With Malice toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen Oats

With Malice toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen Oats

The life and personality of former United States President Abraham Lincoln was and remains a wonder to many. Several biographies have been written to explain the kind of person he was, including this book by Stephen Oats (Oates 7). The review will majorly be defined by:

  1. a) Some of the resounding themes that I came across including freedom, slavery, morality, manipulation, racism, and politics.
  2. b) People like Lincoln himself, his wife, his dad, the little girl who wrote him a letter, and his assassin John Wilkes also clearly stood out from others. They played a significant role in determining the life and course of Abraham Lincoln.
  3. c) Specific episodes found intriguing include:
  • Lincoln’s childhood
  • Education experience
  • Lincoln’s love life
  • Marriage to Mary Todd
  • His leadership
  • Lincoln in politics and political strategies
  •  His tenure as President
  •  Lincoln as a mass influencer
  • His relationship with his father
  •  His multi-personality
  • Lincoln and the slavery cause
  • Lincoln’s assassination

Lincoln’s childhood

Coming from a background of poverty and misery either motivates people to work hard to achieve a better status, or wallow in misery and blame life or the present circumstances for your lack of success. Abraham chose the former, and his primary motivating factor was trying to avoid being like his father.  He was faced with many challenges, for example, lack of exposure to education, mistreatment from the father, and losing most of his loved ones including his mother sister, and brother at a tender age. Despite the traumatic events, and understanding how psychology works, Abraham Lincoln is painted as a fighter who beats all odds to avoid misery in a later life. Understanding his childhood is pivotal in understanding this book because it paints out his human side and the reason why he became the person that he was. It affects part of his life for example as seen in his relationship with his wife and children, his view towards humanity and the slavery issue, his personality including his depression.


Lincoln barely got an education as he mostly worked on his father’s farm. The book states that he only got a year and a half of formal training and had to learn how to write on his own.  His zeal for learning sees him walking miles just to access books, and work hard to complete law school. Could this aspect of his life have been exaggerated? It is unbelievable to fathom that an individual can only gain less than two years of formal education and go on to complete law school.

This exaggeration, as was most of his persona, played out to his political and societal advantage. He remains passionate about reading as he resorts to reading books to seek out strategies of war later on in his life. In my view, acquiring a decent form of education was the only way he would seem equal to others in the society having that he came from a poor background. His passion was fuelled by the disregard of his father who was unable to do something as simple as signing his name. Lincoln thought of him as lazy, lacking, and nonintellectual, and worked hard to escape this image.

Lincoln and love

For someone painted as being philosophical, morally upright and “without malice to anyone”, it was expected that whose he was involved with romantically were the greatest benefactors of his personality. Contrary to this, he was quite the heartbreaker. It is easy to sympathize with him, just as the author does, by painting a picture of a troubled childhood that affected his adulthood. He lost his mother, sister, brother, and first love, hence denying him the opportunity to know what it was like to love. His father made the situation worse by being abusive.

He broke off his initial engagement to Mary Owens, and blamed it on poverty, and also broke off another engagement to his wife Mary Todd before agreeing to get married to her eventually. He tried to downplay his first engagement break off by making a sarcastic comment stating that he would never marry anyone “foolish enough to have him” when in the real sense he had intimacy and commitment issues. As much as he broke off his initial engagement, he felt humiliated that Mary Owens never responded to his letter. This was an indication that he still longed for attention and female love that which he got from his mother for a few years before she passed away. In fact, it is speculated that he only got married to the other Mary because she was already with his child.

Lincoln and marriage

Some people described his marriage as being unbelievably painful, and a scorching burning hell. His wife Mary Todd was violent with him. Other people stated that the problems were exaggerated. It was believed that he always walked away from the argument and never bothered to answer back. Greater part Lincoln’s life aspects appear to be exaggerated for the good of his public image. Typically, without any evidence of adultery, or violence, people blame the failure of any marriage on the woman. Painting Mary as a violent person and Lincoln as a cool head worked to gain popularity and sympathy, even though his issues were not aired publicly.

Mary was from the onset attracted to Lincoln because she saw certain flair for greatness in him, save for his queer looking face and form. They got married while he was still practicing law and was among the people who fuelled his desire to participate in politics. This marriage was clearly far from a love one because despite his aloofness, detachment, depression issues, and being passionate more about politics than his family, she still stuck by his side. This portrays either loyalty or ambition. Lincoln scoffs at Mary for gaining weight and is displeased. He appears as someone who is detached from his marriage, except when a tragic event occurs like losing his son, and even then, he delves deeper into a depressive state instead of seeking solace from his wife.  In the spirit of striving not to be like his father, he should have tried harder to make his marriage work better.



