Review of “Lincoln in Private: What His Most Personal Reflections Tell Us About Our Greatest President” by Ronald C. White

Lincoln made many notes for his own reference during his lifetime, setting down his reflections on issues he was thinking about, and that he might consult later on for speeches. Lincoln scholar Ronald C. White analyzes twelve of what he considers to be Lincoln’s most important private notes, putting them in the context of the time during which Lincoln wrote them.

We learn how Lincoln struggled to put into words his understanding of slavery, democracy, the necessity of morality, immigration, and about the future of the country. Because the notes are presented in chronological order, we can also get a sense of the evolution of Lincoln’s thinking.

Lincoln always wanted to know both sides of an issue, in order to understand fully the position of the side he did not hold. For example, he read the very popular book, Slavery As Ordained of God (1857) by Presbyterian clergyman Frederick Ross and was profoundly offended by it. But it enabled him to counter the arguments for slavery it presented. In one fragment, he mused:

“Suppose it is true, that the negro is inferior to the white, in the gifts of nature; is it not the exact reverse justice that the white should, for that reason, take from the negro, any part of the little which has been given him? “Give to him that is needy” is the christian rule of charity; but “Take from him that is needy” is the rule of slavery.”

It should be added that Lincoln had already argued to himself in a note that Blacks had been deprived of education, and therefore it was not at all clear they were inherently intellectually inferior, as whites charged. Moreover, even if they were and that was the premise for slavery, “Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.”

My own favorite of Lincoln’s remarks about slavery comes from a fragment in which he mocks the idea, as presented by Christian theologists, that slavery was “good” for some people. He wrote, “As a good thing, slavery is strikingly peculiar, in this, that it is the only good thing which no man ever seeks the good of, for himself.. Nonsense! Wolves devouring lambs, not because it is good for their own greedy maws, but because it [is] good for the lambs!!!

It is a joy to follow along with Lincoln’s intellectual evolution, and a clever way to tell the history of Lincoln and his era from a new perspective.

Evaluation: Listening to (or reading) this book is an excellent way to spend time, and I highly recommend it. White, who narrates the audio book that he authored, speaks clearly and with emotion, and held my interest throughout. The book is a bit repetitive however, but that didn’t bother me – Lincoln’s thoughts are worth repeating.

White’s love of and respect for Lincoln is evident, and as always, when reading about Lincoln’s integrity and intelligence, it’s hard not to be filled with admiration for him. It’s also hard not to feel renewed sorrow over the tragic early loss of someone so important to American ideals and destiny.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Random House, 2021. Audio by Penguin Random House Audio, 2021

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1 Response to Review of “Lincoln in Private: What His Most Personal Reflections Tell Us About Our Greatest President” by Ronald C. White

  1. stacybuckeye says:

    That is an interesting way to show his evolving view of slavery. This looks like a good audio.
    I’m listening to a Jack Reacher book now and, while I always find them reliably good, just had to listen to funny little bit about a woman giving oral sex to a mule in a bar full of cheering men 😦 It felt like a new low.

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