Monday, May 17, 2021

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

Abraham Lincoln was a private man who would extensively work and refine his thoughts before speaking or releasing a statement in public. His “best thoughts”, as he self-described them, were left on short fragments of paper that he placed in his desk drawer or in his top hat. These thoughts contained unrefined and rough draft thoughts regarding some of the important issues of his time. Ronald C. White’s Lincoln in Private captures these note fragments and offers fresh insight into a man many American historians regard as the nation’s greatest president.

White shares 111 of Lincoln’s notes, all listed in the appendix with context of their approximate date, with twelve of the notes receiving commentary from White. In this commentary, we see Lincoln’s thinking evolve over the issue of slavery, his wrestling with the development of the Republican party in the 1850's versus his prior longstanding affiliation with the Whigs, and the advocacy for national unity in the midst of developing the secession crisis in 1860 and 1861. White’s objectiveness helps us see Lincoln through Lincoln’s own words, not the author’s, and helps the reader see more of Lincoln as he reflected on the challenges he and his country were facing.

The most surprising note shared in Lincoln in Private was Lincoln’s prose about Niagara Falls, reflecting a much more philosophical and poetic side of Lincoln that we don’t often see. I really enjoyed the book and wish White had offered additional commentary in a few more notes; the appendix is well worth spending some time in a deeper dive.