Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America

Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America

by Steve Inskeep
Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America

Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America

by Steve Inskeep


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A compelling and nuanced exploration of Abraham Lincoln’s political acumen, illuminating a great politician’s strategy in a country divided—and lessons for our own disorderly present

In 1855, with the United States at odds over slavery, the lawyer Abraham Lincoln wrote a note to his best friend, the son of a Kentucky slaveowner. Lincoln rebuked his friend for failing to oppose slavery. But he added: “If for this you and I must differ, differ we must,” and said they would be friends forever. Throughout his life and political career, Lincoln often agreed to disagree. Democracy demanded it, since even an adversary had a vote. The man who went on to become America’s sixteenth president has assumed many roles in our historical consciousness, but most notable is that he was, unapologetically, a politician. And as Steve Inskeep argues, it was because he was willing to engage in politics—meeting with critics, sometimes working with them and other times outwitting them—that he was able to lead a social revolution.

In Differ We Must, Inskeep illuminates Lincoln’s life through sixteen encounters, some well-known, some obscure, but all imbued with new significance here. Each interaction was with a person who differed from Lincoln, and in each someone wanted something from the other. While Lincoln didn’t always change his critics’ beliefs—many went to war against him—he did learn how to make his beliefs actionable. He told jokes, relied on sarcasm, and often made fun of himself—but behind the banter was a distinguished storyteller who carefully chose what to say and what to withhold. He knew his limitations and, as history came to prove, he knew how to prioritize. Many of his greatest acts came about through his engagement with people who disagreed with him—meaning that in these meetings, Lincoln became the Lincoln we know.

As the host of NPR’s Morning Edition for almost two decades, Inskeep has mastered the art of bridging divides and building constructive debate in interviews; in Differ We Must, he brings his skills to bear on a prior master, forming a fresh and compelling narrative of Lincoln’s life. With rich detail and enlightening commentary, Inskeep expands our understanding of a politician who held strong to his moral compass while navigating between corrosive political factions, one who began his career in the minority party and not only won the majority but succeeded in uniting a nation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593297865
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/03/2023
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 28,757
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Steve Inskeep is a cohost of NPR’s Morning Edition, the most widely heard radio program in the United States, and of NPR’s Up First, one of the nation’s most popular podcasts. His reporting has taken him across the United States, the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, Pakistan, and China. His search for the full story behind the news has led him to history; he is the author of Instant City, Jacksonland, and Imperfect Union.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Abraham Lincoln


Lincoln was born in Kentucky and was seven when he suffered the first of several great disruptions. His father lost his farm in a dispute over the title, put his family on a wagon, and started for a new life in Indiana. A glance at a map doesn't convey how hard their journey was in 1816; they moved fewer than one hundred miles from their old home, but it took about five days, ending with a ferry across the Ohio and a trek through roadless woods. The travel time was longer than a modern journey from Kentucky to Afghanistan-and their destination was wilderness, the newest state of the Union, only recently cleared of most of the Indians after whom it was named.

Thomas Lincoln claimed land for a new farm, handed his son an axe, and told him to help clear the trees. He was not quite eight when he began this ceaseless labor and not even ten when his mother died of a mysterious sickness. The year after that, Thomas returned to Kentucky to find a new wife, leaving Abraham and his sister Sarah behind. When Thomas reappeared many days later he brought a whole new family, having married a widowed mother of three. Abraham never detailed how he felt about these experiences, but an observation he made as an adult was revealing: "In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares."

How did he escape obscurity on that farm? It's common to credit his reading. Though his schooling totaled less than a year, he learned to write by scratching letters on wood, and if he had to walk for miles to borrow a book he'd do it. His self-education is among the most inspiring stories about him, passed on in children's books to this day. But this story is incomplete. His reading was neither wide nor deep, limited to books within reach, and he once described his youth in two words: "Education defective." He needed a different form of learning, for which resources were more available: his study of his fellow human beings.

His stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, said when grown-ups visited their cabin the boy listened, "never speaking or asking questions till they were gone and then he must understand everything-even to the smallest thing." He questioned his parents and repeated the answers "again and again" to remember. Thanks to his clear handwriting, he took dictation for settlers who were illiterate and said his "perceptions were sharpened" as he "learned to see other people's thoughts and feelings and ideas by writing their friendly confidential letters." By his twenties an acquaintance found his mind was "a great storehouse" of facts, "acquired by reading but principally by observation, and intercourse with men, women, and children, in their social and business relations; learning and weighing the motives that prompt each act in life." Not every book he found was worth finishing, but for a future democratic leader almost anybody was worth knowing.

