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HOME > Short Stories > The Soul of Abraham Lincoln > CHAPTER II WHY THE BIOGRAPHIES DIFFER
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 The many biographies of Abraham Lincoln differ widely in their estimate of his religious opinions and life, partly because the biographers approach the subject from widely differing angles, and some of them are seeking in advance the establishment of particular conclusions. But apart from that personal bias, from which no author can claim to be wholly free, the biographical study of Abraham Lincoln was itself an evolution whose main outlines and processes it will be profitable briefly to consider. The first printed biographies of Mr. Lincoln appeared in 1860. They were the familiar campaign biography, such as is issued for every candidate for the Presidency. The first man who approached Mr. Lincoln with a proposal to write his Life was J. L. Scripps of the Chicago Tribune. Mr. Lincoln deprecated the idea of writing any biography.
"Why, Scripps, [said he] it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of me or my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Grey's 'Elegy':
'The short and simple annals of the poor.'
That's my life, and that's all you or anyone else can make out of it."—Herndon, I, 2.
Lincoln felt the meagerness of his biographical material, but the biographers succeeded in making books about him, Scripps wrote his booklet, and it appeared in thirty-two closely printed double-column pages, and sold at twenty-five cents. It is now excessively rare. Lincoln read the proof and approved it. The "Wigwam" Life of Lincoln appeared[Pg 25] simultaneously with the Scripps booklet, and it is not quite certain which of the two emerged first from the press. It contained 117 pages, of which the last seven were devoted to Hannibal Hamlin, Republican candidate for Vice-President. This also had a wide sale, and is now very rare. That Lincoln did not read the proofs of this book is evidenced by the name "Abram" instead of "Abraham" on its title page and throughout the book. It relates that "when he was six years old, his father died, leaving a widow and several children, poor and almost friendless"; and in other respects shows that Lincoln did not furnish the data of it, and also indicates how meager was the biographical material at hand outside the little sketch which Lincoln prepared for Scripps.
Another pamphlet, containing 216 pages, was "The Authentic Edition" by J. H. Barrett, and still another, the "Authorized" edition by D. W. Bartlett, which extended to 354 pages and was bound in cloth. Perhaps the best of these campaign biographies of 1860 was that written by William Dean Howells, then a young man and unknown to fame. Apparently Lincoln furnished to each of these writers—except the Wigwam edition—essentially the same material which he had given to Scripps, or else they borrowed from Scripps, with permission, and to this extent they were "authorized" or "authentic." But there is no indication that Lincoln read any of them except that of Scripps. Even this must have surprised him when he beheld how his little sketch could be spread out over as many as thirty-two pages.
The campaign of 1864 brought out a new crop of campaign biographies, and these used essentially the same material up to 1860, and found their new matter in the history of the Civil War up to the date of their publication.
This campaign material still stood in type or stereotyped pages when Lincoln was killed, and was hastily used again. The author, who owns all the books cited above, has also others which came from the press in May or June of 1865, whose main part was taken over bodily from the campaign biographies of 1864 and speaks of Lincoln as still living, while the back part is made up of material concerning the assassi[Pg 26]nation, the funeral, and the trial of the conspirators. These called themselves "Complete" biographies, but they were merely revamped campaign booklets of 1864 with appended matter and virtually no revision.
These works represent the first stage of the attempt to make books out of the life of Abraham Lincoln. The outline of the life itself is meager in all of them, and they are well padded with campaign speeches; and the last of them, with full and interesting details of the funeral services of Lincoln, the death of Booth, and other matter lifted from the newspapers of the period.
The second epoch began with the publication of the Life of Abraham Lincoln by John G. Holland in 1865. It was by all odds the best of the books that undertook within a few years after his death to tell the story of the life of Lincoln, with some estimate of his place in history. It is also the book which began the controversy concerning Lincoln's religion.
