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Abraham Lincoln, the Great
T requires the most gracious pages in the world's history to record what one American achieved. The story of this simple life is the story of a plain, honest, manly citizen, true patriot, and profound statesman, who believing with all the strength of his mighty soul in the institutions of his country, won because of them the highest place in its government then fell a precious sacrifice to the Union he held so dear, which Providence had spared his life long enough to save.
What were the traits of character which made Abraham Lincoln prophet and master, without a rival, in the greatest crisis in our history? What gave him such mighty power? To me the answer is simple: Lincoln had sublime faith in the people. He walked with and among them. He recognized the importance and power of an enlightened public sentiment and was guided by it. Even amid the vicissitudes of war, he concealed little from public review and inspection. In all he did, he invited, rather than evaded, exam
'From an Address by William McKinley, before the Marquette Club, Chicago, February 12, 1896.
ination and criticism. He submitted his plans and purposes, as far as practicable, to public consideration with perfect frankness and sincerity. There was such homely simplicity in his character that it could not be hedged in by the pomp of place, nor the ceremonials of high official station. He was so accessible to the public that he seemed to take the whole people into his confidence. Here, perhaps, was one secret of his power. The people never lost their confidence in him, however much they unconsciously added to his personal discomfort and trials. His patience was almost superhuman; and who will say that he was mistaken in his treatment of the thousands who thronged continually about him? More than once when reproached for permitting visitors to crowd upon him, he asked, in pained surprise: "Why, what harm does this confidence in men do me? I get only good and inspiration from it."
Horace Greeley once said: "I doubt whether man, woman or child, white or black, bond or free; virtuous or vicious, ever accosted, or reached forth a hand to Abraham Lincoln, and detected in his countenance or manner, any repugnance or shrinking from the proffered contact, any assumption of superiority, or betrayal of disdain."
Frederick Douglass, the orator and patriot, is credited with saying: "Mr. Lincoln is the only white man with whom I have ever talked, or in whose presence I have ever been, who did not consciously or unconsciously betray to me that he recognized my color."
George Bancroft, the historian, alluding to this characteristic, which was never so conspicuously manifested as during the darker hours of the war, beautifully illustrated it in these memorable words: "As a child, in a dark night, on a rugged way, catches hold of the hand of its father for guidance and support, Lincoln clung fast to the hand of the people, and moved calmly through the gloom."
His earliest public utterances were marked by this confidence. On March 9, 1832, when announcing himself as a candidate for Representative in the Illinois Legislature, he said that he felt it his duty to make known to the people his sentiments upon the questions of the day:
"Every man is said to have his precious ambition," he observed, "and whether it be true or not, I can say, for one, that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed by my fellow men by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition is yet to be developed. I am young and unknown to many of you. I was born, and have ever remained, in the humblest walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relatives or friends to recommend me. My case is thrown exclusively upon the independent voters of the county. But if the good people, in their wisdom, shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined."
In this remarkable address to me always pathetic-made when he was only twenty-three, the
main elements of Lincoln's character and the qualities
Among the statesmen of America, Lincoln is the
Lincoln had little or no instruction in the common school; but, as the eminent Dr. Cuyler has said, he was graduated from "the grand college of free labor, whose works were the flat-boat, the farm, and the backwoods lawyer's office." He had a broad comprehension of the central idea of popular government. The Declaration of Independence was his handbook; time and again he expressed his belief in freedom and equality. On July 1, 1854, he wrote:
"Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of the equal rights of men. Ours began by affirming those rights. They said 'some men
are too ignorant and vicious to share in government.' 'Possibly so,' said we, and by your system you would always keep them ignorant and vicious. We proposed to give all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant wiser, and all better and happier together.' We made the experiment, and the fruit is before us. Look at it, think of it! Look at it in its aggregate grandeur, extent of country, and numbers of population."
Lincoln believed in the uplifting influences of free government, and that by giving all a chance we could get higher average results for the people than where governments are exclusive and opportunities are limited to the few. No American ever did so much as he to enlarge these opportunities, or tear down the barriers which excluded a free participation in them. In his first message to Congress, at the special session convening on July 4, 1861, he gave signal evidence of his faith in our institutions, and their elevating influences, in most impressive language. He said:
"It may be affirmed without extravagance that the free institutions we enjoy have developed the powers and improved the condition of our whole people beyond any example in the world. Of this we now have a striking and an impressive illustration. So large an army as the Government has now on foot was never before known without a soldier in it but who has taken his place there of his own free choice." (Then what followed in his message is, to me, the highest and most touching tribute ever spoken or written of our matchless Volunteer Army of 1861-65