A Journalist Sees Lincoln
EDITED BY WILLIAM O. STODDARD, JR.
I WAS a fine figure to be introduced to great men, that chilly evening in April. Little had been done for my wardrobe since leaving Chicago, and that little had been adapted to prairie uses. My hair, always disposed to luxuriant growth, had last been cut on the shore of Lake Michigan, except a slash from a prairie fire. I was afterward informed by a fellow citizen that his first admiration of me had been inspired by the remarkable character of my cowhide top-boots, into which a pair of coarse trousers were tucked. My shirt was a blue-checked hickory, and under its ample collar was a flowing black-silk neck-scarf, a remnant of Rochester days. On my head was a broad-brimmed slouch felt hat, black, and my complexion was of the combined tinteffects of sun and wind and winter fever. On the whole, there was no other man in Urbana just like me when I got out of the wagon and walked around to shift for myself and to strike for a new field of action.
The next morning I was ready for my first attack upon local journalism, although the outlook was anything but golden. I had already been aware that a too sanguine literary adventurer had attempted to set up an ‘Agricultural’ weekly journal in West Urbana. His undertaking had failed, his entire outfit being bought in for eight hundred dollars, at a sheriff’s sale, by a local medical celebrity named Dr. Walker Scroggs. He was a man of a million. Of medium height and thin, he was by no means ill-looking, and he dressed well; for in summer or winter he always had on a black frock-suit and a brilliant velvet vest of many colors. He also wore a stovepipe hat and had a pair of sharp, twinkling gray eyes.
On the ruins of the lost newspaper enterprise Dr. Scroggs had determined to establish a journal of his own planning, devoted to his isms and to a miscellaneous abuse of the many men whom he did not like. To his printing office, therefore, I made my way that hopeful morning. The paper was already three weeks old and its editor had won a sudden distinction which threatened him with libel suits and personal encounters with angry men. He had written his talk right out, in his wrath, and some of the words that he put in were of the kind mildly described as ‘archaic.’ It was, therefore, a dark morning for the Gazette and its remarkable conductor, and I had climbed into the gloom.
I had never seen the doctor, but there was no mistaking his personality as he sat there on the other side of the egg-stove, hugging his left knee over his right and wearing so sourly discontented a countenance. The printers were at their cases, picking type industriously, and there were no other visitors.
‘Doctor,’ I remarked, as if we were old acquaintances, ‘you are trying to run a newspaper here?’
Only a nod and a grunt were his response, and after a moment of contemplation of the stove I added, kindly, ‘You don’t know how!’
That brought down his leg as he responded, ‘I know that better than you do.’
I continued, ‘You can’t run a newspaper; but I can!’
His hands went behind his head half contemptuously as he replied, ‘The hell you can! What will you take to try it on?’
‘ No pay at all, just now,’ I told him.
I went on to make a business proposition, however, for I was well aware that he was losing money fast and needlessly. I told him that I would get out one edition of the paper, to show him what I could do. If all was then satisfactory, I would take no wages. I would agree that I would run my risk of making the paper pay its own way. As soon as I should do that, I was to have a full third partnership and control. In the meantime, at the end of the week he was to buy me a good suit of clothes and some other things and pay my board in a good boardinghouse.
‘Done!’ he exclaimed. ‘Take right hold. Take the whole d—— thing and run it! I’m going out to see a patient. ‘
Three days later I sent out the fourth number of the Gazette. The doctor was astonished when he read his paper. I had omitted some things that he had written for it and bluntly refused to put in any more personalities. He surrendered only after all the men and women he met had congratulated him upon the improved appearance of the Gazette. As yet, hardly anybody knew how it had happened, but folks were curious and it was time for me to put on my new uniform. That was what the doctor had agreed to and he seemed even in a hurry to keep his word, making energetic remarks about having such a looking customer the editor of the greatest paper in Central Illinois. I think it was the cash account that affected him most; he still kept his own name at the head as editor, while he ceased to take any care of the literary business except as a kind of skipping critic, after each consecutive issue came out.
On one of the warm days of that autumn I was upstairs at a piece of job work which a devil had carelessly pied. I was in a state of mind; my shirtsleeves were rolled up to my shoulders and my hands were black with ink. There may have been streaks of darkness on my face. The doctor was below, rolling out some pills, and must have been standing with his back to the open street-door when a loud voice in the doorway hailed him as ‘Doc,’ and inquired into the condition of his health. I did not entirely catch the doctor’s responses, but in a moment he was up at the head of the stairs and at my elbow informing me, in a suppressed tone which might have been heard all over the office, ‘Stoddard! Old Abe is here and he wants to see you!’
My reply was in accordance with my state of mind.
