Wednesday, 16 December 2015 12:01

Abraham Lincoln, Part I

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Our Mission Is to Reawaken the Genuine America Spirit . . .

Abraham Lincoln, Part I

Barry MacDonald, Editorial

Abraham Lincoln, American Statesmen Series, XXV, by John T. Morse, Jr., Editor. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., copyright, 1893 and 1899.

John Hay, American Statesmen, Second Series, V, by William Roscoe Thayer. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., copyright 1915.

Our mission, "To Reawaken the Genuine American Spirit," is the promotion of wholesome ideals and principles. The St. Croix Review measures the American "spirit" from the best we have produced as a people, so that we may take pride in our accomplishments, gather our energy, and work to better ourselves.

America has gone astray. We are encumbered with too many small-minded, self-serving politicians. The American people are lacking good direction, are confused, adrift, and yearning for effective leadership. We are tired of being scolded about our supposed disreputable history by the Obama administration - the people who are the last ones we should listen to on the subject of ethics.

We are bereft of admirable and benevolent public figures throughout much of our culture. We need inspiration, and so this essay is about Abraham Lincoln: May he be an example of the excellence Americans are capable of. By the way, there is a wonderful portrait of Lincoln on each of the new five-dollar bills.

The histories cited above were written more than 100 years ago - there is no taint of political correctness in them. The writers were patriotic. Their use of the English language is skillful - they are a pleasure to read. Their sources were often eyewitnesses to events. John Hay, the subject of the second book, was a personal secretary to Abraham Lincoln throughout the Civil War up to Lincoln's assassination.

My purpose is to present a sense, by no means complete, of Lincoln's character and time. His elevated nature is astounding in consideration of his harsh beginnings in life: from where did the nobility come? I will quote the historians at length so that readers may know the eloquence of our American predecessors. These wonderful historians will carry the story of Abraham Lincoln.

John Morse comments on the rare qualities Lincoln had as a leader, and the miracle of his timely appearance:

The manner in which he controlled without commanding, his rare combination of confidence in his own judgment with entire absence of self-assertion, his instinctive appreciation of the meaning and bearing of facts, his capacity to recognize the precise time until which action should be postponed and then to know that action must be taken, suggesting the idea of prescience, his long-suffering and tolerance towards impolitic, obstructive, or over-rash individuals, his marvelous gift of keeping in touch with the people, form a group of qualities which, united in the President of the United States at that mortal juncture, are as strong evidence as anything which this generation has seen to corroborate a faith in an overruling Providence.

Concerning Lincoln's upbringing Morse writes:

The domestic surroundings amid which the babe came into life were wretched in the extreme. . . . Rough, coarse, low, ignorant, and poverty-stricken surroundings were about the child. . . . The father [Thomas Lincoln] was by calling a carpenter, but not good at his trade, a shiftless migratory squatter by invincible tendency, and a very ignorant man, for a long while able only to form the letters which made his signature. . . . He rested not much above the very bottom of existence in pioneer settlements, apparently without capacity or desire to do better.

It's marvelous how Lincoln was able to rise so successfully above his upbringing, and it's a sad commentary on our day - with our accumulated and shared wealth, and comfortable circumstances - that so many modern Americans don't develop themselves. Morse writes:

The opportunities for education were scant enough in that day and place. In his childhood in Kentucky Abraham got a few weeks with one teacher, and then a few weeks with another. Later, in Indiana, he studied a few months, in a scattered way. Probably he had instruction at home, for the sum of all the schooling which he had in his whole life was hardly one year. . . . The books which he saw were few, but a little later he laid hands upon them all and read and re-read them till he must have absorbed all their strong juice into his own nature. Nicolay and Hay [Lincoln's White House secretaries] give the list: The Bible; Aesop's Fables; Robinson Crusoe; The Pilgrim's Progress; a history of the United States; Weems' Washington. He was doubtless much older when he devoured the revised Statutes of Indiana in the office of the town constable. Dr. Holland adds lives of Henry Clay and Franklin, and Ramsay's Washington, and Arnold names Shakespeare and Burns.

