Abraham Lincoln: February 12, 1809—April 15, 1865
Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln.
—A Great and Good Man—Giving his Feet a Chance to Breathe—A Sad-faced Man—Lincoln’s Humor—Douglas a Demagogue—Glimmering of the Future—Offers Nasby a Place—A Hater of Bloodshed—The Face of Death—
TO write recollections of Abraham Lincoln is a pleasant task. The greatest man, in some respects, who ever lived, and in all respects the most lovable—a man whose great work gave him the heart of every human being—with a heart—throughout the civilized world, and whose tragic death made a world sigh in pity. It was an honor to know him, and more than an honor to be approved by him.
The first time I saw the great and good Lincoln (alas! that “great” and “good” cannot be more frequently associated in speaking of public men) was at Quincy, Ill., in October—I think it was—1858. It was at the close of the greatest political struggle this country ever witnessed. Stephen A. Douglas was the acknowledged champion of the Democratic Party, a position he had held unquestioned for years. He came into his heritage of leadership at an unfortunate time, just when the scepter was departing from the organization which he had headed, but he was especially unfortunate in being pitted against the most honest statesman in the opposition, a man upon whose face the Creator had set the assurance of absolute, unselfish integrity—of one whose outward seeming was a true index of the inward man. Douglas was perhaps as honest as politicians usually are; he had doubtless worked himself up to the point of actually believing the lies which he had fashioned to subserve his own ends; but Lincoln had never so deceived himself. He was absolutely honest—honest all the way through—and in face and manner satisfied all men that he was so. What might happen to him never influenced either his advocacy or opposition of any measure that might come before the people.
A mere politician like Douglas, who was so full of self that there was room for nothing else, was very indiscreet in trying conclusions before the people with any such man as Lincoln. The average instinct of the masses in such matters is unerring.
I found Mr. Lincoln in a room of a hotel, surrounded by admirers, who had made the discovery that one who had previously been considered merely a curious compound of genius and simplicity was a really great man. When Lincoln was put forward as the antagonist of the hitherto invincible Douglas, it was with fear and trembling, with the expectancy of defeat; but this mature David of the new faith had met the Goliath of the old, and had practically slain him. He had swept over the State like a cyclone—not a raging, devastating cyclone, the noise of which equaled its destructive power, but a modest and unassuming force, which was the more powerful because the force could not be seen. It was the cause which won, but in other hands than Lincoln’s it might have failed. Therefore, wherever he went crowds of admiring men followed him, all eager to worship at the new shrine around which such glories were gathering.
I succeeded in obtaining an interview with him after the crowd had departed, and I esteem it something to be proud of that he seemed to take a liking to me. He talked to me without reserve. It was many years ago, but I shall never forget it.
He sat in the room with his boots off, to relieve his very large feet from the pain occasioned by continuous standing; or, to put it in his own words: “I like to give my feet a chance to breathe.” He had removed his coat and vest, dropped one suspender from his shoulder, taken off his necktie and collar, and thus comfortably attired, or rather unattired, he sat tilted back in one chair with his feet upon another in perfect ease. He seemed to dislike clothing, and in privacy wore as little of it as he could. I remember the picture as though I saw it but yesterday.
Those who accuse Lincoln of frivolity never knew him. I never saw a more thoughtful face, I never saw a more dignified face, I never saw so sad a face. He had humor of which he was totally unconscious, but it was not frivolity. He said wonderfully witty things, but never from a desire to be witty. His wit was entirely illustrative. He used it because, and only because, at times he could say more in this way, and better illustrate the idea with which he was pregnant. He never cared how he made a point so that he made it, and he never told a story for the mere sake of telling a story. When he did it, it was for the purpose of illustrating and making clear a point. He was essentially epigrammatic and parabolic. He was a master of satire, which was at times as blunt as a meat-ax, and at others as keen as a razor; but it was always kindly except when some horrible injustice was its inspiration, and then it was terrible. Weakness he was never ferocious with, but intentional wickedness he never spared.
In this interview the name came up of a recently deceased politician of Illinois, whose undeniable merit was blemished by an overweening vanity. His funeral was very largely attended: “If General ————— had known how big a funeral he would have had,” said Mr. Lincoln, “ he would have died years ago.”
But with all the humor in his nature, which was more than humor because it was humor with a purpose (that constituting the difference between humor and wit), his was the saddest face I ever looked upon.
His flow of humor was a sparkling spring gushing out of a rock—the flashing water had a somber background which made it all the brighter. Whenever merriment came over that wonderful countenance it was like a gleam of sunshine upon a cloud— it illuminated, but did not dissipate. The premonition of fate was on him then; the shadow of the tragic closing of the great destiny in the beyond had already enveloped him.
At the time, he said he should carry the State on the popular vote, but that Douglas would, nevertheless, be elected to the Senate, owing to the skillful manner in which the State had been districted in his interest. “You can’t overturn a pyramid, but you can undermine it; that’s what I have been trying to do.”
