Abraham Lincoln

IT is certainly a pity that “ one of Plutarch’s men ” should have had his life omitted by that biographer. The modern writer, who accounts for his hero instead of representing him, and records, painstakingly, his diurnal doings in the flesh in place of the experience of his immortal past, will not serve for a man of the old stamp. Plutarch had a special sense for the significant deeds and words in which greatness resides, and, happily, the rapid destruction of what was unessential even in the most famous careers made it easy for him to write brief narratives, so justly delineating living traits that he was the Holbein of antiquity. In our day, however, individuality has wellnigh dropped out of history and literary criticism altogether, and seems to have taken refuge in fiction. Where it used to be Cato and Regulus it is Jean Valjean and Sir Galahad. The ideal in character has become, in letter, a thing of the imagination ; hence arises our commiseration for any Plutarchian who was born too late. In the case of Lincoln, regret ought to reach some degree of poignancy, because not only was he distinguished by that genuine and original quality of manhood which Mr. Lowell’s phrase is meant to express, but reminiscences of him are of the sort which Plutarch’s method makes the most of; and truly, if one could gather up into a life of the brevity and succinctness of these age-worn chronicles what was capital in Lincoln’s actions and characteristic in his sayings, it were a book to make the owls of the commonplace wink ! Lincoln possessed in remarkable measure the kind of personality which Plutarch rendered most perfectly ; for it is the peculiarity of that oldstyle biographer not to dissociate the deed or word from its author, but to set it forth as the truest and most vital expression of the man’s nature, so that at the end one seems to remember, not what the hero did or said, but what he was. This unity of the outward expression with the inward spirit, together with an ever-present sense of a dominant individuality, is constantly brought home to the mind in any reading about Lincoln ; whatever the trait may be named, — genuineness, originality, sincerity, directness, — it pervaded his life; and so true is this that many a person, who has had the opportunity of hearing of Lincoln from his companions in early circuit days, must have remarked that anecdotes concerning him then are not less plentiful and characteristic than in the stirring times of the war. He seems always to have been doing or saying something noticeable, from boyhood. In consequence, the amount of detail respecting him which has survived from a hundred perishable sources is very large ; and, while it would be gossip if it related to another man, it is of very high interest in connection with him. Other men have been known to us by anecdote, such as Dr. Johnson; but much of the attractiveness of Boswell’s narrative is due to the club, to the manners of the time, and to the humors and idiosyncrasies of the old doctor, while in Lincoln’s case the charm is exclusively individual, and, moreover, owes nothing to erratic human nature, but all to a noble type of manhood. And other men have survived by their sayings, such as Talleyrand; but in him wisdom is the concentrated craft of a cruel and selfish worldly class, while in Lincoln it is felt to be the plain truth sifted from the experience of common life, and with the beneficence as well as the validity of a proverb. In whatever way one approaches Lincoln, he finds a man who did not merely impress himself upon his times by his talents, after the manner of a great man, like Pitt or Mirabeau, but in a quite special way ; he is recognized as a new species of public man or world’s hero. Whether there is any justice in calling him “ the first American ” may be doubted, although in his character he embodied the excellences most prized in the national ideal of manhood, with a singular purity and clearness, and with an elevation that places him foremost in rank; but in another sense he is just as likely to be the last American, at least of his kind, because, so far as there is any truth in applying the terms of physical science to the origin of spiritual character, he was the product of the transitory pioneering stage in the settlement of the continent, and was environed in his birth and early manhood by conditions that pass away with “ the Border.” This does not interfere with the fact that Lincoln was a new type of American, and distinctively a Westerner ; or with our prefatory consideration, that his marked individuality and striking expression of himself, at every moment, make him peculiarly fit for Plutarchian biography, which aims to present a man only in the deeds and words in which his greatness was made manifest.

