Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

Abraham Lincoln

Every American may be presumed to be familiar with the external facts of Abraham Lincoln's early life,—the rude cabin, the shiftless father, the dead mother's place filled by the tender step-mother; the brief schooling, the hungry reading of the few books by the fire-light; the hard farm-work, with a turn now of rail-splitting, now of flat-boating; the country sports and rough good-fellowship; the upward steps as store-clerk and lawyer. But the interior qualities that made up his character and built his fortune will bear further study.

He was composed of traits which seemed to contradict each other. In a sense this is true of everyone. Dr. Holmes says (in substance): "The vehicle in which each one of us crosses life's narrow isthmus between two oceans is not a one-seated sulky, but an omnibus." Sometimes, as depicted in that wonderful parable, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, one inmate ejects the others. But in Lincoln the various elements were wrought as years passed by into harmony.

He was prized among his early companions as a wit and story-teller. The women complained because at their parties all the men were drawn off to hear Abe Lincoln's stories. When he came to be a public speaker, he feathered the shafts of his argument with jest and anecdote. The vein of humor in him was rich and deep; it helped him through the hard places. When as President he announced to his cabinet the Emancipation Proclamation, he first refreshed himself by reading to them a chapter from Artemus Ward.

His early growth was in rough soil, and some of the mud stuck to him,—his jests were sometimes broad. But if coarse in speech he was pure in life, and neither the rancor of political hate nor the research of unsparing biographers ever charged him with an unchaste act.

Along with this rollicking fun he had a vein of deepest melancholy. In part it was temperamental. The malarial country sometimes bred a strain of habitual depression. His mother was the natural daughter of a Virginia planter, and had the sadness sometimes wrought by such pre-natal conditions; it was said she was never seen to smile. Lincoln's early years had hardships and trials, over many of which he triumphed, and triumphed laughing; but there were others for which there was neither victory nor mirth. Some of his early letters of intimate friendship (as given in Hay and Nicolay's biography), show a singular capacity for romantic affection, and gleams of hope of supreme happiness. But death frustrated this hope, and the disappointment brought him to the verge of insanity. In his domestic life,—it was an open secret,—he had some of the experience which disciplined Socrates. Perhaps we go to the root of his sadness if we say that in his deepest heart he was a passionate idealist, and by circumstances he was long shut out from the natural satisfaction of ideality. His partner Herndon said of him, "His melancholy dripped from him as he walked."

Out of these experiences he brought a great power of patience and a great power of sympathy. These armed him for his work. He became invincible against the perversities and follies of men, and the blows of fate. He ripened into a tenderness such as prompted him, when burdened with cares beyond measure, to give a sympathetic hearing to every mother who came to the President with the story of her boy's trouble.

To take another brace of qualities, he was at once a powerful fighter and an habitual peace-maker. His long, gaunt, sinewy frame, and his tough courage, made him a formidable antagonist, but it was hard to provoke him to combat. Lamon,—whose biography is a treasury of good stories, sometimes lacking in discretion, but giving an invaluable realistic picture,—relates an encounter with the village bully, Jack Armstrong. The "boys" at last teased Lincoln into a wrestling match, and when his victory in the good-natured encounter provoked Jack to unfair play, Abe shook him as a terrier shakes a rat. Then he made peace with him, drew out the better quality in him; and the two reigned "like friendly C?sars" over the village crowd, Abe tempering Jack's playfulness when it got too rough, and winning the boys to kindly ways.

In that day and region, men were very frank about their religious beliefs and disbeliefs. The skepticism or unbelief which lies unspoken in the hearts of a multitude of men,—silent perhaps out of regard to public opinion, perhaps from consideration for mother or wife—found free and frequent utterance in the West, long before Robert Ingersoll gave it eloquent voice. Lincoln, though we have called him an idealist at heart, habitually guided himself by logic, by hard sense, and by such evidence as passes in a court of law. He was one of the class to whom books like Tom Paine's Age of Reason appealed strongly. In early life he wrote a treatise against Christianity. A politic friend to whom he showed his manuscript put it in the stove, but the writer was not changed in his opinions. To Christianity as a supernatural revelation he never became a convert, but the belief in "a Power that makes for righteousness" grew with his growth and strengthened with his strength.

