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Memorial address on the life and character of Abraham Lincoln (Volume 1) online

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Representatives op America:
That God rides in the affairs of men is as certain as
any truth of physical science. On the great moving
power which is from the beginning hangs the world of
the senses and the world of thought and action. Eter-
nal wisdom marshals the great procession of the na-
tions, working in patient continuity through the ages,
never halting and never abrupt, encompassing all events
in its oversight, and ever effecting its will, though
mortals may slumber in apathy or oppose with mad-
ness. Kings are lifted up or thrown down, nations
come and go, republics flourish and wither, dynasties
pass away like a tale that is told ; but nothing is by
chance, though men, in their ignorance of causes, may
think so. The deeds of time are governed, as well as
judged, by the decrees of eternity. The caprice of
fleeting existences bends to the immovable omnipotence,
which plants its foot on all the centuries and has
neither change of purpose nor repose. Sometimes,
like a messenger through the thick darkness of night,
it steps along mysterious ways; but when the hour
strikes for a people, or for mankind, to pass into a new
form of being, unseen hands draw the bolts from the

gates of futurity ; an all-subduing influence prepares
the minds of men for the coming revolution; those who
plan resistance find themselves in conflict with the will
of Providence rather than with human devices; and
all hearts and all understandings, most of all the opin-
ions and influences of the unwilling, are wonderfully
attracted and compelled to bear forward the change,
which becomes more an obedience to the law of uni-
versal nature than submission to the arbitrament of

In the fulness of time a republic rose up in the wil-
derness of America. Thousands of years had passed
away before this child of the ages could be born.
From whatever there was of good in the systems of
former centuries she drew her nourishment; the wrecks
of the past were her warnings. With the deepest sen-
timent of faith fixed in her inmost nature, she disen-
thralled religion from bondage to temporal poWer, that
her worship might be worship only in spirit and in
truth. The wisdoin which had passed from India
through Greece, with what Greece had added of her
own; the jurisprudence of Rome; the mediaeval munici-
palities ; the Teutonic method of representation ; the
political experience of England ; the benignant wisdom
of the expositors of the law of nature and of nations in

France and Holland, all shed on her their selectest
influence. She washed the gold of political wisdom
from the sands wherever it was found ; she cleft it from
the rocks ; she gleaned it among ruins. Out of all the
discoveries of statesmen and sages, out of all the expe-
rience of past human life, she compiled a perennial
political philosophy, the primordial principles of national
ethics. The wise men of Europe sought the best gov-
ernment in a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and
democracy ; America went behind these names to ex-
tract from them the vital elements of social forms, and
blend them harmoniously in the free commonwealth,
which comes nearest to the illustration of the natural
equality of all men. She intrusted the guardianship of
established rights to law, the movements of reform to
the spirit of the people, and drew her force from the
happy reconciliation of both.

Republics had heretofore been limited to small can-
tons, or cities and their dependencies ; America, doing
that of which the like had not before been known upon
the earth, or believed by kings and statesmen to be pos-
sible, extended her republic across a continent. Under
her auspices the vine of liberty took deep root and
filled the land ; the hills were covered with its shadow,
its boughs were like the goodly cedars, and reached

unto both oceans. The fame of this only daughter of
freedom went out into all the lands of the earth ; from
her the human race drew hope.

Neither hereditary monarchy nor hereditary aristoc-
racy planted itself on our soil; the only hereditary
condition that fastened itself upon us was servitude.
Nature works in sincerity, and is ever true to its law.
The bee hives honey; the viper distils poison; the vine
stores its juices, and so do the poppy and the upas. In
like manner every thought and every action ripens its
seed, each according to its kind. In the individual man,
and still more in a nation, a just idea gives life, and pro-
gress, and glory; a false conception portends disaster,
shame, and death. A hundred and twenty years ago a
West Jersey Quaker wrote: "This trade of importing
slaves is dark gloominess hanging over the land; the
consequences will be grievous to posterity." At the
north the growth of slavery was arrested by natural
causes; in the region nearest the tropics it throve rankly,
and worked itself into the organism of the rising States.
Virginia stood between the two, with soil, and climate,
and resources demanding free labor, yet capable of the
profitable employment of the slave. She was the land
of great statesmen, and they saw the danger of her
being whelmed under the rising flood in time to struggle

