Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, August 4, 2021

The bitterness of feeling raging in the country had concentrated itself upon the person of this one man who was about to take office as President. Threats of personal violence and of actual assassination had begun even before election; they were to continue all through his administration.

As the founding president of the Republican Party and the man who guided the United States through the incredible sacrifices of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, Abraham Lincoln deserves more than adulation. He deserves to be read.

Recommendationcivic necessity
Year1940
Length863 pages
Book Rating9
Transfer Quality7
Overall Rating9
Stand firm

George Eliot wrote that history is apt to repeat itself with only a slight change of costume.1 This is very obvious when reading about Lincoln and reading what Lincoln had to contend against from his opponents. From hate speech to socialism, the tactics of the Democrats don’t seem to have changed much over the years. They’re still using the same logic, and…

They are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of kingcraft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people—not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. — Abraham Lincoln (The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln)

As the intellectual force for the cutting off of slavery at its roots in the 1850s and the man most responsible for leading the United States through the incredible sacrifices needed to restore the Union and to end slavery, Abraham Lincoln deserves more than adulation. He deserves to be read. Philip Van Doren Stern’s book is a great summary of both his life and his writings, as the title promises.

The book also ends up being a de facto history of the beginning of the Republican Party. Lincoln in 1860 was the second presidential candidate for the party and the first Republican president.2 You can see the pattern of contested elections hardened into the body politic even in 1860.

Those who could not look past appearances complained that the President was uncouth. “He brought to the White House the unvarnished manners of the frontier and the small town,” writes Stern.

Government officials opposed to the incoming President worked hard to undermine him—even sending war materiel from military installations in the north to military installations in the south3, so that if war broke out over secession, the South would have them and the North wouldn’t. Officials who opposed Lincoln, who would normally have resigned, remained in their offices to hinder him at every turn, and even to send information to the South.

Whenever Lincoln attempted to state the obvious about the level of division in the United States—that, for example, the United States was “a house divided”—he was accused by Democrats of being the one causing the division. When extremists attempted violence, Democrats tried to pin it on Republicans, as Stephen A. Douglas did over John Brown at Harper’s Ferry:

The Harper’s Ferry crime was the natural, logical, inevitable result of the doctrines and teachings of the Republican Party, as explained and enforced in their platform, their partisan presses, their pamphlets and books, and especially in the speeches of their leaders in and out of Congress…

Is not the Republican Party still embodied, organized, confident of success, and defiant in its pretensions? Does it not now hold and proclaim the same creed that it did before the invasion? It is true that most of its representatives here disavow the act of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. I am glad that they do so; I am rejoiced that they have gone thus far; but I must be permitted to say to them that it is not sufficient that they disavow the act, unless they also repudiate and denounce the doctrines and teachings which produced the act. Those doctrines remain the same; those teachings are being poured into the minds of men throughout the country by means of speeches and pamphlets and books, and through partisan presses.

The terms are different, but Douglas is using the modern tactic of accusing his opponents of hate speech—and defining hate speech as disagreeing with Democrats. And, as Democrats do today, suggesting not just that people should refrain from divisive speech but that such speech should carry criminal penalties.

We often hear the legend about how Lincoln had a dream predicting his death. This is less miraculous than it seems. Lincoln after the election was under constant threat of assassination. Lincoln was well aware of this; when he asked his partner at Herndon & Lincoln to leave his name on their law practice, he wrote “If I live, I’m coming back some time, and then we’ll go right on practicing law as if nothing had ever happened.”

“If I live…”. He was well aware of the possibility that the beltway class would ensure he did not survive his presidency.

Stern writes that when John Wilkes Booth tried to “force his way nearer to the President” at Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, Booth had been stopped by the guards but not arrested.

The second part of the book, and the majority of it, collects and excerpts Lincoln’s letters, notes, and speeches. It outlines just how hard Lincoln tried both to avoid war and then later to end it peacefully. He required only that slavery not be introduced into any new territories and that the slave trade remain illegal. He believed that as long as slavery did not become entrenched in all the states, those where it remained would give it up over time.

One of the great insights into Lincoln is how, in his speeches, Lincoln would say something deeply prejudiced, but then go on to conclude with something completely right:

I protest against the counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either. I can just leave her alone. In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of anyone else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.

Or:

I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects—certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.

Lincoln has prejudices and principles, but his principles override his prejudices.

In his letters and notes his prejudices are less equivocal, as for example in his 1858 notes where he wrote “Suppose it is true that the Negro is inferior to the white…” a construction which implies strongly not only that the contention is in doubt but that the speaker disagrees with it. One only “supposes it is true” if one believes it wrong.