Morse writes of Lincoln's emerging native talents and his occupations:

. . . already Lincoln was regarded as a witty fellow, a rare mimic, and a teller of jokes and stories; and therefore was the champion of the fields and the favorite of all the primitive social gatherings. This sort of life and popularity had its perils for in that day and region men seldom met without drinking together; but all authorities are agreed that Lincoln, while the greatest talker was the smallest drinker. . . .
The stories told of his physical strength rival those which decorate the memory of Hercules. Others, which show his kindly and humane nature, are more valuable. Any or all of these may or may not be true. . . . Lincoln's daily life, he himself, at the time, could hardly have seen much that was romantic or poetical in the routine of ill-paid labor and hard living. Until he came of age his "time" belonged to his father, who let him out to the neighbors for any job that offered, making him a man-of-all-work, without-doors and within. . . . Sometimes he slaughtered hogs, at thirty-one cents a day; and in this "rough work" he was esteemed efficient. . . .
At first Abraham's coming of age made no especial change in his condition; he continued to find such jobs as he could, as an example of which is mentioned his bargain with Mrs. Nancy Miller "to split four hundred rails for every yard of brown jeans dyed with white walnut bark that would be necessary to make him a pair of trousers."
Fighting was a common pastime, and when these rough fellows fought, they fought like savages; Lincoln's father bit off his adversary's nose in a fight, and a cousin lost the same feature in the same way; the "gouging" of eyes was a legitimate resource. The necessity of fighting might at any moment come to any one; even the combination of a peaceable disposition with formidable strength did not save Lincoln from numerous personal affrays, of which many are remembered, and not improbably many more have been forgotten.

Morse identifies a defining quality of Abraham Lincoln's character:

His chief trait all his life long was honesty of all kinds and in all things; not only commonplace, material honesty in dealings, but honesty in language, in purpose, in thought; honesty of mind, so that he could never even practice the most tempting of all deceits, a deceit against himself. This pervasive honesty was the trait of his identity, which stayed with him from beginning to end, when other traits seemed to be changing, appearing or disappearing, and bewildering the observer of his career. All the while the universal honesty was there.

Morse describes the political gatherings on the frontier, and the part Lincoln played:

. . . The canvass [1836] was conducted after the usual fashion, with stump-speaking, fighting, drinking. Western voters especially fancied the joint debate between rivals, and on such exciting occasions were apt to come to the arbitrament of fists and knives. But it is pleasant to hear that Lincoln calmed rather than excited such affrays, and that once, when Ninian W. Edwards climbed upon a table and screamed at his opponent the lie direct, Lincoln replied by "so fair a speech" that it quelled the discord. Henceforward he practiced a calm, carefully-weighted, dispassionate style in presenting facts and arguments. Even if he cultivated it from appreciation of its efficiency, at least his skill in it was due to the fact that it was congenial to his nature, and that his mind worked instinctively along these lines. His mental constitution, his way of thinking, were so honest that he always seemed to be a man sincerely engaged in seeking the truth, and who, when he believed that he had found it, would tell it precisely as he saw it, and tell it all. This was the distinguishing trait or habit which differentiates Lincoln from too many other political speakers and writers in the country.

William R. Thayer, in John Hay, American Statesmen, describes Lincoln during his debates with Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858:

Eloquence still meant to them [the people of the time] the Olympian dignity, and the deep, sonorous voice of Daniel Webster, and the tidal ebb and flow of his periods, and the polish of his diction; or it meant the forceful declamation of [John] Calhoun, or Wendell Phillips' invectives gleaming like bayonets in the sun. Lincoln differed from all these. He had neither Webster's imperial presence, nor the rich, supple voice, nor the polished diction and gestures of the model orator. He breathed no echo of Burke or Chatham, no reminder of Cicero or Demosthenes. He was plain Abraham Lincoln, addressing crowds in the prairie towns as naturally as he would have talked to them one by one on his front porch. He had a power rarer than intellectual keenness or the zealot's fervor, or than intoxicating eloquence - the power to penetrate to fundamental principles. He saw the simple bases on which slavery and abolition, union and secession, finally rested; and in every debate he quickly stripped away confusing details and laid bare the essentials, which he presented so simply that they had the settled quality of scientific formulas. But he clothed his arguments in some parable or picturesque figure which everybody understood, and could not forget; and he spoke so sincerely that it was evident that he set truth above a political victory. Where Douglas evaded or straddled, Lincoln stood on principle; he resorted to no devices and wasted no time on quibbles, but squarely dislodged Douglas from one perch after another. Lincoln's good-nature, his humor, his wit, and large-hearted charity were as conspicuous as his trenchant logic - indeed, they sometimes blinded his hearers to the extraordinary skill with which he up held his cause. We see now that while he was ostensibly working for the success of the Republican Party in the next election and his own choice as Senator, he was really proclaiming the impossibility that the nation should continue half-bond, half-free, and he was restating the fundamental principles without which civilization sinks into barbarism.