against the delusions of avarice and pride. Ninety-four
years ago the legislature of Virginia addressed the
British king, saying that the trade in slaves was "of
great inhumanity," was opposed to the "security and
happiness" of their constituents, "would in time have
the most destructive influence," and "endanger their
very existence." And the king answered them that,
"upon pain of his highest displeasure, the importa-
tion of slaves should not be in any respect obstructed."
"Pharisaical Britain," wrote Franklin in behalf of Vir-
ginia, "to pride thyself in setting free a single slave that
happened to land on thy coasts, while thy laws continue
a traffic whereby so many hundreds of thousands are
dragged into a slavery that is entailed on their posterity."
"A serious view of this subject," said Patrick Henry in
1773, "gives a gloomy prospect to future times." In
the same year George Mason wrote to the legislature
of Virginia: "The laws of impartial Providence may
avenge our injustice upon our posterity." Conforming
his conduct to his convictions, Jefferson, in Virginia,
and in the Continental Congress, with the approval of
Edmund Pendleton, branded the slave-trade as piracy;
and he fixed in the Declaration of Independence, as the
corner-stone of America: "All men are created equal,
with an unalienable right to liberty." On the first

organization of temporary governments for the conti-
nental domain, Jefferson, but for the default of New-
Jersey, would, in 1784, have consecrated every part of
that territory to freedom. In the formation of the
national Constitution, Virginia, opposed by a part of
New England, vainly struggled to abolish the slave-
trade at once and forever; and when the ordinance of
1787 was introduced by Nathan Dane without the
clause prohibiting slavery, it was through the favorable
disposition of Virginia and the South that the clause of
Jefferson was restored, and the whole northwestern
territory — all the territory that then belonged to the
nation — was reserved for the labor of freemen.

The hope prevailed in Virginia that the abolition of
the slave-trade w r ould bring with it the gradual aboli-
tion of slavery; but the expectation was doomed to
disappointment. In supporting incipient measures for
emancipation, Jefferson encountered difficulties greater
than he could overcome, and, after vain wrestlings, the
words that broke from him, "I tremble for my country
when I reflect that God is just, that His justice can-
not sleep forever," were words of despair. It was the
desire of Washington's heart that Virginia should re-
move slavery by a public act; and as the prospects of
a general emancipation grew more and more dim, he, in

utter hopelessness of the action of the State, did all
that he could by bequeathing freedom to his own slaves.
Good and true men had, from the days of 1776, sug-
gested the colonizing of the negro in the home of his
ancestors; but the idea of colonization was thought to
increase the difficulty of emancipation, and, in spite of
strong support, while it accomplished much good for
Africa, it proved impracticable as a remedy at home.
Madison, who in early life disliked slavery so much that
he wished "to depend as little as possible on the labor
of slaves;" Madison, who held that where slavery ex-
ists "the republican theory becomes fallacious;" Madison,
who in the last years of his life would not consent to
the annexation of Texas, lest his countrymen should fill
it with slaves; Madison, who said, "slavery is the
greatest evil under which the nation labors — a porten-
tous evil — an evil, moral, political, and economical — a
sad blot on our free country" — went mournfully into
old age with the cheerless words: "No satisfactory
plan has yet been devised for taking out the stain."