Was it Lincoln’s desire to be a leader? Did he have the dream to become a great leader from the onset? His past and childhood had everything working for him as if to say that the stars were aligned for him. He had a troubled tortured background, a cruel father, lost his mother, and struggled to get a basic education. In the real sense, his primary fight was not to end up like his father, and not to be the American president. He was thrust into popularity and leadership in 1832 when he was unanimously chosen by other men to be the leader of their troop when going to fight the Indian tribal chief without having to vie. The idea pleased him, and got him the notion of gaining recognition, and that time there was no better way than politics. He wondered how a little-known man from an impoverished background could be so influential in society. This is the event that lay the groundwork of Lincoln as a leader.

Politics and political strategies

His style was comprised mainly of taking a different stand, even though he was careful not to offend his supporters, therefore, contradicting himself in some instances. For example, he says that he believes in the freedom and equality of humankind, yet states that the blacks and whites cannot exist in the same place. He also speaks of finding them a state to live in and be colonized; so much for the freedom and equality of human beings.

I think he played a lot into politics; He is portrayed as an individual who lacked malice for anyone or anything. Yes, it is argued that this character made him stand out the most, but he also knew how to use it to his advantage politically, complemented by his personality, to draw people towards him after noticing they give him attention. If he was as good as they claimed, why then did he struggle with forgiving his father? Why did he fight for the abolition of slave trade, but did not want to offend the northerners on the same issue to avoid losing their votes? Every move and every word were politically calculated.

Lincoln was also calculative as seen in his duel between him and James Shields, a politician whom he had publicly ridiculed. James challenged him to the duel and manipulated the situation by laying down the terms. He chooses a sword because he had the physical advantage, and played mind games on Shields to intimidate him before the duel.  The fight was called off after they reached an agreement. He also challenged Steve Douglas to a debating contest after entering the Illinois Senate race in 1858. He knows it’s a long shot for him, but uses it as an opportunity to gain publicity because by doing this, Douglas, who was the sitting senator, gave Lincoln “equal status” by standing on the same podium with him, and giving him a chance to be heard across seven cities.

Lincoln as President of the United States

His presidency was marked with controversy. During the civil war, he successfully turned the cause of the fight from that of fighting for political reasons to that of fighting for the cause of humanity. I believed in his true intent for being a great leader when he personally joined the war as the Commander in Chief, and was at the forefront of the battle field. It is unfortunate that his rule was marked with war, and the country never got to experience him as a leader in building the nation after the civil war. I believe he did well with the short time he had, and given the war circumstance having that he barely had any leadership experience.

Lincoln as a mass influencer

Even though he appeared disqualified, Lincoln was a shrewd leader who always thought of the welfare of others before his own. His unique leadership style made him gain popularity enough to get him in office for a second term, something that no other former president had ever achieved. His election into the state legislature had little to do with his qualifications and more to do with his people skills because he was gifted in moving crowds. He was in his own words “friendless, uneducated, and penniless” and opted to run for the state legislature at 23 knowing he had the slimmest chance possible of winning. After three attempts he finally made it in, but still retained his job as a lawyer, surveyor, and postmaster. Interestingly, the idea for running for the presidency was not his either. Other people, mostly Republicans, suggested the idea to him, to which he laughed off, but the idea of popularity never left his mind, so he embraced the thought of running for the presidency. He tried to downplay his excitement by stating that “the taste is in my mouth a little,” which was one among his many smart, calculated political moves. Showing too much desire would make people criticize him and find his flaws. Being subtle about it enabled other people to do his bidding for him, portraying him as someone able to run for the presidency. He was more calculative than people would like to portray because he knew when to be in the limelight, and when to take a back seat. However, one thing that made him stand out was that he was always striving to get ahead in the world and achieve greatness.


Image of a huge crowd awaiting Abraham Lincoln to give his speech, indicating his influence (Source: internet)


His multi-faced personality

Lincoln was a master at gaining attention. He did this through his witty personality, philosophical nature, and “always doing well” nature. To gain attention politically, he chose a cause that was controversial, that of slave trade abolition and stuck with it. His ability to stay in the limelight declared him attractive and relevant to the society. He had nothing to lose by losing the parliamentary voting because he had already accomplished more than he had hoped to, which was being different from the father. Just as he was chosen as a leader in his early life, the idea of the presidency was essentially thrust upon him, and he tried to downplay it by playing the “simple man” card. It was fundamentally handed over to him.

Abraham Lincoln moves to a small town, he is an honest guy in his dealings and acquires the nickname Honest Abe for always paying his creditors, and being an honest lawyer.  He uses this as a strategy to paint himself as a simple, honest, hardworking man. Here, we can conclude that everything about his public image was an exaggeration of his character. For someone who was charismatic and persuasive, he was also a depressed person. He lost almost all his loved ones and became depressed. His struggle was seen by how he handled every defeat by withdrawing every time.  A friend goes further to remove sharp objects from his way but assures him that he cannot commit suicide because he is yet to do anything worthy of being remembered.

