Luther Emerson Robinson.

Abraham Lincoln as a man of letters (Volume 1) online

. (page 1 of 21)
Online LibraryLuther Emerson RobinsonAbraham Lincoln as a man of letters (Volume 1) → online text (page 1 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook




.0 ^r



^% ^'



^'''■■ -•#



Abraham Lincoln


Abraham Lincoln

As A MAN OF Letters


Luther Emerson :^obinson, A.M.

Professor of English, Monrnout/i College
Author of "A History of Illinois"

"There is but one way in which you can take
mere literature as an education, and that is
directly, at first hand." — IVoodroiv JVilson.


The reilly & britton Co.

Copyright, 1918


The Reilly & Britton Co.

Made in U. S. A.

Abraham Lincoln as a Man of Letters

m -3 1919


A. D. R.


Any attempt to set down with some exactness a
definition of a man of letters would doubtless give
rise to considerable diversity of opinion. Such a
result would, however, give value to the attempt.
And yet, the class of men of letters is fairly distinct
and understood. Time comes nearest judging well
the virtues of those who write as well as of those
who interpret what has been written. Whatever
time holds out as thoughtful and beautiful and per-
petually interesting among the writings of men and
women is likely to be esteemed by the judgment of
all as literature.

John Morley places Burke among men of letters.
He gives especial distinction to Burke's speech on
conciliation with America. Something that Morley
says of Burke applies with aptness to Lincoln :

Out-arguing is not perhaps the right word for most
of Burke's performances. He is at heart thinking
more of the subject itself, than of those on whom it
was his apparent business to impress a particular view
of it. He surrenders himself wholly to the matter,


8 Preface

and follows up, though with a strong and close tread,
all the excursions to which it may give rise in an elastic
intelligence — "motion." as De Quincey says, "propa-
gating motion, and throwing off life." But then this
exuberant way of thinking, this willingness to let the
subject lead, is less apt in public discourse than it is
in literature, and from this comes the literary quality
of Burke's speeches.

In debate, Burke surpasses Lincoln in an "exu-
berant way of thinking." He is more sweeping in
range of imagination, and in great degree affects
the scholarly and rhetorical form of statement. In
matters of public policy, his outstanding principle
of conduct was like that held and practiced by Lin-
coln : "Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the
truest wisdom."

Both men were face to face with a great national
issue. Burke remains to us the greatest spokesman
of the problem before him. Lincoln was not only
the most important spokesman of his, but he was
a powerful public leader and administrator as well.
Burke wearied his audience; Lincoln captured his.
Burke's prose maintains a Miltonic elevation and
seriousness to the end of its long flight. Lincoln
was more direct and economical in speech. He is
as sure as Burke in his "willingness to let the subject

Preface 9

lead." But he could not, or would not, set for
himself the stately pace that lured the talents of
the other. In the fine art of English prose, Lin-
coln's contribution, though not large, belongs to the
best in literature.

If we broaden our conception of English prose
literature somewhat, we shall not find it necessary
to limit Lincoln's contribution of importance to his
masterpieces. We shall be able to assent to the esti-
mate of the London Spectator, as it spoke of this

Mr. Lincoln did not get his ability to handle prose
through his gift of speech. That these are separate,
though coordinate, faculties, is a matter beyond dis-
pute, for many of the great orators of the world have
proved themselves exceedingly inefficient in the matter
of deliberate composition. Mr. Lincoln enjoyed both
gifts. His letters, dispatches, memoranda, and written
addresses are even better than his speeches ; and in
speaking thus of Mr. Lincoln's prose, we are not think-
ing merely of certain pieces of inspired rhetoric. . . .
Whatever the subject he has in hand, whether it be
bold or impassioned, business-like or pathetic, we feel
that we "lose no particle of the exact, characteristic,
extreme expression" of the thing written about. We
have it all, not merely a part. Every line shows that
the writer is master of his materials ; that he guides

10 Preface

his words, never his words him. That is indeed the
predominant note throughout all jMr. Lincoln's work.

