A Review of “With Malice Toward None”

Stephen Oates has done something that is rare among the biographies I have read.  He has structured his work With Malice Toward None : The Life of Abraham Lincoln very similarly to a novel.  He used dialogue and other writer’s manuscripts and has blended them together to form a compelling narrative.  Throughout the novel he helps us to relate to Abraham as a real person.

Using Abraham’s experiences in love, business, law, and politics; Stephen Oates has revealed the character of the boy, teenager, man, and President that our Nation remembers.  As Mr. Oates relates in his Preface to the text:

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He comes to us in the mists of legend as a homespun “rail splitter” from the Illinois prairies, a saintly commoner who called himself ‘Abe’, spoke in a deep, fatherly voice , and cared little about material rewards and social station.  He also comes to us as Father Abraham, the Great Emancipator who led the North off to civil war to free the slaves and after the conflict ended offered the South a tender and forgiving hand. ( xv )

This is the legend he investigates and reveals in the biography.  If he dents or tarnishes the legend somewhat he makes the humanity and heroic nature of the man more apparent.  As it turns out Abraham hated the nickname ‘Abe’, and he did not like to talk about his rustic past, nor was he a man who was careless of wealth or social station.  He was however a man of the Enlightenment; who, like the founding fathers, believed reason should be used to determine the right course.   Later he found himself making decisions that would change the face of the Nation forever , and would bring it closer than ever to the Jeffersonian ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

As Oates says “I’ve sought not to canonize or denigrate him, but to draw a portrait that is fair and unflinching in its realism, a portrait to capture all sides of that flawed and fatalistic man: his skepticism, anxieties, self-doubts, contradictions, loves, laughs, enlightenments, failures, and triumphs.”(xv)  I dare say he has succeeded.

Abraham’s religious beliefs began solidifying into a sort of Skepticism around the same time that he was studying law.  “He loathed all emotionalism and fierce sectarian disputes that characterized organized religion in his day, and so never joined a church.  Still, he believed in God, believed there was a Supreme Being who endowed people with individual destinies.” (Oates 29)   But like his mother he was a religious fatalist.

Even so, he had trouble digesting the meaning of Christ, Heaven and Hell.  He decided that he was perhaps a Deist. Several members of the New Salem debating club were freethinkers and influenced him with Voltaire’s talk of how reason must win out over passion.

His religious conflicts weighed on him heavily, and were a possible cause of his recurrent depression which gripped him intermittently throughout his life.  The essential conflict was that while he believed in Voltaire and reason over passion and looked forward to the “fall of fury” when the “Age of Reason” would begin; he also believed in the “Doctrine of Necessity”.  The “Doctrine of Necessity” holds that the Human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control. (Oates 29)  This means that God was an active participant in the lives of men. Lincoln however was troubled by this, to what end was the Maker meddling? Why was he made to strive to get ahead when the ultimate destiny for him, for everyone was the grave?


Many time his thoughts would revolve around Death. Sometimes bringing a debilitating depression with it.  In August 1835 Ann Rutledge , a close friend, died; Lincoln came down with a severe case of the ‘Hypo’ (Depression was often called hypochondria back then) (Oates 29).  His favorite poem dwelled on  Death was titled ‘Mortality’ and closes with the line “Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud!?”

Despite the legendary picture of Lincoln being indifferent to wealth, he in fact did have ambition to better himself and get ahead in life.  Thomas Lincoln, his father, raised him to be a farmer and often hired him out to other homesteaders occasionally. (Oates 9-10)  Abraham, however , disliked farm work.  Some of his neighbors remarked that he was “lazy, awful lazy.” (Oates 10 )  When he did work however he worked hard and was very conscientious to give a full day’s labor for the twenty five cent wage.  This he gave over to his father. (Oates 10)

Even though he disliked farm work Abraham learned quite a bit about it and became a master ax man.  Someone said “If you heard him felling trees in a clearing , you would say there were three men at work, the way the trees fell.”

As he grew older he was able to attend school intermittently and as he says “…somehow I could read, write, and cipher to the rule of three…” (Oates 10)  The more he read the more his ambitions grew, “surely there was more to life than living and dying here in Indiana”, which he thought was probably as “unpoetical as any spot on earth.” (Oates 11)

Several years later he contracted to move some produce for a speculator named Offut to New Orleans. Along the way  their raft got stuck attempting to run a dam.  Using a bit of leverage and ingenuity Abraham unswamped the boat and levered it off the dam.   Offutt was impressed by this and offered Abraham a job at as a clerk.  “Lincoln accepted the job with alacrity and high hopes: now he would be free of manual labor, would have a respectable position that required some intelligence” (Oates 17)  Asked by one of the villagers what he would do if he had money, Abraham replied that he would like to study law.( Oates 17)  And so “A was on his own at last, a friendless, uneducated, penniless boy, who at the age of twenty-two had finally separated from his father.

