Abraham Lincoln, bare-knuckle brawler?

The author of "Lincoln's Battle" discusses the politician's strange habits -- and whether he could succeed today

Topics: The Nervous Breakdown, Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, Mary Todd Lincoln, stephen spielberg,

Abraham Lincoln, bare-knuckle brawler? (Credit: Wikipeda)
This article originally appeared on The Nervous Breakdown.

The Nervous Breakdown You’ve got a new book out, Lincoln’s Battle, the Spielberg movie is hot at the box office — why are we still so fascinated by Lincoln?

Stephen Mansfield: I think Lincoln is beloved because he dealt with such massive issues. What other president faced the complete dissolution of the Union? The enslavement of millions? Ordering men into battle on that scale? More men died in the Civil War than all the other American wars combined. And, in one sense, it’s Lincoln’s doing. At least partially. When a president contends with war and other huge issues, he’s usually considered a great president. Truman left office with the lowest ratings ever, but now he’s considered a hero because history is kind to those who had to battle titanic issues. But I think there are two other issues that make him beloved. First of all, he’s got what I call the “Kennedy factor.” Most people tend to impose their own values on Kennedy. So if they are pro-defense or social justice-oriented or if they just like a stylish, imperial presidency, they look to Kennedy. Lincoln’s that way. You want the humorous Lincoln? You got him. You want the liberal, big government Lincoln? You got him. The Constitutional, conservative Lincoln?  Poetic Lincoln? You got him. Second,Lincoln is so incredibly fascinating, so incredibly flawed, so incredibly tragic — that he is endearing to us.

Lincoln seemed like such an underdog.  Like such a tragic figure. 

The thing I hope readers take away from my book is this: Lincoln truly suffered in life.  He had horrible bouts of depression. He was on suicide watch several times. He was sometimes completely bed-ridden. He said he was haunted by the thought of rain falling on graves all of his life. His mother died when he was nine; his sister died when he was sixteen. The first woman he ever loved died within a few months of him meeting her. He had one son die before the boy was four years old. He lost another son named Willie not too long after they got to the White House.  And given Lincoln’s depressive nature, all of that almost pushed him over the edge. He suffered with the massive themes of his administration: slavery, spies, and ordering troops into battle. But I think, like Churchill, it was his private suffering that prepared him to help a nation that was suffering. William Herndon, Lincoln’s first biographer, said that he, “dripped melancholy as he walked.” I think his suffering drove him to faith and deepened his faith once he got to it. But he also had an atheist phase earlier in life.



How did Lincoln go from being known as the village atheist to not only a man of faith, but the sort of deep faith that people could relate to?

In a sense, Lincoln is deeper than his age.  His family were what used to be called “hard-shelled” Baptists, and they were caught up in the second great awakening, which swept the frontier and was really, quite frankly, violent. It was barking and being “slain the in Spirit.” People would run around and climb trees and it was all too emotional, all too sweaty for Lincoln. His father was the kind of man that would get all weepy at dinner over something that was happening in the revival, and then beat his son the next day to make him work. Lincoln had a hard childhood but he’s the archetype of a person who rises largely through self-education. He probably didn’t have a year of school in his entire life. He read voraciously. All the stories about walking miles to borrow books are absolutely true. He began to read religious skeptics: Thomas Paine, Edward Gibbons —those men challenged Christianity. A lot of the American heroes of the Revolution were that way, Ethan Allen and others. Lincoln bought into it and went through quite a long “village atheist” phase. He schooled himself on how to attack the myths of Scripture and would carry around a Bible just to undercut it. He called Christ a bastard; it was very heated. This is one of the keys to understanding Lincoln’s life: Lincoln’s mother was illegitimate. Her grandmother had been raped by a Virginia aristocrat and Lincoln concluded that God had rejected him, given him the mark of Cain because his mom was “a bastard.” He would even call her that. So, strange as it is to us, Lincoln thought he was cursed. And he began to conclude that all of the sufferings he’d endured were because God had cursed him. So his atheism, his friends said, really was not that he didn’t believe in God, it was that he was angry at God.

Wasn’t Lincoln’s mother some sort of champion brawler?

We don’t know some of this for sure. But it was at a time when wrestling was one of the big frontier sports. It’s kinda funny, isn’t it? On the one hand, they were so Puritanical and Victorian in their mores, and on the other hand you’d have man and woman wrestling each other out on the village green with the whole crowd around, taking bets. And Lincoln’s mother was the best wrestler in Kentucky. I have a quote in the book from a judge who says, “Oh yeah, I got my butt whooped years ago by Mrs. Lincoln.”

Lincoln became a wrestler too, right?

