« PreviousContinue »
In our American life, the “poor boy raised on a farm who comes to be among the foremost men of his time is not so rare as to excite fresh wonder; nor was the early lot of Abraham Lincoln so essentially different from that of others who have thus risen as to reward minute examination in detail. Beyond his unduly decried father, we find a line of ancestors whose worth and respectability cannot be questioned. Aside from the school instruction which enabled him to use the aid of books, his education, like all education that counts for much in the race of life, was chiefly selfdirected. A higher course of athletics he had no need of; and few university graduates ever acquired a better knowledge than he of the one language with which he mainly had to do. Apart from every-day experience in the backwoods and what he derived from a few books, the most effective of his earlier training was in his river voyages to New Orleans, and in his campaign as captain of troopers and as scout in repelling an Indian foray. Later, his eight years' service as a member of the Illinois Legislature - beginning as one of the youngest and quietest and ending as the acknowledged leader — was of inestimable value in preparation for his work at the bar and in higher public life. What at some particular stage on his way upward
he seemed to be to an inexpert observer may occasionally interest us, but we are more especially concerned to know what he had actually become at the time of his entrance upon the broader life following his settlement as a lawyer at Springfield. Here, in a professional practice of varied character, making him acquainted with all conditions of men, and in a single term in Congress, he continued growing and ripening until his supreme opportunity came.
From his youth, for years before the close of his rough Indiana life, it is almost certain that a steady purpose, a persistent ambition, even a stimulating presentiment, began to develop in his mind. As time went on, it took vaguely the form of a wish for a place in history — a record for all time. When defeated in any of the smaller aspirations tending in this direction, there was keenness in his mortification, but he never gave up. “The people may yet find use for me,” he said, and waited. He saw his great opportunity in 1854. Henceforward, if not always, law practice was to him of but secondary moment.
Lincoln was now forty-five. His success in politics had fallen short of his hopes. The heavy adverse party majority in Illinois had allowed him little chance. Douglas — not so early chosen to the Legislature as he — had speedily assumed the leadership of the Democratic party in the State, controlling its effective machinery for his own advancement. He had easily distanced Lincoln -- a leader, but not without competitors in his own party; had been thrice elected to the lower branch of Congress, surrendering his third term to enter the Senate; and was in his second term in that
body when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, under his lead, threatened the disruption and overthrow of the Democratic party in Illinois. Lincoln entered with all his heart into the consequent "Anti-Nebraska” struggle.
Four years later, Lincoln and Douglas contended for the latter's place in the Senate, and Douglas won. Just two years from the day he was sworn in for the term thus gained, his rival was inaugurated as President of the United States.
Considering the case from this distance, one has little difficulty in discerning that I,incoln, before all others, was the man exactly fitted to win a Republican victory in 1860. Mr. Seward would surely have been beaten if nominated. Mr. Chase, as some of his truest friends soon comprehended — and as later experience reaffirmed — was impossible even as a nominee; Judge Bates could command no new strength in the free States and was practically without following at the South; and Judge McLean, who in 1856 might have carried Pennsylvania and beaten Mr. Buchanan, had lost a last opportunity. But Lincoln fitted the exigency, not only in rescuing the nomination from Mr. Seward, but in saving the election itself, as possibly no other could have done.
But was he really the best conceivable, not to say discoverable, man — at any time, and especially at this particular time — to be placed in power as President? That question will not be discussed in these closing pages. About his methods and measures men may still argue; about his complete success there can be no dispute.
Photography, painting, and sculpture have all been employed to give in their own way an enduring presentation of Lincoln's personal exterior; and the art of description in words has partly supplied what a mute and immobile image cannot reveal. For a long time malicious perversion and satiric caricature unsparingly strove to forestall opinion and to hinder respect; and there were many not unkind people, North as well as South, who took it for granted that, both as to mind and body, great allowance was to be made by his friends and not much forbearance expected from his enemies. Only those who never had any personal association with Abraham Lincoln could think this a justifiable view of the case.
The Rev. Phillips Brooks, then rector of a church in Philadelphia — afterwards Bishop of Massachusetts — wrote to his brother, February 25, 1861, just after the President-elect passed through the city on his way to Washington: “I saw 'Abe' on Thursday. He is a good-looking, substantial sort of a man, and I believe he will do the work." This was said on the spur of the moment, with undoubted earnestness and sincerity. Sir Edward Malet, then holding a subordinate diplomatic place in Washington, at the outset of a distinguished career in both hemispheres, said forty years later in his book of recollections: * “Of all the great men I have known, he is the one who has left upon me the impression of a sterling son of God. I can still feel the grip of his massive hand and the searching look of his kindly eye.”
He was indeed a plain man in person, dress, and manner.
Without affectation he chose to be classed
*“ Shifting Scenes,” 1901.
with “plain people ” in the good old English sense of that term. His success in statecraft was partly due to his care and capacity to conciliate — to be all that is fair and kind to all men and to deserve their confidence. “Fairness was one of his favorite words. Maintaining dignity without distance -- leaving his superior position to have its own effect without self-assertion — he avoided the intrusion of familiarity while manifesting a true sympathy which won complete trust.
"Come with me and see St. Louis under the Oak,'” said Charles Sumner to a French visitor one day, alluding to the promiscuous receptions given at the White House to the crowd of applicants or supplicants still waiting after the close of the President's usual hours of audience. Nothing like this, habitually and on so large a scale, had before been known in Washington. There was little spectacular resemblance, certainly, though there was similarity of purpose, between these scenes and the outdoor audiences of the royal saint, listening to the wants and wrongs of his people.
The first forty days of his Presidency were to Lincoln a period of supreme trial. His Secretary of State advised the evacuation of Fort Sumter, and was backed by the military opinion of the veteran General-in-chief; and with but one or two exceptions the rest of his Cabinet concurred. Yet he saw at once that such a surrender at the very outset, no matter how explained, would be an irredeemable blunder. A more suspicious man would have surmised a treacherous purpose in such counsel from a civilian, whatever justification it might seem to have on its military side. All was uncertain for