Once he was accepted in New Salem he began to hunger to better himself.  With the assistance of some of the village headmen ( Dr Allen and Mentor Graham ) he taught himself mathematics and learned the art of oratory.   But it was politics that caught his fascination. (Oates 22)  He served in the State Legislature and State Senate and in the House of Representatives but failed three times to get elected to the Senate.  His love of politics drew him onward.

In fact, politics fashioned the image “Honest Abe, rail-splitter”.  The Republican State convention of Illinois in the Campaign of 1860 presented banners tied between fence rails that read “Abraham Lincoln , the Rail Candidate for President” and “Two rails from a lot of 3,000 Made in 1830 by Thos. Hanks and Abe Lincoln—Whose father was the first pioneer of Macon County” (Oates 176)

The political image was not just for show however.  Abraham, had demonstrated many times his integrity. He held on to it even when there was overwhelming temptation to throw it away.  For instance,  when he was running a general store with a Mr. Berry as a young man in 1835 he ran his debts up to $1100.  This was such an astronomical sum compared to his means Abraham referred to this as the National Debt.  Instead of moving to some other county and reneging on his creditors as many bankrupts had done.  Abraham elected to stay and pay his debts to the penny. (Oates 25)

Abraham’s political ideas came from the past.  He viewed The Declaration of Independence as the sheet anchor of  American Republicanism. (Oates 30)  The Founding fathers were apostles of Liberty who had begun an experiment in popular government to show that a monarchy and aristocracy was not necessary to govern, and that people like himself were not chained to the circumstances of his birth.

Like the Founding Fathers he found the issue of slavery to be a morally conflicting one.  On the one hand its very existence contradicted the shining words on the Declaration.  On the other it was protected in such a manner by the constitution that neither the Congress nor the States had the power to exterminate it.  Abraham believed that the Founding Father’s purpose in the Missouri Compromise was to limit the spread of slavery and that with the elimination of the international slave trade it [slavery] would die a natural death.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act , with its “popular sovereignty” concept and the Dred Scott decision set the stage for the expansion of slavery into the territories and the North and South onto a collision course which would culminate in Civil War. (Oates 143)

The Civil-War from the information provided by Oates was started without real cause. Rather, because the newspapers of the day were extremely biased and often outright propaganda rags, the South believed that the President-Elect would soon declare slavery illegal.  Using statements from his speeches “A house Divided” they branded Lincoln a rabid abolitionist.  Lincoln was nothing of the sort.  He did not see how he could do other than contain slavery legally as President or by Congress.   His hope was that the Supreme Court could be convinced to over-rule itself as it had occasionally done before.

The Civil War began with the bombarding of Fort Sumter in South Carolina.  Seward had secretly promised Southern representatives that the fort would be abandoned.  Lincoln however, had ordered that the federal forts should be held.   He felt that his own integrity and the honor of the Nation would not allow him to surrender or abandon the fortresses.  Especially after publicly announcing in his inauguration that he would hold the forts.  He would not move troops into the South or fire on the incipient rebels; he would, however, hold and maintain the garrisons of the forts.  So the conflict began; born in confusion.

Over time the War ground on.  The ineptitude of his generals combined with the ingenuity of those of the South produced delay after delay defeat after defeat.  Though he initially would not declare an emancipation because he did not want to alienate the Border States (Oates 267), by 1862 “the difficulty was as great not to act as to act.”  The Border States could no longer dictate policy (Oates 319).  And so the Emancipation Proclamation was announced giving the rebels a deadline of January 1, 1863 to cease or the President would thenceforward and forever free all slaves in rebel States.  This was to encourage refugee slaves to come North to provide Labor, Troops, and to shore up supply lines as well as to strike at a core point of strength of the Confederacy.  The cabinet members mostly supported the measure as a military necessity and an extreme measure of a President’s War Powers. (Oates 319)

This measure combined with newly appointed Generals Grant, Sherman, and Meade, and a more aggressive more organized military strategy ultimately resulted in a Union Victory.  While the final battles were being fought Lincoln convinced Congress to ratify the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution.  With that done slavery was dead before the war was over.  Marveling at his success Lincoln remarked “If the people of the river [in Richmond] had behaved themselves I could not have done what I have done.” (Oates 406)

Afterwards Lincoln himself walked the streets of Richmond immediately following the capture of that city.  The war was over, slavery was gone, and that great paradox, the house divided  was no more.  The United States was on the road to fulfill the promise in the Declaration at last.    This multi-faceted self-made man of means had made the most significant step towards universal equality since the Revolution itself.

The legend that has grown about him is mostly correct.  But we must remember that he was heroic despite his humanity ; despite his fears and his self-doubt and his own personal darkness.  With Malice Towards None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln takes its title from one of Abraham’s speeches and surely presents the man in a manner that brings him to life.   The book allows us to measure some bit or facet of ourselves against that of Lincoln and encourages us to overcome our own faults with the same courage and stubbornness he did.