent 16 days outside of Richmond meeting with generals and admirals anticipating Robert E. Lee’s surrender.
Physically, Lincoln was a powerful man. He had been wrestling champion of his county. Intellectually, he was a gifted writer yet only attended school for about one year. He wrote passable poetry and recited Burns and Shakespeare from memory. He volunteered for the Black Hawk War and was elected captain. He strongly opposed the Mexican War when in Congress.
Lincoln was morally straight. The appellation “Honest Abe” was well-earned. As a political leader he respected the views of all, including African Americans, whose leaders he invited to the White House. The Emancipation Proclamation was his crowning glory. He welcomed all citizens who came to visit him. A strong believer in separation of church and state, he worshiped from a rented pew at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.
He was particularly respectful of women all his life and welcomed their visits to the White House. As an attorney he often took their cases without fee. In 1836, as an Illinois legislator, he urged women’s suffrage 84 years before women got the vote. Internationally, he maintained cordial relationships with all nations. His sound policies helped keep Britain and France neutral. Foreign leaders knew his word was his bond.
Lincoln did not have a close relationship with his father, an illiterate man who rented him out to neighbors to perform manual labor. He did not attend his father’s funeral. As a father, he was never strict with his own children. As a busy lawyer who spent much of his time riding the legal circuit, he was often away from home and later regretted not having spent more time with his son, Robert. He adored his natural mother and stepmother. He was loyal and loving to his wife Mary, who was well-educated and came from a slave-owning family. She was brilliant but difficult. Their son Edward died at age four, Willie at eleven and Tad at eighteen.
Lincoln was melancholy all his life and relied upon a keen sense of humor to cope with it. He was instinctively a kind and considerate person. When he wrote “with malice toward none and charity for all,” he meant every word.
He maintained a close working relationship with his generals and admirals. The telegraph allowed him to communicate with them with great frequency. He typically reviewed hundreds of court-martial cases every month and tended to find excuses to commute soldiers’ and sailors’ death sentences. He respected his Cabinet members’ views and welcomed dissenting opinions.
Communications with Southern leaders were handled with strict decorum and courtesy. He and Confederate President Jefferson Davis corresponded throughout the Civil War, each trying to find a way to peace but failing. He never wanted Davis or other Southern leaders punished for treason. He hoped they might just “fade away” when hostilities ended.
Lincoln never divided for the sake of hatred and division but sought only to unite the nation.