Abraham Lincoln's persona was the subject of a spirited presentation at the Broward Public Library by Dr. Robert Watson of Lynn University. His insights into Lincoln's life were both humorous and tragic.
He "had a horrible relationship with his father, and had no friends as a child," said Watson. His mother died when he was 9, and his father went away for six months in search of a new wife. He left behind the young Abraham and his even younger sister. Upon returing to the frontier home, his father and stepmother found the children living in rags and ekeing out a bare existence like animals. The good news is the young boy "loved his new mother- she brought books and a collection of Shakespearean plays" which he read over and over again. It was this literary grounding that influenced his writings later in life.
Watson put the dilemma facing historians. "What's left for the historian are the hard parts- the castles and crowns. We have to piece together the soft parts." For Lincoln, Watson has identified two of these soft parts that often are not discussed- his melancholy and humility.
"He struggled with depression," and in 1841 when he broke off his engagement with Mary Todd, his friends had to mount a "suicide watch" because he was so distraught. Not long after he resumed his relationship with her, and then got married. But it was Ann Rutledge, who died in 1835, who was "the love of his life." He even stood over her grave with an umbrella to keep it from getting wet.
It was his appearance that Lincoln often drew on to captivate an audience. In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 for a senatorial seat (before he became president), Douglas accused him of being two-faced. Lincoln deadpanned his response: if I had two faces, do you think I would wear this one? "He became the master of the one-liner," said Watson.
"In his physical appearance he was often described as 'the ugliest man I ever saw.' But his face defies time, and oozes sincerity and warmth. Lincoln did not care how he looked. Mary Todd had a fit trying to dress Lincoln." Although often exasperated, his wife admitted "his heart is as large as his arms are long."
Lincoln, said Watson, "was the veritable definition of humility, and he governed with humanity." When told while president that a close associate Edwin Stanton said "We've got to get rid of that baboon," Lincoln responded in a way that reflects this humanity. "Insult? No that is no insult. It is an expression of opinion. And what troubles me most about it is Stanton is usually right."
About the speaker: Dr. Watson moved to Florida in 2001 and joined the faculty of Florida Atlantic University. In 2007, he accepted the challenge of developing and directing a new American Studies program at Lynn University, where he now serves as Professor. Dr. Watson has published 33 books, and has received a number of awards including the International Abraham Lincoln Center’s award for his contributions to the study of the presidency. He co-founded the Truman Symposium, an annual program founded in 2002, held at the Truman Little White House, and sponsored by the Truman Presidential Library.
This is the third in a series of feature articles by Cliff Cunningham about Lincoln and the Civil War.