"There has undoubtedly been written about (Abraham Lincoln) more romantic and sentimental rubbish than about any other American figure, wrote critic Edmund Wilson in "Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War" " . . . and there are moments when one is tempted to feel that the cruellest thing that has happened to him . . . since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg."
Tragically, all most Americans know about Abraham Lincoln has come from Sanburg, whose multi-volumed "Prairie and War Years" introduced the Civil War president to new generations in the 1920s and confirmed and perpetuated the Lincoln myths for those who remembered. Sandburg heaped upon us page after page of fanciful notions about Ann Rutledge and Lincoln's mother, when, in fact, very little is known about either.
By the same token, where there was prodigious material available, Sandburg, and indeed other biographers, treated it with comparative disregard. One such brief period of Lincoln's life was his single two-year term as representative from the 7th Congressional district of Illinois. It has either been ignored or so wrongly interpreted that, for the most part, Lincoln has been credited with failure. In fact, he came out of the U.S. Congress a major political figure and a decided influence on his party and the national scene in the 1850's. To say that these two years paved his way to the White House may be exaggeration, but certainly they provided the political base for his future career.
Rep. Paul Findley (R), who today represents Lincoln's old district, has written a creditable study of Lincoln's service in Congress. By his own admission, Findley is no historian, but he achieves redemption by clearly demonstrating that "it takes one to know one." No one can better understand the political intricacies of the U.S. Congress than one who has served; Findley is in his seventh term. The extent to which the "30th Congress (Lincoln's term, 1846-1848) resembles the Congresses in which I have served," Findley writes, "is striking. The basic legislative process has emerged with remarkably few changes. The main elements are still at work, differing only in personality and degree."
Congressman Findley's narrative moves briskly through Lincoln's early experiences in the Illinois legislature, mercifully sparing the reader the backwoodsman tales except when they directly influenced Lincoln's political life. With dispatch, Findley transports the man from Springfield to the House of Representatives. Once elected to Congress, Lincoln moves through the book like a finely honed blade slicing his way toward an obviously preordained career. How he manipulates and is manipulated, his struggles with early slavery issues, his protests against the war with Mexico, his relationships with contemporaries -- all of this is deftly handled by the author, who throughout the book, likens his own career to Lincoln's. Sometimes these passages seemingly become justifications for Findley's own congressional record, or, perhaps, a forum for the future. These disturbing moments aside, his interpretations of Lincoln's developing political principles and convictions are, more often than not, brilliantly accomplished.
Findley has probably told us more about Lincoln than we really need to know, but unlike most, he has written with a unique and sensitive perspective. Edmond Wilson said Lincoln took poet-balladeer Sandburg out of his depth. Not so Findley. Historians will fault him for having no footnotes, but the layman who seeks to know Lincoln a little better will bless him for filling a void.