The good listener became a good talker. Once after attending church he said he could repeat the sermon, and when friends challenged him he climbed on a log and did it. On other occasions, a friend said, "the boys would gather & cluster around him" to hear him tell jokes and stories. While there's no reliable record of his stand-up routine, it likely resembled things he said later, even while president, that brought out his inner twelve-year-old. He told of a lizard that crawled inside the pant leg of a preacher, who continued his sermon while desperately removing his clothes. To a man of Dutch ancestry, Lincoln once asked, What's the difference between an Amsterdam Dutchman and any other damn Dutchman? He told of an Irishman who went to the post office to ask for his mail. The postmaster said: Your name? And the man replied indignantly, It says my name on the letter! When Lincoln walked into Gentryville, a village near his home, he spent hours with other people "running rigs"-meaning "to tease, banter, or ridicule," apparently the sort of back-and-forth insults that in another context would be called "the dozens."

When he was twenty-one his family moved to Illinois, where he attended a rally for political candidates in front of a store. Though he wasn't running and didn't even have the six months' residence required to vote, he gave his own speech-an early sign of his invincible confidence. By then he'd had experiences that allowed him to prove himself, such as crewing a cargo boat all the way to New Orleans, enduring treacherous currents and even driving off would-be robbers. He was physically strong-all those years swinging the axe-and developed an idea that he had special gifts thanks to his late mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. He believed she was born out of wedlock, that illegitimate children grew up hardier and smarter than others, and that she had passed on her traits to him. No evidence supported any part of this, but far into adulthood he voiced his belief to a friend. If it helped him it didn't matter if it was true. Being born out of wedlock was considered a mark of shame, yet he privately adopted this identity, and made it a strength. It placed him on the side of people society shunned.

He started a political career as soon as he was able, in the first place where he lived on his own: New Salem, in central Illinois, a frontier-style settlement without a single brick house or paved street. A wooden gristmill stood on stilts over the Sangamon River, and a few log cabins sat on a nearby bluff. While it wasn’t an obvious destination for an ambitious young man, he got a job there in 1831, clerking for the man who ran the mill and a nearby store. He slept in that store, sharing a cot with another clerk, who said that “when one turned over the other had to do likewise.” He was six feet four, his pants came nowhere near his shoes, and he was broke. But he followed political news, reading newspapers when he could get them and eventually hoarding enough cash to subscribe to the Louisville Daily Journal, out of Kentucky.

The Journal offered news of a nation dividing between two factions. Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, a war hero, claimed the 1824 presidential election had been stolen from him and carried his grievance to a landslide win in 1828; the Jacksonian movement evolved into the Democratic Party. Anti-Jacksonians organized as the Whig Party, led by Henry Clay of Kentucky. The Journal was a Clay paper, and Lincoln admired his fellow Kentuckian, an advocate of a strong federal government that promoted internal improvements-roads, bridges, and canals. He followed Clay into the opposition even though it was the minority party in Illinois. This meant that if he was going to succeed in politics, he had to build relationships with people whose politics differed.

His new neighbors included a group of Jackson men known as the Clary's Grove Boys, lawless toughs from a nearby farm community. Their leader, Jack Armstrong, had a habit of hazing newcomers and was a bully; one story involved his gang stuffing a man in a barrel and rolling it downhill. But Lincoln managed him well when Armstrong challenged him to a wrestling match. People gathered outside the store in New Salem and bet on the outcome. Lincoln's skill with words helped him as much as his greater height: he refused Armstrong's plan to wrestle with no holds barred, insisting that Armstrong agree to rules he wasn't disciplined enough to follow. Witnesses gave many versions of this encounter-Lincoln won, Lincoln lost, Lincoln was fouled-and in most versions the match dissolved into chaos. But Lincoln showed he couldn't be pushed around.

From then on the Clary's Grove Boys respected him, which allowed him to befriend their whole community: they were less a gang than part of a clan, seven families who had intermarried as they migrated out of the Appalachians. Lincoln spent long hours at the Armstrong farm outside town, where Jack's wife, Hannah, fed him. While there's no evidence that Lincoln joined Armstrong's lawless activities-at least once the Clary's Grove Boys vandalized and robbed a store in New Salem-they supported each other's ambitions. The first time Lincoln ever voted, in August 1831, he cast a ballot for Jack Armstrong, the bully, for constable.

In 1832 the Clary's Grove Boys voted twice for Lincoln. The first came when the state raised troops to fight Black Hawk, a chief of the Sauk people who had brought his followers into Illinois. The militia company raised around New Salem elected its own officers, choosing Lincoln as captain while Armstrong became first sergeant. Soon after their brief service, a widening circle of Democrats voted for Lincoln out of personal friendship as he ran for the state legislature. Though he failed to win election in the countywide district, he received almost all the votes from both parties in the New Salem precinct.

