Lincoln; An Account of His Personal Life, Especially of Its Springs of Action as Revealed and Deepened by the Ordeal of War
BY NATHANIEL WRIGHT STEPHENSON
Authority for all important statements of facts in the following pages may be found in the notes; the condensed references are expanded in the bibliography. A few controversial matters are discussed in the notes.
I am very grateful to Mr. William Roscoe Thayer for enabling me to use the manuscript diary of John Hay. Miss Helen Nicolay has graciously confirmed some of the implications of the official biography. Lincoln’s only surviving secretary, Colonel W. O. Stoddard, has given considerate aid. The curious incident of Lincoln as counsel in an action to recover slaves was mentioned to me by Professor Henry Johnson, through whose good offices it was confirmed and amplified by Judge John H. Marshall. Mr. Henry W. Raymond has been very tolerant of a stranger’s inquiries with regard to his distinguished father. A futile attempt to discover documentary remains of the Republican National Committee of 1864 has made it possible, through the courtesy of Mr. Clarence B. Miller, at least to assert that there is nothing of importance in possession of the present Committee. A search for new light on Chandler drew forth generous assistance from Professor Ulrich B. Phillips, Mr. Floyd B. Streeter and Mr. G. B. Krum. The latter caused to be examined, for this particular purpose, the Blair manuscripts in the Burton Historical Collection. Much illumination arose out of a systematic resurvey of the Congressional Globe, for the war period, in which I had the stimulating companionship of Professor John L. Hill, reinforced by many conversations with Professor Dixon Ryan Fox and Professor David Saville Muzzey. At the heart of the matter is the resolute criticism of Mrs. Stephenson and of a long enduring friend, President Harrison Randolph. The temper of the historical fraternity is such that any worker in any field is always under a host of incidental obligations. There is especial propriety in my acknowledging the kindness of Professor Albert Bushnell Hart, Professor James A. Woodburn, Professor Herman V. Ames, Professor St. George L. Sioussat and Professor Allen Johnson.
I THE CHILD OF THE FOREST
II THE MYSTERIOUS YOUTH
III A VILLAGE LEADER IV REVELATIONS V PROSPERITY
VI UNSATISFYING RECOGNITION
VII THE SECOND START
VIII A RETURN TO POLITICS
IX THE LITERARY STATESMAN
X THE DARK HORSE
XII THE CRISIS
XIV THE STRANGE NEW MAN
XV PRESIDENT AND PREMIER
XVI “ON TO RICHMOND!”
XVII DEFINING THE ISSUE
XVIII THE JACOBIN CLUB
XIX THE JACOBINS BECOME INQUISITORS XX IS CONGRESS THE PRESIDENT’S MASTER?
XXI THE STRUGGLE TO CONTROL THE ARMY XXII LINCOLN EMERGES
XXIII THE MYSTICAL STATESMAN
XXIV GAMBLING IN GENERALS
XXV A WAR BEHIND THE SCENES
XXVI THE DICTATOR, THE MARPLOT, AND THE LITTLE MEN XXVII THE TRIBUNE OF THE PEOPLE
XXVIII APPARENT ASCENDENCY
XXX THE PRESIDENT VERSUS THE VINDICTIVES
XXXI A MENACING PAUSE
XXXII THE AUGUST CONSPIRACY
XXXIII THE RALLY TO THE PRESIDENT
XXXIV “FATHER ABRAHAM”
XXXV THE MASTER OF THE MOMENT
XXXVI PREPARING A DIFFERENT WAR
XXXVII FATE INTERPOSES
The author and publisher make grateful acknowledgement to Ginn and Company, Boston, for the photograph of St. Gaudens’ Statue; to The Century Company of New York for the Earliest Portrait of Lincoln, which is from an engraving by Johnson after a daguerreotype in the possession of the Honorable Robert T. Lincoln; and for Lincoln and Tad, which is from the famous photograph by Brady; to The Macmillan Company of New York for the portrait of Mrs. Lincoln and also for The Review of the Army of the Potomac, both of which were originally reproduced in Ida M. Tarbell’s Life of Abraham Lincoln. For the rare and interesting portrait entitled The Last Phase of Lincoln acknowledgment is made to Robert Bruce, Esquire, Clinton, Oneida County, New York. This photograph was taken by Alexander Gardner, April 9, 1865, the glass plate of which is now in Mr. Bruce’s collection.
I. THE CHILD OF THE FOREST
Of first importance in the making of the American people is that great forest which once extended its mysterious labyrinth from tide-water to the prairies when the earliest colonists entered warily its sea-worn edges a portion of the European race came again under a spell it had forgotten centuries before, the spell of that untamed nature which created primitive man. All the dim memories that lay deep in subconsciousness; all the vague shadows hovering at the back of the civilized mind; the sense of encompassing natural power, the need to struggle single-handed against it; the danger lurking in the darkness of the forest; the brilliant treachery of the forest sunshine glinted through leafy secrecies; the Strange voices in its illimitable murmur; the ghostly shimmer of its glades at night; the lovely beauty of the great gold moon; all the thousand wondering dreams that evolved the elder gods, Pan, Cybele, Thor; all this waked again in the soul of the Anglo-Saxon penetrating the great forest. And it was intensified by the way he came,–singly, or with but wife and child, or at best in very small company, a mere handful. And the surrounding presences were not only of the spiritual world. Human enemies who were soon as well armed as he, quicker of foot and eye, more perfectly noiseless in their tread even than the wild beasts of the shadowy coverts, the ruthless Indians whom he came to expel, these invisible presences were watching him, in a fierce silence he knew not whence. Like as not the first signs of that menace which was everywhere would be the hiss of the Indian arrow, or the crack of the Indian rifle, and sharp and sudden death.
Under these conditions he learned much and forgot much. His deadly need made him both more and less individual than he had been, released him from the dictation of his fellows in daily life while it enforced relentlessly a uniform method of self-preservation. Though the unseen world became more and more real, the understanding of it faded. It became chiefly a matter of emotional perception, scarcely at all a matter of philosophy. The morals of the forest Americans were those of audacious, visionary beings loosely hound together by a comradeship in peril. Courage, cautiousness, swiftness, endurance, faithfulness, secrecy,–these were the forest virtues. Dreaming, companionship, humor,–these were the forest luxuries.
From the first, all sorts and conditions were ensnared by that silent land, where the trails they followed, their rifles in their hands, had been trodden hard generation after generation by the feet of the Indian warriors. The best and the worst of England went into that illimitable resolvent, lost themselves, found themselves, and issued from its shadows, or their children did, changed both for good and ill, Americans. Meanwhile the great forest, during two hundred years, was slowly vanishing. This parent of a new people gave its life to its offspring and passed away. In the early nineteenth century it had withered backward far from the coast; had lost its identity all along the north end of the eastern mountains; had frayed out toward the sunset into lingering tentacles, into broken minor forests, into shreds and patches.
Curiously, by a queer sort of natural selection, its people had congregated into life communities not all of one pattern. There were places as early as the beginning of the century where distinction had appeared. At other places life was as rude and rough as could be imagined. There were innumerable farms that were still mere “clearings,” walled by the forest. But there were other regions where for many a mile the timber had been hewn away, had given place to a ragged continuity of farmland. In such regions especially if the poorer elements of the forest, spiritually speaking, had drifted thither–the straggling villages which had appeared were but groups of log cabins huddled along a few neglected lanes. In central Kentucky, a poor new village was Elizabethtown, unkempt, chokingly dusty in the dry weather, with muddy streams instead of streets during the rains, a stench of pig-sties at the back of its cabins, but everywhere looking outward glimpses of a lovely meadow land.
At Elizabethtown in 1806 lived Joseph Hanks, a carpenter, also his niece Nancy Hanks. Poor people they were, of the sort that had been sucked into the forest in their weakness, or had been pushed into it by a social pressure they could not resist; not the sort that had grimly adventured its perils or gaily courted its lure. Their source was Virginia. They were of a thriftless, unstable class; that vagrant peasantry which had drifted westward to avoid competition with slave labor. The niece, Nancy, has been reputed illegitimate. And though tradition derives her from the predatory amour of an aristocrat, there is nothing to sustain the tale except her own appearance. She had a bearing, a cast of feature, a tone, that seemed to hint at higher social origins than those of her Hanks relatives. She had a little schooling; was of a pious and emotional turn of mind; enjoyed those amazing “revivals” which now and then gave an outlet to the pent-up religiosity of the village; and she was almost handsome.
History has preserved no clue why this girl who was rather the best of her sort chose to marry an illiterate apprentice of her uncle’s, Thomas Lincoln, whose name in the forest was spelled “Linkhorn.” He was a shiftless fellow, never succeeding at anything, who could neither read nor write. At the time of his birth, twenty-eight years before, his parents–drifting, roaming people, struggling with poverty–were dwellers in the Virginia mountains. As a mere lad, he had shot an Indian–one of the few positive acts attributed to him–and his father had been killed by Indians. There was a “vague tradition” that his grandfather had been a Pennsylvania Quaker who had wandered southward through the forest mountains. The tradition angered him. Though he appears to have had little enough–at least in later years–of the fierce independence of the forest, he resented a Quaker ancestry as an insult. He had no suspicion that in after years the zeal of genealogists would track his descent until they had linked him with a lost member of a distinguished Puritan family, a certain Mordecai Lincoln who removed to New Jersey, whose descendants became wanderers of the forest and sank speedily to the bottom of the social scale, retaining not the slightest memory of their New England origin. Even in the worst of the forest villages, few couples started married life in less auspicious circumstances than did Nancy and Thomas. Their home in one of the alleys of Elizabethtown was a shanty fourteen feet square. Very soon after marriage, shiftless Thomas gave up carpentering and took to farming. Land could be had almost anywhere for almost nothing those days, and Thomas got a farm on credit near where now stands Hodgenville. Today, it is a famous place, for there, February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln, second child, but first son of Nancy and Thomas, was born.
During most of eight years, Abraham lived in Kentucky. His father, always adrift in heart, tried two farms before abandoning Kentucky altogether. A shadowy figure, this Thomas; the few memories of him suggest a superstitious nature in a superstitious community. He used to see visions in the forest. Once, it is said, he came home, all excitement, to tell his wife he had seen a giant riding on a lion, tearing up trees by the roots; and thereupon, he took to his bed and kept it for several days.
His son Abraham told this story of the giant on the lion to a playmate of his, and the two boys gravely discussed the existence of ghosts. Abraham thought his father “didn’t exactly believe in them,” and seems to have been in about the same state of mind himself. He was quite sure he was “not much” afraid of the dark. This was due chiefly to the simple wisdom of a good woman, a neighbor, who had taught him to think of the night as a great room that God had darkened even as his friend darkened a room in her house by hanging something over the window.
