Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Abraham Lincoln,
the Emancipator of the Slave

In a miserable frontier hut, the son of miserably poor parents, was born on the 12th of February, 1809, a boy who fifty-four years later was to sign the grand decree of emancipation that gave liberty to the slaves of the United States. An offspring of the wilderness, a child of poverty, a boy who had to win his way by the sternest labor, to gain an education against the severest obstacles, he developed qualities sure to make him a great man,—simple-minded honor, noble instincts, earnest devotion to life's duties, and a practical ability and unusual power of expression which enabled him to win his way with men.

The story of this man, Abraham Lincoln, has often been told. But he holds a high station in the tanks of the heroes of progress, and an outline sketch of his life must be given here. In the words of Emerson, "He was a man who grew according to his need; his mind mastered the problem of the day, and as the problem grew so did his apprehension of it. By his courage, his justice, his even temper, his fertile counsel, his humanity, he stood a heroic figure in the centre of a heroic epoch. He is the true history of the American people in his time; the pulse of twenty million people throbbed in his heart, and the thoughts of their mind were uttered by his tongue."

[Illustration] from Heroes of Progress in America by Charles Morris


Lincoln was a self-made man in every respect. Born at the bottom of the pit of poverty, he climbed his own way up. Born on a stony and weedy hillside, at a place called Nolin's Creek, in Kentucky, in a house without windows or floor; taken to as sorry a house in Indiana while quite young; doomed to hard labor from childhood; he early manifested a desire for knowledge that nothing could check and that forced its way through all impediments. His scanty school education taught him little more than how to read and write, and he had to depend upon himself for the rest. His stepmother, a good woman, helped him all she could and taught him all she was able, and on this slender foundation the ambitious student built nobly.

The frontier settlement he lived in had few books, but he borrowed all he could and read them thoroughly. He read in the evening by the light of the log fire, wrote on a shingle when paper was not to be had, and worked out questions in arithmetic on the back of a wooden shovel, scraping off the figures when it was full and beginning again. The first book he owned, a "Life of Washington," he had borrowed from a farmer and kept it in a place where it got soaked with rain. He took the ruined book to the farmer and asked how he should pay for it. The farmer's price was "to pull fodder "for the cattle for three days. In this way little Abraham earned his book, which he dried, pressed out, and valued as a great prize.

A boy like this cannot be kept in ignorance. "Abe Lincoln," as he was called, grew up to be the best informed and the strongest young man in the whole district. He was tall and sinewy; not a man in the neighborhood could beat him at wood-splitting, at wrestling, running, or any athletic sport. In addition to this he was kind and helpful, bright and willing, good-natured and fun-loving, ready to do anything for anybody, and the prime favorite of all the district. As a young man he kept everybody laughing. He had a store of amusing stories and was an adept in telling them. He could make a speech also, and his book learning grew to be wonderful to the uneducated farmers around. He had not read many books, but he had read them well.

Such was Abraham Lincoln as a boy and young man. As he grew older he made river trips down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, served as a store clerk, and then set up a store of his own in which he showed very little business ability, attending to his books instead of to his customers. Yet the people admired him so that after a time they elected him to the legislature. He was at that period living in Illinois, and in the legislature of this frontier State he served four terms, making his mark by the clear good sense and breadth of view of the speeches he made, so that he came to be considered one of the leading Whigs of the State.

While thus engaged, he became a surveyor, got hold of some law books and studied them, was admitted to the bar in X836, and began to practice in 1837, when twenty-six years of age. He had traveled up a long distance from the poor boy of the log cabin of his childhood. And by this time he had developed some strong ideas. During his visit to New Orleans he had seen some things that gave him an earnest dislike to slavery, and his sentiments on this subject he expressed vigorously in the legislature in 1837. At that time anti-slavery views were very unpopular in any part of the United States, and some extreme pro-slavery resolutions were passed by the Democratic majority in the House. Against these he and another member entered a protest, saying that "they believed that the institution of slavery was founded in injustice and bad policy."

That was Lincoln's first public statement about slavery, of which he was afterwards to become one of the greatest opponents. While he was in New Orleans on his Mississippi trip he chanced to see an auction where negroes were bought and sold. The scene stirred his feelings deeply, and on leaving he said in stern accents to his companion, "If I ever get a chance to hit that institution, I'll hit it hard." He kept his word in later days.