‘Come right down!’ he said. ‘But do fix up a little. Why, Stoddard, you are looking like the devil.’
I replied that all I would do just then was make a kind of compromise. If Mr. Lincoln wished to see me, I would go down and I would wash my hands, but I would not roll down my sleeves. The doctor was not at all satisfied, but I was aware of an audible chuckle in the room below. Up to that hour I had not met Mr. Lincoln, but had heard a great deal of him and did not believe he would care much for a little ink and light clothing. The doctor, on the other hand, considered this visit of so prominent a politician a great affair, and he was a little afraid of big men.
Mr. Lincoln greeted me cordially and plunged at once into the causes of his coming. In a minute he had me not only deeply interested but somewhat astonished. I had supposed that I knew the people and politics of that county and he had been told that I did, but so did he. He could ask about the different precincts and their leading men almost as if he had lived among them. As he was then studying Champaign County, so he was investigating the State of Illinois and other states and was getting into close relations with the current of thought and feeling, North and South. The conversation was a long one and Dr. Scroggs soon got weary of it, for he had no part in it, and he went off ‘to see a patient.’ Lincoln went out and I went back to my pied job, and did not at all suppose that so unimportant an interview was to have any permanent effect upon my life.
Somewhere along in the winter I found means to secure a small cottage near the middle of the village, and in this my sister Kate and I began small housekeeping. It contained only two rooms besides the kitchen, but it would do.
In the spring of 1859 the new political campaign opened early and the whole country was on fire with excitement. The Gazette was also beginning to regard itself as an important journal, for we had a circulation of over two thousand, scattered over several counties. In all the long list of possible presidential candidates, the name of Lincoln had not been spoken of in any newspaper publication that I knew anything about. As a New Yorker, a born and bred follower of William H. Seward, I had been disposed to advocate him, but had at the same time a doubt of his ability to secure the Western vote. It was my opinion that the situation called for a Western man and I was not at all satisfied with any of the doctor’s suggested candidates.
Just before I set up housekeeping I was temporarily boarding at the Doane House, the square hotel at the railway station. It was a temperance house and had no bar, but its office was a large room that had been intended for hospitality. In the middle of this office was an enormous egg-stove and near this, in the corner, was the office counter. Just beyond was the door from the dining-room.
One chilly morning in March I came to my breakfast as early as usual, and after eating it passed out through that door into the office. Just as I did so the street door opened and Abraham Lincoln came in. He had been to the post office without any overcoat and he may well have been chilly. At all events he walked toward the stove, drew up one of the much-whittled armchairs which ornamented the office, sat down in it, cocked his feet upon the stove hearth, took off his hat, and settled it between his knees. I think he always wore a very tall hat and one that was respectable for age. This hat, now between his knees, was so full of letters that one might have wondered how he managed to put it on. The volume of his correspondence was not surprising, however, for his law business was large and he was here in attendance upon the court which was in session at Urbana. On seeing him come in, I had paused at the counter, and there I continued to stand, for there was something in this man’s face and manner that attracted me unusually. My old fad for studying remarkable men came upon me with power and I put away my first impulse to go forward and speak to him. It was much better to watch him, and he appeared to be unaware of any other presence in the room. He and I were alone and he was much more alone than I.
I stood at the office counter, watching him. This morning was evidently a thoughtful one; his expression varied from minute to minute, all the while being cloudy. He read or looked at letter after letter as he opened them, and for some he did not appear to care much.
At last, however, he came to an epistle which I have wished I knew something about. It was written upon a square letter-sheet, in a crabbed but regular and very black handwriting, page after page. It seemed to interest him at once and he read on slowly, stopping at intervals as if to ponder ideas which were presented. His face at first grew darker and the deep wrinkles in his forehead grew deeper. I was also getting more and more interested. Then, if you can imagine how a dark lighthouse looks when its calcium light is suddenly kindled, you may get an idea of the change which came into the face of Abraham Lincoln. All the great soul within him had been kindled to white heat, and his eyes shone until he shut them. Before he did that, they seemed to be looking at something or other that was far away. I had seen enough and I said to myself emphatically, ‘That is the greatest man you have ever seen! ‘
I did not disturb Mr. Lincoln or try to speak to him. I turned and made my way out of the hotel through the dining-room, and I did not pause until I had reached the Gazette office. I opened the door and walked in, and there at the table sat Dr. Scroggs, diligently at work upon his accustomed pills. His back was toward me and he did not turn when I came in.
‘Doctor,’ I shouted, ‘I’ve made up my mind whom we are going for for President!’
‘The hell you say!’ was his mild and appreciative response. ‘Who is it?’
‘Abraham Lincoln of Illinois!’ I shouted back.
