« PreviousContinue »
and by the hunger and thirst of a noble nature, he was led to the acquisition of a practical education, and to the development of all those peculiar powers that were latent within him.
He was loyal to his convictions. There is no doubt that at this time he had begun to think of political life. He was, at least, thoroughly conversant with the politics of his own state and of the country. There was not a more diligent reader of political newspapers than he. He had become familiar with the position and history of the politicians and statesmen of the country, and must have been entirely aware of the unpopularity of those toward whom his judgment and sympathies led him. That he was then, and always remained, an ambitious man, there is no question; and with this fact in mind we can measure the sacrifice which adherence to his convictions cost him. His early love of Henry Clay has already been noticed; and this love for the great Kentuckian, though circumstances modified it somewhat, never ceased. He clung to him with the warmest affection through the most of his life, pronounced his eulogy when he died, and stood firmly by the principles which he represented. In a state overwhelmingly democratic, he took his position with the minority, and steadily adhered to the opposition against all the temptations to quick and certain success which desertion would bring him.
He was a marked and peculiar man. People talked about him. His studious habits, his greed for information, his thorough mastery of the difficulties of every new position in which he was placed, his intelligence touching all matters of public concern, his unwearying good nature, his skill in telling a story, his great athletic power, his quaint, odd ways, his uncouth appearance, all tended to bring him into sharp contrast with the dull mediocrity by which he was surrounded. Denton Offutt, his old employer in the store, said, in the extravagance of his admiration, that he knew more than any other man in the United States. The Governor of Indiana, one of Offutt's acquaintances, said, after having a conversation with Lincoln, that the young man "had talent enough in him to make a President." In every circle in which he found
himself, whether refined or coarse, he was always the center of attraction. William G. Greene says that when he (Greene) was a member of Illinois college, he brought home with him, on a vacation, Richard Yates, the present Governor of the state, and some other boys, and, in order to entertain them, took them all up to see Lincoln. He found him in his usual position and at his usual occupation. He was flat on his back, on a cellar door, reading a newspaper. That was the manner in which a President of the United States and a Governor of Illinois became acquainted with one another. Mr. Greene says that Lincoln then could repeat the whole of Burns, and was a devoted student of Shakspeare. So the rough backwoodsman, self-educated, entertained the college boys, and was invited to dine with them on bread and milk. How he managed to upset his bowl of milk is not a matter of history, but the fact that he did so is, as is the further fact that Greene's mother, who loved Lincoln, tried to smooth over the accident, and relieve the young man's embarrassment.
Wherever he moved he found men and women to respect and love him. One man who knew him at that time says that "Lincoln had nothing, only plenty of friends." And these friends trusted him wholly, and were willing to be led by him. His unanimous election as Captain in the Black Hawk war, and the unanimous vote given him for the legislature by political friend and foe, wherever in the county he was known, illustrates his wonderful popularity. All the circumstances considered, it was probably without a precedent or parallel. When we remember that this popularity was achieved without any direct attempt to win it-that he flattered nobody, made no pretensions whatever, and was the plainest and poorest man in his precinct, we can appreciate something of the strength of his character and the beauty and purity of his life. He aroused no jealousies, for he was not selfish. He made no enemies, because he felt kindly toward every man. People were glad to see him rise, because it seemed just that he should rise. Indeed, all seemed glad to help him along.