There are many stories showing what a genial, kind, helpful man Lincoln was in his early life. All round where he lived people grew to depend on him. His tenderness of heart was such that he could not bear to see even an animal in distress. There is one story telling how he waded an icy river to rescue a worthless pet dog that had been left behind and could not get across. A second story tells of his seeing a pig mired in a ditch. As he was dressed in his best, he rode on. But he could not get poor piggy out of his mind, and after going a mile or two he turned back and pulled the animal out of the ditch without regard to his fine clothes.

Lincoln's law office was opened in Springfield, which he had helped to make the capital of the State. His knowledge of the law was not great. In studying it he had sometimes walked miles to borrow a law book, and doubtless lacked many which he should have read. But he knew how to talk strongly and to the point, which helped him with juries, and he had the reputation of not taking any case which he did not believe to be just. He was known to refuse profitable cases which he thought unjust, even when the law favored them. This integrity helped him, and he built up quite a business in the law.

Regarding young Lincoln's honesty, it may be said that when he sold out his store on, credit, the man who bought it ran away, leaving debts for which he felt himself responsible and all of which he paid, though it took him many years to do so. His first public position had been as postmaster at New Salem, where there was so little business that he fairly kept his office in his hat, handing out the letters when he met the parties they were addressed to. The office was soon discontinued, no settlement being made, so that the postmaster owed the government some eighteen dollars. Several years passed before this was claimed, and in these years Lincoln had often been obliged to borrow money to keep things going. But when at length a postal agent came for a settlement the honest young postmaster brought out an old blue sock from which he poured the money in the very coins in which it had been received. No needs of his own had been met from that sacred store.

There was nothing going on in which young Abe Lincoln did not take a hand. He had been farm-hand, wood-chopper, boatman, clerk, storekeeper, postmaster, surveyor, lawyer, and legislator. For a time he was even a soldier, serving as captain of militia in the "Black Hawk War," though he saw no fighting. But there was nothing as yet to show that he would ever be known beyond his own district or State, though he had gained a powerful influence among his neighbors, was becoming one of the prominent Whigs of Illinois, and was several times a candidate for Presidential elector. The leading politicians of that State had a way of dividing the offices among them, and in 1846 it was Lincoln's turn to be sent to Congress. He was accordingly elected and served one term. While he did not distinguish himself in Washington, the party leaders saw that there was some good wood in the ungainly Congressman from the frontiers.

For a number of years after that Lincoln devoted himself to the law. The biggest fee he ever got was in 1853. He defended the Illinois Central Railroad in a suit for taxes and won his case, for which he sent in a bill for two thousand dollars. This the company refused to pay, whereupon Lincoln, on the advice of some fellow lawyers, sued for five thousand dollars, and the railroad company had to pay him this amount.

At this time, only seven years before his election to the Presidency, few outside his own district looked upon Abraham Lincoln as a man of any great merit or ability. He was simply a country lawyer and politician who had seen some service in legislature and Congress, was a ready and telling speaker, but was not known outside his State. It was not till the time of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, in 1854, that his opportunity came. This radical act of the pro-slavery party thoroughly awakened him. He had been opposed to slavery ever since his visit to New Orleans, and now roused himself to "hit it hard." An able and popular orator, he took strong ground against the extension of the slave system, denounced its acts of encroachment bitterly, and became the leader of the Whigs in the debate which Senator Douglas, the Democratic champion, had started in favor of "Squatter Sovereignty," or the right of the people of each Territory to decide whether it should be admitted as a slave or a free State.

Douglas was an able and powerful speaker, the "Little Giant" of the Democrats of the West. Many thought that Lincoln, whose reputation as yet was largely local, would be quite overweighted when pitted against this skilled and vigorous debater, who was immensely popular throughout the State. Their first great battle took place in October, 1854, at Springfield, during the State Fair. Douglas spoke first, making one of his best speeches to an enthusiastic throng of people. His friends thought he had demolished his opponent, and were ready to carry him on their shoulders.