Making a living wasn't easy in the village-Lincoln lost his clerk's job when the store closed, then started his own store that failed, leaving him in debt-but Democrats helped him again: He got a job as postmaster of New Salem. Though he said the part-time federal position was "too insignificant to make [my] politics an objection," it's hard to see how he would have been appointed by President Jackson without the support of local Jacksonians. The Democratic county surveyor also hired him as a part-time deputy, and he gained more than money as he carried a compass and chain across rough countryside. People discussed their land with Lincoln, a personal matter that touched on their wealth, their identity, and the reason they had come to Illinois; and this allowed him to continue studying people. In 1834 he surveyed the farm of a Democrat named Russell Godbey and won his trust while measuring the distance in chain lengths between certain white oak trees at the corners. When Lincoln ran for the legislature again that year, Godbey said, "I voted for him . . . against my political creed and principles." Leading Democratic politicos were also supporting Lincoln, hoping to defeat another Whig they liked less. Their plan backfired: four seats were up for election, and both Whigs won.

For his first legislative session he borrowed money from a friend to buy a new suit and began his climb into the Illinois elite. He was young and inexperienced, just twenty-five at the start, but it was a young country where life was short, the median age was eighteen, and many lawmakers were in their first terms. By his second term he counted as a veteran and was leading the Whig minority-supporting bridges and canals to open the state for development, and proposing to reform a law concerning "insolvent debtors," a subject he knew uncomfortably well. He was still paying the creditors of his failed New Salem store, and the sheriff once auctioned his belongings.

He read law, borrowing books from a fellow legislator to study under a tree, and obtained his law license. And having supported a bill that moved the state capital to the prosperous town of Springfield, he moved there himself. He spent time with wealthy Whigs, mostly the sons and daughters of slaveholding families who had migrated from Kentucky. One, Joshua Speed, became his roommate and best friend, while another, Mary Todd, married him. He courted her in the Springfield mansion where she was living-the home of her brother-in-law, Ninian Edwards, a Whig politico and son of a former governor, who threw parties for as many as one hundred well-connected guests at a time.

He had to do his social climbing carefully, because he lived in a culture of equality; citizens would drag down any man who acted like their better. He always stressed his modest roots. “I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life,” he said in his first campaign announcement. Though he didn’t like manual labor, having had all he wanted in his youth, he appealed for the votes of farmworkers by helping them harvest grain from a field. His expressions of humility continued right through the Gettysburg Address three decades later. (“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”) Always he hid his self-confidence behind a cloak of modesty.

President Jackson, who remained in office until 1837, kept equality at the center of politics by labeling Whigs aristocrats. A Jacksonian newspaper said his movement favored "natural equality, and breaking down the contrivances of the old world [that] maintain and perpetuate distinctions in society." Jackson was a wealthy slave owner but had risen from poverty, and his party attracted the common white farmer or workingman. He destroyed the national bank, saying it supported the aristocracy. He threw veteran government servants out of office, saying their jobs weren't hard and other people deserved a chance to do them. Illinois Democrats took a similar approach, and Lincoln sometimes faced the charge of aristocracy even though he had a negative net worth.

Lincoln himself played the politics of equality, where fact mattered less than appearance. In 1840 he campaigned for the Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison, an aristocrat who posed as if he wasn't. The college-educated son of a Virginia governor, General Harrison battled some of the last Indians of Indiana while living with his family in a brick mansion. But when he ran for president, a Democratic newspaper mocked him as a tired old man who should retire to a cabin, and Harrison's managers seized on the imagery to recast him as a simple frontiersman. They said Whigs were the "Log-Cabin Party." Lincoln promoted Harrison by coediting a campaign newspaper that, in eighteen issues, referred to log cabins more than twenty times, cheering the "Log Cabin Candidate." His paper remade incumbent Martin Van Buren, son of a rural tavern keeper, into a clueless aristocrat-detailing his payment of $3,875.35 for silk curtains in the presidential mansion.

Harrison won in a landslide, and his inaugural parade included a log cabin on wheels-but the culture of equality turned back against Lincoln. When he married Mary Todd in 1842 it cost him, because a man who tried to rise in the world was vulnerable to the charge that he was getting above himself. William Herndon, his friend and later law partner, thought Lincoln sought "a political marriage" to align himself with "the cultured-the refined-the wealthy-the aristocratic-and the powerful family of the state," meaning Ninian Edwards's family. Herndon thought "Lincoln lost" by his connection with Mary, "and he knew it. The young and active Whigs-self-made men-men who had power, were strong. . . . They loved Lincoln because he was one of them. But what was going on between Mary Todd and Lincoln did not advance Lincoln." Even his best man wondered what Lincoln was doing, which forced him to reply, "I am, as I have always been, one of the boys and expect to be so always. I am yet poor."

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