The men of the Revolution passed away; a new
generation sprang up, impatient that an institution to
which they clung should be condemned as inhuman,
unwise, and unjust. In the throes of discontent at the
self-reproach of their fathers, and blinded by the lustre

of wealth to be acquired by the culture of a new
staple, they devised the theory that slavery, which they
would not abolish, was not evil, but good. They turned
on the friends of colonization, and confidently de-
manded: "Why take black men from a civilized and
Christian country, where their labor is a source of im-
mense gain, and a power to control the markets of the
world, and send them to a land of ignorance, idolatry,
and indolence, which was the home of their forefathers,
but not theirs ? Slavery is a blessing. Were they not
in their ancestral land naked, scarcely lifted above
brutes, ignorant of the course of the sun, controlled by
nature? And in their new abode have they not been
taught to know the difference of the seasons, to plough,
and plant, and reap, to drive oxen, to tame the horse,
to exchange their scanty dialect for the richest of all
the languages among men, and the stupid adoration of
follies for the purest religion? And since slavery is
good for the blacks, it is good for their masters, bringing
opulence and the opportunity of educating a race. The
slavery of the black is good in itself; he shall serve the
white man forever." And nature, which better under-
stood the quality of fleeting interest and passion, laughed
as it caught the echo, "man" and "forever!"

A regular development of pretensions followed the


new declaration with logical consistency. Under the
old declaration every one of the States had retained,
each for itself, the right of manumitting all slaves by
an ordinary act of legislation; now the power of the
people over servitude through their legislatures was
curtailed, and the privileged class was swift in imposing
legal and constitutional obstructions on the people
themselves. The power of emancipation was narrowed
or taken away. The slave might not be disquieted by
education. There remained an unconfessed conscious-
ness that the system of bondage was wrong, and a rest-
less memory that it was at variance with the true
American tradition ; its safety was therefore to be se-
cured by political organization. The generation that
made the Constitution took care for the predominance
of freedom in Congress by the ordinance of Jefferson;
the new school aspired to secure for slavery an equality
of votes in the Senate, and, while it hinted at an or-
ganic act that should concede to the collective South a
veto power on national legislation, it assumed that
each State separately had the right to revise and nullify
laws of the United States, according to the discretion
of its judgment.

The new theory hung as a bias on the foreign rela-
tions of the country; there could be no recognition of

. as


Hayti, nor even of the American colony of Liberia ;
and the world was given to understand that the estab-
lishment of free labor in Cuba would be a reason for
wresting that island from Spain. Territories were an-
nexed — Louisiana, Florida, Texas, half of Mexico;
slavery must have its share in them all, and it accepted
for a time a dividing line between the unquestioned
domain of free labor and that in which involuntary
labor was to be tolerated. A few years passed away,
and the new school, strong and arrogant, demanded
and received an apology for applying the Jefferson
proviso to Oregon.

The application of that proviso was interrupted for
three administrations, but justice moved steadily on-
ward. In the news that the men of California had
chosen freedom, Calhoun heard the knell of parting
slavery, and on his death-bed he counselled secession.
Washington, and Jefferson, and Madison had died
despairing of the abolition of slavery ; Calhoun died in
despair at the growth of freedom. His system rushed
irresistibly to its natural development The death-
struggle for California was followed by a short truce ;
but the new school of politicians, who said that slavery
was not evil, but good, soon sought to recover the
ground they had lost, and, confident of securing Kansas,

they demanded that the established line in the Territo-
ries between freedom and slavery should be blotted out.
The country, believing in the strength and enterprise
and expansive energy of freedom, made answer, though
reluctantly : " Be it so ; let there be no strife between
brethren; let freedom and slavery compete for the Ter-
ritories on equal terms, in a fair field, under an impar-
tial administration ;" and on this theory, if on any, the
contest might have been left to the decision of time.

The South started back in appalment from its victory,
for it knew that a fair competition foreboded its defeat.
But where could it now find an ally to save it from its
own mistake 1 What I have next to say is spoken with
no emotion but regret. Our meeting to-day is, as it
were, at the grave, in the presence of eternity, and the
truth must be uttered in soberness and sincerity. In a
great republic, as was observed more than two thousand
years ago, any attempt to overturn the state owes its
strength to aid from some branch of the government.
The Chief Justice of the United States, without any
necessity or occasion, volunteered to come to the rescue
of the theory of slavery ; and from his court there lay
no appeal but to the bar of humanity and history.
Against the Constitution, against the memory of the
nation, against a previous decision, against a series of

