Book Review – Lincoln and His World: Prairie Politician 1834-1843, By Richard Lawrence Miller
Reviewed by John T. Elliff
The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 10, Number 5
Do you want to immerse yourself in every available detail of Abraham Lincoln's political life as a state legislator in Illinois? Do you want to know as much as possible of what Lincoln knew, or could have known, about political events and opinions in Illinois from the age of 25 in New Salem to the age of 33 as he is about to be married in Springfield? If so, then the place to go is the second volume of Richard Lawrence Miller's planned four volumes on Lincoln and His World before he became President.
National political issues, you will learn, are as important in Illinois political debates as state issues. The intensity of public discourse, including debates between the young Lincoln and the younger Stephen A. Douglas and other less capable adversaries, reached their peak in the presidential election of 1840. The candidates were President Martin Van Buren, the Jacksonian Democrat, and General William Henry Harrison, the Whig war hero. Miller has apparently found and recounted every newspaper report of every Lincoln speech and debate during that colorful campaign. Who were the "Loco Focos?" You will know from their own words and those of their critics. Why was Van Buren's national Subtreasuries policy so controversial? Lincoln's words will tell you.
The 1840 election is only one chapter is a saga of frontier government interwoven with the story of the personal relationships of the young legislator and fledgling lawyer. Although the sources are generally allowed to speak for themselves, some may disagree with the author's interpretations and characterizations. It was not a secret "ghostwriter" whose hidden hand composed the biography by Lincoln's law partner William Herndon. The book was published jointly by Herndon and his co-author and collaborator Jesse Weik.
On Lincoln's legislative career, Miller reaches different conclusions on some points than did the book Senator Paul Simon wrote as an Illinois legislator, Lincoln's Preparation for Greatness, and the parallel chapters in the first volume of Senator Albert J. Beveridge's Abraham Lincoln 1809-1858. Simon and Beveridge mined the legislative records. With his more comprehensive command of newspaper sources, Miller persuasively lays out the reports showing how Lincoln joined most other Illinois politicians in launching a state-run transportation infrastructure program ("internal improvements") filled with pork that was totally mismanaged, and plunged the state into virtual insolvency. Simon saw Lincoln as merely following the crowd, but Miller demonstrates he was a leader. Beveridge endorsed the contemporary charge that Lincoln was log-rolling to win support for moving the State capitol to Springfield. Marshall makes clear that Lincoln championed the massive spending in pursuit of an unrealistic dream of Illinois prosperity, apart from moving the capitol.
Miller sometimes departs from the Lincoln story to explain in detail Illinois events and the activities of political contemporaries that appear to have little bearing on Lincoln himself. But they were part of Lincoln's "world." Miller acknowledges that he leaves out most details of Lincoln's law practice. A few cases with political significance are treated. Lincoln's law partners are described mainly because of their political roles.
Beyond politics, Miller discusses Lincoln's personality, intellect and romantic relationships. Yes, Abe loved Ann Rutledge – but he got over her death and truly fell in love with Mary Todd, who was the best thing that ever happened to him. At least that's the way Miller lays out the evidence.
Miller deserves credit for identifying Lincoln as the author of a poem on suicide published anonymously in a Springfield newspaper. He persuasively interprets the poem as a literary exercise, not a sign of the deep melancholy into which Lincoln sometimes fell.
Miller also steps up to the plate in the ongoing game among Lincoln scholars of explaining the "fatal first" of January, 1841. His conclusion: Abe suffered a "nervous breakdown, apparently related to changes in his relationship with Mary Todd." His speculation: Lincoln and Mary had a sexual encounter. Miller also takes on the allegation in recent years that Lincoln had a homosexual relationship with his friend and roommate Joshua Speed.
In a June 2009 newspaper interview, Miller admitted that Lincoln as prairie politician was not always admirable. The biography describes him as a "master of invective." Miller finds evidence that he was part of a Whig campaign that attacked Van Buren as an abolitionist at a time and place where that charge was comparable to an allegation of Communism in the 1950s, or the label of terrorist today. In the tradition of Herndon and Weik and Beveridge, Miller wants us to see the "real" Lincoln based on all the evidence from all the sources, not an idealized figure polished by hero worship.
Most of all, Miller succeeds in his goal of laying out for all time the documentary record of Lincoln's political actions, and the words of his admirers and opponents, as found in the newspapers of the cities and towns across the entire State of Illinois. Douglas Wilson of the Knox College Lincoln Studies Center says Miller "has proved what Lincoln scholars keep saying but none of them really believe, and that is, 'There is always something new to find.'"
Dr. John T. Elliff was raised in Pekin, Illinois, received a BA from DePauw University in Indiana and a PhD in political science from Harvard, and taught American government at Barnard College and Brandeis University before serving for 30 years in various federal government positions. Now semi-retired and living in Alexandria, VA, he writes and lectures on Abraham Lincoln, and is an officer of the Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia.