Radiating from the face of “Abraham Lincoln: The Man,” the magnificent statue that resides in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, is a mixture of anger, submission, sadness—and tenacious persistence.
This face, formed from a life mask of the former U.S. president by Irish sculptor Augustus Saint–Gauden 19 years after Lincoln’s death, fascinated a teenage William W. Freehling Sr., who lived with his family in an apartment that overlooked the park.
“Some tormenting question obsessed him,” Freehling wrote in the introduction of his new book, “Becoming Lincoln,” released Tuesday, Sept. 25, by the University of Virginia Press. “What could make a great victor so sad?”
Freehling, in one way and another, has spent a lifetime pursuing that question, resulting in the decision a few years ago to analyze it more fully with his own biography of our nation’s 16th president.
“Few historians have given enough emphasis to the coming of the Civil War, Lincoln before the presidency—in what ways his life before affected how he filled that role,” Freehling said. “There is no one in history more successful who failed more often.”
A local Civil War expert
Freehling approached the task with unique qualifications, having already completed several noteworthy books on the American South during the antebellum era, including “Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina,” which won the 1967 Bancroft Prize, and the two-volume “Road to Disunion”—“Secessionists at Bay, 1776–1854,” and “Secessionists Triumphant, 1854–1861.”
Having received his bachelor’s at Harvard College and both his master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of California at Berkeley, Freehling taught at Berkeley and Harvard, held full professorships at the University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins University, and endowed chairs at the State University of New York, Buffalo and the University of Kentucky.
Freehling values studying under such distinguished scholars as Arthur Schlessinger Jr. and Kenneth Stampp, but honors his high school history teacher, Sonia Salk Heller, for sparking an interest in his future career.
“She made it all come alive for me,” Freehling said. “She stressed that political history must be based on social history, which made it all much more interesting to me, and has always influenced my writing.”
Freehling conducted much of his research for “Becoming Lincoln” at the University of Virginia as a permanent Senior Fellow with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, which brought him to Charlottesville.
Six years ago, Freehling and his wife, Alison, moved to Fredericksburg to live closer to his son and daughter-in-law and their children. William Freehling Jr., is Fredericksburg’s director of economic development and tourism and previously wrote for The Free Lance–Star.
Abraham Lincoln has been the subject of more than 15,000 books since his death 153 years ago, making him one of the most documented figures in recent history. Is a new biography really needed?
“I was intrigued by the Civil War, but not the actual fighting so much as how and why it happened,” Freehling said. “After examining the Southern side for most of my career, I wanted to look at the story from a Northern perspective, focusing on the central figure in the middle of it all.”
Also, Freehling said, he was interested in bringing to life the Lincoln he was so curious about as a young man, personified in the statue that depicted such a complicated personality—to learn more about what made Lincoln the great leader he became.
“He stood tall even at the lowest points, aching to turn disappointment into triumph,” Freehling wrote in the book’s final chapter.
“How could you fail to learn something new from studying someone who has that kind of tenacity?” Freehling asked.
Today, we often think politics are more divisive than they’ve ever been. Reading “Becoming Lincoln” can dispel that idea—partisanship and violence follow Lincoln’s story. Lincoln himself participated in a duel. In 1856 Southern Congressman Preston Brooks attacked abolitionist Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber, nearly killing him, causing such severe injuries it took three years for Sumner to recover.
“Our generation can learn from Lincoln’s story possibly more than any other,” Freehling said. “Knowing what happened then can help us—if we are wise—prevent problems today.”
Freehling furnishes his readers with photographs, maps, and illustrations that complement his narrative and increase the book’s interest. An extensive section of notes on the text and an excellent index are provided, as well as an epilogue examining Lincoln’s final four years.
A self-made man?
Although Lincoln has been known for his “self-made,” “rags to riches” qualities, Freehling takes pains in his biography to demonstrate that although Lincoln deserves credit for his work ethic and outstanding accomplishments, he received valuable help from interested mentors along the way.
“Tears had streamed down his face as he eulogized the first, heaviest, dearest of the three Illinois attorneys who had boosted his climb,” Freehling wrote, describing Lincoln as he spoke at the funeral of Bowling Green, a New Salem judge who, when Lincoln wandered into the judge’s courtroom at the age of 22, advised and guided the young man to become an attorney.
“[Lincoln’s] tears expressed not just grief, but also thanks,” Freehling wrote. “Thanks for the man, for his aid, and for the self-help culture that expected no man to do it all for himself.”
Intelligent, melancholic, yet possessing a brilliant sense of humor, Lincoln drew others to him. In the midst of his stumbles and faults, Lincoln’s better characteristics glimmered, hinting at future greatness.
“Nothing was simple about aiming low without condescending, nor about eliminating fluff and stressing essentials, nor about employing mimicry, sarcasm, and ridicule without insulting opponents, nor about using hilarious anecdotes, often of the barnyard variety, without mocking the serious atmosphere,” Freehling wrote of Lincoln’s genius as an orator.
A cautious observer
Lincoln’s “conservative tack” on the question of slavery, Freehling wrote, “was perfect for initially approaching a dangerously radical subject in a nation leery of extremism.”
The book shines a light on the slavery question, and Lincoln’s evolving methods of addressing it.
“It was excruciatingly difficult,” Freehling said. “People today don’t realize how racist the north was, how reluctant most of the nation was to be antislavery—how Lincoln, as much as he personally abhorred slavery—had to go slowly or risk losing.”
Freehling documents how Lincoln inches toward his goal of the “ultimate extinction” of slavery—how he would try to go too far on the question and encounter outrage, forcing him to fall back and start again more cautiously.
“If he hadn’t been so extremely sensitive to the pulse of the nation on this topic, he never would have become the Great Emancipator,” Freehling said.
Freehling said the lesson he values most from his intense study of Lincoln is the former president’s ability to learn from his own mistakes.
“You have to blame yourself. It’s not someone else’s fault,” Freehling said. “Look at what you did wrong, and overcome it. It’s a great human lesson. I don’t know anybody whose biography teaches that better.”
Time and again in the book, Freehling draws attention to incidents that illustrate this unique quality.
“We all fail. I’ve certainly failed dismally,” he said. “It’s fascinating to see someone who has failed more than you have, but then has also succeeded far more than you ever will.”
Freehling said historians often focus on the end result—Lincoln’s presidency—and ignore all the years Lincoln struggled and learned from his failures and grew into that role.
“I wanted to turn around the focus, to see and understand how he got there,” Freehling said. “That way I’m in a better position to really understand his presidency and his accomplishments.”