With deepening experiences, the awe and mystery of life weighed heavily on him. When travelling on circuit, his days spent in law-cases, diversified with sociability and funny stories, he would sometimes be seen in the early morning brooding by the fire-place with hands outspread, and murmuring his favorite verses,—a soliloquy on the mournfulness and mystery of life: "Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud!"

In his early youth he read eagerly and thoroughly such few books as came in his way. Later, his taste for reading seemed to grow less. He had a keen instinct for reality, and perhaps he found little in books that satisfied him. For poetry and philosophy he had small aptitude, and in science he had no training. What books he read he seemed to digest and get the pith of. Once, made suddenly conscious by defeat of his lack of book-culture, he took up Euclid's geometry, and resolutely studied and re-studied it. Doubtless that helped him in the close logic which often characterized his speeches. The strength of his speeches lay in their logic, their close regard to fact, their adaptation to the plain people of whom he was one, their homely illustrations, and, as the years developed him, an appeal to some high principle of duty. His chief library was men and women. From them, and from his own experience, he drew the elements of his politics, history, philosophy.

He had the ambition natural to a man of high powers. With all his genial sociability, he was in a way self-centered. His associates often thought him,—and Lamon shares the opinion—not only moody and meditative, but unsocial, cold, impassive; bent on his own ends, and using other men as his instruments. Partly we may count this as the judgment of the crowd to whom Lincoln's inner life was unimaginable. He shared their social hours, and then withdrew into thoughts and feelings and purposes which he could share with no one. Doubtless, too, he was in fault for some of that neglect of the small courtesies and kindnesses which besets men whose own thoughts fascinate them too strongly. There is a graphic touch, in the story of his love affairs, of a girl who rejected his advances because she had seen him on a hot day walk up a hill with a woman and never offer to relieve her of the baby she was carrying.

As a lawyer he won more than ordinary success, making good his lack of erudition by shrewdness and knowledge of human nature. It was observed that he always tried a case honestly and fairly; that he was not fond of controversy, and always preferred to settle a case out of court; that he never argued well or strongly unless his conviction was fully on his client's side; that, if unconvinced himself, he simply brought forward the proofs which fairly counted on his side, and left the decision to others; and that he was so little attentive to gain that, although he became one of the leading lawyers of Illinois, he never accumulated much money.

His fairness as a lawyer, and his integrity in politics, won his popular nickname of "Honest Abe." Perhaps honesty, in its fullest sense, was his central quality. He was always true to the truth as he saw it—true in thought and word and deed. One feels in his printed speeches that he is trying to see and to say things as they are. He had not the aid of the mystic's vision, in which the moral universe is revealed in such splendor that to accept and obey it is pure joy. But he saw and felt and practiced the homely obligations of honesty and kindness. His education came largely as at successive epochs there were disclosed to him new heights of moral significance in the life of the nation; and as fast as such disclosures came to him he set himself to obey them with absolute loyalty.

His conscience was not of the self-contemplating and self-voicing kind. He was chary of words about duty. It has been alleged that the typical New Englander is afflicted with "a chronic inflammation of the moral sense." Such a malady does exist, though many a New Englander is bravely free from it, while it is not unknown in Alaska or Japan. From such an over-conscientious conscience, and from its incidents and its counterfeits, there is bred a redundancy of verbal moralising. That was not a foible of Lincoln. The sense of moral obligation underlies his weightier utterances, as the law of gravitation underlies scientific demonstrations,—not talked of, but assumed.

Lincoln's political career gave high promise at the start. He seemed to have the qualities for success,—ambition, shrewdness in managing men, power as a speaker, integrity which won general confidence, ideals not too high above the crowd. Yet his success was so moderate that in contrasting himself with Senator Douglas, at the outset of their debate in 1858, he declared that, "With me the race of ambition has been a failure,—a flat failure; with him it has been one of splendid success." There were reasons for it: Douglas had given himself without reserve to his personal advancement, and Lincoln had been hampered by regard for other men and for larger ends. After one term in Congress as a Whig, 1847-8, he retired in deference to the fashion of "rotation" between localities. When roused to new activity by the anti-Nebraska campaign in 1854, he was the favorite candidate of his party for the senatorship; but seeing that the knot of men who held the balance of power were gravitating to the other side, he insisted on withdrawing in favor of Lyman Trumbull, as a stronger candidate, who accordingly won the day. Before the revival of the slavery issue, there had been nothing in the old-time Whig and Democratic contests to appeal to the deeper elements in Lincoln's nature, and personal ambition alone was not strong enough to push him to eminence. Though he could handle men skillfully, he had a distaste for the petty arts of the politician's trade. "Politics," he said, "is the combination of individual meannesses for the general good." And he had small relish for the game, until "the general good" loomed clear and large.

