Miscellany — From the February 2018 issue

Notes to Self

Lincoln’s private thoughts on fate, failure, slavery, and belief

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In 1856, Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer and erstwhile politician whose first and only term in the House of Representatives was then seven years in the past, penned a note on a small piece of paper. In it, he compared himself to Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, whom he would later face in a celebrated series of debates. Struggling with a keen sense of failure, deeply wounded by his defeat the year before in a bid for the state’s other Senate seat, Lincoln confessed his feelings in a note that he never expected anyone to see. It read:

Twenty-two years ago Judge Douglas and I first became acquainted. We were both young then; he a trifle younger than I. Even then, we were both ambitious; I, perhaps, quite as much so as he. With me, the race of ambition has been a failure — a flat failure; with him it has been one of splendid success.

Such private thoughts of a public person amount to a Holy Grail for scholars. As the author of a biography and two other books on Lincoln, I have always wished that he had kept a journal. Perhaps he did — perhaps it is out there, waiting to be excavated from some dusty archive. In the meantime, there is something else, an approximation that I have taken to calling Lincoln’s Diary: an assortment of reflections and ruminations he wrote on little slips of paper, sometimes on the backs of envelopes, throughout his entire adult life. He saved these notes in the drawers of his desk, among his other papers, and even in his top hat.

Illustration by Matthew Richardson

After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, his secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, found and saved many of these notes. Lincoln did not title, date, or sign his ruminations, yet there was never a question about the author: the slain president’s distinctive handwriting made for easy identification.

Nicolay and Hay dutifully included these jottings in their twelve-volume Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln (1894). They described them as “fragments,” a term retained by Roy P. Basler and his fellow editors for The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (1953). For the most part, they have been overlooked by scholars and general readers alike. Why? Perhaps it is their scattershot configuration: like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, they are spread across massive, multivolume collections of Lincoln’s writings, as the respective editors attempt to place them by date.

Yet they are invaluable. Willie Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner in Springfield, once described his colleague as the “most shut-mouthed man” who ever lived. In these notes, Lincoln opens his mouth to express not only his ideas but also his feelings and fears, in ways he never did in public. He uses them as a means to debate with himself about the moral, political, social, and religious issues swirling around him. Seeing them in their totality — as opposed to the isolated treatment they have received from scholars in the past — offers a fresh perspective on Lincoln, just when we thought there was nothing new to say about this titanic figure, who has already been the subject of as many as sixteen thousand books.

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