enactments, he decided that the slave is property ; that
slave property is entitled to no less protection than any
other property; that the Constitution upholds it in every
Territory against any act of a local legislature, and even
against Congress itself; or, as the President for that
term tersely promulgated the saying, "Kansas is as
much a slave State as South Carolina or Georgia;
slavery, by virtue of the Constitution, exists in every
Territory." The municipal character of slavery being
thus taken away, and slave property decreed to be
" sacred," the authority of the courts was invoked to
introduce it by the comity of law into States where
slavery had been abolished, and in one of the courts of
the United States a judge pronounced the African
slave-trade legitimate, and numerous and powerful
advocates demanded its restoration.

Moreover, the Chief Justice, in his elaborate opinion,
announced what had never been heard from any magis-
trate of Greece or Rome; what was unknown to civil
law, and canon law, and feudal law, and common law,
and constitutional law; unknown to Jay, to Rutledge,
Ellsworth, and Marshall — that there are "slave races."
The spirit of evil is intensely logical. Having the
authority of this decision, five States swiftly followed
the earlier example of a sixth, and opened the way for

reducing the free negro to bondage; the migrating free
negro became a slave if he but entered within the juris-
diction of a seventh; and an eighth, from its extent, and
soil, and mineral resources, destined to incalculable
greatness, closed its eyes on its coming prosperity, and
enacted, as by Taney's dictum it had the right to do,
that every free black man who would live within its
limits must accept the condition of slavery for himself
and his posterity.

Only one step more remained to be taken. Jefferson
and the leading statesmen of his day held fast to the
idea that the enslavement of the African was socially,
morally, and politically wrong. The new school was
founded exactly upon the opposite idea; and they re-
solved, first, to distract the democratic party, for which
the Supreme Court had now furnished the means, and
then to establish a new government, with negro slavery
for its corner-stone, as socially, morally, and politically

As the Presidential election drew on, one of the great
traditional parties did not make its appearance; the
other reeled as it sought to preserve its old position,
and the candidate who most nearly represented its best
opinion, driven by patriotic zeal, roamed the country
from end to end to speak for union, eager, at least, to

confront its enemies, yet not having hope that it would
find its deliverance through him. The storm rose to a
whirlwind; who should allay its wrath? The most
experienced statesmen of the country had failed; there
was no hope from those who were great after the flesh:
could relief come from one whose wisdom was like the
wisdom of little children 1

The choice of America fell on a man born west of
the Alleghanies, in the cabin of poor people of Hardin
county, Kentucky — Abraham Lincoln.

His mother could read, but not write; his father
could do neither; but his parents sent him, with an old
spelling-book, to school, and he learned in his childhood
to do both.

When eight years old he floated down the Ohio with
his father on a raft, which bore the family and all their
possessions to the shore of Indiana; and, child as he
was, he gave help as they toiled through dense forests
to the interior of Spencer county. There, in the land
of free labor, he grew up in a log-cabin, with the
solemn solitude for his teacher in his meditative hours.
Of Asiatic literature he knew only the Bible; of Greek,
Latin, and medieeval, no more than the translation of
iEsop's Fables; of English, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's
Progress. The traditions of George Fox and William

Perm passed to him dimly along the lines of two cen-
turies through his ancestors, who were Quakers.

Otherwise his education was altogether American.
The Declaration of Independence was his compendium
of political wisdom, the Life of Washington his con-
stant study, and something of Jefferson and Madison
reached him through Henry Clay, whom he honored
from boyhood. For the rest, from day to day, he lived
the life of the American people, walked in its light,
reasoned with its reason, thought with its power of
thought, felt the beatings of its mighty heart, and so
was in every way a child of nature, a child of the West,
a child of America.