Deep down, Lincoln was also an insecure man. He downplays his insecurity such that people were unable to tell that it existed. He was such a great man who moved audiences that it is unbelievable to think he had insecurities of his own, even with such admiration from people. He applies the philosophy of “laugh at yourself so that when others laugh at you it stings less”, in one of his several sarcastic statements, “If I had another, face, do you think I would wear this one?”  This was in response to people claiming he had several personalities.  He was aware of his queerness and didn’t expect to be loved based on his looks. Another incident that displayed his insecurity was when he grew a beard at the request of a young girl’s letter who said he would look a great deal better. He even resorted to general photography as part of his campaign to make him look more presentable to the society.

Image of Lincoln before photographic editing and growing a beard (Source: internet)

Image of Lincoln after suggested changes. (Source: internet)

Lincoln does not know how to take rejection or defeat and uses other methods to compensate. For example, he uses detachment to counterpoise for fear of intimacy or hurt and used sarcasm and a charming aura to offset the depression within him. He also suffered from insomnia, anger issues, and portrayed incoherent rambling on some occasions, contrary to how he is portrayed in public. He compensated for his melancholy, inherited from his mom, by developing oratory skills and a sense of humor. When he talked, everyone listened. He appears to be very skilled at hiding his flawed personality. Living a life of always having to keep up a front, especially among people in the limelight can be quite exhausting. His exhaustion is shown in how, combined with the effects of the war, his leadership journey took a toll on his physical health.

Lincoln and his father

For someone who was able to keep up an active front and face for almost all his life, this is one of the aspects of his biography that I found most revealing and genuine about his nature. His relationship with his father was the most defining aspect of his personal and political life. He succeeded at what he did because he was motivated by his father’s inabilities and failures. On the contrary, he was unable to show intimacy, was somewhat cold in his relationships, and almost always detached, even with his children. He never held a grudge against anyone in his life except his dad. He refused to visit him when he was dying and refused to go to his funeral. Which can be argued that he was human after all, but where are all those philosophies when it came to his parent? His responsibility was to his family first, but it seems he failed. One would have thought that he would have been better than his dad, even though he didn’t flog his children or subject them to manual labor. It can be argued that given the conditions that he was raised in, and the knowledge he had about being a parent, the way he treated his kids was good enough.

Lincoln and slavery

He was passionate towards the cause of slavery because he felt treated like a slave by his parent. He was at the forefront of fighting for the cause and took a deaf ear to those who opposed him. He successfully changed the cause of war from a civil to a humanity one, fighting for the rights of slaves. Passing the Emancipation Declaration was the single biggest act of rule that was witnessed during the time, and he got much love as he did hate on the issue. The external success must have been some form of internal win, as a way to show his late father that he finally won.

Lincoln’s assassination

His value for public opinion led to his demise. As a dignitary, he was required to have a security detail with him everywhere he went. His first encounter with assassination was on his train journey to Washington. After changing trains, people called him a coward and he responded by choosing to walk on several occasions without strict security. He was the president by all means, meaning that his life was valuable regardless of what people thought of his nature. Maybe it was still one of the ways he played into people’s emotions, but his lack of paying attention to his security cost him his life. John Wilkes Booth, his assassin, took advantage of the situation and carried a gun into the Ford Theater and got close enough to shoot him. Had he been careful, especially after his premonitory dream, he may have lived longer.

Stephen Oates writing style

I found this book more appealing than other historian biographies I have read. This is because Oates attempts to humanize Lincoln, and provide a humanity aspect towards his leadership. He portrays Abraham as a mere mortal who had the best intentions for all and his country at heart, for example, by fighting for the rights of the slaves, and the Emancipation Declaration signed. In his attempt to humanize Lincoln, he brings out his flaws, and I can understand him as a calculative political strategist, as opposed to being among the greatest philosophers I know.

I don’t believe the author is biased because he attempts to give a balanced view of Lincoln as a leader and as a human being. However, he could have been more descriptive towards other aspects of his life. For example, his marriage and parts of his childhood. Oates avoids writing about Lincoln’s marriage or the life of his first love in detail. At the end of the book, Lincoln passes away tragically after being assassinated and goes to become among America’s greatest leaders of all time especially for his stand on anti-slavery and his shrewd leadership style. Even though he was calculative, he was true without malice to anyone. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in reading about the civil war because it is not all guns, law, and politics. Through the book, you live the life of Lincoln before, during, and after the war, gaining a better understanding of the challenges leaders had to face in the era of warfar


Work Cited

Oates, Stephen B. With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Print.