Many of Lincoln's speeches, and much of the Lincoln-Douglas debates were preserved. Somehow the newspaper writers of the time had the wherewithal to produce seemingly verbatim copies of hours-long debates. It would be profitable to read Lincoln's words to get a better graph of him - this editorial is limited by space.

Wonderful example of Lincoln's clarity of expression is his address at Cooper Institute, in New York City on February 12, 1860. The text can be easily read on the internet.

John Hay was Lincoln's personal secretary; he was then twenty-three-years-old. Thayer describes Hay's impressions of Lincoln:

Hay loved wit, and here was a mind of singular penetration and clearness, which saw right to the heart of principles and could state them in language that a child understood. One by one, the best minds in Washington came into contact with Lincoln; he met them squarely and seldom failed to expose their fallacy, if there were one, or to uphold his own decision, if he approved it, by a phrase or story not to be forgotten. The speeches of the famous orators at the Capitol have faded; Lincoln's remain.

The following is an observation of Hay's involving George B. McClellan. Lincoln appointed McClellan General-in-chief of the Army of the Potomac, and afterwards Lincoln concluded, with much reluctance, that McClellan needed to be replaced. These are quotations from Hay's diary:

I wish here to record what I consider a portent of evil to come. The President, Governor Seward, and I went over the McClellan's home to-night. The servant at the door said the General was at the wedding of Colonel Wheaton at General Buell's and would soon return. We went in, and after we had waited about an hour, McClellan came in, and without paying particular attention to the porter who told him the President was waiting to see him, went up-stairs, passing the door of the room where the President and Secretary of State were seated. They waited about half an hour, and sent once more a servant to tell the General they were there; and the answer came that the General had gone to bed.
I merely record this unparalleled insolence of epaulettes without comment. It is the first indication I have yet seen of the threatened supremacy of the military authorities. Coming home, I spoke to the President about the matter, but he seemed not to have noticed it specially, saying it were better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.

The historian William Thayer comments:

It was this invincible patience, called by some men vacillation and by others attributed to obtuseness, which proved in the end one source of Lincoln's mastery. Patience, the least showy of the virtues, works cumulatively; but what she does endures. There could be no finer example of the contrast between shadow and substance than appeared that winter in McClellan and Lincoln: Little Mac self-confident, idolized, showered with laurels before his battles, and barely condescending to listen to the advice of his chief; and the magnanimous President, bent on hearing all sides, suspending judgment until he had considered every fact, and loyally supplying the General with everything he demanded.


Can anyone doubt that if America had today the enlightened and "magnanimous" quality of leadership of another President Lincoln, that American morale would be entirely better? So much of our attitude depends upon whether we believe in ourselves or not. For too long progressives have been propagating negatives views of America. This essay is offered as a corrective to progressive propaganda. There is so much within this nation's history that takes our breathe away in admiration and pride! Why should we dwell on the negative?

The next essay on Abraham Lincoln will address political, cultural, and wartime topics. I will finish this essay with historian John T. Morse's description of the pioneers:

Individuals might differ ever so widely; but the wisest and the dullest, the most worthless and the most enterprising, had to rub shoulder to shoulder in daily life. Yet the variety was considerable: hardy and danger-loving pioneers fulfilling the requirements of romance; shiftless vagrants curiously combining utter inefficiency with a sort of bastard contempt for hardship; ruffians who could only offset against every brutal vice an ignoble physical courage; intelligent men whose observant eyes ranged over the whole region in a shrewd search after enterprise and profit; a few educated men, decent in apparel and bearing, useful in legislation and in preventing the ideal from becoming altogether vulgarized and debased; and others whose energy was chiefly of the tongue, the class imbued with a taste for small politics and the public business. All these and many other varieties were like ingredients cast together into a cauldron; they could not keep apart, each with his own kind, to the degree which is customary in old established communities; but they all ceaselessly crossed and mingled and met, and talked, and dealt, and helped and hustled each other, and exerted upon each other that subtle inevitable influence resulting from such constant intercourse; and so they inoculated each other with certain characteristics which became common to all and formed the type of the early settler. Thus was made "the new West," "the great West," which was pushed ever onward, and endured along each successive frontier for about a generation. An eternal movement, a tireless coming and going, pervaded these men; they passed hither and thither without pause, phantasmagorically; they seemed to be forever "moving on," some because they were real pioneers and natural rovers, others because they were mere vagrants generally drifting away from creditors, others because the better chance seemed ever in the newer place, and all because they had struck no roots, gathered no associations, no home ties, no local belongings. *
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