He undermined the pyramid that the astute Douglas had erected, most effectually. It toppled and fell very shortly afterward.
The difference between the two men was illustrated the next day in their opening remarks. Lincoln said (I quote from memory):
“I have had no immediate conference with Judge Douglas, but I am sure that he and I will agree that your entire silence when I speak and he speaks will be most agreeable to us.”
Douglas said at the beginning of his speech: “The highest compliment you can pay ME is by observing a strict silence. I desire rather to be heard than applauded.”
The inborn modesty of the one and the boundless vanity of the other could not be better illustrated. Lincoln claimed nothing for himself— Douglas spoke as if applause must follow his utterances.
The character of the two men was still better illustrated in their speeches. The self-sufficiency of Douglas in his opening might be pardoned, for he had been fed upon applause till he fancied himself a more than Caesar; but his being a popular idol could not justify the demagogy that saturated the speech itself. Douglas was the demagogue all the way through. There was no trick of presentation that he did not use. He suppressed facts, twisted conclusions, and perverted history. He wriggled and turned and dodged; he appealed to prejudices; in short, it was evident that what he was laboring for was Douglas and nothing else. The cause he professed was lost sight of in the claims of its advocate. Lincoln, on the other hand, kept strictly to the questions at issue, and no one could doubt but that the cause for which he was speaking was the only thing he had at heart; that his personal interests did not weigh a particle. He was the representative of an idea, and in the vastness of the idea its advocate was completely swallowed up.
Lincoln admitted frankly all the weak points in the position of his party in the most open way, and that simple honesty carried conviction with it. His admissions of weakness, where weakness was visible, strengthened his position on points where he was strong. He knew that the people had intelligence enough to strike the average correctly. His great strength was in his trusting the people instead of considering them as babes in arms. He did not profess to know everything. The audience admired Douglas, but they respected his simple-minded opponent.
Nothing so illustrates the fact that events are stronger than men, and that one attacking an evil can never commence using the little end of a club without changing very soon to the butt, than the position of Lincoln at this time. The Republican leaders, and Lincoln as well, were afraid of only one thing, and that was of having imputed to them any desire to abolish slavery. Douglas, in all the debates between himself and Lincoln, attempted to fasten Abolition upon him, and this it was Lincoln’s chief desire to avoid. Great as he was, he had not then reached the point of declaring war upon slavery; he could go no farther than to protest against its extension into the territories, and that was pressed in so mild and hesitating a way as to rob it of half its point. Did he foresee that within a few years the irresistible force of events would compel him to demand its extinction, and that his hand would sign the document that killed it? Logic is mightier than man’s reason. He did not realize that the reason for preventing its extension was the very best reason for its extinction. Anything that should be restricted should be killed. It took a war to bring about this conclusion. Liberty got its best growth from blood-stained fields.
I met Lincoln again in 1859, in Columbus, Ohio, where he made a speech, which was only a continuation of the Illinois debates of the year before. Douglas had been previously brought there by the Democracy, and Lincoln’s speech was, in the main, an answer to Douglas. It is curious to note in this speech that Lincoln denied being in favor of negro suffrage, and took pains to go out of his way to affirm his support of the law of Illinois forbidding the intermarriage of whites and negroes.
I asked him if such a denial was worth while, to which he replied:
“The law means nothing. I shall never marry a negress, but I have no objection to any one else doing so. If a white man wants to marry a negro woman, let him do it—if the negro woman can stand it.”
By this time his vision had penetrated the future, and he had got a glimmering of what was to come. In his soul he knew what he should have advocated, but he doubted if the people were ready for the great movement of a few years later. Hence his halting at all the half-way houses.
“Slavery,” said he, “is doomed, and that within a few years. Even Judge Douglas admits it to be an evil, and an evil can’t stand discussion. In discussing it we have taught a great many thousands of people to hate it who had never given it a thought before. What kills the skunk is the publicity it gives itself. What a skunk wants to do is to keep snug under the barn—in the day-time, when men are around with shot-guns.”
The discussions with Douglas made him the Republican nominee for the Presidency, and elected him President.
The “Nasby Letters,” which I began in 1861, attracted his attention, and he was very much pleased with them. He read them regularly. He kept a pamphlet which contained the first numbers of the series in a drawer in his table, and it was his wont to read them on all occasions to his visitors, no matter who they might be, or what their business was. He seriously offended many of the great men of the Republican Party in this way. Grave and reverend Senators who came charged to the brim with important business—business on which the fate of the nation depended—took it ill that the President should postpone the consideration thereof while he read them a letter from “Saint’s Rest, wich is in the state uv Noo Jersey,” especially as grave statesmen, as a rule, do not understand humor, or comprehend its meaning or effect.
Lincoln also seized eagerly upon everything that Orpheus C. Kerr wrote, and he knew it all by heart.
It was in 1863 that I received a letter from Lincoln, which illustrates two points in his character; viz., his reckless generosity, and the caution which followed close at its heels.