His attitude on slavery was typical of the men at the North who were at once humane and regardful of the established order. He gave his general position, in homely and graphic fashion, in a letter to his old friend, Joshua F. Speed, of Kentucky, in 1855. This was at the time he referred to when he wrote: "I was losing interest in politics, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise roused me again." To Speed he wrote: "I acknowledge your rights and my obligations under the Constitution in regard to your slaves. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down and caught, and carried back to their stripes and unrequited toils; but I bite my lips and keep quiet. In 1841, you and I had together a tedious low-water trip in a steamboat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as well as I do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were on board ten or a dozen slaves shackled together with irons. That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio or any other slave border. It is not fair for you to assume that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union. I do oppose the extension of slavery, because my judgment and feelings so prompt me; and I am under no obligations to the contrary."

It was this strong regard for the established law of the land which set the moderate anti-slavery men apart from the Abolitionists of the extreme type. And up to this time, Lincoln, though hostile to slavery, had not been especially concerned as to the nation's dealing with it. But now came the opportunity and call to resist its extension into the territories, and with the response to that call came the sense that a great contest was impending between right and wrong, between the good of the many and the selfishness of the few.

Lincoln had close at hand a friend to spur him on. His law-partner, William H. Herndon, was an enthusiastic radical in politics and religion. He was an Abolitionist, and a follower of Theodore Parker. He had long plied Lincoln with Parker's sermons and with anti-slavery literature. When in 1856 Herndon and his friends began to organize to support armed resistance in Kansas, Lincoln remonstrated with them successfully. Then came the parting of the ways,—Republican, Democrat, or Know-nothing? The Illinois Abolitionists threw themselves heartily into the Republican movement. At its first State convention, at Bloomington, Lincoln was the great figure. The faithful Herndon, his missionary zeal rewarded at last by such a convert, describes in glowing language the speech of Lincoln,—which so carried him away that after trying for fifteen minutes to take notes as usual, he threw away his pencil. "Heretofore, and up to this moment, he had simply argued the slavery question on grounds of policy,—on what are called the statesman's grounds,—never reaching the question of the radical and the eternal right. Now he was newly baptized and freshly born; he had the fervor of a new convert; the smothered flame broke out; enthusiasm unusual to him blazed up; his eyes were aglow with an inspiration; he felt justice; his heart was alive to the right; his sympathies, remarkably deep for him, burst forth, and he stood before the throne of the eternal Right, in presence of his God, and then and there unburdened his penitential and fired soul. This speech was fresh, new, genuine, odd, original; filled with fervor not unmixed with a divine enthusiasm; his head breathing out through his tender heart its truths, its sense of right, and its feeling of the good and for the good. If Lincoln was six feet four inches high usually, at Bloomington he was seven feet, and inspired at that."

But the prairie fire was slow to light. Five days after the convention, Herndon and Lincoln got up a ratification meeting in Springfield. There were posters, illuminations, a band of music,—and at the appointed hour, one man in the hall besides Lincoln and Herndon! Lincoln took the platform, began with words half-sad, half-mirthful, and concluded: "All seems dead, dead, dead; but the age is not yet dead; it liveth as sure as our Maker liveth. Under all this seeming want of life and motion, the world does move nevertheless. Be hopeful. And now let us adjourn, and appeal to the people."

