This week I finished listening to the Biography of Abraham Lincoln by David Herbert Donald.
I mentioned in my WWW Wednesday post last week, that while being super into history, I don’t know all that much about the Civil War and President Lincoln. I mean, I know the basics, the big battles, the Gettysburg Address, the assassination, but I didn’t know much else.
This book was really good. I have read a couple different biographies of famous political people, and this one is pretty par for the course of what I’ve read, but what I really loved about this one is that it didn’t talk too much about the other people around Lincoln, it focused on the President.
For example, in the Alexander Hamilton biography, there were large pieces about Aaron Burr, a half chapter each about Presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, a bit about Eliza’s family, and Hamilton’s father. This book focused almost entirely on Lincoln. It doesn’t focus much on Mary Todd Lincoln, or his parents, it’s all about Lincoln, which I loved. It was 30 hours of Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln reminded me a lot of my dad. My dad is also from the Midwest, and also tells super random stories. Lincoln had a very dry sense of humor that many people in Washington didn’t get. Lincoln came across to me as just a Midwestern man who said amazingly Midwestern things and loved his family. He was awkward and weird and loved to read and greatly enjoyed being a lawyer. He worked hard and tried to keep to himself, for the most part, but that’s a little hard when you’re six foot four and like to wear top hats, you stand out a little.
Lincoln was a strange man, but also a person who struggled with what we, over a hundred years later, would recognize very quickly as anxiety and depression. He while engaged to Mary Todd, he wrote her a letter breaking up with her because he got nervous and felt that she would never be happy with him. This sent both of them into deep sadness, and depression, but it worked out in the end. Mary Todd, what little I learned about her through this book, was the perfect counterpart to the weird, nerdy, Abrabram.
This couple lost two children at a very young age, Eddie (at age 3 in 1850) and Willy (at age 12 in 1862). Willy while they were in the White House. Although it was not mentioned in the book, after President Lincoln died, Mary lost another child, Tad, when he was 18 in 1871 after the assassination. Only Robert lived to be an Adult.
Tad, by the way, was probably my favorite character in the book. He had a pet goat named Nanny that basically ruled the White House. He was just a kid and silly and enjoyed himself.
Robert Todd Lincoln, oddly enough, I know a bit about. Robert Todd Lincoln attended a prestigious private school in New Hampshire near where I live, Phillips Exeter Academy. The Academy is a huge part of that town, which is the town my grandmother lived in most of my life. Phillips Exeter students are known for running in front of cars while going to different buildings on campus because “the streets are our corridors.” They also make giant messes of the all the retail stores they go to in groups and are a general nuisance. I’m sure they weren’t like that in 1860, although if they were, my opinion of Robert Todd Lincoln changes dramatically. Anyway, Robert Todd Lincoln read the Declaration of Independence at a park near the school, and there is a rock monument. If you know where this rock is at Stratham Hill Park, which is half way up a very very steep hill in the middle of the woods, you remember it.
Because I enjoy conspiracies, I also know that Robert Todd Lincoln was near two other assassinated Presidents: Garfield and McKinley. He wasn’t, like, there, I don’t even think he was in Ford’s theater, but he had either just met or was planning to met the other two Presidents shortly before they died. And that’s weird.
Lincoln didn’t really want to be President, he wanted to be a Senator, but through a series of unfortunate events, he wound up in the White House. An accidental President who ended up being one of the greatest and most influential men in the history of our country.
As one would imagine, quite a bit of the book is the Civil War. Little is about battles, but more on Lincoln’s thoughts how he tried to fight a war that seemed like it would never end. How the accidental president struggled with future of the country and how to deal with the end of slavery. It discusses Lincoln struggling with the group of men he chose as his cabinet, very few of whom actually got along or similar political beliefs. It was interesting, he had high hopes when he took office that having the different opinions would help guide him since he was unfamiliar with war and strategy.
John Wilkes Booth is discussed twice. The first, which was my favorite part of the whole book, because it was hilarious, was in a section about 3/4 of the way through where the book is discussing the ways that Lincoln relaxed during while the War was winding down. He loved going to the theater, and the narrator starts listing the actors in the different plays Lincoln enjoyed. At the end of that list, in a voice much more dramatic than was necessary, he said “John Wilkes Booth.” It felt as if there should be the classic DUN DUN DUN! Music after he said it. It was great. The second time was in the second half of the last chapter, a very quick background of the assassin was given. His father’s name was Julius Brutus Booth, which I think should be discussed at length– because wow. John Booth was apparently an amazing Shakespearean actor and quite the Hamlet. He also did this cool thing during some plays where he jumped 12 feet from one of the balconies and was an excellent acrobatic actor.
I was expecting the book to have a little bit of an epilogue, like the Hamilton biography. A short chapter that tells us, the reader, what happened to everyone else. However, the book ends when Lincoln does. If I want to know more about Mary Todd Lincoln (which I do) I have to look it up on my own. At the start of the book, it is stated that this book is about Abraham Lincoln, and it was very true to that message.
If you enjoy biographies, this is one to add to your TBR. It is well researched, and I greatly enjoyed the narration. The voice was a little bit like the voice that does the voice over on the old TV show The Waltons. It’s not that guy, but to me the voices are similar. It’s a good reading voice– calming.
I recommend this biography highly. It’s not war or battle heavy, it’s the story of a man. A very tall, weird, nerdy, man who ended up being the President of the United States (or really the un-united states) on accident.
Until next time Internet,