Yes. Lincoln’s father worked him like a dog when he was chopping wood, so he emerged from his teen years really strong—some of his feats of strength are legendary, if a bit exaggerated. But Lincoln, by all accounts, was incredibly strong. And he got it from his mother. So she did a couple of things for him. She was probably largely illiterate, but she encouraged him to learn. She had an intellectual streak, which you can have even if you can’t read. She was also very poetic and had memorized long passages of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, poetry and even the language of the Constitution and Declaration. She’d quote them and sing in the house and so on. She probably gave Lincoln his poetic sense that you see in speeches. Her last words to him were, “Worship God.”

What key moment in Lincoln’s life caused him to rise above?

Well, there’s a real turning point, and it’s not a conversion story, necessarily. He becomes a lawyer, marries Mary Todd Lincoln, has children, etc. And when he’s 41 years old, his son, who is not quite four years old, dies. Here’s Lincoln who has been surrounded by death all his life, and he’s just on the edge, and he reaches out for help. Interestingly, he had just been handling his father-in-law’s estate months before. When he was in his father-in-law’s library, he pulled down some volumes called The Defense of the Christian Faith, by Reverend James Smith. Lincoln began reading them and turns out that James Smith was the pastor at First Presbyterian in Springfield, where Lincoln lived. So Lincoln reached out to him. Smith became a lifelong friend, and met with him, prayed with him, and continued to answer his religious skepticism. From that point on, Lincoln is on a constant, upward journey. He keeps the biblical faith, he consistently attends church even though he never joins one, he starts talking about God in his speeches. One of the biggest things he does in his entire presidency is faith-based.

What do you mean?

The Union should have whipped the Confederacy within six months, but even though they had more men and more guns, they couldn’t buy a victory in the first two years. They lost battles they should have won because the general stayed at coffee too long. Lincoln was so frustrated that he said to one general, “If you’re not going to use the army, I’d like to borrow it.” Finally, he comes the conclusion that this war is not in human hands, it’s a judgment from God. Two things happen: first of all, it’s very well-documented that he walked into his cabinet meeting one day and said “Gentlemen, I’m going to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. I have made a covenant with God that I would do this. I have asked Him to give us some signal victories. He has. And now I’m going to issue this.” Some of the guys in the cabinet said, “Sir, we didn’t hear you quite right.” And he said, “Yeah, you did.” Also: the second inaugural address is fascinating because it has sentences in there like, “If it’s God’s will to draw as much blood by the sword and was drawn by the lash (meaning on the backs of slaves), then the justice of the Lord prevails.”Lincoln no longer feels in control of events, no longer believes that men are in control of events. He believes that God is in control of events. So at the conclusion of that very short speech, one of the greatest political sermons in American history, he says, “Let us heal the land and forgive.” After the speech he told a friend, “That speech will not be popular, because men do not like being shown the difference between God’s purpose and their own.” So really that’s what Lincoln thought of himself—sort of like a prophet showing the people the difference between God’s purpose and their own. And I think that tells you where he’d arrived. I can’t give documentation that he was a born-again believer, but there is no question that he was a Bible-believing believer in a God who rules the affairs of men and will even go so far as to punish a nation to restore it to itself.

I heard a story at the Hermitage (Andrew Jackson’s home) about Lincoln refusing to celebrate the Civil War victory.  He told his soldiers, “Gentlemen, today, we weep for the South.”

There are many, many stories like that. I think Lincoln’s depression, his poverty, his feeling of being marked by God, and then battling back to faith made him compassionate. In his early life, he wasn’t compassionate. He frankly was a racist, didn’t think much of Indians, typical frontier kind of a guy. But he became more sophisticated though his reading and studying, and he also became more faith-based. You know, one of the great tragedies of history is that he died so young.  Lincoln was planning a very benevolent restoration for the South, and other Republicans were furious at him for it. They wanted to punish the South. I think we’ve suffered ever since, because Radical Republicans got in there and just beat the hell out of the South. It was an ugly season of history and we’re still dealing with it. I grew up in a family where my grandmother called the Civil War “The War of Northern Aggression” and cussed Sherman like he’d just walked through the door. In Spielberg’s movie, Lincoln says something like, “They’re not traitors, they’re rebels, and they’re within our family.”  Lincoln didn’t see Confederates as traitors. His generals were furious because he hardly ever signed any executions for deserters. He’d say, “I think he can do us more good above the ground than beneath it.”

Could a Lincoln ever succeed in politics today?

We can have someone of that strength of character and conviction, but we would never see Abraham Lincoln elected today. He was butt-ugly, in the movie they capture his walk and his movements and his wild hair perfectly. He had a very immoral past. He worried that he had syphilis most of his life. He had changed his views many times, especially on religion. His wife was a crazy woman—way overstepped her budget for the White House and then hid it from her husband. She later ended up in a mental institution. We can have men who get there another way and have his level of conviction about the same issues, but I don’t think we would ever have a man elected who looked like him, acted like him, and had his background and changed his views on things constantly.

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