February 1904 The Civil War

Recollections of Lincoln

A journalist who covered the Lincoln-Douglas debates recalls the future president’s bawdy appeal.
Abraham Lincoln, a country lawyer who had served a two-year stint in Congress in the 1840s, was roused by his dismay over the Kansas-Nebraska Act to return to politics, challenging the senator from Illinois Stephen A. Douglas—the author of the law—for his seat in 1858. The bid was unsuccessful, but Americans everywhere were riveted by their debates.

The contrasts between the two men were striking: Douglas, a charismatic politician known as “the little giant” for his small stature and outsized effectiveness, argued for compromise, while Lincoln, a homely man with an oddly high-pitched voice, argued for holding a firm line against slavery’s spread.

Henry Villard, a journalist covering the debates, met Lincoln at the second matchup and kept in touch. Years later, The Atlantic published an excerpt from Villard’s memoirs in which he recalled his impressions of this aspiring politician, who, with his penchant for dirty jokes, had seemed like a surprising candidate.

—Sage Stossel
Abraham Lincoln, shown here in an 1864 photograph taken in Mathew Brady’s studio, was one of the first politicians to recognize the power of photography. He understood that images would connect him to the electorate and also that people would read character from likeness. In this way, Lincoln helped color his legacy not just with the words he left behind, but also with images. (Anthony Berger/National Portrait Gallery)

The first joint debate between Douglas and Lincoln which I attended (the second in the series of seven) took place on the afternoon of August 27, 1858, at Freeport, Illinois. It was the great event of the day, and attracted an immense concourse of people from all parts of the state. Douglas spoke first for an hour, followed by Lincoln for an hour and a half; upon which the former closed in another half hour. The Democratic spokesman commanded a strong, sonorous voice, a rapid, vigorous utterance, a telling play of countenance, impressive gestures, and all the other arts of the practiced speaker. As far as all external conditions were concerned, there was nothing in favor of Lincoln. He had a lean, lank, indescribably gawky figure, an odd-featured, wrinkled, inexpressive, and altogether uncomely face. He used singularly awkward, almost absurd, up-and-down and sidewise movements of his body to give emphasis to his arguments. His voice was naturally good, but he frequently raised it to an unnatural pitch. Yet the unprejudiced mind felt at once that, while there was on the one side a skillful dialectician and debater arguing a wrong and weak cause, there was on the other a thoroughly earnest and truthful man, inspired by sound convictions in consonance with the true spirit of American institutions. There was nothing in all Douglas’s powerful effort that appealed to the higher instincts of human nature, while Lincoln always touched sympathetic chords. Lincoln’s speech excited and sustained the enthusiasm of his audience to the end. When he had finished, two stalwart young farmers rushed on the platform, and, in spite of his remonstrances, seized and put him on their shoulders and carried him in that uncomfortable posture for a considerable distance. It was really a ludicrous sight to see the grotesque figure holding frantically to the heads of his supporters, with his legs dangling from their shoulders, and his pantaloons pulled up so as to expose his underwear almost to his knees. Douglas made dexterous use of this incident in his next speech, expressing sincere regret that, against his wish, he had used up his old friend Lincoln so completely that he had to be carried off the stage. Lincoln retaliated by saying at the first opportunity that he had known Judge Douglas long and well, but there was nevertheless one thing he could not say of him, and that was that the Judge always told the truth.

I was introduced to Lincoln at Freeport, and met him frequently afterwards in the course of the campaign. I must say frankly that, although I found him most approachable, good-natured, and full of wit and humor, I could not take a real personal liking to the man, owing to an inborn weakness for which he was even then notorious and so remained during his great public career. He was inordinately fond of jokes, anecdotes, and stories. He loved to hear them, and still more to tell them himself out of the inexhaustible supply provided by his good memory and his fertile fancy. There would have been no harm in this but for the fact that, the coarser the joke, the lower the anecdote, and the more risky the story, the more he enjoyed them, especially when they were of his own invention. He possessed, moreover, a singular ingenuity in bringing about occasions in conversation for indulgences of this kind. I have to confess, too, that aside from the prejudice against him which I felt on this account, I shared the belief of a good many independent thinkers at the time, including prominent leaders of the Republican party, that, with regard to separating more effectively the anti-slavery Northern from the pro-slavery Southern wing of the Democracy, it would have been better if the reëlection of Douglas had not been opposed.

The party warfare was hotly continued in all parts of the state from early summer till election day in November. Besides the seven joint debates, both Douglas and Lincoln spoke scores of times separately, and numerous other speakers from Illinois and other states contributed incessantly to the agitation. The two leaders visited almost every county in the state. I heard four of the joint debates, and six other speeches by Lincoln and eight by his competitor. Of course, the later efforts became substantial repetitions of the preceding ones, and to listen to them grew more and more tiresome to me. As I had seen something of political campaigns before, this one did not exercise the full charm of novelty upon me …

I firmly believe that, if Stephen A. Douglas had lived, he would have had a brilliant national career. Freed by the Southern rebellion from all identification with pro-slavery interests, the road would have been open to the highest fame and position for which his unusual talents qualified him. As I took final leave of him and Lincoln, doubtless neither of them had any idea that within two years they would be rivals again in the Presidential race. I had it from Lincoln’s own lips that the United States Senatorship was the greatest political height he at the time expected to climb. He was full of doubt, too, of his ability to secure the majority of the Legislature against Douglas. These confidences he imparted to me on a special occasion which I must not omit to mention in detail before leaving this subject.

