- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2003


By David Herbert Donald

Simon & Schuster, $25, 219 pages


Even distinguished biographers —and David Herbert Donald has twice won a Pulitzer prize —have second thoughts about their subjects, and publishers are happy to air them. In “We Are Lincoln Men,” Mr. Donald ruminates about the inner life of Abraham Lincoln and the relatively few close friendships he formed in the course of a life in politics.

Aristotle, says Mr. Donald, maintained that there are three kinds of friendship. There are “enjoyable” friendships, in which people associate solely for pleasure; “useful” friendships, in which association carries with it some potential reward; and, occasionally, “perfect” friendships in which hopes and fears are freely shared. Where do Lincoln’s relationships fit in?

Mr. Donald has used the literature of psychology to gain insights into his subject. He claims that those who knew Lincoln best “came to realize that behind the mask of affability … Lincoln maintained an inviolable reserve.” The roots of this reserve were to be found in Lincoln’s upbringing, where life on the frontier made close, lasting friendships difficult. “A boy who has no chums,” Mr. Donald writes, “becomes a man who rarely has close friends.”

Indeed, William Herndon, Lincoln’s long-time law partner, is quoted as calling Lincoln “the most reticent and mostly secretive man that ever existed: he never opened his whole soul to any man: he never touched the history or quality of his own nature in the presence of his friends.”

Who, then, were Lincoln’s closest confidants? The first, according to Mr. Donald, was Joshua Speed, a shopkeeper whom Lincoln met in Springfield, Ill., and with whom he shared lodgings for several years. The second was William “Billy” Herndon, Lincoln’s long-time law partner. A third was Orville H. Browning, like Lincoln an antislavery Illinois politician. Two more were Lincoln’s White House secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. The only prominent name on the list is that of Lincoln’s secretary of state, William H. Seward.

Lincoln’s most intimate friend was probably Speed, who in 1837 offered the young Lincoln lodgings in his general store and who literally shared a bed with the aspiring lawyer for four years. When Lincoln contemplated marrying Mary Todd, it was Speed to whom Lincoln turned for advice. In time, however, distance and political differences caused the Lincoln-Speed friendship to cool.

Browning became friendly with the Lincolns in the 1840s. Two decades later, in July 1861, he was appointed by the Illinois legislature to take up the vacant seat in the U.S. Senate created by the death of Stephen A. Douglas. Because Lincoln, in Mr. Donald’s view, arrived in Washington “without a single intimate friend in his entourage,” Browning’s presence in the capital filled a void. But when Browning sought appointment to the Supreme Court—a position for which many thought him well qualified—Lincoln chose another.

The closest of Lincoln’s friendships may have been that with his last law partner, Billy Herndon. Certainly, theirs was the longest association. When Lincoln came to the office depressed, Herndon would draw a curtain across the door and lock it, to give his friend time to collect his thoughts. Lincoln, for his part, had many opportunities to help his junior partner. Herndon was a binge drinker, and once in the 1850s Lincoln was roused in the night to post bail for Billy and some fellow carousers.

As for Lincoln’s White House secretaries, John Hay’s metamorphosis is of particular interest. Appointed a presidential assistant at the age of 24, Hay was initially patronizing toward the president, whom he referred to as “the tycoon.” Over time he became an unqualified admirer, and after the war he collaborated with Nicolay in a celebrated biography of the president.

The last of Lincoln’s friendships, and politically the most important, was that with his secretary of state, William H. Seward. Seward had been the favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, and was widely expected to be the dominant figure in Lincoln’s cabinet. Early in his administration the president made clear that he, Lincoln, would establish administration policy, but in the course of so doing concluded that Seward would prove a loyal subordinate. Soon, Seward was writing his wife that “the President is the best of us.” Rivalry matured into friendship, and through the trials of the Civil War the two men were inseparable.

Mr. Donald concludes that President Lincoln found it difficult to develop close friendships in Washington in part because he had had so few before becoming president. In Washington, moreover, each “friend” was a potential office seeker, or someone desirous of exploiting his connection with the president. Aristotle would probably conclude that Abraham Lincoln had no “perfect” friendship. But for the reader who wishes to reach his own conclusion, Mr. Donald has provided a thoughtful, highly readable book.

John M. Taylor lives in McLean. He has written numerous books in history and biography including “William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand.”

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