Our Mission Is to Reawaken the Genuine America Spirit . . .Abraham Lincoln, Part II
Barry MacDonald, Editorial
Abraham Lincoln, American Statesmen Series, XXV, by John T. Morse, Jr., Editor. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., copyright, 1893 and 1899, Volume I.
Abraham Lincoln, American Statesmen Series, XXVI, by John T. Morse, Jr., Editor. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., copyright, 1893 and 1899, Volume II.
John Hay, American Statesmen, Second Series, V, by William Roscoe Thayer. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., copyright 1915.
I believe most Americans are decent - we are not pervasively racist. I believe that babies are born wayward, needing guidance towards goodness by a mother and father, spiritual faith, and cultural institutions - all of which a healthy society provides.
Most Americans are decent, but the population is large enough to produce quite enough perversity in words and behavior to keep the media busy. That's part of the problem with modern media: the perversity of the few is magnified instantaneously to give an impression that the whole nation is full of trouble - when it's not.
I wonder whether it's wise for politicians to hold polls and focus groups as supremely important as they do. Do these instruments measure or lead public opinion? People need to be led as they tend to be wayward. Politicians should rise above the influence of polls and seek to guide public opinion themselves. I believe too many politicians take their cues on which issues to espouse from polls - so the timid are following the wayward.
There are so many lessons to learn from the life of Abraham Lincoln. His presidency was a turning point after which the federal government became much more powerful with positive and negative results. On the negative side he did pave the way for less scrupulous leaders to wield too much power - if such power could be gathered once it could be gathered again. John Morse describes Lincoln's growing influence:
. . . as his knowledge and his judgment grew, his modesty and his abstention from interference likewise grew. He was more and more chary of endeavoring to control his generals. . . . this was in part due to the fact that the war had now been going on long enough to enable Mr. Lincoln to know pretty well what measure of confidence he could place in the several generals. He had tried his experiments and was now using his conclusions. Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Thomas, Hancock, and Meade were no longer undiscovered generals. . . . The President and the country were about to get the advantage of this acquired knowledge. . . . For the future his occupation is rather to keep a broad, general supervision, to put his controlling touch for the moment now here, now there. He ceases to appear as an individual contestant; his personality, though not less important, is less conspicuous; his influence is exerted less visibly, though not less powerfully. (Morse, Vol. II, pp. 210-211.)
Temporarily the great republic was under a "strong government" and Mr. Lincoln was the strength. Though somewhat cloaked by forms, there was for a while in the United States a condition of "one-man power," and the people instinctively recognized it, though they would on no account admit it in plain words. In fact every malcontent knew that there was no more use in attempting to resist the American President than in attempting to resist a French emperor or a Russian czar; . . . he was sustained by the good-will and confidence of a majority of the people, which lay as a solid substratum beneath all the disturbance on the surface. . . . that there was a real master in the United States is a proposition which many will consider it highly improper to make and very patriotic to contradict. None the less, however, it is true, and by the autumn of 1863 every intelligent man in the country felt that it was true. Moreover, it was because this was true, and because that master was immovably persistent in the purpose to conquer the South, that the conquest of the South could now be discerned as substantially a certainty in the future. (Morse, Vol. II, pp. 208-209.)
Abraham Lincoln possessed a keen intellect and a penetrating moral sensibility that has pointed America permanently in a humane direction. John Morse describes how he formulated his acceptance speech upon his nomination by the Illinois Republicans for the U.S. Senate:
. . . he was ceaselessly turning over this matter in his mind; and frequently he stopped short to jot down an idea or expression upon some scrap of paper, which then he thrust into his hat. Thus, piece by piece, the accumulation grew alike inside and outside of this head. . . . When at last the composition was completed, he gathered a small coterie of his friends and admirers, and read it to them. . . .
"If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. '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 do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, - North as well as South."
As the reader [Lincoln] watched for the effect of this exordium he only saw disapproval and consternation. His assembled advisers and critics, each and all save only the fiery Herndon [his law partner], protested that language so daring and advanced would work a ruin that might not be mended in years. Lincoln heard their condemnation with gravity rather than surprise. But he had worked his way to a conviction, and he was immovable; all he said was, that the statement was true, right, and just, that it was time it should be made, and that he would make it, even though he might have "to go down with it;" that he would "rather be defeated with this expression in the speech . . . than to be victorious without it.". . .
It is not without effort that we can now appreciate fully why this utterance was so momentous in the spring of 1858. By it Lincoln came before the people with a plain statement of precisely that which more than nine hundred and ninety-nine persons in every thousand, especially at the North, were striving with all their might to stamp down as an untruth; he said to them what they all were denying with desperation, and with rage against the asserters. Their bitterness was the greater because very many, in the bottom of their hearts, distrusted their own painful and strenuous denial. No words could be more unpopular than that the divided house could not permanently stand, when the whole nation was insisting, with the intensity of despair, that it could stand, would stand, must stand. Consequently occurrences soon showed his friends to be right so far as concerned the near, practical point: that the paragraph would cost more voters in Illinois than Lincoln could lose without losing his election. But beyond that point, a little farther away in time, much deeper down amid enduring results, Lincoln's judgment was ultimately seen to rest upon fundamental wisdom, politically as well as morally. For Lincoln was no idealist, sacrificing realities to abstractions; on the contrary, the right which he saw was always a practical right, a right which could be compassed. In this instance, the story goes that he retorted upon some of those who grumbled about his "mistake," that in time they "would consider it the wisest thing he ever said." In this he foretold truly; that daring and strong utterance was the first link in the chain of which a more distant link lay across the threshold of the White House. (Morse, Vol. I, pp. 117-120.)