‘Oh hell!’ he rejoindered. ‘He’d never do for President. He might do for a nominee for Vice-President, perhaps, with Seward or some such man.’
I was obstinate and at the end of a sharp controversy he yielded, for I told him that as soon as I could run off the current editions of the Gazette and the Ford County Journal I was going straight to Springfield and to Bloomington, to see William H. Herndon and Leonard Swett and procure materials for a campaign life-editorial. That is precisely what I proceeded to do, without telling too many men what were my purposes. On my return the editorial was written, perhaps two full columns of it, and it was printed; but I did not stop there. I sent a letter embodying some of it to the Century, a New York weekly journal then recently set up by Horace Greeley’s old partner, McElrath, and it was printed with approval. Mean time I had done something else. Our regular exchange list was large, but for that week I added to it not less than two hundred journals, all over the country, particularly the West. Then I waited to see the result of my experiment, and it altogether surprised me. I had marked my editorial in the copies sent out, and when the exchange papers came in it appeared to me that hardly one of them had failed to notice it, making extracts, and to give more or less favorable comments. Many of them reprinted it in full, or nearly so, and swung out the name of Lincoln at their column heads.
Besides the editorial, the Gazette of May 4, 1859, had further mention of Lincoln in its local column. The two articles read as follows: —
OUR NEXT PRESIDENT. — We had the pleasure of introducing to the hospitalities of our Sanctum, a few days ago, the Hon. Abraham Lincoln. Few men can make an hour pass away more agreeably. We do not pretend to know whether Mr. Lincoln will ever condescend to occupy the White House or not, but if he should, it is a comfort to know that he has established for himself a character and reputation of sufficient strength and purity to withstand the disreputable and corrupting influences of even that locality. No man in the West at the present time occupies a more enviable position before the people or stands a better chance for obtaining a high position among those to whose guidance our ship of state is to be entrusted.
WHO SHALL BE PRESIDENT?
WE have no sympathy with those politicians of any party who are giving themselves up to a corrupt and selfish race for the presidential chair, and are rather inclined to believe that the result will be a disappointment to the whole race of demagogues. The vastness of the interests depending on the political campaign now commencing gives even a more than usual degree of interest to the question: ‘Who shall be the candidate?’ Believing that a proper discussion of this question through the columns of the local papers is the true way to arrive at a wise conclusion, we propose to give our views, so far as formed, and we may add that we are well assured that the same views are entertained by the mass of the Republican Party of Central Illinois.
In the first place, we do not consider it possible for the office of President of the United States to become the personal property of any particular politician, how great a man soever he may be esteemed by himself and his partisans. We, therefore, shall discuss the ‘candidate question’ unbiased by personal prejudices or an undue appreciation of the claims of any political leader. We may add, with honest pride, an expression of our faith in the leading statesmen of our party: that neither Chase nor Seward nor Banks nor any other whose name has been brought prominently before the people will press individual aspirations at the expense of the great principles whose vindication is inseparably linked with our success. While no circumstances should be allowed to compel even a partial abandonment of principle, and defeat in the cause of right is infinitely better than a corrupt compromise with wrong, nevertheless the truest wisdom for the Republican Party in this campaign will be found in such a conservative and moderate course as shall secure the respect and consideration even of our enemies, and shall not forget national compacts within which we are acting and by which we are bound: and the proper recognition of this feature of the contest should be allowed its due influence in the selection of our standard-bearer.
Although local prejudices ought always to be held subordinate to the issues of the contest, it will not be wise to overlook their importance in counting the probabilities of what will surely be a doubtful and bitterly contested battlefield. It is this consideration which has brought into so great prominence the leading Republican statesmen of Pennsylvania and Illinois. If these two states can be added to the number of those in which the Party seems to possess an unassailable superiority, the day is ours. The same reasons, to a less extent, in exact proportion to its force in the electoral college, affect New Jersey.
From Pennsylvania and Illinois, therefore, the candidates for President and Vice-President might, with great propriety, be chosen. It is true that our present Chief Magistrate is from Pennsylvania, and other states justly might urge that a proper apportionment of the national honors would not give her the presidency twice in succession; but, while there are several good precedents for such a course of action, there is one point which outweighs in importance all others: to wit, We must carry Pennsylvania in 1860, and if we can best do it with one of our own citizens as standard-bearer, that fact cannot be disregarded with impunity. The delegation from the Keystone State will doubtless present this idea with great urgency in the National Convention.