Slavery is wrong

Even publicly he argued unequivocally that the Declaration of Independence must include blacks or it includes nobody. In fact, according to Lincoln, Stephen Douglas had already gone so far as to say it only included whites from England, excluding everyone else, even other whites. Lincoln responded with:

Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man, this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position. Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal. — Abraham Lincoln (Speech at Chicago)

“The chief and real purpose of the Republican party,” he said in an 1859 speech, “is eminently conservative.” He meant this in the sense of not being the radical party that the Democrats accused it of being, of adherence to the old policies adopted by the founders. But he could also have meant the word in its more modern form of classical liberalism. The principles he espouses, the ones that allow him to overcome his prejudices, are the same principles of conservatives today. He argues continually, for example, in favor of the right to keep what you earn:

It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle. — Abraham Lincoln (Seventh Joint Debate at Alton, Illinois)

As president, speaking to a New York workingmen’s association, he emphasized the importance of private property to public peace:

Property is the fruit of labor; property is desirable; is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him work diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built. — Abraham Lincoln (Reply to a Committee from the New York Workingmen’s Association)

On July 4, 1864, a group calling themselves “the loyal colored people of Baltimore” presented Lincoln with a Bible. In his reply, Lincoln thanked them, of course, but also spoke about the Bible as a source of wisdom:

In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it. — Abraham Lincoln (Reply to Loyal Colored People of Baltimore upon Presentation of a Bible)

Stern also includes much of Lincoln’s dry humor, as when he talks about “a horse chestnut or a chestnut horse” not being the same thing or when he writes that:

By general law, life and limb must be protected, yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. — Abraham Lincoln (Letter to A. G. Hodges)

He highlighted serious topics with pointed humor:

Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored—contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong: vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man… — Abraham Lincoln (The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln)

Democrats threatened to secede if Lincoln were elected, and accused Lincoln of breaking up the Union. Lincoln replied,

A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!” — Abraham Lincoln (Address at Cooper Institute)

And in an address to an Indiana regiment, says:

I always thought that all men should be free; but if any should be slaves, it should be first those who desire it for themselves, and secondly those who desire it for others. Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally. — Abraham Lincoln (Address to an Indiana regiment)

A civil war as deadly as ours, on a topic of such importance to the freedom of men, will by its nature be an immensely important part of our history. This selection of Lincoln’s writings before and after he became president is essential to understanding both Lincoln and the Civil War. But a history like this also helps us understand the present. In the case of Lincoln and the years leading up to the Civil War there are strong lessons for both Democrat and Republican leadership today.

The left’s racist policies continue to oppress minorities. They continue to, rather than lift the poor up, argue that minorities are unreasoning and must be encouraged to remain in the more primitive culture the left assigns them. And that they should be managed by a more evolved elite that just happens to coincide with the left itself.

Lincoln’s admonishment to his fellow Republicans that “We shall not fail—if we stand firm” is one they should take seriously today. Too often, it seems that Republicans are willing to surrender to evil instead of stand against it. Just as in Lincoln’s time, standing up to evil risks the violence of the left’s mobs, but without Republican fortitude the Union will fall, and slavery return. Republicans should reclaim that mantle that Lincoln bequeathed them: fighters for freedom, whose only compromises move freedom forward.

The people of these United States are the rightful masters of both congresses and courts, not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution. — Abraham Lincoln (A speech at Cincinnati)

  1. History, we know, is apt to repeat herself, and to foist very old incidents upon us with only a slight change of costume. — George Eliot (Scenes of Clerical Life)

  2. The first Republican candidate was John C. Frémont in 1856.

  3. See, for example, Mark Tooley’s The Peace That Almost Was.

The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln

Recommendation: civic necessity

If you enjoyed The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln…

For more about Abraham Lincoln, you might also be interested in The cyclic transmogrification of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln’s conservative principles, White Supremacy: The Reincarnation of Stephen Douglas, and The last time an actor assassinated a president?.

For more about Civil War, you might also be interested in ‘They were not patriots’: New Orleans removes monument to Democrats, Senator Kamala Harris calls for slavery reparations, and I have read a fiery gospel.

For more about Republicans, you might also be interested in The cyclic transmogrification of the Republican Party, Copyright reform: Republican principles in action?, Essential Revolution: The Return of the Republicans, Essential revolution: fight corruption, Republicans and America must provide an alternative, Voting for Nobody in New York, A fragile alliance, Republican Party: show some initiative, Voter canvass on the proposed 2011 Republican Congressional majority agenda, Nothing to fear but a brokered convention, Democrats “oppress” black voters… by killing them en masse, The Parable of the Primary, You want your party back; so do Trump supporters, Two lessons for the price of one, for the Republican Party, and Health insurance reform? What health insurance reform?.

For more about slavery, you might also be interested in The last time an actor assassinated a president?, Slavery does not create wealth, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave, and Senator Kamala Harris calls for slavery reparations.