We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends by David Herbert Donald (A Book Review)

Abraham LincolnSteven Spielberg’s Lincoln is based in part on the marvelous book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which explores Abraham Lincoln’s relationships with his political rivals. But another author explores the relationships Lincoln had with male friends, some of whom were his rivals and some of whom were intimate companions. David Herbert Donald, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of the book Lincoln, for which he won the Lincoln Prize and had a long run on the New York Times bestseller list.  With We Are Lincoln Men Donald takes us through the rather short list of people that Abraham Lincoln could have considered to be friends.  Somewhat surprisingly given his amicability and story telling powers, Lincoln did not have many close friendships in his life.  Donald brings us into the ones he had.

He begins with a review of Lincoln’s upbringing, one which really didn’t see him build any real long lasting friendships.   Donald then spends some time parsing the one man with whom Lincoln probably had his most intense friendship, Joshua F. Speed.  Some have suggested that the Lincoln/Speed friendship was more than just friends, but Donald dispels this notion and puts us within the context of the times.  Lincoln’s long law partnership with William H. Herndon – whom he called Billy – is well documented by Donald, as was Lincoln’s friendship with Illinois Senator Orville Browning.  Browning became Lincoln’s confidant, and eventually his strongest supporter in Congress.  Even here, however, the friendship could not withstand differences in the two men’s views of Emancipation and eventually they drifted apart to the point where Lincoln thrice passed over Browning for Supreme Court Justice.

The best chapter is probably the one on Lincoln’s friendship with William H. Seward.  Initially competitors – Seward was expected to get the nomination for President that Lincoln ended up winning – the two men developed into a formidable team whose mutual respect led to an intense friendship on which each depended on the other.  Seward himself is a interesting case study, and I look forward to receiving my signed copy of Walter Stahr‘s new biography of him soon.  The final chapter examines Lincoln’s relationship with his two young private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay.  These two began with simple devotion to the president, and grew into his most ardent supporters and to some extent confidants, before becoming in the end his official biographers.

Donald does great justice to the complex interactions Lincoln had with these men.  Lincoln was not a particularly open man, and friendships came to him with difficulty. In some cases his reserve and his policies led to discord, but in all cases there was respect.  And perhaps respectfulness is a better word than friendship to describe how Lincoln interacted with those he called “friends.”  This book is an easy and a welcome read.

More about Abraham Lincoln.

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