The eight years of his childhood in Kentucky had few incidents. A hard, patient, uncomplaining life both for old and young. The men found their one deep joy in the hunt. In lesser degree, they enjoyed the revivals which gave to the women their one escape out of themselves. A strange, almost terrible recovery of the primitive, were those religious furies of the days before the great forest had disappeared. What other figures in our history are quite so remarkable as the itinerant frontier priests, the circuit-riders as they are now called, who lived as Elijah did, whose temper was very much the temper of Elijah, in whose exalted narrowness of devotion, all that was stern, dark, foreboding–the very brood of the forest’s innermost heart–had found a voice. Their religion was ecstasy in homespun, a glory of violent singing, the release of a frantic emotion, formless but immeasurable, which at all other times, in the severity of the forest routine, gave no sign of its existence.
A visitor remembered long afterward a handsome young woman who he thought was Nancy Hanks, singing wildly, whirling about as may once have done the ecstatic women of the woods of Thrace, making her way among equally passionate worshipers, to the foot of the rude altar, and there casting herself into the arms of the man she was to marry. So did thousands of forest women in those seasons when their communion with a mystic loneliness was confessed, when they gave tongue as simply as wild creatures to the nameless stirrings and promptings of that secret woodland where Pan was still the lord. And the day following the revival, they were again the silent, expressionless, much enduring, long-suffering forest wives, mothers of many children, toilers of the cabins, who cooked and swept and carried fuel by sunlight, and by firelight sewed and spun.
It can easily be understood how these women, as a rule, exerted little influence on their sons. Their imaginative side was too deeply hidden, the nature of their pleasures too secret, too mysterious. Male youth, following its obvious pleasure, went with the men to the hunt The women remained outsiders. The boy who chose to do likewise, was the incredible exception. In him had come to a head the deepest things in the forest life: the darkly feminine things, its silence, its mysticism, its secretiveness, its tragic patience. Abraham was such a boy. It is said that he astounded his father by refusing to own a gun. He earned terrible whippings by releasing animals caught in traps. Though he had in fullest measure the forest passion for listening to stories, the ever-popular tales of Indian warfare disgusted him. But let the tale take on any glint of the mystery of the human soul–as of Robinson Crusoe alone on his island, or of the lordliness of action, as in Columbus or Washington–and he was quick with interest. The stories of talking animals out of Aesop fascinated him.
In this thrilled curiosity about the animals was the side of him least intelligible to men like his father. It lives in many anecdotes: of his friendship with a poor dog he had which he called “Honey”; of pursuing a snake through difficult thickets to prevent its swallowing a frog; of loitering on errands at the risk of whippings to watch the squirrels in the tree-tops; of the crowning offense of his childhood, which earned him a mighty beating, the saving of a fawn’s life by scaring it off just as a hunter’s gun was leveled. And by way of comment on all this, there is the remark preserved in the memory of another boy to whom at the time it appeared most singular, “God might think as much of that little fawn as of some people.” Of him as of another gentle soul it might have been said that all the animals were his brothers and sisters.
One might easily imagine this peculiar boy who chose to remain at home while the men went out to slay, as the mere translation into masculinity of his mother, and of her mothers, of all the converging processions of forest women, who had passed from one to another the secret of their mysticism, coloring it many ways in the dark vessels of their suppressed lives, till it reached at last their concluding child. But this would only in part explain him. Their mysticism, as after-time was to show, he had undoubtedly inherited. So, too, from them, it may be, came another characteristic–that instinct to endure, to wait, to abide the issue of circumstance, which in the days of his power made him to the politicians as unintelligible as once he had been to the forest huntsmen. Nevertheless, the most distinctive part of those primitive women, the sealed passionateness of their spirits, he never from childhood to the end revealed. In the grown man appeared a quietude, a sort of tranced calm, that was appalling. From what part of his heredity did this derive? Was it the male gift of the forest? Did progenitors worthier than Thomas somehow cast through him to his alien son that peace they had found in the utter heart of danger, that apparent selflessness which is born of being ever unfailingly on guard?
It is plain that from the first he was a natural stoic, taking his whippings, of which there appear to have been plenty, in silence, without anger. It was all in the day’s round. Whippings, like other things, came and went. What did it matter? And the daily round, though monotonous, had even for the child a complement of labor. Especially there was much patient journeying back and forth with meal bags between his father’s cabin and the local mill. There was a little schooling, very little, partly from Nancy Lincoln, partly from another good woman, the miller’s kind old mother, partly at the crudest of wayside schools maintained very briefly by a wandering teacher who soon wandered on; but out of this schooling very little result beyond the mastery of the A B C. And even at this age, a pathetic eagerness to learn, to invade the wonder of the printed book! Also a marked keenness of observation. He observed things which his elders overlooked. He had a better sense of direction, as when he corrected his father and others who were taking the wrong short-cut to a burning house. Cool, unexcitable, he was capable of presence of mind. Once at night when the door of the cabin was suddenly thrown open and a monster appeared on the threshold, a spectral thing in the darkness, furry, with the head of an ox, Thomas Lincoln shrank back aghast; little Abraham, quicker-sighted and quicker-witted, slipped behind the creature, pulled at its furry mantle, and revealed a forest Diana, a bold girl who amused herself playing demon among the shadows of the moon.
Seven years passed and his eighth birthday approached. All this while Thomas Lincoln had somehow kept his family in food, but never had he money in his pocket. His successive farms, bought on credit, were never paid for. An incurable vagrant, he came at last to the psychological moment when he could no longer impose himself on his community. He must take to the road in a hazard of new fortune. Indiana appeared to him the land of promise. Most of his property–such as it was–except his carpenter’s tools, he traded for whisky, four hundred gallons. Somehow he obtained a rattletrap wagon and two horses.
The family appear to have been loath to go. Nancy Lincoln had long been ailing and in low spirits, thinking much of what might happen to her children after her death. Abraham loved the country-side, and he had good friends in the miller and his kind old mother. But the vagrant Thomas would have his way. In the brilliancy of the Western autumn, with the ruined woods flaming scarlet and gold, these poor people took their last look at the cabin that had been their wretched shelter, and set forth into the world.
II THE MYSTERIOUS YOUTH
Vagrants, or little better than vagrants, were Thomas Lincoln and his family making their way to Indiana. For a year after they arrived they were squatters, their home an “open-faced camp,” that is, a shanty with one wall missing, and instead of chimney, a fire built on the open side. In that mere pretense of a house, Nancy Lincoln and her children spent the winter of 1816-1817. Then Thomas resorted to his familiar practice of taking land on credit. The Lincolns were now part of a “settlement” of seven or eight families strung along a little stream known as Pigeon Creek. Here Thomas entered a quarter- section of fair land, and in the course of the next eleven years succeeded–wonderful to relate–in paying down sufficient money to give him title to about half.
Meanwhile, poor fading Nancy went to her place. Pigeon Creek was an out-of-the-way nook in the still unsettled West, and Nancy during the two years she lived there could not have enjoyed much of the consolation of her religion. Perhaps now and then she had ghostly council of some stray circuit-rider. But for her the days of the ecstasies had gone by; no great revival broke the seals of the spirit, stirred its deep waters, along Pigeon Creek. There was no religious service when she was laid to rest in a coffin made of green lumber and fashioned by her husband. Months passed, the snow lay deep, before a passing circuit-rider held a burial service over her grave. Tradition has it that the boy Abraham brought this about very likely, at ten years old, he felt that her troubled spirit could not have peace till this was done. Shadowy as she is, ghostlike across the page of history, it is plain that she was a reality to her son. He not only loved her but revered her. He believed that from her he had inherited the better part of his genius. Many years after her death he said, “God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her.”
Nancy was not long without a successor. Thomas Lincoln, the next year, journeyed back to Kentucky and returned in triumph to Indiana, bringing as his wife, an old flame of his who had married, had been widowed, and was of a mind for further adventures. This Sarah Bush Lincoln, of less distinction than Nancy, appears to have been steadier-minded and stronger-willed. Even before this, Thomas had left the half-faced camp and moved into a cabin. But such a cabin! It had neither door, nor window, nor floor. Sally Lincoln required her husband to make of it a proper house–by the standards of Pigeon Creek. She had brought with her as her dowry a wagonload of furniture. These comforts together with her strong will began a new era of relative comfort in the Lincoln cabin.
Sally Lincoln was a kind stepmother to Abraham who became strongly attached to her. In the rough and nondescript community of Pigeon Creek, a world of weedy farms, of miserable mud roads, of log farm-houses, the family life that was at least tolerable. The sordid misery described during her regime emerged from wretchedness to a state of by all the recorders of Lincoln’s early days seems to have ended about his twelfth year. At least, the vagrant suggestion disappeared. Though the life that succeeded was void of luxury, though it was rough, even brutal, dominated by a coarse, peasant-like view of things, it was scarcely by peasant standards a life of hardship. There was food sufficient, if not very good; protection from wind and weather; fire in the winter time; steady labor; and social acceptance by the community of the creekside. That the labor was hard and long, went without saying. But as to that–as of the whippings in Kentucky–what else, from the peasant point of view, would you expect? Abraham took it all with the same stoicism with which he had once taken the whippings. By the unwritten law of the creekside he was his father’s property, and so was his labor, until he came of age. Thomas used him as a servant or hired him out to other farmers. Stray recollections show us young Abraham working as a farm-hand for twenty-five cents the day, probably with “keep” in addition; we glimpse him slaughtering hogs skilfully at thirty-one cents a day, for this was “rough work.” He became noted as an axman.
In the crevices, so to speak, of his career as a farm-hand, Abraham got a few months of schooling, less than a year in all. A story that has been repeated a thousand times shows the raw youth by the cabin fire at night doing sums on the back of a wooden shovel, and shaving off its surface repeatedly to get a fresh page. He devoured every book that came his way, only a few to be sure, but generally great ones–the Bible, of course, and Aesop, Crusoe, Pilgrim’s Progress, and a few histories, these last unfortunately of the poorer sort. He early displayed a bent for composition, scribbling verses that were very poor, and writing burlesque tales about his acquaintances in what passed for a Biblical style.
One great experience broke the monotony of the life on Pigeon Creek. He made a trip to New Orleans as a “hand” on a flatboat. Of this trip little is known though much may be surmised. To his deeply poetic nature what an experience it must have been: the majesty of the vast river; the pageant of its immense travel; the steamers heavily laden; the fleets of barges; the many towns; the nights of stars over wide sweeps of water; the stately plantation houses along the banks; the old French city with its crowds, its bells, the shipping, the strange faces and the foreign speech; all the bewildering evidence that there were other worlds besides Pigeon Creek!
