I’ve been waiting years for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln movie which opens this month. I was disappointed when Liam Neeson decided he was too old to play Lincoln, and I was apprehensive when Daniel Day-Lewis took the role. My greatest fear has been that Spielberg might give us a Lincoln without the rough edges. I have been hoping for a Lincoln who tells dirty jokes, who is disorganized and conceited, and has a sharp temper, but also is courageious, a genius with politics and language– especially language. I am heartened by the trailers I’ve seen, which offer hope that we will see Abraham Lincoln with at least some, maybe even much, of the varnish removed.
Years ago, I came across the following letter written to William Herndon by Lincoln’s secretary John Hay. The letter is fascinating because it gives us a human portrait of a great man. I am presenting an extract which focuses on Lincoln’s work habits. The original, complete letter is found in the book Herndon’s Informants, edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, published by University of Illinois Press (1997).
My Dear Mr. Herndon,
… Lincoln used to go to bed ordinarily from ten to eleven o’clock unless he happened to be kept up by important news, in which case he would frequently Remain at the War Department until 1 or 2. He rose early. When he lived in the country at Soldiers Home, he would be up and dressed, eat his breakfast (which was extremely frugal an egg, a piece of toast Coffee &c) and ride into Washington, all before 8 o’clock. In the winter at the White House he was not quite so early. He did not sleep very well but spent a good while in bed. Tad usually slept with him. He would lie around the office until he fell asleep & Lincoln would shoulder him and take him off to bed.
He pretended to begin business at ten oclock in the morning, but in reality the anterooms and halls were full before that hour—people anxious to get the first axe ground. He was extremely unmethodical; it was a four-years struggle on Nicolays part and mine to get him to adopt some systematic rules. He would break through every Regulation as fast as it was made. Anything that kept the people themselves away from him he disapproved—although they nearly annoyed the life out of him by unreasonable complaints & requests.
He wrote very few letters. He did not read one in fifty that he received. At first we tried to bring them to his notice, but at last he gave the whole thing over to me, and signed without reading them the letters I wrote in his name. He wrote perhaps half-a- dozen a week himself—not more.
Nicolay received members of Congress, & other visitors who had business with the Executive Office, communicated to the Senate and House the messages of the President & exercised a general supervision over the business.
I opened and read the letters, answered them, looked over the newspapers, supervised the clerks who kept the records and in Nicolay’s absence did his work also. When the President had any rather delicate matter to manage at a distance from Washington, he very rarely wrote, but sent Nicolay or me.
The House remained full of people nearly all day. At noon the President took a little lunch—a biscuit, a glass of milk in winter, some fruit or grapes in summer. He dined at fr. 5 to 6. & we went off to our dinner also.
Before dinner was over member & Senators would come back & take up the whole evening. Sometimes, though rarely he shut himself up & would see no one. Sometimes he would run away to a lecture or concert or theatre for the sake of a little rest.
He was very abstemious—ate less than any one I know. Drank nothing but water—not from principle, but because he did not like wine or spirits. Once, in rather dark days early in the war, A Temperance Committee came to him & said the reason we did not win was because our army drank so much whiskey as to bring down the curse of the Lord upon them. He said dryly that it was rather unfair on the part of the aforesaid curse, as the other side drank more and worse whiskey than ours did.
He read very little. Scarcely ever looked into a newspaper unless I called his attention to an article on some special subject. He frequently said, “I know more about that than any of them.” It is absurd to call him a modest man. No great man was ever modest. It was his intellectual arrogance and unconscious assumption of superiority that men like Chase and Sumner never could forgive.