Abraham Lincoln: His Story/Chapter 5
It has been well said that the difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician tries to make the people do something for him, while a statesman tries to do something for the people. Applying this test Abraham Lincoln was always a statesman. In his first speech in 1832, when he was only twenty-three years old, he declared:
Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow-men by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.
It was the recognition that he was really trying to serve them and not himself which gave him the confidence of the people. Moreover, he had the same trust in the people that they had in him.
Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? . . . Is there any better or equal hope in the world.
he asked in one of his speeches.
Honesty was the policy on which he founded his public life. In 1834, when he was first elected to the Illinois legislature, his friends raised a fund of two hundred dollars for his election expenses. After the campaign was over he returned to them $199.25 of this fund. In 1836 he first showed in public life that moral courage which was to carry him so far. A bill was introduced to move the capital of Illinois to Springfield, which was Lincoln's home and where he and all his constituents wished the capital to be. Another measure, of which he did not approve, was joined as a rider to this bill, in the hope that it might be passed. Lincoln refused to vote for it. An all-night meeting was held and great pressure brought to bear upon him by prominent citizens from all over the state. Finally, after midnight, Lincoln rose amid profound silence and made an earnest speech, ending with this statement of one of the abiding principles of his political life:
You will never get me to support a measure which I believe to be wrong, although by so doing I may accomplish that which I believe to be right.
In 1837 he again had a chance to show his moral courage against odds. Incidentally he began to carry out the promise which he had made when he first saw slaves sold on the block. A few men had met together in Boston and, protesting against slavery, had pledged themselves to fight for its abolition. It seems strange in these days, when all men are free as a matter of course, to read of the fire and fury that arose against the Abolitionists in both the North and the South. A mob of prominent citizens dragged William Lloyd Garrison, one of the first of the Abolitionists, through the streets of Boston with a halter around bis body, while in Cincinnati the publication of an anti-slavery paper was stopped by the simple process of throwing the printing-press into the Ohio River, and in Illinois an editor was murdered.
When a resolution was offered in the legislature of Illinois, attacking abolition and defending slavery, Lincoln and one other man voted against it. Lincoln offered a counter-resolution that the institution of slavery was not only founded on injustice but was bad policy. At that time he announced another of his political principles:
The probability that we may fail in a worthy cause is not a sufficient justification for our refusing to support it.
In 1847 Lincoln was elected to Congress. His own estimate of himself and his life up to that time is contained in a few lines prepared for the Congressional Record, in contrast with the pages of biography so often inflicted on that publication. It ran as follows:
Born, February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Ky.
Profession, a lawyer.
Have been a captain of volunteers in Black Hawk War.
Postmaster in a very small office.
Four times a member of the Illinois legislature, and a member of the Lower House of Congress.
In Congress he voted against the iniquitous Mexican War, although his stand cost him a re-election. He wrote to Herndon, his partner:
Would you have voted what you felt and knew to be a lie? I know you would not. Would you have gone out of the House—skulked the vote? I expect not.
Lincoln returned to private life with his popularity shattered but with his conscience whole. Apparently his principles had mustered him out of public life forever.
Time went on. Stephen A. Douglas had brought about in Congress a repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which was an agreement that slavery should be kept out of all territory north of a certain parallel. Lincoln was riding circuit when the news of the repeal of this last safeguard against slavery was brought to him. A friend who occupied the same room with him that night told afterward how Lincoln spent the evening discussing the repeal and what it meant to the country. When this friend woke up in the morning he saw Lincoln sitting just where he had left him the night before. As if the conversation had not been interrupted Lincoln said to him: "I tell you, this country cannot continue to exist half-slave and half-free."
That sentence became the keynote of his convictions. From that night he again entered politics. One of his friends was running for re-election to Congress. Lincoln began to speak for him and in all of his speeches he attacked the extension of slavery. Finally in 1858 he was nominated for the United States Senate, for the seat then occupied by Douglas. At a convention at Springfield he said:
I do not believe that this government can permanently endure half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the house to fall, but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
President Lincoln and General McClellan at Antietam, October 2, 1862, Soon After the Battle.
Photograph by Brady From the collection of Frederick Hill Meserve. New York City.