This is the conclusion of the letter:
“Why don’t you come to Washington and see me? Is there no place you want? Come on and I will give you any place you ask for—that you are capable of filling—and fit to fill.”
What led to this was, he had read a letter of mine which pleased him, and the generosity of his nature prompted him to write me to come and see him, and that was supplemented by an offer to give me any place I asked for. After he had finished the letter and added his signature, it occurred to him that to promise a man of whom he knew but little, except through the medium of the press, any place that he might ask for, was rather risky. So he added a dash, and likewise the saving clause, “that you are capable of filling” and, to guard himself entirely, “that you are fit to fill.”
I did go and see him, but not to ask for a place. He gave me an hour of his time, and a delightful hour it was. The end of the terrible struggle was within sight, the country he loved so well had passed through the throes of internecine strife and demonstrated its right to live, and the great and good man was on the eve of passing from labor to reward. It was a fact that treason was more rampant at the North than ever; that great dangers were still threatening; but the army was actually an army, and the loyal sentiment of the North had shown that it could be depended upon. He bubbled over with good feeling; he expressed a liking for my little work, which I have not the assurance to put upon paper, and I departed.
I was in Washington once more in 1864, when the great struggle was nearer its close. My business was to secure a pardon for a young man from Ohio, who had deserted under rather peculiar circumstances. When he enlisted he was under engagement to a young girl, and went to the front very certain of her faithfulness, as a young man should be, and he made a most excellent soldier, feeling that the inevitable “she” at home would be proud of him. It is needless to say that the young girl, being exceptionally pretty, had another lover, whom she had rejected for the young volunteer, and also, it is needless to add, that the stay-at-home rejected hated the accepted soldier with the utmost cordiality. Taking advantage of the absence of the favored lover, the discarded one renewed his suit with great vehemence, and rumors reached the young man at the front that his love had gone over to his enemy, and that he was in danger of losing her entirely. He immediately applied for a furlough, which was refused him, and half mad and reckless of consequences, deserted. He found the information he had received to be partially true, but he came in time. He married the girl, but was immediately arrested as a deserter, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to be shot. I stated the circumstances, giving the young fellow a good character, and the President at once signed a pardon.
“I want to punish the young man—probably in less than a year he will wish I had withheld the pardon. We can’t tell, though. I suppose when I was a young man I should have done the same fool thing.”
No man on earth hated blood as Lincoln did, and he seized eagerly upon any excuse to pardon a man when the charge could possibly justify it. The generals always wanted an execution carried out before it could possibly be brought before the President.
He was as tender-hearted as a girl. He asked me if the masses of the people of Ohio held him, in any way, personally responsible for the loss of their friends in the army. “It’s a good thing for individuals,” he said, “that there’s a government to shove over their acts upon. No man’s shoulders are broad enough to bear what must be.”
The strifes and jars in the Republican Party at this time disturbed him more than anything else, but he avoided taking sides with any of the faction, with the dexterity that comes of simple honesty, which always finds the right road because it is looking for nothing else. I asked him why he did not take some pronounced position in one trying encounter between two very prominent Republicans.
“I learned,” said he, “a great many years ago, that in a fight between man and wife, a third party should never get between the woman’s skillet and the man’s ax-helve.”
The name of a most virulent and dishonest official was mentioned, one who, though very brilliant, was very bad.
“It’s a big thing for B—————,” said Lincoln, “that there is such a thing as a death-bed repentance.”
The favorite poem of the President was, as is well known, “Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?” A member of Congress from Ohio came into his presence in a state of unutterable intoxication, and sinking into a chair, exclaimed in tones that welled up fuzzy through the gallon or more of whisky that he contained, “Oh, why should (hic) er spirit of mortal be proud?”
“My dear sir,” said the President, regarding him closely, “I see no reason whatever.”
A prominent Senator was charged with an attempt to swindle the government out of some millions. The President said he could not understand why men should be so eager after wealth. “Wealth,” said he, “is simply a superfluity of what we don’t need.”
A few months after, the rebellion collapsed, the country rejoiced in the peace that had been so long hoped for but so long delayed, and Abraham Lincoln was the world’s hero. A few days later the bullet of a madman ended his career, and a world mourned.
I saw him, or what was mortal of him, on the mournful progress to his last resting-place, in his coffin. The face was the same as in life. Death had not changed the kindly countenance in any line. There was upon it the same sad look that it had worn always, though not so intensely sad as it had been in life. It was as if the spirit had come back to the poor clay, reshaped the wonderfully sweet face, and given it an expression of gladness that he had finally gone “where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest.” The face had an expression of absolute content, of relief, at throwing off a burden such as few men have been called upon to bear—a burden which few men could have borne. I had seen the same expression on his living face only a few times, when, after a great calamity, he had come to a great victory. It was the look of a worn man suddenly relieved.
Wilkes Booth did Abraham Lincoln the greatest service man could possibly do for him—he gave him peace.
—David R. Locke.