Drawing on the latest interpretive and methodological advances in historical scholarship, The Young Eagle: The Rise of Abraham Lincoln reexamines the young adult life of America's sixteenth president.
Essential to the myth of Lincoln, writes University of Nebraska historian Winkle, is the image of the log cabin: the 16th president's humble origins made his rise to the White House astounding. Winkle shows that though his roots were modest, Lincoln was hardly a self-made man. His rise from "frontier poverty" to the presidency occurred in a specific historic context, and the strength of this biography lies less in any startling new findings about Lincoln's early years and more in Winkle's careful and consistent placement of Lincoln's choices within larger sociocultural trends. For example, historians have made much of the early death of Lincoln's mother, Nancy. But the loss of one's mother at an early age was common then, says Winkle, and scholars may have overstated the impact it had on the future president. He also examines Lincoln's much-analyzed estrangement from his father--he refused to go to his father's sick bed or even to attend his funeral--in a broader historical context. Winkle sets this family drama against the backdrop of changes in economic and family values: as production increasingly left the home for the factory in antebellum America, "fathers... lost their privileged, patriarchal status." Similarly, Winkle describes Lincoln's turbulent courtship of Mary Todd in light of changes in the institution of marriage during the 1830s and '40s. Does all this contextualizing add up to a sweepingly revised biography of Lincoln, or even to a grand new understanding of his "rise"? No. But Winkle's attention to the particularities of time and place reminds readers that Lincoln was not simply an underdog hero who appeared on the scene in 1860, and this outlook distinguishes his book from the endless stream of Lincoln biographies.