The third period was introduced by the biography of Abraham Lincoln by Ward Hill Lamon, which was issued in 1872. It was based upon manuscripts that had been collected by William H. Herndon, who was supposed to have had a considerable share in the work of its preparation. Herndon emphatically denied writing any part of it, and said in a letter to Mr. Horace White that it was written for Lamon by Chauncey F. Black, son of J. S. Black, a member of Buchanan's cabinet and a political enemy of Lincoln (Newton: Lincoln and Herndon, p. 307). This valuable but unwisely written book, containing many things offensive to good taste, occasioned much controversy for its stark realism and what seemed to many of Lincoln's friends misrepresentations. Some of the intimate friends of Lincoln are alleged to have bought a considerable part of the edition and destroyed the books, but copies are in the principal libraries and in the best private collections.
Unterrified by the reception which had been accorded Lamon's work, William H. Herndon, for twenty years Lin[Pg 27]coln's law partner, assisted by Jesse W. Weik, published in 1889 a Life of Lincoln, in three volumes.[1] The storm of denunciation that beat upon Herndon's head was fierce and long. The greater part of the edition disappeared. Libraries that contain it keep it under lock and key, and the prices bid for it at occasional book auctions contrast strikingly with those for which it went begging immediately after it was issued. Four years later, assisted by Mr. Horace White, Mr. Herndon reissued the book in two volumes, with those passages elided which had given greatest offense.
These two biographies mark the rise and high-water mark of the demand for "the real Lincoln"; and nobody can deny that they were quite sufficiently realistic.
The next stage in the Lincoln biography was the ten-volume Life of Lincoln by his former secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay. It was issued in 1890, and called itself "a history." It is a history rather than a biography; the biographical material in it was condensed into a single volume by Mr. Nicolay in 1904. This work is monumental, and may be said to attempt the giving of materials for the complete Lincoln rather than to be in itself an effort within the proper limits of biography.
The two-volume biography by John T. Morse, Jr., issued in 1893, was the first constructive piece of work in this field after the Nicolay and Hay material had become available; and it remains in some respects the best short Life of Abraham Lincoln; though the author's New England viewpoint militates against his correct appraisal of many features of the life of Lincoln.
The next period may be said to be the period of the magazine Lincoln, and to be represented at its best by the work of Ida M. Tarbell, which first appeared in McClure's Magazine, beginning in 1895, and was subsequently issued in book form in several editions beginning in 1900. This was a pictorial biography, with much new illustrative and documentary material, and is of permanent value.
Since 1900 the biographies that have been issued have[Pg 28] largely been devoted to specialized studies, as of Lincoln as a lawyer, Lincoln as a political leader, Lincoln as a statesman; and there have been innumerable books and articles made up of reminiscences of the men who knew Lincoln more or less intimately.
None of the biographies before Holland attempted anything that could be called a critical analysis of Lincoln's character. There is virtually nothing in the earliest Lives of Lincoln concerning his religion or any other important aspect of his private and personal life. In the nature of the case those books were superficial.
Furthermore, some of the more important biographies of more recent years have made no attempt at systematic character study. While there is something about Lincoln's religion in almost every one of them, that topic has been quite incidental and subordinate to the main purpose of most of the larger books. The authors have been content to take for the most part the ready-formed judgment of those whose views most nearly accorded with their own.
The field of inquiry concerning Lincoln's religion is both more narrow and broader than it would at first appear. Many even of the more important biographical works about Lincoln yield nothing of any real value, so far as this topic is concerned. On the other hand, the subject has been exploited in magazine articles, newspaper contributions, lectures and addresses almost innumerable and by no mean consistent.
The task, then, is more and other than that of making a scrapbook of what different authorities have said about Abraham Lincoln's religion. A vast amount has been said by people who had no personal knowledge of the subject they were discussing and no adequate power of historical analysis. The volume of really first-hand evidence is not so vast as at first it appears; and while it cannot all be reconciled nor its direct contradictions eliminated, it is not hopelessly beyond the limits of constructive probability. It is possible to determine some facts about the religion of Abraham Lincoln with reasonable certainty and to interpret others in the light of their probable bearing upon the subject as a whole. 

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