What seed of new thinking was sown in his imagination by this Odyssey we shall never know. The obvious effect in the ten years of his life in Indiana was produced at Pigeon Creek. The “settlement” was within fifteen miles of the Ohio. It lay in that southerly fringe of Indiana which received early in the century many families of much the same estate, character and origin as the Lincolns,–poor whites of the edges of the great forest working outward toward the prairies. Located on good land not far from a great highway, the Ohio, it illustrated in its rude prosperity a transformation that went on unobserved in many such settlements, the transformation of the wandering forester of the lower class into a peasant farmer. Its life was of the earth, earthy; though it retained the religious traditions of the forest, their significance was evaporating; mysticism was fading into emotionalism; the camp-meeting was degenerating into a picnic. The supreme social event, the wedding, was attended by festivities that filled twenty-four hours: a race of male guests in the forenoon with a bottle of whisky for a prize; an Homeric dinner at midday; “an afternoon of rough games and outrageous practical jokes; a supper and dance at night interrupted by the successive withdrawals of the bride and groom, attended by ceremonies and jests of more than Rabelaisian crudeness; and a noisy dispersal next day.” The intensities of the forest survived in hard drinking, in the fury of the fun-making, and in the hunt. The forest passion for storytelling had in no way decreased.
In this atmosphere, about eighteen and nineteen, Abraham shot up suddenly from a slender boy to a huge, raw-honed, ungainly man, six feet four inches tall, of unusual muscular strength. His strength was one of the fixed conditions of his development. It delivered him from all fear of his fellows. He had plenty of peculiarities. He was ugly, awkward; he lacked the wanton appetites of the average sensual man. And these peculiarities without his great strength as his warrant might have brought him into ridicule. As it was, whatever his peculiarities, in a society like that of Pigeon Creek, the man who could beat all competitors, wrestling or boxing, was free from molestation. But Lincoln instinctively had another aim in life than mere freedom to be himself. Two characteristics that were so significant in his childhood continued with growing vitality in his young manhood: his placidity and his intense sense of comradeship. The latter, however, had undergone a change. It was no longer the comradeship of the wild creatures. That spurt of physical expansion, the swift rank growth to his tremendous stature, swept him apparently across a dim dividing line, out of the world of birds and beasts and into the world of men. He took the new world with the same unfailing but also unexcitable curiosity with which he had taken the other, the world of squirrels, flowers, fawns.
Here as there, the difference from his mother, deep though their similarities may have been, was sharply evident. Had he been wholly at one with her religiously, the gift of telling speech which he now began to display might have led him into a course that would have rejoiced her heart, might have made him a boy preacher, and later, a great revivalist. His father and elder sister while on Pigeon Creek joined the local Baptist Church. But Abraham did not follow them. Nor is there a single anecdote linking him in any way with the fervors of camp meeting. On the contrary, what little is remembered, is of a cool aloofness. The inscrutability of the forest was his–what it gave to the stealthy, cautious men who were too intent on observing, too suspiciously watchful, to give vent to their feelings. Therefore, in Lincoln there was always a double life, outer and inner, the outer quietly companionable, the inner, solitary, mysterious.
It was the outer life that assumed its first definite phase in the years on Pigeon Creek. During those years, Lincoln discovered his gift of story-telling. He also discovered humor. In the employment of both talents, he accepted as a matter of course the tone of the young ruffians among whom he dwelt. Very soon this powerful fellow, who could throw any of them in a wrestle, won the central position among them by a surer title, by the power to delight. And any one who knows how peasant schools of art arise–for that matter, all schools of art that are vital–knows how he did it. In this connection, his famous biographers, Nicolay and Hay, reveal a certain externality by objecting that a story attributed to him is ancient. All stories are ancient. Not the tale, but the telling, as the proverb says, is the thing. In later years, Lincoln wrote down every good story that he heard, and filed it. When it reappeared it had become his own. Who can doubt that this deliberate assimilation, the typical artistic process, began on Pigeon Creek? Lincoln never would have captured as he did his plowboy audience, set them roaring with laughter in the intervals of labor, had he not given them back their own tales done over into new forms brilliantly beyond their powers of conception. That these tales were gross, even ribald, might have been taken for granted, even had we not positive evidence of the fact. Otherwise none of that uproarious laughter which we may be sure sounded often across shimmering harvest fields while stalwart young pagans, ever ready to pause, leaned, bellowing, on the handles of their scythes, Abe Lincoln having just then finished a story.
Though the humor of these stories was Falstaffian, to say the least, though Lincoln was cock of the walk among the plowboys of Pigeon Creek, a significant fact with regard to him here comes into view. Not an anecdote survives that in any way suggests personal licentiousness. Scrupulous men who in after-time were offended by his coarseness of speech–for more or less of the artist of Pigeon Creek stuck to him almost to the end; he talked in fables, often in gross fables–these men, despite their annoyance, felt no impulse to attribute to him personal habits in harmony with his tales. On the other hand, they were puzzled by their own impression, never wavering, that he was “pureminded.” The clue which they did not have lay in the nature of his double life. That part of him which, in our modern jargon, we call his “reactions” obeyed a curious law. They dwelt in his outer life without penetrating to the inner; but all his impulses of personal action were securely seated deep within. Even at nineteen, for any one attuned to spiritual meaning, he would have struck the note of mystery, faintly, perhaps, but certainly. To be sure, no hint of this reached the minds of his rollicking comrades of the harvest field. It was not for such as they to perceive the problem of his character, to suspect that he was a genius, or to guess that a time would come when sincere men would form impressions of him as dissimilar as black and white. And so far as it went the observation of the plowboys was correct. The man they saw was indeed a reflection of themselves. But it was a reflection only. Their influence entered into the real man no more than the image in a mirror has entered into the glass.
III. A VILLAGE LEADER
Though placid, this early Lincoln was not resigned. He differed from the boors of Pigeon Creek in wanting some other sort of life. What it was he wanted, he did not know. His reading had not as yet given him definite ambitions. It may well be that New Orleans was the clue to such stirring in him as there was of that discontent which fanciful people have called divine. Remembering New Orleans, could any imaginative youth be content with Pigeon Creek?
In the spring of 1830, shortly after he came of age, he agreed for once with his father whose chronic vagrancy had reasserted itself. The whole family set out again on their wanderings and made their way in an oxcart to a new halting place on the Sangamon River in Illinois. There Abraham helped his father clear another piece of land for another illusive “start” in life. The following spring he parted with his family and struck out for himself. His next adventure was a second trip as a boatman to New Orleans. Can one help suspecting there was vague hope in his heart that he might be adventuring to the land of hearts’ desire? If there was, the yokels who were his fellow boatmen never suspected it. One of them long afterward asserted that Lincoln returned from New Orleans fiercely rebellious against its central institution, slavery, and determined to “hit that thing” whenever he could.
The legend centers in his witnessing a slave auction and giving voice to his horror in a style quite unlike any of his authentic utterances. The authority for all this is doubtful. Furthermore, the Lincoln of 1831 was not yet awakened. That inner life in which such a reaction might take place was still largely dormant. The outer life, the life of the harvest clown, was still a thick insulation. Apparently, the waking of the inner life, the termination of its dormant stage, was reserved for an incident far more personal that fell upon him in desolating force a few years later.
Following the New Orleans venture, came a period as storekeeper for a man named Denton Offut, in perhaps the least desirable town in Illinois–a dreary little huddle of houses gathered around Rutledge’s Mill on the Sangamon River and called New Salem. Though a few of its people were of a better sort than any Lincoln had yet known except, perhaps, the miller’s family in the old days in Kentucky–and still a smaller few were of fine quality, the community for the most part was hopeless. A fatality for unpromising neighborhoods overhangs like a doom the early part of this strange life. All accounts of New Salem represent it as predominantly a congregation of the worthless, flung together by unaccountable accident at a spot where there was no genuine reason for a town’s existence. A casual town, created by drifters, and void of settled purpose. Small wonder that ere long it vanished from the map; that after a few years its drifting congregation dispersed to every corner of the horizon, and was no more. But during its brief existence it staged an episode in the development of Lincoln’s character. However, this did not take place at once. And before it happened, came another turn of his soul’s highway scarcely less important. He discovered, or thought he discovered, what he wanted. His vague ambition took shape. He decided to try to be a politician. At twenty-three, after living in New Salem less than a year, this audacious, not to say impertinent, young man offered himself to the voters of Sangamon County as a candidate for the Legislature. At this time that humility which was eventually his characteristic had not appeared. It may be dated as subsequent to New Salem–a further evidence that the deep spiritual experience which closed this chapter formed a crisis. Before then, at New Salem as at Pigeon Creek, he was but a variant, singularly decent, of the boisterous, frolicking, impertinent type that instinctively sought the laxer neighborhoods of the frontier. An echo of Pigeon Creek informed the young storekeeper’s first state paper, the announcement of his candidacy, in the year 1832. His first political speech was in a curious vein, glib, intimate and fantastic: “Fellow citizens, I presume you all know who I am. I am humble Abraham Lincoln. I have been solicited by many friends to become a candidate for the Legislature. My politics are short and sweet like the old woman’s dance. I am in favor of a national bank. I am in favor of the internal improvement system and a high protective tariff. These are my sentiments and political principles. If elected, I shall be thankful; if not it will be all the same.”
However, this bold throw of the dice of fortune was not quite so impertinent as it seems. During the months when he was in charge of Offut’s grocery store he had made a conquest of New Salem. The village grocery in those days was the village club. It had its constant gathering of loafers all of whom were endowed with votes. It was the one place through which passed the whole population, in and out, one time or another. To a clever storekeeper it gave a chance to establish a following. Had he, as Lincoln had, the gift of story-telling, the gift of humor, he was a made man. Pigeon Creek over again! Lincoln’s wealth of funny stories gave Offut’s grocery somewhat the role of a vaudeville theater and made the storekeeper as popular a man as there was in New Salem.
In another way he repeated his conquest of Pigeon Creek. New Salem had its local Alsatia known as Clary’s Grove whose insolent young toughs led by their chief, Jack Armstrong, were the terror of the neighborhood. The groceries paid them tribute in free drinks. Any luckless storekeeper who incurred their displeasure found his store some fine morning a total wreck. Lincoln challenged Jack Armstrong to a duel with fists. It was formally arranged. A ring was formed; the whole village was audience; and Lincoln thrashed him to a finish. But this was only a small part of his triumph. His physical prowess, joined with his humor and his companionableness; entirely captivated Clary’s Grove. Thereafter, it was storekeeper Lincoln’s pocket borough; its ruffians were his body-guard. Woe to any one who made trouble for their hero.
