This week my Lincoln class focused on his formative years. We read through the first chapter in William Gienapp’s biography and read Douglas L. Wilson’s essay “Young Man Lincoln” which is included in Gabor Boritt’s The Lincoln Enigma: The Changing Faces of an American Icon. One of the skills that I focus on in my electives is critical writing and thesis analysis. I want my students to be able to read a text critically and be able to evaluate and summarize an author’s thesis. To achieve this end I have them read relatively short essays and write a 2-3 page thesis summary. While I try to assign creative projects to my classes there is nothing more important than being able to write a short analytical essay. It may not be the most exciting assignment, but the skill can be applied to any of the classes they will take in college. I can’t tell you how many students have come back to thank me for making this a major component in my classes.
The trick is to find interesting essays that will engage students and when it comes to Lincoln’s early life there is nobody more engaging than Douglas Wilson. He is the author of Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln which is in my mind one of the most important books ever written about Lincoln. Wilson provides a philosophical/psychological framework that is ideal for classroom discussion. He begins with Erik Erikson’s observation that “we gain a better understanding of the mature person by studying the events of his childhood and youth.” That understanding comes from acknowledging the problem of hindsight. According to Wilson, Lincoln’s formative years are best understood only after his later political career is removed from the picture so as to better appreciate the contingency that defined his early life. In other words, we must appreciate the “struggles” of his early years in a way that is not influenced by the fact that he eventually became president. We don’t want to read inevitability into the picture. We also want to be watchful, according to Wilson, of not exaggerating Lincoln’s formative years as a story of overcoming impossible odds. Wilson distinguishes between struggles and hardships and opts for the former concept as his framework. Lincoln struggled with various issues, including depression, a belief in fatalism, and fear of “madness” but these do not necessarily constitute hardships. Wilson wants his reader to see Lincoln as one among many who struggled on the frontier to make something of himself. How Lincoln managed to do this is addressed by the posing of two questions: (1) Who am I? and (2) What am I to do? As for the first one Wilson cites three characteristics, including his “tenderheartedness”, a deep-seated ambition, and independent thought. As for the second question Wilson points to both the practice of law and politics. It was Lincoln’s firm belief that he must leave his mark in history, according to Wilson, that allowed him to work through many of the well-known low points or moments of depression up through the mid-1840s.
As you might imagine the psychological thrust of this article is perfect for high school students. One of my students came by my office to talk about the article and he remarked at one point that he could relate to the kinds of issues that Lincoln struggled with. That was a nice moment. During class today the students did a great job grappling with Wilson’s main points. They questioned whether it was necessary to try to perceive Lincoln’s early years from a vantage point that ignored his later life or whether it even made sense to do so. We spent a great deal of time trying to make sense of Wilson’s distinction between struggles and hardships. One of the students asked whether there is a fine line between the two. It was interesting to watch them pose questions about Wilson’s argument. At first their questions were coupled with the expectation that I would offer some magical insight or answer. I usually just nod my head and look for someone to respond; after some time they seem to get the message that I don’t have any answers to these questions. Hopefully what they are learning is that the questions are worth considering without the expectation of a firm answer on my part. Best of all the questions suggest that they are already learning how to analyze a historian’s argument. Next week we look at an article on Lincoln’s marriage by Jean H. Baker.
If the class is this motivated so early in the semester I can hardly wait until we get to questions about his handling of the war and emancipation. Hopefully I will be able to bring in Michael Holt, William Miller, and William Freehling at some point.