"We accuse him for this," thundered Judah P. Benjamin, the most able of the Southern senators. "Under the stress of a local election his knees gave way, his whole person trembled. His adversary stood upon principle and was beaten; and lo, he is the candidate of a mighty party for the presidency of the United States. The senator from Illinois faltered. He got the prize for which he faltered, but the grand prize of his ambition today slips from his grasp because of his faltering in his former contest; and his success in the canvass for the Senate, purchased for an ignoble price, has cost him the loss of the presidency of the United States!"
There followed the convention and campaign of 1860, and the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency of the United States. Under the responsibilities and discipline of that great office Lincoln reached his full stature as a statesman and grew into the heroic figure which has come down to us. Only a great man could have shown the magnanimity and forgetfulness of self which he showed to Seward, to Stanton, to McClellan, and to a host of others.
Lincoln called political and personal opponents to office. His only test was whether they could be of service to the country. Most of his Cabinet and even his generals regarded his election as an accident and himself as a country politician wholly unfitted to be President. McClellan, one of Lincoln's first generals, was a Democrat and had provided the special trains on which Douglas had traveled during his debates with Lincoln. When appointed a general McClellan disregarded Lincoln's orders and treated his chief in a way that but few men could have borne. At one time when Lincoln called at his house to see him on a critical matter, McClellan sent down word that he could not be disturbed and calmly went to bed, leaving the President of the United States to take himself home. Lincoln bore with him, however, until the very last, hoping against hope that he would finally learn to lead the armies of the Union to a victory. To one who urged him to discipline the general for his insolence, Lincoln merely said: "I will stand outside and hold McClellan's horse for him if he will only bring us success."
Seward was called to become Secretary of State. He was the recognized leader of the Republican party, a candidate for the presidency, and in the Cabinet expected to be the power behind the throne. Compassionating what he supposed to be Lincoln's weakness, Seward actually wrote him a letter, proposing to take charge of the government and become acting-President. Lincoln refused this extraordinary suggestion, but with so much tact and kindness that he made Seward one of his warmest supporters and was able to avail himself of his great talents for the country's good. It was only a few weeks after this letter that the Secretary of State wrote to Mrs. Seward: "The President is the best of us all."
Throughout his presidency Lincoln refused to treasure up any personal injury and utilized even his enemies to help him save the country. He kept Chase as Secretary of the Treasury even when he knew that he was plotting to secure the nomination for the presidency.
Lincoln had first met Edwin M. Stanton when he had been retained with the latter in one of the most important cases of his legal career. "Where did that long-armed creature come from, and what does he expect to do in this case?" demanded Stanton after they had met in Cincinnati, speaking so loudly as to be heard by Lincoln through an open door in the hotel. As a result of his contemptuous treatment of Lincoln, the latter was sidetracked and Stanton made the argument. After Lincoln had been elected President, Stanton, who had served in Buchanan's Cabinet, wrote and spoke of him with the utmost bitterness and disdain, referring to him in his letters as a "gorilla." Yet it was Stanton whom Lincoln called to be Secretary of War. Even after his appointment Stanton treated the President with marked disrespect. Once when Lincoln released some prisoners without regard to Stanton's wishes, the latter said that the only thing left to do was "to get rid of that baboon in the White House."
"I wouldn't endure that insult," said an indignant friend who reported the matter to the President. "Insult? That is no insult," returned Lincoln. "All he said was that I was a baboon, and that is only a matter of opinion, sir." Then he added after a pause, "The thing that concerns me most is that I find that Stanton is usually right." Yet Stanton lived to say at Lincoln's bier: "There lies the greatest leader of men the world has ever seen."
In the presidency, as outside, Lincoln was great enough to do the right thing even when the whole country was against him. When the commander of a Union vessel took the Confederate commissioners. Mason and Slidell, by force from a British steamer, the North made a hero of the officer. Lincoln realized instantly that this act was of the same class as those committed by Great Britain which brought on the War of 1812. In spite of the clamor of the whole country he restored the Confederate commissioners to Great Britain and disavowed their capture.
He who looks ever into the far future and seeks constantly to know the eternal purposes of life wins to a clearer vision than ordinary men. It was so with Abraham Lincoln. Listen to some of the messages that he has left for us of another generation:
No man is good enough to govern another person without that other's consent.}}
This is a world of compensation. He who would be no slave must be content to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not themselves, and under a just God cannot long retain it.
It is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. I don't believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich. It would do more harm than good. I want every man to have a chance to better his condition.
Repeal the Missouri Compromise; repeal all the compromises; repeal the Declaration of Independence; repeal all past history—you still cannot repeal human nature.