There were still other causes for his quick rise to the position of village leader. His unfailing kindness was one; his honesty was another. Tales were related of his scrupulous dealings, such as walking a distance of miles in order to correct a trifling error he had made, in selling a poor woman less than the proper weight of tea. Then, too, by New Salem standards, he was educated. Long practice on the shovel at Pigeon Creek had given him a good handwriting, and one of the first things he did at New Salem was to volunteer to be clerk of elections. And there was a distinct moral superiority. Little as this would have signified unbacked by his giant strength since it had that authority behind it his morality set him apart from his followers, different, imposing. He seldom, if ever, drank whisky. Sobriety was already the rule of his life, both outward and inward. At the same time he was not censorious. He accepted the devotion of Clary’s Grove without the slightest attempt to make over its bravoes in his own image. He sympathized with its ideas of sport. For all his kindliness to humans of every sort much of his sensitiveness for animals had passed away. He was not averse to cock fighting; he enjoyed a horse race. Altogether, in his outer life, before the catastrophe that revealed him to himself, he was quite as much in the tone of New Salem as ever in that of Pigeon Creek. When the election came he got every vote in New Salem except three.
But the village was a small part of Sangamon County. Though Lincoln received a respectable number of votes elsewhere, his total was well down in the running. He remained an inconspicuous minority candidate.
Meanwhile Offut’s grocery had failed. In the midst of the legislative campaign, Offut’s farmer storekeeper volunteered for the Indian War with Black Hawk, but returned to New Salem shortly before the election without having once smelled powder. Since his peers were not of a mind to give him immediate occupation in governing, he turned again to business. He formed a partnership with a man named Berry. They bought on credit the wreck of a grocery that had been sacked by Lincoln’s friends of Clary’s Grove, and started business as “General Merchants,” under the style of Berry & Lincoln. There followed a year of complete unsuccess. Lincoln demonstrated that he was far more inclined to read any chance book that came his way than to attend to business, and that he had “no money sense.” The new firm went the way of Offut’s grocery, leaving nothing behind it but debt. The debts did not trouble Berry; Lincoln assumed them all. They formed a dreadful load which he bore with his usual patience and little by little discharged. Fifteen years passed before again he was a free man financially.
A new and powerful influence came into his life during the half idleness of his unsuccessful storekeeping. It is worth repeating in his own words, or what seems to be the fairly accurate recollection of his words: “One day a man who was migrating to the West, drove up in front of my store with a wagon which contained his family and household plunder. He asked me if I would buy an old barrel for which he had no room in his wagon, and which he said contained nothing of special value. I did not want it but to oblige him I bought it and paid him, I think, a half a dollar for it. Without further examination I put it away in the store and forgot all about it Sometime after, in overhauling things, I came upon the barrel and emptying it upon the floor to see what it contained, I found at the bottom of the rubbish a complete edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries. I began to read those famous works, and I had plenty of time; for during the long summer days when the farmers were busy with their crops, my customers were few and far between. The more I read, the more intensely interested I became. Never in my whole life was my mind so thoroughly absorbed. I read until I devoured them.”
The majesty of the law at the bottom of a barrel of trash discovered at a venture and taking instant possession of the discoverer’s mind! Like the genius issuing grandly in the smoke cloud from the vase drawn up out of the sea by the fisher in the Arabian tale! But this great book was not the only magic casket discovered by the idle store-keeper, the broken seals of which released mighty presences. Both Shakespeare and Burns were revealed to him in this period. Never after did either for a moment cease to be his companion. These literary treasures were found at Springfield twenty miles from New Salem, whither Lincoln went on foot many a time to borrow books.
His subsistence, after the failure of Berry & Lincoln, was derived from the friendliness of the County Surveyor Calhoun, who was a Democrat, while Lincoln called himself a Whig. Calhoun offered him the post of assistant. In accepting, Lincoln again displayed the honesty that was beginning to be known as his characteristic. He stipulated that he should be perfectly free to express his opinions, that the office should not be in any respect, a bribe. This being conceded, he went to work furiously on a treatise upon surveying, and astonishingly soon, with the generous help of the schoolmaster of New Salem, was able to take up his duties. His first fee was “two buckskins which Hannah Armstrong ‘fixed’ on his pants so the briers would not wear them out.”
Thus time passed until 1834 when he staked his only wealth, his popularity, in the gamble of an election. This time he was successful. During the following winter he sat in the Legislature of Illinois; a huge, uncouth, mainly silent member, making apparently no impression whatever, very probably striking the educated members as a nonentity in homespun.
In the spring of 1835, he was back in New Salem, busy again with his surveying. Kind friends had secured him the office of local postmaster. The delivery of letters was now combined with going to and fro as a surveyor. As the mail came but once a week, and as whatever he had to deliver could generally be carried in his hat, and as payment was in proportion to business done, his revenues continued small. Nevertheless, in the view of New Salem, he was getting on.
And then suddenly misfortune overtook him. His great adventure, the first of those spiritual agonies of which he was destined to endure so many, approached. Hitherto, since childhood, women had played no part in his story. All the recollections of his youth are vague in their references to the feminine. As a boy at Pigeon Creek when old Thomas was hiring him out, the women of the settlement liked to have him around, apparently because he was kindly and ever ready to do odd jobs in addition to his regular work. However, until 1835, his story is that of a man’s man, possibly because there was so much of the feminine in his own make-up. In 1835 came a change. A girl of New Salem, a pretty village maiden, the best the poor place could produce, revealed him to himself. Sweet Ann Rutledge, the daughter of the tavern-keeper, was his first love. But destiny was against them. A brief engagement was terminated by her sudden death late in the summer of 1835. Of this shadowy love-affair very little is known,–though much romantic fancy has been woven about it. Its significance for after-time is in Lincoln’s “reaction.” There had been much sickness in New Salem the summer in which Ann died. Lincoln had given himself freely as nurse–the depth of his companionableness thus being proved–and was in an overwrought condition when his sorrow struck him. A last interview with the dying girl, at which no one was present, left him quite unmanned. A period of violent agitation followed. For a time he seemed completely transformed. The sunny Lincoln, the delight of Clary’s Grove, had vanished. In his place was a desolated soul–a brother to dragons, in the terrible imagery of Job–a dweller in the dark places of affliction. It was his mother reborn in him. It was all the shadowiness of his mother’s world; all that frantic reveling in the mysteries of woe to which, hitherto, her son had been an alien. To the simple minds of the villagers with their hard-headed, practical way of keeping all things, especially love and grief, in the outer layer of consciousness, this revelation of an emotional terror was past understanding. Some of them, true to their type, pronounced him insane. He was watched with especial vigilance during storms, fogs, damp gloomy weather, “for fear of an accident.” Surely, it was only a crazy man, in New Salem psychology, who was heard to say, “I can never be reconciled to have the snow, rains and storms beat upon her grave.”
In this crucial moment when the real base of his character had been suddenly revealed–all the passionateness of the forest shadow, the unfathomable gloom laid so deep at the bottom of his soul–he was carried through his spiritual eclipse by the loving comprehension of two fine friends. New Salem was not all of the sort of Clary’s Grove. Near by on a farm, in a lovely, restful landscape, lived two people who deserve to be remembered, Bowlin Green and his wife. They drew Lincoln into the seclusion of their home, and there in the gleaming days of autumn, when everywhere in the near woods flickered downward, slowly, idly, the falling leaves golden and scarlet, Lincoln recovered his equanimity. But the hero of Pigeon Creek, of Clary’s Grove, did not quite come hack. In the outward life, to be sure, a day came when the sunny story-teller, the victor of Jack Armstrong, was once more what Jack would have called his real self. In the inner life where alone was his reality, the temper which affliction had revealed to him was established. Ever after, at heart, he was to dwell alone, facing, silent, those inscrutable things which to the primitive mind are things of every day. Always, he was to have for his portion in his real self, the dimness of twilight, or at best, the night with its stars, “never glad, confident morning again.”
From this time during many years almost all the men who saw beyond the surface in Lincoln have indicated, in one way or another, their vision of a constant quality. The observers of the surface did not see it. That is to say, Lincoln did not at once cast off any of his previous characteristics. It is doubtful if he ever did. His experience was tenaciously cumulative. Everything he once acquired, he retained, both in the outer life and the inner; and therefore, to those who did not have the clue to him, he appeared increasingly contradictory, one thing on the surface, another within. Clary’s Grove and the evolutions from Clary’s Grove, continued to think of him as their leader. On the other hand, men who had parted with the mere humanism of Clary’s Grove, who were a bit analytical, who thought themselves still more analytical, seeing somewhat beneath the surface, reached conclusions similar to those of a shrewd Congressman who long afterward said that Lincoln was not a leader of men but a manager of men. This astute distinction was not true of the Lincoln the Congressman confronted; nevertheless, it betrays much both of the observer and of the man he tried to observe. In the Congressman’s day, what he thought he saw was in reality the shadow of a Lincoln that had passed away, passed so slowly, so imperceptibly that few people knew it had passed. During many years following 1835, the distinction in the main applied. So thought the men who, like Lincoln’s latest law partner, William H. Herndon, were not derivatives of Clary’s Grove. The Lincoln of these days was the only one Herndon knew. How deeply he understood Lincoln is justly a matter of debate; but this, at least, he understood–that Clary’s Grove, in attributing to Lincoln its own idea of leadership, was definitely wrong. He saw in Lincoln, in all the larger matters, a tendency to wait on events, to take the lead indicated by events, to do what shallow people would have called mere drifting. To explain this, he labeled him a fatalist. The label was only approximate, as most labels are. But Herndon’s effort to find one is significant. In these years, Lincoln took the initiative–when he took it at all–in a way that most people did not recognize. His spirit was ever aloof. It was only the every-day, the external Lincoln that came into practical contact with his fellows.
This is especially true of the growing politician. He served four consecutive terms in the Legislature without doing anything that had the stamp of true leadership. He was not like either of the two types of politicians that generally made up the legislatures of those days–the men who dealt in ideas as political counters, and the men who were grafters without in their naive way knowing that they were grafters. As a member of the Legislature, Lincoln did not deal in ideas. He was instinctively incapable of graft A curiously routine politician, one who had none of the earmarks familiar in such a person. Aloof, and yet, more than ever companionable, the power he had in the Legislature–for he had acquired a measure of power–was wholly personal. Though called a Whig, it was not as a party man but as a personal friend that he was able to carry through his legislative triumphs. His most signal achievement was wholly a matter of personal politics. There was a general demand for the removal of the capital from its early seat at Vandalia, and rivalry among other towns was keen. Sangamon County was bent on winning the prize for its own Springfield. Lincoln was put in charge of the Springfield strategy. How he played his cards may be judged from the recollections of another member who seems to have anticipated that noble political maxim, “What’s the Constitution between friends?” “Lincoln,” he says, “made Webb and me vote for the removal, though we belonged to the southern end of the state. We defended our vote before our constituents by saying that necessity would ultimately force the seat of government to a central position; but in reality, we gave the vote to Lincoln because we liked him, because we wanted to oblige our friend, and because we recognized him as our leader.”