Mr. Rice is not a disciple of Plutarch, and there may seem to be such incongruity in comparing his bulky volume 1 (which is only the first of two) with one of those literary medallions of the Roman as almost to amount to a sneer. But we are quite sincere in saying that Mr. Rice has adopted a kind of Plutarchian method, and has done as much as a modern can to place the figure of Lincoln before us in his originality, to preserve for the future the personal impression he made on many men of diverse training, talents, and habits, and to gather up all that remains of verbal tradition in regard to him. Each of thirty-three observers, of various degrees of eminence, tells his own stories of the man, in this volume ; and while it is true that some of them have no story to tell, that others seem to have fancied that a eulogy was required of them, such as is usually printed only in the proceedings of a historical society, and that others contribute more of legal disquisition or even mental obliquity (like Bonn Piatt) than of valuable, straightforward sight of Lincoln and his acts, nevertheless, the volume rarely wanders far from its purpose, and is in a high degree entertaining and instructive. What strikes one most, perhaps, is the entire absence of color in the narratives : it seems as if the writers had found nothing so easy as to tell exactly what they heard and saw ; they cease to be entirely natural only when they leave Lincoln’s presence. In such a collection of papers, mainly by men who were themselves much interested in the affairs of the time, it is a part of the inevitable that considerable space should be occupied with discussions of events, policies, and attitudes in a merely general way. The command of armies, the conduct of campaigns, the wisdom of confiscations, the limits of power in the executive, the various questions of status which arose from time to time, and like matters, are dwelt upon somewhat for their own sake. The chief of these is the Emancipation Proclamation, its occasion, lawfulness, and effect, and in connection therewith Lincoln’s attitude toward both slavery and the negro. There are many different views on this latter point, but nothing is brought forward which makes the facts any plainer than Lincoln’s own words. That he was sincerely opposed to slavery there can be no doubt, but he was an opponent under the law ; that he meant to preserve the Union, and used the Emancipation Proclamation for that purpose solely, while perfectly aware of its limitations as proceeding under martial law, is equally certain ; that he determined upon it a considerable time before it was issued, that he delayed it until a favorable moment both of political feeling and of military position in the field, and that the decisive step was taken not in consequence of any convention of loyal governors, or delegation from any organization whatever, or pressure from this group, or fear of that contingency, or anticipation of the other result, but from many causes combined, is also pretty well made out. Lincoln was statesman enough to know that his private belief regarding the right or wrong of slavery was no ground for the use of the power of the state, devolved upon him in trust for public ends, save for the common safety or in accordance with the will of the people ; or, in other words, that he was not a moral dictator, but a popular ruler. His delay cannot be held to indicate any weakness in his condemnation of slavery, but rather that subordination of everything else to the one end of maintaining the Constitution, which he expressed with such lucidity in his letter to Horace Greeley. Lincoln was not an abolitionist, because certain legal barriers to that course existed, until a state of war swept them away. He was, it would seem, a colonizer, at least until General Butler, who paradoxically remarks that, " like all Southern men, Lincoln did not understand the negro character,” showed him that children would be born faster than the parents could be exported; but he does not appear to have come to any conclusions respecting the new status of the blacks ; all that lay in the future. It is certainly unlikely that he who had so perfectly discharged his function as a leader of the people would have failed to advance with popular sentiment, or have taken a reactionary course upon a matter of such large public concern.

Such speculation is, however, as futile in this brief notice as in Mr. Rice’s big book. One turns from it and all other public questions, now happily settled, to the personal character of Lincoln, and to his bearing under the weight of his daily cares. In this regard, it is scarcely too much to say that the public is now admitted to an intimacy with the whole course of Lincoln’s life greater than any one of his associates separately had : he is seen at all hours and in all relations, and shown as he was in all his homeliness, — nor is his grossness spared ; yet there is no moment when he loses manly dignity, or appears less than a good man and true. One must read these pages to get anew the sense of the equality of Ins greatness in character, independently of his ability as a wielder of political power, a leader in a social revolution, a master of sometimes reluctant and often warring forces. Some incidents stand out upon our memory with peculiar distinctness. Such is the interview after the Pennsylvania elections, when Moorhead delivered to Lincoln the message of the " best and most influential men of Harrisburg,” who would have beeu “ glad to hear some morning that you had been found hanging from the post of a lamp at the door of the White House.” This was from the lips of his friends. Another vivid moment is that when Coffin saw him come out of the headquarters of McClellan, on hearing of the death of Colonel Baker. “ unattended, with bowed head, and tears rolling down his furrowed cheeks, his face pale and wan ; with both hands pressed upon his heart, he walked down the street, not returning the salute of the sentinel pacing his heat before the door.” The single literary evening in the White House with the actor McDonough is also a clearcut scene. Of the little things in the volume, none is more touching or suggestive than his comment on the first dollar he earned : “ I could scarcely credit that I, the poor boy, had earned a dollar in less than a day ; that by honest work I had earned a dollar. The world seemed wider and fairer before me ; I was a more hopeful and thoughtful boy from that time.”

But one cannot do more than indicate the real value of Mr. Rice’s work, winch he may expand without censure from us until it is more voluminous than all of Plutarch. The character of Lincoln, not as a great name, but in the daily walk of his life, is, we hold, of unparalleled influence for good among Americans ; life grows capable of more tenderness and strength, more power of duty, more light of faith, more unselfishness of devotion, with every fair page one reads of his career; he was heroic, he was pathetic, he was practical, all at once, and in every fibre of his being he was a man. Love is not less than veneration in the feeling toward him of those whom he led ; in the country’s patriotic memory of him, it will not be otherwise.

  1. Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln. By Distinguished Men of his Time. Collected and edited by ALLEN THORNDIKE RICE. New York : North American Publishing Company. 1886.