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Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times

Any presidential biography must look at the life of the man who ran the country and examine his choices. Yet few will deeply scrutinize the cultural conditions that impacted his character and fueled his political ambitions. 


“The current book reveals that Lincoln, far from distanced from his time, was thoroughly immersed in it,” writes David S. Reynolds in “Abe: Abraham Lincoln in his Times.” Reynolds, a professor at the City University of New York and the author of “Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography” (1995), winner of the Bancroft Prize and the Ambassador Book Award, recreates environments surrounding the 19th-century and the wavering beliefs and institutions of the time. 


“He redefined democracy precisely because he had experienced culture in all its dimensions,” writes Reynolds, “from high to low, sacred to profane, conservative to radical, sentimental to submersive.” While Reynolds’ biography of Lincoln does not gloss over suffering and ignorance, he captures the spirit of society and the desire for change. 


“Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times” begins with examining Lincoln’s lineage. He had roots in New England on his father’s side and Virginia on his mother’s, which did not fare well at the time. Due to the North-South divide in 19th-century America between  Puritans and Cavaliers, Reynolds writes that “he pruned his family tree, emphasizing facts that made him attractive to a broad spectrum of voters.” 


Due to this, Lincoln also changed his religious background. Though his family were Congregationalists and Baptists, he maintained Quaker ancestry. Reynolds notes that Lincoln did so because Baptists were split on the issue of slavery. Quakers, on the other hand, stood against the institution. Reynolds ties in political revolutionaries and authors of the time and before who influenced Lincoln, including one that may have influenced him more than any other. 


While it’s debated whether Lincoln believed in organized religion, he did state that he felt it was important for governing society. Reynolds discusses how 18th-century philosopher Thomas Paine influenced his thoughts on theology through Deism; the idea that reason and acceptance of an innate religious knowledge were all that people needed for guidance. Lincoln would join several other political Deists, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. However, he found that Deism was not politically useful.  


On the contrary, some of Lincoln’s initial public statements regarding slavery were moderate or even racist. Reynolds further illustrates this through Lincoln’s support of Whig politicians who owned slaves such as Henry Clay, the ninth secretary of state, and Zachary Taylor, the last president to do so. Perhaps Lincoln felt declarations that were too radical would have divided voters at the time. Whatever racist comments Lincoln made, however, Reynolds argues he did so reluctantly. 


Over time, Lincoln became the man we’re familiar with today; the greatest president in American history who’s known for freeing the slaves and preserving the Union. Reynolds wants us to see how influencers of the time altered his understanding of the changing nation, which ultimately redefined America, forever. 


19th-century German philosopher Karl Marx referred to Lincoln as “one of the rare men who succeed in becoming great, without ceasing to be good.” Reynolds’ cultural biography draws on this through the private and public moments of Lincoln’s life–all guided by the past, present, and future. 


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