He was a man of practical expedients. He always found some way to get out of difficulties, whether moral or mechanical, and was equally ingenious in his expedients for escaping or surmounting each variety. Governor Yates, in a speech at Springfield, before a meeting at which William G. Greene presided, quoted Mr. Greene as having said that the first time he ever saw Lincoln he was "in the Sangamon River, with his trousers rolled up five feet more or less, trying to pilot a flat-boat over a mill-dam. The boat was so full of water that it was hard to manage. Lincoln got the prow over, and then, instead of waiting to bail the water out, bored a hole through the projecting part, and let it run out." Barring a little western extravagance in the statement of a measurement, the incident is truly recorded; and it illustrates more forcibly than words can describe the man's ingenuity in the quick invention of moral expedients, then and afterwards. His life had been a life of expedients. He had always been engaged in making the best of bad conditions and untoward circumstances, and in meeting and mastering emergencies. Among those who did not understand him, he had the credit or the discredit, of being a cunning man; but cunning was not at all an element of his nature or character. He was simply ingenious; he was wonderfully ingenious; but he was not cunning. Cunning is, or tries to be, far-sighted; ingenuity disposes of occasions. Cunning contrives plots; ingenuity dissolves them. Cunning sets traps; ingenuity evades them. Cunning envelops its victims in difficulties; ingenuity helps them out of them. Cunning is the offspring of selfishness; ingenuity is the child or companion of practical wisdom. He took his boat safely over a great many mill-dams during his life, but always by an expedient.
He was a religious man. The fact may be stated without any reservation—with only an explanation. He believed in God, and in his personal supervision of the affairs of men. He believed himself to be under his control and guidance. He believed in the power and ultimate triumph of the right, through his belief in God. This unwavering faith in a Divine
Providence began at his mother's knee, and ran like a thread of gold through all the inner experiences of his life. His constant sense of human duty was one of the forms by which his faith manifested itself. His conscience took a broader grasp than the simple apprehension of right and wrong. He recognized an immediate relation between God and himself, in all the actions and passions of his life. He was not professedly a Christian-that is, he subscribed to no creed,joined no organization of Christian disciples. He spoke little then, perhaps less than he did afterward, and always sparingly, of his religious belief and experiences; but that he had a deep religious life, sometimes imbued with superstition, there is no doubt. We guess at a mountain of marble by the outcropping ledges that hide their whiteness among the ferns.
At this period of his life he had not exhibited in any form that has been preserved, those logical and reasoning powers that so greatly distinguished him during his subsequent public The little clubs at and around New Salem where he "practiced polemics" kept no records, and have published no reports. The long talks in Offutt's store, on the flat-boat, on the farm and by the cabin fireside have not been preserved; but there is no doubt that the germ of the power was within him, and that the peculiarity of his education developed it into the remarkable and unique faculty which did much to distinguish him among the men of his generation. He had been from a child, in the habit of putting his thoughts into language. He wrote much, and to this fact is doubtless owing his clearness in statement. He could state with great exactness any fact within the range of his knowledge. His knowledge was not great, nor his vocabulary rich, but he could state the details of one by the use of the other with a precision that Daniel Webster never surpassed.
He was a childlike man. No public man of modern days has been fortunate enough to carry into his manhood so much. of the directness, truthfulness and simplicity of childhood as distinguished him. He was exactly what he seemed. He was not awkward for a purpose, but because he could not help
it. He did not dress shabbily to win votes, or excite comment, but partly because he was too poor to dress well, and partly because he had no love for dress, or taste in its arrangement. He was not honest because he thought honesty was "the best policy," but because honesty was with him "the natural way of living." With a modest estimate of his own powers, and a still humbler one of his acquisitions, he never assumed to bę more or other than he was. A lie in any form seemed impossible to him. He could neither speak one nor act one, and in the light of this fact all the words and acts of his life are to be judged.
If this brief statement of his qualities and powers represents a wonderfully perfect character-so strangely pure and noble that it seems like the sketch of an enthusiast, it is not the writer's fault. Its materials are drawn from the lips of old friends who speak of him with tears-who loved him then as if he were their brother, and who worship his memory with a fond idolatry. It is drawn from such humble materials as composed his early history. He loved all, was kind to all, was without a vice of appetite or passion, was honest, was truthful, was simple, was unselfish, was religious, was intelligent and self-helpful, was all that a good man could desire in a son ready to enter life. We shall see how such a man with such a character entered life, and passed through it.