And yet on the great issues of the day he could not lead them. In 1837, the movement of the militant abolitionists, still but a few years old, was beginning to set the Union by the ears. The illegitimate child of Calvinism and the rights of man, it damned with one anathema every holder of slaves and also every opponent of slavery except its own uncompromising adherents. Its animosity was trained particularly on every suggestion that designed to uproot slavery without creating an economic crisis, that would follow England’s example, and terminate the “peculiar institution” by purchase. The religious side of abolition came out in its fury against such ideas. Slave-holders were Canaanites. The new cult were God’s own people who were appointed to feel anew the joy of Israel hewing Agag asunder. Fanatics, terrible, heroic, unashamed, they made two sorts of enemies–not only the partisans of slavery, but all those sane reformers who, while hating slavery, hated also the blood-lust that would make the hewing of Agag a respectable device of political science. Among the partisans of slavery were the majority of the Illinois Legislature. Early in 1837, they passed resolutions condemning abolitionism. Whereupon it was revealed–not that anybody at the time cared to know the fact, or took it to heart–that among the other sort of the enemies of abolition was our good young friend, everybody’s good friend, Abe Lincoln. He drew up a protest against the Legislature’s action; but for all his personal influence in other affairs, he could persuade only one member to sign with him. Not his to command at will those who “recognized him as their leader” in the orthodox political game–so discreet, in that it left principles for some one else to be troubled about! Lincoln’s protest was quite too far out of the ordinary for personal politics to endure it. The signers were asked to proclaim their belief “that the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy; but that the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to promote than to abate its evils.”
The singular originality of this position, sweeping aside as vain both participants in the new political duel, was quite lost on the little world in which Lincoln lived. For after-time it has the interest of a bombshell that failed to explode. It is the dawn of Lincoln’s intellect. In his lonely inner life, this crude youth, this lover of books in a village where books were curiosities, had begun to think. The stages of his transition from mere story-telling yokel–intellectual only as the artist is intellectual, in his methods of handling–to the man of ideas, are wholly lost. And in this fact we have a prophecy of all the years to come. Always we shall seek in vain for the early stages of Lincoln’s ideas. His mind will never reveal itself until the moment at which it engages the world. No wonder, in later times, his close associates pronounced him the most secretive of men; that one of the keenest of his observers said that the more you knew of Lincoln, the less you knew of him.
Except for the handicap of his surroundings, his intellectual start would seem belated; even allowing for his handicap, it was certainly slow. He was now twenty-eight. Pretty well on to reveal for the first time intellectual power! Another characteristic here. His mind worked slowly. But it is worth observing that the ideas of the protest were never abandoned. Still a third characteristic, mental tenacity. To the end of his days, he looked askance at the temper of abolitionism, regarded it ever as one of the chief evils of political science. And quite as significant was another idea of the protest which also had developed from within, which also he never abandoned.
On the question of the power of the national government with regard to slavery, he took a position not in accord with either of the political creeds of his day. The Democrats had already formulated their doctrine that the national government was a thing of extremely limited powers, the “glorified policeman” of a certain school of publicists reduced almost to a minus quantity. The Whigs, though amiably vague on most things except money-making by state aid, were supposed to stand for a “strong central government. Abolitionism had forced on both parties a troublesome question, “What about slavery in the District of Columbia, where the national government was supreme?”The Democrats were prompt in their reply: Let the glorified policeman keep the peace and leave private interests, such as slave-holding, alone. The Whigs evaded, tried not to apply their theory of “strong” government; they were fearful lest they offend one part of their membership if they asserted that the nation had no right to abolish slavery in the District, fearful of offending others if they did not. Lincoln’s protest asserted that “the Congress of the United States has the power, under the Constitution, to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia but the power ought not to be exercised, unless at the request of the District.” In other words, Lincoln, when suddenly out of the storm and stress that followed Ann’s death his mentality flashes forth, has an attitude toward political power that was not a consequence of his environment, that sets him apart as a type of man rare in the history of statesmanship. What other American politician of his day–indeed, very few politicians of any day–would have dared to assert at once the existence of a power and the moral obligation not to use it? The instinctive American mode of limiting power is to deny its existence. Our politicians so deeply distrust our temperament that whatever they may say for rhetorical effect, they will not, whenever there is any danger of their being taken at their word, trust anything to moral law. Their minds are normally mechanical. The specific, statutory limitation is the only one that for them has reality. The truth that temper in politics is as great a factor as law was no more comprehensible to the politicians of 1837 than, say Hamlet or The Last Judgment. But just this is what the crude young Lincoln understood. Somehow he had found it in the depths of his own nature. The explanation, if any, is to be found in his heredity. Out of the shadowy parts of him, beyond the limits of his or any man’s conscious vision, dim, unexplored, but real and insistent as those forest recesses from which his people came, arise the two ideas: the faith in a mighty governing power; the equal faith that it should use its might with infinite tenderness, that it should be slow to compel results, even the result of righteousness, that it should be tolerant of human errors, that it should transform them slowly, gradually, as do the gradual forces of nature, as do the sun and the rain.
And such was to be the real Lincoln whenever he spoke out, to the end. His tonic was struck by his first significant utterance at the age of twenty-eight. How inevitable that it should have no significance to the congregation of good fellows who thought of him merely as one of their own sort, who put up with their friend’s vagary, and speedily forgot it.
The moment was a dreary one in Lincoln’s fortunes. By dint of much reading of borrowed books, he had succeeded in obtaining from the easy-going powers that were in those days, a license to practise law. In the spring of 1837 he removed to Springfield. He had scarcely a dollar in his pocket. Riding into Springfield on a borrowed horse, with all the property he owned, including his law books, in two saddlebags, he went to the only cabinet-maker in the town and ordered a single bedstead. He then went to the store of Joshua F. Speed. The meeting, an immensely eventful one for Lincoln, as well as a classic in the history of genius in poverty, is best told in Speed’s words: “He came into my store, set his saddle-bags on the counter and inquired what the furnishings for a single bedstead would cost. I took slate and pencil, made a calculation and found the sum for furnishings complete, would amount to seventeen dollars in all. Said he: ‘It is probably cheap enough, but I want to say that, cheap as it is, I have not the money to pay; but if you will credit me until Christmas, and my experiment here as a lawyer is a success, I will pay you then. If I fail in that I will probably never pay you at all.’ The tone of his voice was so melancholy that I felt for him. I looked up at him and I thought then as I think now that I never saw so gloomy and melancholy a face in my life. I said to him: ‘So small a debt seems to affect you so deeply, I think I can suggest a plan by which you will be able to attain your end without incurring any debt. I have a very large room and a very large double bed in it, which you are perfectly welcome to share with me if you choose.’ ‘Where is your room?’ he asked. ‘Up-stairs,’ said I, pointing to the stairs leading from the store to my room. Without saying a word, he took his saddle-bags on his arm, went upstairs, set them down on the floor, came down again, and with a face beaming with pleasure and smiles exclaimed, ‘Well, Speed, I’m moved.'”
This was the beginning of a friendship which appears to have been the only one of its kind Lincoln ever had. Late in life, with his gifted private secretaries, with one or two brilliant men whom he did not meet until middle age, he had something like intimate comradeship. But even they did not break the prevailing solitude of his inner life. His aloofness of soul became a fixed condition. The one intruder in that lonely inner world was Speed. In the great collection of Lincoln’s letters none have the intimate note except the letters to Speed. And even these are not truly intimate with the exception of a single group inspired all by the same train of events. The deep, instinctive reserve of Lincoln’s nature was incurable. The exceptional group of letters involve his final love-affair. Four years after his removal to Springfield, Lincoln became engaged to Miss Mary Todd. By that time he had got a start at the law and was no longer in grinding poverty. If not yet prosperous, he had acquired “prospects”–the strong likelihood of better things to come so dear to the buoyant heart of the early West.
Hospitable Springfield, some of whose best men had known him in the Legislature, opened its doors to him. His humble origin, his poor condition, were forgiven. In true Western fashion, he was frankly put on trial to show what was in him. If he could “make good” no further questions would be asked. And in every-day matters, his companionableness rose to the occasion. Male Springfield was captivated almost as easily as New Salem.
But all this was of the outer life. If the ferment within was constant between 1835 and 1840, the fact is lost in his taciturnity. But there is some evidence of a restless emotional life.
In the rebound after the woe following Ann’s death, he had gone questing after happiness–such a real thing to him, now that he had discovered the terror of unhappiness–in a foolish half-hearted courtship of a bouncing, sensible girl named Mary Owens, who saw that he was not really in earnest, decided that he was deficient in those “little links that make up a woman’s happiness,” and sent him about his business–rather, on the whole, to his relief. The affair with Miss Todd had a different tone from the other. The lady was of another world socially. The West in those days swarmed with younger sons, or the equivalents of younger sons, seeking their fortunes, whom sisters and cousins were frequently visiting. Mary Todd was sister-in-law to a leading citizen of Springfield. Her origin was of Kentucky and Virginia, with definite claims to distinction. Though a family genealogy mounts as high as the sixth century, sober history is content with a grandfather and great grandfather who were military men of some repute, two great uncles who were governors, and another who was a cabinet minister. Rather imposing contrasted with the family tree of the child of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks! Even more significant was the lady’s education. She had been to a school where young ladies of similar social pretensions were allowed to speak only the French language. She was keenly aware of the role marked out for her by destiny, and quite convinced that she would always in every way live up to it.
The course of her affair with Lincoln did not run smooth. There were wide differences of temperament; quarrels of some sort–just what, gossip to this day has busied itself trying to discover–and on January 1, 1841, the engagement was broken. Before the end of the month he wrote to his law partner apologizing for his inability to be coherent on business matters. “For not giving you a general summary of news, you must pardon me; it is not in my power to do so. I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better, I can not tell. I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better, it appears to me . . . a change of scene might help me.”
His friend Speed became his salvation. Speed closed out his business and carried Lincoln off to visit his own relations in Kentucky. It was the devotion of Bowlin Green and his wife over again. But the psychology of the event was much more singular. Lincoln, in the inner life, had progressed a long way since the death of Ann, and the progress was mainly in the way of introspection, of self-analysis. He had begun to brood. As always, the change did not reveal itself until an event in the outward life called it forth like a rising ghost from the abyss of his silences. His friends had no suspicion that in his real self, beneath the thick disguise of his external sunniness, he was forever brooding, questioning, analyzing, searching after the hearts of things both within and without..