Below: Lincoln, along with his sons Willie and Tad, outside his Springfield, Illinois, home before beginning his first term as president. (John Adams Whipple/Library of Congress)

He and I met accidentally, about nine o’clock on a hot, sultry evening, at a flag railroad station about twenty miles west of Springfield, on my return from a great meeting at Petersburg in Menard County. He had been driven to the station in a buggy and left there alone. I was already there. The train that we intended to take for Springfield was about due. After vainly waiting for half an hour for its arrival, a thunderstorm compelled us to take refuge in an empty freight car standing on a side track, there being no buildings of any sort at the station. We squatted down on the floor of the car and fell to talking on all sorts of subjects. It was then and there he told me that, when he was clerking in a country store, his highest political ambition was to be a member of the state Legislature. “Since then, of course,” he said laughingly, “I have grown some, but my friends got me into this business [meaning the canvass]. I did not consider myself qualified for the United States Senate, and it took me a long time to persuade myself that I was. Now, to be sure,” he continued, with another of his peculiar laughs, “I am convinced that I am good enough for it; but, in spite of it all, I am saying to myself every day: ‘It is too big a thing for you; you will never get it.’ [My wife] insists, however, that I am going to be Senator and President of the United States, too.” These last words he followed with a roar of laughter, with his arms around his knees, and shaking all over with mirth at his wife’s ambition. “Just think,” he exclaimed, “of such a sucker as me as President!” …

[FROM THE EDITORS, 1904—In the last days of November, 1860, the Associated Press sent Mr. Villard to Springfield, Illinois, to report current events at that place by telegraph, until the departure of Mr. Lincoln for Washington. This duty brought Mr. Villard into daily relations with the President-elect, who gave him a most friendly welcome and bade him to ask for information at any time he wished it.]

springfield

Mr. Lincoln soon found, after his election, that his modest two-story frame dwelling was altogether inadequate for the throng of local callers and of visitors from a distance, and, accordingly, he gladly availed himself of the offer of the use of the governor’s room in the Capitol building. On my arrival, he had already commenced spending a good part of each day in it. He appeared daily, except Sundays, between nine and ten o’clock, and held a reception till noon, to which all comers were admitted, without even the formality of first sending in cards. Whoever chose to call received the same hearty greeting …

I was present almost daily for more or less time during his morning receptions. I generally remained a silent listener, as I could get at him at other hours when I was in need of information … The most remarkable and attractive feature of those daily “levees,” however, was his constant indulgence of his story-telling propensity. Of course, all the visitors had heard of it and were eager for the privilege of listening to a practical illustration of his preëminence in that line. He knew this, and took special delight in meeting their wishes …

I am sorry to state that he often allowed himself altogether too much license in the concoction of the stories. He seemed to be bent upon making his hit by fair means or foul. In other words, he never hesitated to tell a coarse or even outright nasty story, if it served his purpose. All his personal friends could bear testimony on this point. It was a notorious fact that this fondness for low talk clung to him even in the White House. More than once I heard him “with malice aforethought” get off purposely some repulsive fiction in order to rid himself of an uncomfortable caller. Again and again I felt disgust and humiliation that such a person should have been called upon to direct the destinies of a great nation in the direst period of its history. Yet his achievements during the next few years proved him to be one of the great leaders of mankind in adversity, in whom low leanings only set off more strikingly his better qualities …

No one who heard him talk upon the [secession] question could fail to discover his “other side,” and to be impressed with his deep earnestness, his anxious contemplation of public affairs, and his thorough sense of the extraordinary responsibilities that were coming upon him. He never refused to talk with me about secession, but generally evaded answers to specific interrogatories, and confined himself to generalizations. I was present at a number of conversations which he had with leading public men upon the same subject, when he showed the same reserve. He did not hesitate to say that the Union ought to, and in his opinion would, be preserved, and to go into long arguments in support of the proposition, based upon the history of the republic, the homogeneity of the population, the natural features of the country, such as the common coast, the rivers and mountains, that compelled political and commercial unity. But he could not be got to say what he would do in the face of Southern secession, except that as President he should be sworn to maintain the Constitution of the United States, and that he was therefore bound to fulfill that duty. He met in the same general way the frequent questions whether he should consider it his duty to resort to coercion by force of arms against the states engaged in attempts to secede. In connection therewith I understood him, however, several times to express doubts as to the practicability of holding the slave states in the Union by main force, if they were all determined to break it up. He was often embarrassed by efforts of radical anti-slavery men to get something out of him in encouragement of their hopes that the crisis would result in the abolition of slavery. He did not respond as they wished, and made it clear that he did not desire to be considered an “abolitionist,” and that he still held the opinion that property in slaves was entitled to protection under the Constitution, and that its owners could not be deprived of it without due compensation. Consciously or unconsciously, he, like everybody else, must have been influenced in his views by current events. As political passion in the South rose higher and higher, and actual defiance of Federal authority by deeds of violence occurred almost daily after his election, culminating in the formal secession of seven states and the establishment of the Southern Confederacy under Jefferson Davis at Montgomery, Alabama, the belief, which he doubtless had originally, that by a conciliatory course as President he could pacify the rebellious states, must have become shaken. Still, I think I interpret his views up to the time of his departure for Washington correctly in saying that he had not lost faith in the preservation of peace between the North and the South, and he certainly did not dream that his principal duty would be to raise great armies and fleets, and the means to maintain them, for the suppression of the most determined and sanguinary rebellion, in defense of slavery, that our planet ever witnessed.


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