Mr. Lincoln had less than one year of formal education. He really did borrow books from neighbors, often hiking miles to get his hands on a book. His one term in Congress was mostly notable for a bad speech on the Mexican-American War and his constant use of the Library of Congress. In fact, one fellow congressman sniffed at “…Lincoln..that bookworm from Illinois…”
I think Mr. Lincoln read for intellectual stimulation. He did not scoff at the fellowship of other men but he was almost certainly the brightest pure thinker in most conversations. He loved stories and story tellers, but he spent countless hours in study for his deepest speeches, i.e., the Douglas debates, the Peoria Speech (1854), the Cooper Union Speech (1860). Many of his listeners at his later speeches were disappointed at his depth of speech. They had come to hear “Old Abe” at his anecdotal height. Instead, they got the statesman Lincoln, doing what statesmen most often do, e.g., to clarify complex issues for their countrymen, be they political counterparts or competitors.
Lincoln, the Book Worm, displayed the most rigorous thinking imaginable in his mature speeches. He was fortunate to be white and male in a period and place where only white males got a hearing. He was fortunate to be an American on the Western Frontier, which was one of the great meritocracies in all history (again, so long as one was White and Male). Still, there were countless contemporaries of Lincoln who had the same advantages of gender and ethnicity, along with wealth, influence, education and more. Many of them, like Seward and Stanton underestimated Mr. Lincoln. He used their contempt to his political and personal advantage. Douglas wanted to be President almost as much as Lincoln wanted the White House. He hd everything Lincoln had, and more, but he put himself on the wrong side of history and stayed there for the duration. Seward thought he would be Prime Minister of the Lincoln cabinet and actually rule the nation. Within a year, Seward was calling Lincoln a genius and “the best of us all.” Stanton called Lincoln a baboon. Lincoln laughed louder than anyone. Stanton wept louder than any man present in the room when Lincoln died.
Mr. Lincoln made many, many enemies but he never held a man as his enemy. When a man bashed him, Lincoln refused to bash back. When the man stopped bashing him, Lincoln never held it against him. He was a very poor hater. Mrs. Lincoln treasured her enmities. She never forgave Thaddeus Stevens for investigating her household expenses in the White House. Mrs. Lincoln never spoke to Julia Trumbull after Mrs. Trumbull’s husband, Lyman, outmaneuvered Mr. Lincoln for a US Senate seat. Mrs. Trumbull had been Mrs. Lincoln’s closest friend in their early years. In fact, Julia Jayne Trumbull stood with Mary Todd as she married Mr. Lincoln. Mary Todd was not good at forgiving. She treasured up every slight, real or imagined, against herself or her husband. Mr. Lincoln, who certainly feared his wife’s wrath, felt that excuse giving and blame placing were two great wastes of time.
Our sixteenth President was a political being who lived to deal with issues. He loved responsibility, the greater the better to Mr. Lincoln. He could deal deftly with the most devious of men, while the truest men felt themselves caught in his nobility. Frederick Douglass bashed Mr. Lincoln for temporizing on slavery. Privately, he praised Mr. Lincoln for his intent to preserve the Union and his courage to bring a swift end to slavery. Seward fell under Lincoln’s spell early after their meeting and never shook it off.
Mr. Lincoln carried various of the plays of Shakespeare with him every day. He could quote extensively from the King James Bible. He studied Euclid, strangely, and used Euclidean principles to guide his study of Blackstone’s law. He read Samuel Johnston, of course. We have many of Mr. Lincoln’s writings but he never had time for the reflection that produces a book. Mr. Lincoln is the opposite of that fame seeker who has written more books than he has read. His pithy speeches are among the best ever written but he was learned (self-taught) rather than spontaneous. He polished his speeches, so we may have his best, rather than his most.