Lincoln’s Mentors: The Education of a Leader by Michael J. Gerhardt. Custom House, 2021. Cloth, ISBN: 978-0062877192. $32.50.
Americans, it seems, never tire of reading about Abraham Lincoln. Michael J. Gerhardt adds to the library of books about the sixteenth president with this impressive study of the men who shaped Abraham Lincoln as a leader. “In the fight over Lincoln’s legacy,” Gerhardt contends, “Lincoln’s mentors have largely been neglected” (416). This biography reaches beneath the historical legend and recovers Lincoln as a flawed and imperfect figure. “He was not divine or superhuman,” Gerhardt concludes, “but a mere mortal” (415).
Gerhardt identifies five mentors that Lincoln turned to along his journey to greatness. Historians rarely consider Andrew Jackson as one of Lincoln’s mentors, but Gerhardt explicitly connects Lincoln and the seventh president. “Old Hickory” was styled a self-made man; he was especially staunch in his Unionism. “Lincoln,” Gerhardt contends, “was prepared to align himself with those qualities and that kind of leader” (263). According to Gerhardt, Lincoln, like Jackson, “believed his election made him a leader for all Americans” and that all of his presidential powers stemmed from “We the People” (263). More than half of Lincoln’s cabinet members had been Jacksonian Democrats; appropriately, Lincoln placed a portrait of Old Hickory in the Cabinet’s meeting room. Though he remained fully committed to Henry Clay’s contrasting vision for America, Lincoln intended to “follow Jackson and his strong stance against secession” (289).
Because of Lincoln’s loud acclaim for Henry Clay, historians have far more frequently cited his connection with the perennial presidential candidate and Kentucky Whig. Lincoln called the Great Compromiser his “beau ideal of a statesman.” But in some ways, Clay was as much a negative example for Lincoln as a positive one. From Clay’s melodramatic speechmaking, Lincoln came to appreciate the virtues of concision. Additionally, Gerhardt argues that Lincoln’s silence during the 1860 election (and during Buchanan’s lame-duck months) was largely due to the example of Clay. In Lincoln’s mind, Clay had lost the presidential election of 1844 because he continually made speeches to clarify his positions, which only supplied his political enemies with more ammunition. Lincoln maintained a strategic silence during the 1860 election, “and the reward was the presidency” (260).
Gerhardt identifies Zachary Taylor as Lincoln’s third national mentor. Typically treated as a footnote in American history, Gerhardt’s book resurrects Taylor’s reputation among the leading politicians of the era. Lincoln himself was one of the first to support Taylor for president in 1848, and he admired his tough stance with his Cabinet and against Southern firebrands in Congress. Ulysses S. Grant also sought to emulate Taylor, writing in his Personal Memoirs: “There is no man living who I admired and respected more highly” (quoted in Gerhardt, 365). Taylor was one of only two national political leaders that Lincoln publicly eulogized (the other was Clay), and one of three presidents he met while they were in office (Polk and Buchanan were the others). The general had a powerful effect on Lincoln.
The final two mentors were personal mentors whom Lincoln consulted at different stages of his political career—and with varying degrees of intimacy. John Todd Stuart was Mary Todd’s cousin. Stuart was fierce Jacksonian Democrat, but he introduced Lincoln to politics and the law profession. Lincoln also gathered much of his debating skills from Stuart’s advice and example. Orville Hickman Browning was one of Lincoln’s friends and “the least likely of any of these men to have been a mentor to Lincoln” (7). Browning was one of the few men in Lincoln’s life who gave him personal advice to which he listened. Early in his presidency, Browning was also influential in assisting with Lincoln’s response to the Fort Sumter crisis.
Though Lincoln learned much from all these men, he ultimately “was that rare student who surpassed his teachers. He studied them closely not just to emulate them but to improve on what they did” (420). What was perhaps most remarkable about Lincoln was that he was able to forge a connection between his national mentors. He embodied both Jackson and Clay as the nation careened toward civil war. Lincoln understood that “the common man, with sufficient ambition and determination, could become a self-made man, and that a self-made man was an ordinary man who realized his potential” (422).
Throughout Gerhardt’s retelling of Lincoln’s life, readers discover that there were many other mentors who influenced Lincoln’s trajectory. The author does not elevate these figures—men like Bowling Green, for example—to the level of “mentor.” It is not always clear why Jackson, Clay, Taylor, Stuart, and Browning were chosen above others. Even more curiously, Gerhardt identifies no women on his short list of Lincoln’s mentors. To be sure, the author acknowledges that Lincoln’s stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston, probably taught Lincoln how to read and write. Gerhardt also writes that Mary Todd Lincoln “had great ambitions” for her husband (3). Yet they are mentioned only in passing. Clearly, women influenced Lincoln in a profound way. Given the powerful influence of women in nineteenth-century politics—as documented by Catherine Allgor, Amy Greenberg, Rachel Shelden, and others—the absence of a female mentor is conspicuous.
These criticisms aside, Gerhardt clearly articulates the power of Whig Party ideology in Lincoln’s life and politics; secures Zachary Taylor’s place of prominence in the life of his contemporaries; and forges connections between Lincoln and the statesmen of his age. In a conclusion that is sure to spark debate, Gerhardt claims that Lincoln “saw a connection between Jackson and Clay that few others perceived” (422). Jackson championed the “Common Man” and Clay the “Self-Made Man.” Lincoln believed that “the common man, with sufficient ambition and determination, could become a self-made man and that a self-made man was an ordinary man who realized his potential” (422).
Since Lincoln’s assassination, every president has looked to seize the mantle of Lincoln. As Gerhardt poetically concludes, Lincoln “has become a mentor to them all” (426). Lincoln’s Mentors is an original and satisfying biography for readers who think there is nothing new to say about the sixteenth president.
Caleb W. Southern is Director of Retention at Southern Wesleyan University. He earned his MA in History at Sam Houston State University.