“In the winter of 1840 and 1841,” writes Speed, “he was unhappy about the engagement to his wife–not being entirely satisfied that his heart was going with his hand. How much he suffered then on that account, none knew so well as myself; he disclosed his whole heart to me. In the summer of 1841 I became engaged to my wife. He was here on a visit when I courted her; and strange to say, something of the same feeling which I regarded as so foolish in him took possession of me, and kept me very unhappy from the time of my engagement until I was married. This will explain the deep interest he manifested in his letters on my account. . . One thing is plainly discernible; if I had not been married and happy, far more happy than I ever expected to be, he would not have married.”
Whether or not Speed was entirely right in his final conclusion, it is plain that he and Lincoln were remarkably alike in temperament; that whatever had caused the break in Lincoln’s engagement was repeated in his friend’s experience when the latter reached a certain degree of emotional tension; that this paralleling of Lincoln’s own experience in the experience of the friend so like himself, broke tip for once the solitude of his inner life and delivered him from some dire inward terror. Both men were deeply introspective. Each had that overpowering sense of the emotional responsibilities of marriage, which is bred in the bone of certain hyper-sensitive types–at least in the Anglo-Saxon race. But neither realized this trait in himself until, having blithely pursued his impulse to the point of committal, his spiritual conscience suddenly awakened and he asked of his heart, “Do I truly love her? Am I perfectly sure the emotion is permanent?”
It is on this speculation that the unique group of the intimate letters to Speed are developed. They were written after Lincoln’s return to Springfield, while Speed was wrestling with the demon of self-analysis. In the period which they cover, Lincoln delivered himself from that same demon and recovered Serenity. Before long he was writing: “I know what the painful point with you is at all times when you are unhappy; it is an apprehension that you do not love her as you should. What nonsense! How came you to court her? Was it because you thought she deserved it and that you had given her reason to expect it? If it was for that, why did not the same reason make you court Ann Todd, and at least twenty others of whom you can think, to whom it would apply with greater force than to her? Did you court her for her wealth? Why, you said she had none. But you say you reasoned yourself into it. What do you mean by that? Was it not that you found yourself unable to reason yourself out of it?” And much more of the same shrewd sensible sort,–a picture unintentionally of his own state of mind no less than of his friend’s.
This strange episode reveals also that amid Lincoln’s silences, while the outward man appeared engrossed in everyday matters, the inward man had been seeking religion. His failure to accept the forms of his mother’s creed did not rest on any lack of the spiritual need. Though undefined, his religion glimmers at intervals through the Speed letters. When Speed’s fiancee fell ill and her tortured lover was in a paroxysm of remorse and grief, Lincoln wrote: “I hope and believe that your present anxiety and distress about her health and her life must and will forever banish those horrid doubts which I know you sometimes felt as to the truth of your affection for her. If they can once and forever be removed (and I feel a presentment that the Almighty has sent your present affliction expressly for that object) surely nothing can come in their stead to fill their immeasurable measure of misery. . . Should she, as you fear, be destined to an early grave, it is indeed a great consolation to know she is so well prepared to meet it.”
Again he wrote: “I was always superstitious. I believe God made me one of the instruments of bringing you and your Fanny together, which union I have no doubt lie had foreordained. Whatever He designs He will do for me yet. ‘Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord’ is my text now.”
The duality in self-torture of these spiritual brethren endured in all about a year and a half, and closed with Speed’s marriage. Lincoln was now entirely delivered from his demon. He wrote Speed a charming letter, serene, affectionate, touched with gentle banter, valiant though with a hint of disillusion as to their common type. “I tell you, Speed, our forebodings (for which you and I are peculiar) are all the worst sort of nonsense. . You say you much fear that that elysium of which you have dreamed so much is never to be realized. Well, if it shall not, I dare swear it will not be the fault of her who is now your wife. I have no doubt that it is the peculiar misfortune of both you and me to dream dreams of elysium far exceeding all that anything earthly can realize.”
How Lincoln’s engagement was patched up is as delicious an uncertainty, from gossip’s point of view, as how it had been broken off. Possibly, as many people have asserted, it was brought about by an event of which, in the irony of fate, Lincoln ever after felt ashamed. An impulsive, not overwise politician, James Shields, a man of many peculiarities, was saucily lampooned in a Springfield paper by some jaunty girls, one of whom was Miss Todd.
Somehow,–the whole affair is very dim,–Lincoln acted as their literary adviser. Shields demanded the name of his detractor; Lincoln assumed the responsibility; a challenge followed. Lincoln was in a ridiculous position. He extricated himself by a device which he used more than once thereafter; he gravely proposed the impossible. He demanded conditions which would have made the duel a burlesque–a butcher’s match with cavalry broadswords. But Shields, who was flawlessly literal, insisted. The two met and only on the dueling ground was the quarrel at last talked into oblivion by the seconds. Whether this was the cause of the reconciliation with Miss Todd, or a consequence, or had nothing to do with it, remains for the lovers of the unimportant to decide. The only sure fact in this connection is the marriage which took place November 4, 1842.
Mrs. Lincoln’s character has been much discussed. Gossip, though with very little to go on, has built up a tradition that the marriage was unhappy. If one were to believe the half of what has been put in print, one would have to conclude that the whole business was a wretched mistake; that Lincoln found married life intolerable because of the fussily dictatorial self-importance of his wife. But the authority for all these tales is meager. Not one is traceable to the parties themselves. Probably it will never be known till the end of time what is false in them, what true. About all that can be disengaged from this cloud of illusive witnesses is that Springfield wondered why Mary Todd married Lincoln. He was still poor; so poor that after marriage they lived at the Globe Tavern on four dollars a week. And the lady had been sought by prosperous men! The lowliness of Lincoln’s origin went ill with her high notions of her family’s importance. She was downright, high-tempered, dogmatic, but social; he was devious, slow to wrath, tentative, solitary; his very appearance, then as afterward, was against him. Though not the hideous man he was later made out to be–the “gorilla” of enemy caricaturists–he was rugged of feature, with a lower lip that tended to protrude. His immense frame was thin and angular; his arms were inordinately long; hands, feet and eyebrows were large; skin swarthy; hair coarse, black and generally unkempt. Only the amazing, dreamful eyes, and a fineness in the texture of the skin, redeemed the face and gave it distinction. Why did precise, complacent Miss Todd pick out so strange a man for her mate? The story that she married him for ambition, divining what he was to be–like Jane Welsh in the conventional story of Carlyle–argues too much of the gift of prophecy. Whatever her motive, it is more than likely that she was what the commercialism of to-day would call an “asset.” She had certain qualities that her husband lacked. For one, she had that intuition for the main chance which shallow people confound with practical judgment. Her soul inhabited the obvious; but within the horizon of the obvious she was shrewd, courageous and stubborn. Not any danger that Mary Lincoln would go wandering after dreams, visions, presences, such as were drifting ever in a ghostly procession at the back of her husband’s mind. There was a danger in him that was to grow with the years, a danger that the outer life might be swamped by the inner, that the ghosts within might carry him away with them, away from fact–seeking-seeking. That this never occurred may be fairly credited, or at least very plausibly credited, to the firm-willed, the utterly matter-of-fact little person he had married. How far he enjoyed the mode of his safe-guarding is a fruitless speculation.
Another result that may, perhaps, be due to Mary Lincoln was the improvement in his fortunes. However, this may have had no other source than a distinguished lawyer whose keen eyes had been observing him since his first appearance in politics. Stephen T. Logan “had that old-fashioned, lawyer-like morality which was keenly intolerant of any laxity or slovenliness of mind or character.” He had, “as he deserved, the reputation of being the best nisi prius lawyer in the state.” After watching the gifted but ill-prepared young attorney during several years, observing the power he had of simplification and convincingness in statement, taking the measure of his scrupulous honesty–these were ever Lincoln’s strong cards as a lawyer–Logan made him the surprising offer of a junior partnership, which was instantly accepted. That was when his inner horizon was brightening, shortly before his marriage. A period of great mental energy followed, about the years 1842 and 1843. Lincoln threw himself into the task of becoming a real lawyer under Logan’s direction. However, his zeal flagged after a time, and when the partnership ended four years later he had to some extent fallen back into earlier, less strenuous habits. “He permitted his partner to do all the studying in the preparation of cases, while he himself trusted to his general knowledge of the law and the inspiration of the surroundings to overcome the judge or the jury.” Though Lincoln was to undergo still another stimulation of the scholarly conscience before finding himself as a lawyer, the four years with Logan were his true student period. If the enthusiasm of the first year did not hold out, none the less he issued from that severe course of study a changed man, one who knew the difference between the learned lawyer and the unlearned. His own methods, to he sure, remained what they always continued to be, unsystematic, not to say slipshod. Even after he became president his lack of system was at times the despair of his secretaries. Herndon, who succeeded Logan as his partner, and who admired both men, has a broad hint that Logan and Lincoln were not always an harmonious firm. A clash of political ambitions is part explanation; business methods another. “Logan was scrupulously exact and used extraordinary care in the preparation of papers. His words were well chosen, and his style of composition was stately and formal.” He was industrious and very thrifty, while Lincoln had “no money sense.” It must have annoyed, if it did not exasperate his learned and formal partner, when Lincoln signed the firm name to such letters as this: “As to real estate, we can not attend to it. We are not real estate agents, we are lawyers. We recommend that you give the charge of it to Mr. Isaac S. Britton, a trust-worthy man and one whom the Lord made on purpose for such business.”
Superficial observers, then and afterward, drew the conclusion that Lincoln was an idler. Long before, as a farm-hand, he had been called “bone idle.” And of the outer Lincoln, except under stress of need, or in spurts of enthusiasm, as in the earlier years with Logan, this reckless comment had its base of fact. The mighty energy that was in Lincoln, a tireless, inexhaustible energy, was inward, of the spirit; it did not always ramify into the sensibilities and inform his outer life. The connecting link of the two, his mere intelligence, though constantly obedient to demands of the outer life, was not susceptible of great strain except on demand of the spiritual vision. Hence his attitude toward the study of the law. It thrilled and entranced him, called into play all his powers–observation, reflection, intelligence–just so long as it appeared in his imagination a vast creative effort of the spiritual powers, of humanity struggling perilously to see justice done upon earth, to let reason and the will of God prevail. It lost its hold upon him the instant it became a thing of technicalities, of mere learning, of statutory dialectics.