The prairie caught fire at last. The Republicans carried Illinois that autumn for Fremont. Two years later, Lincoln and Douglas traversed the State in their famous series of joint debates. The main issue was slavery in the territories; the background was the general attitude of the white man toward the negro. Douglas held that the whole business was a question for white men only. If they wanted slavery in any Territory, let them have it. If they did not want it, let them keep it out—unless the Supreme Court forbade. Lincoln summed up this "popular sovereignty" doctrine: "If one man wants to make another man a slave, a third man has no right to prevent him!" His position was that the nation's duty was to hold the common domain for freedom, and that this was the business of Congress. Douglas constantly twitted Lincoln with belief in negro equality. This Lincoln disclaimed; he did not believe in the negro's equality with the white man; did not believe in making him a voter or a juror; but because an inferior, had a negro no rights? Lincoln's anti-slavery position was very moderate; in reply to Douglas's challenge, he disclaimed any disposition to agitate against the fugitive slave law; as to practical restriction, he had nothing to urge except exclusion from the territories. Here he was emphatic, and he protested earnestly against Douglas's "not caring whether slavery was voted up or voted down."

The best test which the debate gave of his quality was the memorable passage in which he declared his conviction that "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot permanently endure half slave and half free." In this he rose above his wonted level, and spoke with a prophet's forecast. He read this passage in advance to a group of the party leaders. Though, after this bold opening, the speech was only a calm and weighty argument that the interest of slavery was being deliberately and systematically promoted by all branches of the Democracy,—yet all, except Herndon, were alarmed at this passage, and besought Lincoln to withhold it. But he answered soberly and half-mournfully that it expressed his full conviction, and he would face defeat rather than suppress it. In the immediate result, it injured his cause; a general comment of Republicans, through the campaign, says Herndon, was "Damn that fool speech!"

Douglas won the Legislature and the senatorship, though Lincoln won the popular majority. When he was asked how he felt about his defeat, he answered: "I feel as the boy did when he stubbed his toe,—he was too big to cry, and it hurt too bad to laugh!" The country at large, which had closely watched the debate, forgot him for two years. Early in 1860 he was invited to lecture in New York. He was not regarded as a Presidential candidate; and when he appeared,—in clothes full of creases from his carpet-bag, with no press copy of his speech and not expecting the newspapers to report it—he was such a figure as to his audience in Cooper Institute seemed to give little promise. But he carried them with him completely, and the next morning the seven-column report in the Tribune told the country that in this man there was a new force to reckon with. The speech ranks with the great historical orations of the country. The first part was a careful review of the position which the signers of the Constitution took in their individual capacity as to the right of Congress to regulate or exclude slavery from the territories. He showed by specific proof that of the thirty-nine signers twenty-one voted definitely on various occasions for Congressional Acts which did so exclude or regulate slavery; and that of the remaining eighteen almost all were known to have held the same opinion. This was a masterly refutation of the claim of Douglas and the Democracy that the fathers of the nation were on their side as to the territorial question. Lincoln then passed to a broader view, and inquired: What can we do that will really satisfy the South? Every word is sober, temperate, well-weighed. The South, he showed, is really taking very little interest now in the Territories. It is excited about the John Brown raid, and accuses the Republican party of responsibility for that. But not a single Republican was implicated in the raid—not one. You, said Lincoln, addressing the South—interpret your constitutional rights in a different way from what we do, and say if we do not admit your interpretation,—if we elect a Republican president,—you will break up the Union. But this is simply the highwayman's plea. What, then, can we Republicans do to satisfy the South? We must not only let them alone, but somehow convince them that we do let them alone. In a word, this and this only will convince them; we must cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly,—done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated; we must place ourselves avowedly with them. "Douglas's new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free-State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us."

Thus he concludes: "If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored,—contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man,—such as a policy of 'don't care' on a question about which all true men do care,—such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous, to repentance,—such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said and undo what Washington did. Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the government, nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might; and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."

In behalf of the South, Jefferson Davis, at about this time, presented in the Senate, as their ultimatum, a set of resolutions. These called for the recognition of slave-property as an indefeasible right of territorial settlers, entitled to congressional protection; for the enforcement of the fugitive slave law, and the repeal of the "personal liberty laws" by which it was hindered or nullified in many States; and in general, for the rebuke of all anti-slavery agitation. This was an exact equivalent of Lincoln's interpretation of the South's demand; the North must say that slavery is right, and act accordingly. And this was indeed an ultimatum, with the distinct intimation: "This, or we dissolve the Union."