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Abe Lincoln

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Differences in Perception

There is a saying that states, "If thirty people are gathered to describe one object or thing, you will then have thirty different descriptions"; this is never more evident then within history. Depending on who is interpreting an event in history, there can be many angles and approaches taken to a single event or person. This notion of biases in interpretation depending on the storyteller is evident in the different elucidations of Abraham Lincoln's life by authors Joshua Shenk and Doris Goodwin. Primary sources are only used as a guidance tool in helping decipher events or people in time. Authors or historians such as Shenk and Goodwin utilize the same primary source documents of letters, journals, photos etc. or read similar secondary source biographies by fellow historians and yet both are able to come out with differing views. In Goodwin's Team of Rivals and Shenk's Lincoln's Melancholy there are several different focuses and interpretations on Abraham Lincoln's life that can lead individuals to two very different conclusions on what type of person Abraham Lincoln was. In this following essay I will distinguish these differences between the two biographies in their approach to telling the story of Abraham Lincoln focusing on the different anecdotes used and how it emphasizes their personal annotations.

There will be three main differences in which I will highlight to prove how different interpretations can shift a characters image. Firstly I will look at their approaches to Lincoln and religion; secondly I will analyze the slavery issue through the Mary Speed Letter of 1841; the final differentiation that will be distinguished are the views on Abe and his family life.

Abraham Lincoln and religion is my first choice as it is within this context where I find the greatest differentiation between the two authors Shenk and Goodwin. Shenk places a lot of emphasis on religion in his book "Lincoln's Melancholy," using Abraham Lincolns relationship with religion to help bolster his argument on the chronic depression suffered by Lincoln. Shenk firstly focuses on religion in Abe's younger years, discussing how he was raised in the thick of "Old School Calvinism"; both his parents were fairly zealous when it came to religion belonging to a separate Baptists group that promoted human damnation. However, Lincoln soon rejected thoughts of innate sin, eternal damnation and the infallibilities of the Bible, furthermore he would publicly denounce the Bible often while on circuits around the country, which won him no favors. He was a freethinker like the great men before him and found no love for religion, or the belief in higher law; however, this would soon all change according to Shenk when he began to really suffer from depression.

Shenk emphasizes the significance in the shift of Lincoln's religious belief when Mary Speed gave him a Bible and told him to find answers to his depression . According to Shenk this was a turning point in his religious life along with the death of his son in 1861, it is at this point when Lincoln began to believe in Divine Will and fate, which seemed so uncharacteristic of a self-made man who had previously denounced pre-destination. The book of Job in particular was where Lincoln found most comfort as he felt it paralleled his life; Job had lost family like he had lost his son and friends, and had issues of questioning one's faith, Job lost property and Abe felt he was losing his country. Religion according to Shenk played a large and crucial role in Lincoln's life as it often helped him with his depression.

The significance of all this emphasis on religion by Shenk is interesting as it is in stark contrast to Goodwin's group biography Team of Rivals, which in seven hundred pages only mentions Lincoln and his religious beliefs in brief passing, if any comment at all. The only mentions of religion by Goodwin seem to contradict Shenk to a certain extent. Goodwin chooses to focus on how Lincoln in his earlier life rejected notions of higher law as proposed by Seward when dealing with the issue of slavery, believing that the only higher law was that set down in the Declaration of Independence by the founding fathers. The other significant mention of religion by Goodwin is when Lincoln refers to God as the "maker" in a speech made to his cabinet after the battle of Antietam. Goodwin used primary sources, which helped emphasized how little Lincoln ever acknowledged his religious beliefs in open discussion. This would suggest that this was a new point in his life where Lincoln began to embrace the Bible and its teachings as suggested by Shenk, however, after this there is no more mention of Lincoln and his religious beliefs. Although these two historians are writing on the same character in history, there is a different outcome on their interpretations of what was significant in the life of Abraham Lincoln. The next differentiation that arises between Shenk and Goodwin is the issue of slavery during the early stages of Lincoln's life.

Both Team of Rivals and Lincoln's Melancholy share the similar stance that Lincoln was not a staunch abolitionist by any means; he believed that slavery should be allowed to continue in the places where it had already been established but should spread no further. Lincoln would not turn to anti-slavery sentiment until well into his political career, remaining a bipartisan so speak until then. However, there is always some question as to how this educated self-made man first interpreted slavery growing up. It is in this case where we see a differentiation between the two authors as Shenk once again chooses to elaborate on a topic left blank by Goodwin. A letter sent by Lincoln to Mary Speed

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