The restless, inward Lincoln, dwelling deep among spiritual shadows, found other outlets for his energy during these years when he was establishing himself at the bar. He continued to be a voracious reader. And his reading had taken a skeptical turn. Volney and Paine were now his intimates. The wave of ultra-rationalism that went over America in the ‘forties did not spare many corners of the land. In Springfield, as in so many small towns, it had two effects: those who were not touched by it hardened into jealous watchfulness, and their religion naturally enough became fiercely combative; those who responded to the new influence became a little affected philosophically, a bit effervescent. The young men, when of serious mind, and all those who were reformers by temperament, tended to exalt the new, to patronize, if not to ridicule the old. At Springfield, as at many another frontier town wracked by its growing pains, a Young Men’s Lyceum confessed the world to be out of joint, and went to work glibly to set it right. Lincoln had contributed to its achievements. An oration of his on “Perpetuation of Our Free Institutions,” a mere rhetorical “stunt” in his worst vein now deservedly forgotten, so delighted the young men that they asked to have it printed–quite as the same sort of young men to-day print essays on cubism, or examples of free verse read to poetry societies. Just what views he expressed on things in general among the young men and others; how far he aired his acquaintance with the skeptics, is imperfectly known. However, a rumor got abroad that he was an “unbeliever,” which was the easy label for any one who disagreed in religion with the person who applied it. The rumor was based in part on a passage in an address on temperance. In 1842, Lincoln, who had always been abstemious, joined that Washington Society which aimed at a reformation in the use of alcohol. His address was delivered at the request of the society. It contained this passage, very illuminating in its light upon the generosity, the real humility of the speaker, but scarcely tactful, considering the religious susceptibility of the hour: “If they [the Christians] believe as they profess, that Omnipotence condescended to take on himself the form of sinful man, and as such die an ignominious death, surely they will not refuse submission to the infinitely lesser condescension for the temporal and perhaps eternal salvation of a large, erring and unfortunate class of their fellow creatures! Nor is the condescension very great. In my judgment such of us as have never fallen victims have been spared more from the absence of appetite than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have. Indeed, I believe, if we take habitual drunkards as a class, their heads and their hearts will bear an advantageous comparison with those of any other class.” How like that remark attributed to another great genius, one whom Lincoln in some respects resembled, the founder of Methodism, when he said of a passing drunkard: “There goes John Wesley, except for the Grace of God.” But the frontier zealots of the ‘forties were not of the Wesley type. The stories of Lincoln’s skeptical interests, the insinuations which were promptly read into this temperance address, the fact that he was not a church-member, all these were seized upon by a good but very narrow man, a devoted, illiterate evangelist, Peter Cartwright.
In 1846, this religious issue became a political issue. The Whigs nominated Lincoln for Congress. It was another instance of personal politics. The local Whig leaders had made some sort of private agreement, the details of which appear to be lost, but according to which Lincoln now became the inevitable candidate. He was nominated without opposition. The Democrats nominated Cartwright.
Two charges were brought against Lincoln: that he was an infidel, and that he was–of all things in the world!–an aristocrat. On these charges the campaign was fought. The small matter of what he would do at Washington, or would not do, was brushed aside. Personal politics with a vengeance! The second charge Lincoln humorously and abundantly disproved; the first, he met with silence.
Remembering Lincoln’s unfailing truthfulness, remembering also his restless ambition, only one conclusion can be drawn from this silence. He could not categorically deny Cartwright’s accusation and at the same time satisfy his own unsparing conception of honesty. That there was no real truth in the charge of irreligion, the allusions in the Speed letters abundantly prove. The tone is too sincere to be doubted; nevertheless, they give no clue to his theology. And for men like Cartwright, religion was tied up hand and foot in theology. Here was where Lincoln had parted company from his mother’s world, and from its derivatives. Though he held tenaciously to all that was mystical in her bequest to him, he rejected early its formulations. The evidence of later years reaffirms this double fact. The sense of a spiritual world behind, beyond the world of phenomena, grew on him with the years; the power to explain, to formulate that world was denied him. He had no bent for dogma. Ethically, mystically, he was always a Christian; dogmatically he knew not what he was. Therefore, to the challenge to prove himself a Christian on purely dogmatic grounds, he had no reply. To attempt to explain what separated him from his accusers, to show how from his point of view they were all Christian–although, remembering their point of view, he hesitated to say so–to draw the line between mysticism and emotionalism, would have resulted only in a worse confusion. Lincoln, the tentative mystic, the child of the starlit forest, was as inexplicable to Cartwright with his perfectly downright religion, his creed of heaven or hell–take your choice and be quick about it!–as was Lincoln the spiritual sufferer to New Salem, or Lincoln the political scientist to his friends in the Legislature.
But he was not injured by his silence. The faith in him held by too many people was too well established. Then, as always thereafter, whatever he said or left unsaid, most thoughtful persons who came close to him sensed him as a religious man. That was enough for healthy, generous young Springfield. He and Cartwright might fight out their religious issues when they pleased, Abe should have his term in Congress. He was elected by a good majority.
VI. UNSATISFYING RECOGNITION
Lincoln’s career as a Congressman, 1847-1849, was just what might have been expected–his career in the Illinois Legislature on a larger scale. It was a pleasant, companionable, unfruitful episode, with no political significance. The leaders of the party did not take him seriously as a possible initiate to their ranks. His course was that of a loyal member of the Whig mass. In the party strategy, during the debates over the Mexican War and the Wilmot Proviso, he did his full party duty, voting just as the others did. Only once did he attempt anything original–a bill to emancipate the slaves of the District, which was little more than a restatement of his protest of ten years before–and on this point Congress was as indifferent as the Legislature had been. The bill was denied a hearing and never came to a vote before the House.
And yet Lincoln did not fail entirely to make an impression at Washington. And again it was the Springfield experience repeated. His companionableness was recognized, his modesty, his good nature; above all, his story-telling. Men liked him. Plainly it was his humor, his droll ways, that won them; together with instant recognition of his sterling integrity.
“During the Christmas holidays,” says Ben Perley Poore, “Mr. Lincoln found his way into the small room used as the Post Office of the House, where a few genial reconteurs used to meet almost every morning after the mail had been distributed into the members’ boxes, to exchange such new stories as any of them might have acquired since they had last met. After modestly standing at the door for several days, Mr. Lincoln was reminded of a story, and by New Year’s he was recognized as the champion story-teller of the Capital. His favorite seat was at the left of the open fireplace, tilted back in his chair with his long legs reaching over to the chimney jamb.”
In the words of another contemporary, “Congressman Lincoln was very fond of howling and would frequently. . . meet other members in a match game at the alley of James Casparus. . . . He was an awkward bowler, but played the game with great zest and spirit solely for exercise and amusement, and greatly to the enjoyment and entertainment of the other players, and by reason of his criticisms and funny illustrations. . . . When it was known that he was in the alley, there would assemble numbers of people to witness the fun which was anticipated by those who knew of his fund of anecdotes and jokes. When in the alley, surrounded by a crowd of eager listeners, he indulged with great freedom in the sport of narrative, some of which were very broad.”
Once, at least, he entertained Congress with an exhibition of his humor, and this, oddly enough, is almost the only display of it that has come down to us, first hand. Lincoln’s humor has become a tradition. Like everything else in his outward life, it changed gradually with his slow devious evolution from the story-teller of Pigeon Creek to the author of the Gettysburg Oration. It is known chiefly through translation. The “Lincoln Stories” are stories someone else has told who may or may not have heard them told by Lincoln. They are like all translations, they express the translator not the original–final evidence that Lincoln’s appeal as a humorist was in his manner, his method, not in his substance. “His laugh was striking. Such awkward gestures belonged to no other man. They attracted universal attention from the old sedate down to the schoolboy.” He was a famous mimic.
Lincoln is himself the authority that he did not invent his stories. He picked them up wherever he found them, and clothed them with the peculiar drollery of his telling. He was a wag rather than a wit. All that lives in the second-hand repetitions of his stories is the mere core, the original appropriated thing from which the inimitable decoration has fallen off. That is why the collections of his stories are such dreary reading,–like Carey’s Dante, or Bryant’s Homer. And strange to say, there is no humor in his letters. This man who was famous as a wag writes to his friends almost always in perfect seriousness, often sadly. The bit of humor that has been preserved in his one comic speech in Congress,–a burlesque of the Democratic candidate of 1848, Lewis Cass,–shorn as it is of his manner, his tricks of speech and gesture, is hardly worth repeating.
Lincoln was deeply humiliated by his failure to make a serious impression at Washington. His eyes opened in a startled realization that there were worlds he could not conquer. The Washington of the ‘forties was far indeed from a great capital; it was as friendly to conventional types of politician as was Springfield or Vandalia. The man who could deal in ideas as political counters, the other man who knew the subtleties of the art of graft, both these were national as well as local figures. Personal politics were also as vicious at Washington as anywhere; nevertheless, there was a difference, and in that difference lay the secret of Lincoln’s failure. He was keen enough to grasp the difference, to perceive the clue to his failure. In a thousand ways, large and small, the difference came home to him. It may all be symbolized by a closing detail of his stay. An odd bit of incongruity was the inclusion of his name in the list of managers of the Inaugural Ball of 1849. Nothing of the sort had hitherto entered into his experience. As Mrs. Lincoln was not with him he joined “a small party of mutual friends” who attended the ball together. As one of them relates, “he was greatly interested in all that was to be seen and we did not take our departure until three or four o’clock in the morning.” What an ironic picture–this worthy provincial, the last word for awkwardness, socially as strange to such a scene as a little child, spending the whole night gazing intently at everything he could see, at the barbaric display of wealth, the sumptuous gowns, the brilliant uniforms, the distinguished foreigners, and the leaders of America, men like Webster and Clay, with their air of assured power, the men he had failed to impress. This was his valedictory at Washington. He went home and told Herndon that he had committed political suicide. He had met the world and the world was too strong for him.
And yet, what was wrong? He had been popular at Washington, in the same way in which he had been popular at Springfield. Why had the same sort of success inspired him at Springfield and humiliated him at Washington? The answer was in the difference between the two worlds. Companionableness, story-telling, at Springfield, led to influence; at Washington it led only to applause. At Springfield it was a means; at Washington it was an end. The narrow circle gave the good fellow an opportunity to reveal at his leisure everything else that was in him; the larger circle ruthlessly put him in his place as a good fellow and nothing more. The truth was that in the Washington of the ‘forties, neither the inner nor the outer Lincoln could by itself find lodgment. Neither the lonely mystical thinker nor the captivating buffoon could do more than ripple its surface. As superficial as Springfield, it lacked Springfield’s impulsive generosity. To the long record of its obtuseness it had added another item. The gods had sent it a great man and it had no eyes to see. It was destined to repeat the performance.