The next day Lincoln took the stand, a tall, awkward, unprepossessing figure, with plain, homely face. Few expected much from him, but he astonished his hearers with an extraordinary burst of oratory and width of argument. He had never shown himself so great and able. The doctrines of Douglas were over-thrown by his logical criticisms. As a friendly editor said, "The Nebraska bill was shivered, and like a tree of the forest was torn and rent asunder by the hot bolts of truth. At the conclusion of this speech every man and child felt that it was unanswerable."

It was in 1858 that Lincoln did the work that was to make him President. In the four years that had elapsed since his first contest with Douglas he had grown rapidly in political importance and made himself the unquestioned leader of the Illinois Republicans—the new party which had succeeded the Whigs. It was the time for the election of a United States Senator, and Lincoln was the choice of his party as opposed to Douglas, who was seeking a re-election.

The debate that followed was the opening of the door for Abraham Lincoln. It spread his reputation from Illinois through the whole country. He showed himself not alone a skillful orator, but a great political manager, one who was ready to sacrifice the hopes of the present for the assurance of the future. He pressed Douglas to declare himself upon an important point. His friends said that Douglas would answer his question in a way to insure his election. Lincoln replied: "I am after larger game. If Douglas so answers, he can never be President, and the battle of 1860 is worth a hundred of this." He was right. Douglas took a position that lost him his friends in the South and robbed him of their support two years later.

In this debate Lincoln took his stand in a way that gave him a continental reputation. He read to his friends a part of his speech and they opposed it bitterly, declaring that if he said those things it might ruin all his political future. Lincoln answered sturdily: "It is true, and I will deliver it as written. I would rather be defeated with those expressions in my speech held up and discussed before the people than be victorious without them."

What he said was this: "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other."

This was a new and startling way of putting it. It set the country to thinking and talking, and the name of the man who could thus put the whole question in a nutshell became more widely known. Douglas defeated him for the Senate, but this he expected and did not care for. He had said, "I am after larger game."

During ten years Lincoln had been making himself the leader of his party in Illinois; now he began to be talked of all over the country. In 1860, at the invitation of Horace Greeley, he made an address at the Cooper Institute in New York, before an audience of the best citizens of the metropolis. They had heard of this eloquent Westerner, and were curious to hear him, though many expected only something of the nature of a grandiloquent stump speech, fitted for a prairie audience. The calm, clear, scholarly, logical address they heard surprised and electrified them. They had listened to nothing equal to it in force and dignity since the days of Webster. All New England wanted to hear the prairie orator, and everywhere he enlisted the deepest attention and warmest conviction. The character of his oratory was well expressed by one hearer, who praised him for "the clearness of your statements, the unanswerable style of your reasoning, and especially your illustrations, which were romance and pathos, fun and logic, all welded together."

In 1856 some of his friends had spoken of Lincoln for Vice-President, and even for President; but this was mere local admiration. In 1860 Seward seemed the man of the convention, but Lincoln had won the West, and it proved too strong for the East. Lincoln was nominated on the third ballot amid a most generous burst of enthusiasm. He was the man of the West, the rail-splitter of the prairies and forests, and a display of some fence rails of his own splitting by his friends helped immensely in rousing the excitement that carried the convention.

From this time on the life of Lincoln is the history of the Civil War. All readers know of his triumphant election, of the secession of the Southern States in consequence, of the danger to Lincoln's life in his journey to Washington, and of the need of protection during his inauguration, there being men in Washington who had sworn he should never take his seat. They know also of his wisdom, his judgment, his shrewdness, and his devotion to the best interests of the country.

He had said in 1858, "This country cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. It will become all one thing or the other." Three years afterwards the war that was to make it "one thing or the other" began, and in less than two years more the act to make it "one thing "was consummated in Lincoln's Proclamation of Emancipation, that set the slave free.

There was fighting still to be done, much of it, but step by step the freedom of the slave came nearer and surer, and early in 1865 the war ended in victory for the North, and the great work of Lincoln's life was achieved. In 1864 he was a second time elected President, and on the 4th of. March, 1865, in his second inaugural address, spoke those famous words, so full of the character of the man: "With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in."

In a little more than a month later the work, so far as it was the work of the sword, was finished, in the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox; and in less than a week later, on the 15th of April, 1865, Lincoln's career ended in the deed of an assassin, who was moved by an insane fury which few men in the South would have sustained even in that day of heated feeling. The time came when the South suffered bitterly for this act of horror, which had carried away its best friend.