In some ways, Ward Hill Lamon was ahead – way ahead – of his time.
He was Abraham Lincoln’s legal partner in Danville, his unofficial bodyguard in Washington, and a close friend. So far, so good.
My January 15 column was about Lamon’s controversial 1872 book, “The Life of Abraham Lincoln, from His Birth to His Inauguration as President.” He was widely criticized for allegedly defaming the saint and martyr Lincoln. The president’s eldest son, Robert, condemned Lamon as a greedy opportunist and malicious traitor.
I just finished reading the 547 page book. Overall, I found it entertaining, informative, well-researched, and tightly attributed. But clearly, Lamon and his ghostwriter, Chauncey F. Black, were too blunt and intrusive for their loyal audience. And they were callous towards Lincoln’s emotionally unstable widow.
This statement on page 181 should probably have been moved to the introduction: “A biography worth writing deserves to be written fully and honestly; and the writer who suppresses or mutilates the truth is no better than one who bears false witness in any other capacity.
Here is a sample:
• Page 17. Lamon implies that Lincoln’s parents may never have married. Lincoln’s entries in the Family Bible list births, deaths, and marriages, but are “entirely silent as to the marriage of his own mother.”
• Page 158. Lincoln once wrote a book-length essay claiming that the Bible was “not the revelation of God” and that “Jesus was not the son of God”.
• Page 237. For most of his life, Lincoln lived and breathed politics, craved distinction, and “struggled ceaselessly for a place. There were no instances where a major position seemed to be within reach, and he did not try to get it.
• Page 238. Mary Todd, Lincoln’s future wife, was bright, strong-willed and over-ambitious, with “the most fiery and unmanageable temper”. Before meeting Lincoln, she vowed to one day be “the wife of a future president.”
• Page 339. Lincoln—even as president—supported Henry Clay’s plan for gradual and compensated emancipation and settlement of freed slaves.
• Pages 467-68. Even after the North elected him president in 1860, “few men believed that Mr. Lincoln possessed a single qualification for his great office”.
• Page 473. Lincoln’s marriage was “not exceedingly happy…his betrothal to Miss Todd was one of the great misfortunes of his life and hers”.
• Pages 480-81. Lincoln’s legendary sense of humor was “mainly exercised in hearing and telling crude stories”. He “seemed to make favored companions of the rudest men on the list of his acquaintances – low, vulgar, unhappy creatures”.
• Page 488. Former legal associate John T. Stuart said, “(Lincoln) was an avowed and open infidel, sometimes bordering on atheism…Lincoln went further against the beliefs, doctrines, and principles Christians than any man I ever heard. It shocked me.
Now, 150 years later, Lamon’s biography of Abraham Lincoln is eye-opening, down-to-earth, and worth reading.