We can discern again Lincoln's courage, forthrightness, and skill in making moral distinctions in his address at Cooper Institute, New York City, on the eve of his election to the presidency:
If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws, and constitutions against it, are themselves wrong, and should be silenced, and swept away. If it is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality - its universality; if it is wrong, they [southern slave holders] cannot justly insist upon its extension - its enlargement. All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it right, as they do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition, as being right; but, thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them? Can we cast our votes with their view, and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this?
Beyond Abraham Lincoln's eloquence, courage, and intelligence was his humaneness, his magnanimous nature. He was fair-minded and generous with people, even under sever provocation. William R. Thayer relates the observations of his personal secretary John Hay:
The rush of office-seekers began on the first day of Lincoln's administration and continued, with slight fluctuations, until the last afternoon of Lincoln's life. Nicolay [his other personal secretary], Hay, and others near the President tried to screen him from this drain on his time and strength; but he would not be screened. He felt that as the Head of the Nation belonged to the whole people, he ought to be accessible to every one. He understood, also, the value of hearing opinions, though only in a moment's talk, from every quarter, and he could usually get something, if it were only a quaint phrase, even from cranks.
". . . although the continual contact with importunity which he could not satisfy, and with distress which he could not always relieve, wore terribly upon him and made him an old man before his time, he would never take the necessary measures to defend himself," says Hay. . . . "Henry Wilson once remonstrated with him about it: 'You will wear yourself out.' He replied, with one of those smiles in which there was so much of sadness, 'They don't want much; they get but little, and I must see them.'". . .
"Upon all but two classes," Hay adds, "the President made the impression of unusual power as well as unusual goodness. He failed only in the case of those who judged men by a purely conventional standard of breeding, and upon those so poisoned by political hostility that the testimony of their own eyes and ears became untrustworthy. . . . The testimony of all men admitted to his intimacy is that he maintained, without the least effort or assumption, a singular dignity and reserve in the midst of his easiest conversation." (Thayer, Vol. I, pp. 184-188.)
Abraham Lincoln's magnanimity even extended to those who sought to supplant him, as was the case with Salmon P. Chase:
The loyal secretary [Hay], on returning from a visit to New York, told the President of the evidence he had seen there of the conduct of Secretary Chase "in trying to cut under" for the Republican nomination. Mr. Lincoln said, "it was very bad taste, but he had determined to shut his eyes to all these performances; that Chase made a good Secretary, and that he would keep him where he is; if he becomes President, all right! I hope we may never have a worse man. I have all along seen clearly his plan of strengthening himself. Whenever he sees that an important matter is troubling me, if I am compelled to decide it in a way to give offence to a man of some influence, he always ranges himself in opposition to me, and persuades the victim that he [Chase] would have arranged it very differently. It was so with Gen'l Frmont, - with Gen'l Hunter, when I annulled his hasty proclamation - with Gen'l Butler, when he was recalled from New Orleans, - with the Missouri people, when they called the other day. I am entirely indifferent to his success or failure in these schemes, so long as he does his duty as the head of the Treasure Department. (Thayer, Vol. I, pp. 201-202.)
We need to remember and honor Abraham Lincoln because he was one of the wisest and noblest leaders we have had - and he rose from the harshest of conditions on the American frontier. I will end this essay on Lincoln with anecdotes from John Hay. Not only was Lincoln humane, he was quite human, and humorous:
The President came in last night in his shirt and told me of the retirement of the enemy from his works at Spottsylvania, and our pursuit. I complimented him on the amount of underpinning he still has left, and he said he weighed 180 pounds. Important if true." (May 14, 1864.)
A little after midnight as I was writing those last lines, the President came into the office laughing, with a volume of Hood's Works in his hand, to show Nicolay and me the little caricature, 'An Unfortunate Bee-ing'; seemingly utterly unconscious that he, with his short shirt hanging about his long legs, and setting out behind like the tail feathers of an enormous ostrich, was infinitely funnier than anything in the book he was laughing at. What a man it is! Occupied all day with matters of vast moment, deeply anxious about the fate of the greatest army of the world, with his own plans and future hanging on the events of the passing hour, he yet has such a wealth of simple bonhomie and good fellowship that he gets out of bed and perambulates the house in his shirt to find us, that we may share with him the fun of poor Hood's queer little conceits." (April 30, 1864.) (Thayer, Vol. I, pp. 198-199.) *