At nineteen, feeling impulses of ambition to get on
in the world, he engaged himself to go down the Mis-
sissippi in a flatboat, receiving ten dollars a month for
his wages, and afterwards he made the trip once more.
At twenty-one he drove his father's cattle, as the family
migrated to Illinois, and split rails to fence in the new
homestead in the wild. At twenty-three he was a
captain of volunteers in the Black Hawk war. He
kept a store. He learned something of surveying, but
of English literature he added to Bunyan nothing but
Shakspeare's plays. At twenty-five he was elected to
the legislature of Illinois, where he served eight years.

At twenty-seven he was admitted to the bar. In 1837
he chose his home at Springfield, the beautiful centre
of the richest land in the State. In 1847 he was a
member of the national Congress, where he voted
about forty times in favor of the principle of the Jef-
ferson proviso. In 1849 he sought, eagerly but unsuc-
cessfully, the place of Commissioner of the Land Office,
and he refused an appointment that would have trans-
ferred his residence to Oregon. In 1854 he gave his
influence to elect from Illinois, to the American Senate,
a Democrat, who would certainly do justice to Kansas.
In 1858, as the rival of Douglas, he went before the
people of the mighty Prairie State, saying, "This Union
cannot permanently endure half slave and half free; the
Union will not be dissolved, but the house will cease to
be divided;" and now, in 1861, with no experience
whatever as an executive officer, while States were
madly flying from their orbit, and wise men knew not
where to find counsel, this descendant of Quakers, this
pupil of Bunyan, this offspring of the great West, was
elected President of America.

He measured the difficulty of the duty that devolved
upon him, and was resolved to fulfil it. As on the
eleventh of February, 1861, he left Springfield, which
for a quarter of a century had been his happy home, to

the crowd of his friends and neighbors, whom he was
never more to meet, he spoke a solemn farewell : " I
know not how soon I shall see you again. A duty has
devolved upon me, greater than that which has devolved
upon any other man since Washington. He never
would have succeeded, except for the aid of Divine
Providence, upon which he at all times relied. On the
same Almighty Being I place my reliance. Pray that
I may receive that Divine assistance, without which I
cannot succeed, but with which success is certain.'*
To the men of Indiana he said: "I am but an acci-
dental, temporary instrument ; it is your business to
rise up and preserve the Union and liberty." At the
capital of Ohio he said : " Without a name, without a
reason why I should have a name, there has fallen upon
me a task such as did not rest even upon the Father of
his country." At various places in New York, espe-
cially at Albany, before the legislature, which tendered
him the united support of the great Empire State, he
said: "While I hold myself the humblest of all the
individuals who have ever been elevated to the Presi-
dency, I have a more difficult task to perform than any
of them. I bring a true heart to the work. I must
rely upon the people of the whole country for support,
and with their sustaining aid even I, humble as I am,

cannot fail to carry the ship of state safely through the
storm." To the assembly of New Jersey, at Trenton,
he explained : " I shall take the ground I deem most
just to the North, the East, the West, the South, and the
whole country, in good temper, certainly with no
malice to any section. I am devoted to peace, but it
may be necessary to put the foot down firmly." In the
old Independence Hall, of Philadelphia, he said : " I
have never had a feeling politically that did not spring
from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of
Independence, which gave liberty, not alone to the
people of this country, but to the world in all future
time. If the country cannot be saved without giving
up that principle, I would rather be assassinated on the
spot than surrender it. I have said nothing but what
I am willing to live and die by."

Travelling in the dead of night to escape assas-
sination, Lincoln arrived at Washington nine days
before his inauguration. The outgoing President, at
the opening of the session of Congress, had still kept as
the majority of his advisers men engaged in treason;
had declared that in case of even an "imaginary" appre-
hension of danger from notions of freedom among the
slaves, "disunion would become inevitable." Lincoln
and others had questioned the opinion of Taney; such



impugning he ascribed to the "factious temper of the
times." The favorite doctrine of the majority of the
Democratic party on the power of a territorial legisla-
ture over slavery he condemned as an attack on "the

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Online LibraryGeorge BancroftMemorial address on the life and character of Abraham Lincoln (Volume 1) → online text (page 1 of 4)