And so Lincoln came home, disappointed, disillusioned. He had not succeeded in establishing the slightest claim, either upon the country or his party. Without such claim he had no ground for attempting reelection. The frivolity of the Whig machine in the Sangamon region was evinced by their rotation agreement. Out of such grossly personal politics Lincoln had gone to Washington; into this essentially corrupt system he relapsed. He faced, politically, a blank wall. And he had within him as yet, no consciousness of any power that might cleave the wall asunder. What was he to do next?
At this dangerous moment–so plainly the end of a chapter–he was offered the governorship of the new Territory of Oregon. For the first time he found himself at a definite parting of the ways, where a sheer act of will was to decide things; where the pressure of circumstance was of secondary importance.
In response to this crisis, an overlooked part of him appeared. The inheritance from his mother, from the forest, had always been obvious. But, after all, he was the son not only of Nancy and of the lonely stars, but also of shifty, drifty Thomas the unstable. If it was not his paternal inheritance that revived in him at this moment of confessed failure, it was something of the same sort. Just as Thomas had always by way of extricating himself from a failure taken to the road, now Abraham, at a psychological crisis, felt the same wanderlust, and he threatened to go adrift. Some of his friends urged him to accept. “You will capture the new community,” said they, “and when Oregon becomes a State, you will go to Washington as its first Senator.” What a glorified application of the true Thomasian line of thought. Lincoln hesitated–hesitated–
And then the forcible little lady who had married him put her foot down. Go out to that far-away backwoods, just when they were beginning to get on in the world; when real prosperity at Springfield was surely within their grasp; when they were at last becoming people of importance, who should be able to keep their own carriage? Not much!
Her husband declined the appointment and resumed the practice of law in Springfield.
VII. THE SECOND START
Stung by his failure at Washington, Lincoln for a time put his whole soul into the study of the law. He explained his failure to himself as a lack of mental training. There followed a repetition of his early years with Logan, but with very much more determination, and with more abiding result.
In those days in Illinois, as once in England, the judges held court in a succession of towns which formed a circuit. Judge and lawyers moved from town to town, “rode the circuit” in company,–sometimes on horseback, sometimes in their own vehicles, sometimes by stage. Among the reminiscences of Lincoln on the circuit, are his “poky” old horse and his “ramshackle” old buggy. Many and many a mile, round and round the Eighth Judicial Circuit, he traveled in that humble style. What thoughts he brooded on in his lonely drives, he seldom told. During this period the cloud over his inner life is especially dense. The outer life, in a multitude of reminiscences, is well known. One of its salient details was the large proportion of time he devoted to study.
“Frequently, I would go out on the circuit with him,” writes Herndon. “We, usually, at the little country inn, occupied the same bed. In most cases, the beds were too short for him and his feet would hang over the footboard, thus exposing a limited expanse of shin bone. Placing his candle at the head of his bed he would read and study for hours. I have known him to stay in this position until two o’clock in the morning. Meanwhile, I and others who chanced to occupy the same room would be safely and soundly asleep. On the circuit, in this way, he studied Euclid until he could with ease demonstrate all the propositions in the six books. How he could maintain his equilibrium or concentrate his thoughts on an abstract mathematical problem, while Davis, Logan, Swett, Edwards and I, so industriously and volubly filled the air with our interminable snoring, was a problem none of, us–could ever solve.”
A well-worn copy of Shakespeare was also his constant companion.
He rose rapidly in the profession; and this in spite of his incorrigible lack of system. The mechanical side of the lawyer’s task, now, as in the days with Logan, annoyed him; he left the preparation of papers to his junior partner, as formerly he left it to his senior partner. But the situation had changed in a very important way. In Herndon, Lincoln had for a partner a talented young man who looked up to him, almost adored him, who was quite willing to be his man Friday. Fortunately, for all his adoration, Herndon had no desire to idealize his hero. He was not disturbed by his grotesque or absurd sides.
“He was proverbially careless as to his habits,” Herndon writes. “In a letter to a fellow lawyer in another town, apologizing for his failure to answer sooner, he explains: ‘First, I have been very busy in the United States Court; second, when I received the letter, I put it in my old hat, and buying a new one the next day, the old one was set aside, so the letter was lost sight of for the time.’ This hat of Lincoln’s–a silk plug–was an extraordinary receptacle. It was his desk and his memorandum book. In it he carried his bank-book and the bulk of his letters. Whenever in his reading or researches, he wished to preserve an idea, he jotted it down on an envelope or stray piece of paper and placed it inside the lining; afterwards, when the memorandum was needed, there was only one place to look for it.” Herndon makes no bones about confessing that their office was very dirty. So neglected was it that a young man of neat habits who entered the office as a law student under Lincoln could not refrain from cleaning it up, and the next visitor exclaimed in astonishment, “What’s happened here!”
“The office,” says that same law student, “was on the second floor of a brick building on the public square opposite the courthouse. You went up a flight of stairs and then passed along a hallway to the rear office which was a medium sized room. There was one long table in the center of the room, and a shorter one running in the opposite direction forming a T and both were covered with green baize. There were two windows which looked into the back yard. In one corner was an old-fashioned secretary with pigeonholes and a drawer; and here Mr. Lincoln and his partner kept their law papers. There was also a bookcase containing about two hundred volumes of law and miscellaneous books.” The same authority adds, “There was no order in the office at all.” Lincoln left all the money matters to Herndon. “He never entered an item on the account book. If a fee was paid to him and Herndon was not there, he would divide the money, wrap up one part in paper and place it in his partner’s desk with the inscription, “Case of Roe versus Doe, Herndon’s half.” He had an odd habit of reading aloud much to his partner’s annoyance. He talked incessantly; a whole forenoon would sometimes go by while Lincoln occupied the whole time telling stories.
On the circuit, his story-telling was an institution. Two other men, long since forgotten, vied with him as rival artists in humorous narrative. These three used to hold veritable tournaments. Herndon has seen “the little country tavern where these three were wont to meet after an adjournment of court, crowded almost to suffocation, with an audience of men who had gathered to witness the contest among the members of the strange triumvirate. The physicians of the town, all the lawyers, and not infrequently a preacher, could be found in the crowd that filled the doors and windows. The yarns they spun and the stories they told would not bear repetition here, but many of them had morals which, while exposing the weakness of mankind, stung like a whiplash. Some were, no doubt, a thousand years old, with just enough of verbal varnish and alterations of names and date to make them new and crisp. By virtue of the last named application, Lincoln was enabled to draw from Balzac a ‘droll story’ and locating it ‘in Egypt’ [Southern Illinois] or in Indiana, pass it off for a purely original conception. . . I have seen Judge Treat, who was the very impersonation of gravity itself, sit up till the last and laugh until, as he often expressed it, ‘he almost shook his ribs loose.’ The next day he would ascend the bench and listen to Lincoln in a murder trial with all the seeming severity of an English judge in wig and gown.”
Lincoln enjoyed the life on the circuit. It was not that he was always in a gale of spirits; a great deal of the time he brooded. His Homeric nonsense alternated with fits of gloom. In spite of his late hours, whether of study or of story-telling, he was an early riser. “He would sit by the fire having uncovered the coals, and muse and ponder and soliloquize.” Besides his favorite Shakespeare, he had a fondness for poetry of a very different sort–Byron, for example. And he never tired of a set of stanzas in the minor key beginning: “Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?”
The hilarity of the circuit was not by any means the whole of its charm for him. Part of that charm must have been the contrast with his recent failure at Washington. This world he could master. Here his humor increased his influence; and his influence grew rapidly. He was a favorite of judges, jury and the bar. Then, too, it was a man’s world. Though Lincoln had a profound respect for women, he seems generally to have been ill at ease in their company. In what his friends would have called “general society” he did not shine. He was too awkward, too downright, too lacking in the niceties. At home, though he now owned a house and was making what seemed to him plenty of money, he was undoubtedly a trial to Mrs. Lincoln’s sense of propriety. He could not rise with his wife, socially. He was still what he had become so long before, the favorite of all the men–good old Abe Lincoln that you could tie to though it rained cats and dogs. But as to the ladies! Fashionable people calling on Mrs. Lincoln, had been received by her husband in his shirt-sleeves, and he totally unabashed, as oblivious of discrepancy as if he were a nobleman and not a nobody. The dreadful tradition persists that he had been known at table to put his own knife into the butter.
How safe to assume that many things were said commiserating poor Mrs. Lincoln who had a bear for a husband. And some people noticed that Lincoln did not come home at week-ends during term-time as often as he might. Perhaps it meant something; perhaps it did not. But there could be no doubt that the jovial itinerant life of the circuit was the life for him–at least in the early ‘fifties. That it was, and also that he was becoming known as a lawyer, is evinced by his refusal of a flattering invitation to enter a prosperous firm in Chicago.
Out of all this came a deepening of his power to reach and impress men through words. The tournament of the story-tellers was a lawyers’ tournament. The central figure was reading, studying, thinking, as never in his life before. Though his fables remained as broad as ever, the merely boisterous character ceased to predominate. The ethical bent of his mind came to the surface. His friends were agreed that what they remembered chiefly of his stories was not the broad part of them, but the moral that was in them. And they had no squeamishness as critics of the art of fable-making.
His ethical sense of things, his companionableness, the utterly non- censorious cast of his mind, his power to evolve yarns into parables–all these made him irresistible with a jury. It was a saying of his: “If I can divest this case of technicalities and swing it to the jury, I’ll win it.”
But there was not a trace in him of that unscrupulousness usually attributed to the “jury lawyer.” Few things show more plainly the central unmovableness of his character than his immunity to the lures of jury speaking. To use his power over an audience for his own enjoyment, for an interested purpose, for any purpose except to afford pleasure, or to see justice done, was for him constitutionally impossible. Such a performance was beyond the reach of his will. In a way, his nature, mysterious as it was, was also the last word for simplicity, a terrible simplicity. The exercise of his singular powers was irrevocably conditioned on his own faith in the moral justification of what he was doing. He had no patience with any conception of the lawyer’s function that did not make him the devoted instrument of justice. For the law as a game, for legal strategy, he felt contempt. Never under any conditions would he attempt to get for a client more than he was convinced the client in justice ought to have. The first step in securing his services was always to persuade him that one’s cause was just He sometimes threw up a case in open court because the course of it had revealed deception on the part of the client. At times he expressed his disdain of the law’s mere commercialism in a stinging irony.
“In a closely contested civil suit,” writes his associate, Ward Hill Lamon, “Lincoln proved an account for his client, who was, though he did not know it at the time, a very slippery fellow.