Aside from this, there are other points in favor of the two states mentioned, which cannot fail to carry great weight in the minds of all candid and reasonable men. They have both been distinguished for moderation and patriotism in the character of their statesmen, with as few exceptions as any other states. They are among that great central belt of states which constitute the stronghold of conservatism and nationality. They are not looked upon as ‘sectional’ in their character, even by the South. They, moreover, are, to a high degree, representative states. Where will our manufacturing, mining, and trading interests find a better representative than Pennsylvania? Or what state is more identified in all its fortunes with the great agricultural interests than is Illinois?
The states themselves, then, being open to no valid objection, we come to the question of individual candidates. Pennsylvania has not yet determined her choice from among her own great men, but as for Illinois it is the firm and fixed belief of our citizens that for one or the other of the offices in question no man will be so sure to consolidate the party vote of this state, or will carry the great Mississippi Valley with a more irresistible rush of popular enthusiasm, than our distinguished fellow-citizen,
We, in Illinois, know him well; in the best sense of the word a true democrat, a man of the people, whose strongest friends and supporters are the hard-handed and strong-limbed laboring men, who hail him as a brother and who look upon him as one of their real representative men. A true friend of freedom, having already done important service for the cause, and proved his abundant ability for still greater service; yet a staunch conservative, whose enlarged and liberal mind descends to no narrow view, but sees both sides of every great question, and of whom we need not fear that fanaticism on the one side, or servility on the other, will lead him to the betrayal of any trust. We appeal to our brethren of the Republican press for the correctness of our assertions.
After that I attended the ‘Railsplitter’ Convention at Springfield and I went into the political canvass head over heels, heels over head, with all the more enthusiasm because I had nearly all the stumping of Champaign County on my own hands.
Not to dwell upon the minor incidents of the political campaign, it was over at last and Lincoln was duly elected, to my great delight. At an early date after the election he held a sort of congratulation levee at the State House in Springfield. Hearing that he was to do so, I took a day off and went over to shake hands with him, for I believed that I had a vested right to tell him how I felt about it. I went to the State House and took my place in a long line of people who were there to get a look at the coming President. Some of them, indeed, were from far away and had come to tell him how much they had done to secure his election and how ready they would be to serve him further in one or another of the fat offices at Washington. One of these disinterested patriots was next in line ahead of me and his account of himself may have added point to Mr. Lincoln’s question, when he heartily shook hands with me and looked down two feet or more into my face.
‘Well, young man,’ he said, ‘now — what can I do for you?’
‘Nothing at all, Mr. Lincoln,’ I responded, ‘but I’m mighty glad you are elected.’
‘How would you like to come to Washington?’ he asked. ‘Would n’t you like to take a clerkship or something? ‘
I was just telling him that I was pretty well fixed now and had never thought of going to Washington when a red-hot thought came flashing into my mind and I added: ‘Mr. Lincoln, the only thing that would tempt me to go to Washington is a place on your personal staff!’
‘Stoddard,’ said he, ‘do you go right back to Champaign and write me a letter to that effect. Then wait till you hear from me.’
That was just what I did, but I did not say a word about it to any living soul, unless it may have been Kate. That was early in November and before the end of the month I had about considered myself forgotten. I did not yet know Lincoln. About the first of December I received a letter of some length from him, ordering me to close up my affairs, go on to Washington, and wait there until his arrival.
Great preparations were made for the Inauguration. The address was to be delivered and the oath taken on a temporary platform at the East Front of the Capitol, and I went and surveyed the scene beforehand. I remembered how I had managed to hear Daniel Webster and I tried those tactics again. It was at a pretty early hour of the fourth of March that I gave up the procession, the music, the military, and the dense pack of people upon Pennsylvania Avenue. I went and wormed in through the as yet not very suspicious crowd before the East Front until I secured standing-room just beyond the line at which the soldiers of the honorary guard were to stand at rest. There I waited and I was well paid for it, for I could look right into Lincoln’s face while he was speaking and could hear every word he said.
I did not even try to see the President for several days, but I did go to admire the dense pack of office-seekers which had taken possession of the White House. It was two or three days later that I worked my way among them and struggled as far as the bottom of the main stairway. The stairs were a sweltering jam, but an usher at the top was managing to receive cards in some inscrutable manner. He obtained mine and it went in, and in a few minutes Nicolay came to the banisters to shout my name, while three or four eager patriots tugged at his coat-tails. I ‘hollered back.’
‘Do you wish to see the President?’ he asked.
‘No, I don’t!’ I shouted. ‘Tell him I’m here, ‘cording to orders. That’s all. He’ll know what to do. I won’t bother him.’
I did not understand what a score of fellows found to laugh at in my reply to the great Mr. Nicolay, and it even seemed to please him. I hoped it pleased Mr. Lincoln; and it was only a few days before I received notice of my coming appointment as Secretary to sign Land Patents.