The perspective of the years adds mightily to the
meaning of the man whose personality and ideals
w^ere so vital to the perpetuity of America as the
home of liberty, — of liberty for the New World and
the Old. No explanation is needed for the unflag-
ging interest in his life and work. It is because so
many of his great utterances are as timely to-day as
w^hen they were first made.



I The Beginnings 15

II Intimations of a Public Career 26

III Prelude to the Great Debate 42

IV The Lincoln-Douglas Debate 58

V Epilogue of the Debates 'ji

VI East and West IVIeet at Cooper Insti-
tute 91

VII On the Road to Washington 119

VIII The Presidency and TLiE Civil W'ar. .. . 140
IX From Gettysburg to the Second

Inaugural 169

X The Closing Triumph of a Great

Career 186

APPENDIX : Selections from Lincoln's

addresses and state papers 219

letters 289

verse 322

miscellanies 330





Reproduced from an etching by Joseph Pierre


Statue of Lincoln by Andrew O'Connor.
Erected in front of the Capitol, Spring-
field, Illinois. 1918. Facing Page 64

From a portrait of Lincoln made at Prince-
ton, Illinois, July 4. 1856, by W. H.
Masters. Facing Page 128

Bronze statuette of Lincoln by Truman

Bartlett. Paris, 1877. Facing Page IQ2

(See Note on Illustrations, page ^J/J



A Youth to whom was given

So much of earth — so much of heaven.

— IVoi'dswortli.

Abraham Lincoln's career is of perennial interest
to the world because it represents a high personal
achievement accomplished under severe difficulties.
Such an achievement, entirely possible in a democ-
racy, excites admiration among every generation of
men. It contains so many points of human inter-
est that a large and growing literature has come
into existence to tell the story of his struggles with
poverty, his untoward opportunities for acquiring
an education, to describe his personality, to inter-
pret his political views and policies, and to exhibit
his "genius for expression." So significant is his
position in history that we preserve every scrap of
his writing, trivial or important, and perpetuate
every tale or tradition that promises to add to our
memorial of the man and his performance. For
many, his utterances on public questions have become
as touchstones of political wisdom. There are rea-


16 Lincoln as a Man of Letters

sons also for believing that, had the circnmstances
of his life, fallen in more favorable ways, he might
have become as distinguished in the field of letters
as he was eminent in statesmanship. These reasons
are to be found within that large body of letters,
addresses, and state papers which he has left as a
legacy from the wealth of exertion and clear think-
ing which fell to his experience.

\Ye know Lincoln's biography intimately enough
to discover that his mental life was a persistent and
progressive unfolding in the direction of genuine
culture. He was ambitious to acquire knowledge.
He laid hold of e\'en meagre occasions to widen his
horizons. Apparently he was equally eager to lead
a life of action. At the age of twenty-one he had
successfully piloted his father's family from Indiana
to their new homestead in Illinois. Within two
years after this change of residence he became a
candidate for election to the Illinois legislature from
Sangamon county. In the address which he issued
to the voters of the county in March, 1832, we may
find a clear hint of the type of mind and aspiration
which distinguished his maturity.^ Although up to
this time he had enjoyed the privilege of less than
a year's training in the elementary school and had

I Page 219, Ap])en(lix.

The Beginnings 17

studied English grammar only "imperfectly," the
sentences and ideas of this first political pronounce-
ment arrest our attention. One is led to wonder
how large a percentage of our legislators to-day
would be able to write paragraphs at once as co-
herent and thoughtful as are contained in Lincoln's
"handbill" written when he was twenty-three.

This earliest political document of Lincoln's, with
its beginning of deliberate thinking and good style,
suggests also a negative characteristic of the man.
It contains a good-natured confession of humility
springing from that sense of his lowly origin which
seems to have survived throughout his life in much
that he wrote and spoke. This characteristic was
coupled with a certain infection of pioneerism
which, while enhancing the popular love of Lincoln,
left its stamp upon his humor, touched with medioc-
rity many of his figures of speech, and made very
commonplace language suffice for much of his cor-
respondence involving professional or political rou-
tine. Hence, a large part of his writings do not
share the literary distinction of another part for
the reason that Lincoln's psychology contained lean-
ings that were as ordinary as his moments of uprush
were beautiful and ideal. A touch of rusticity, con-
tributed bv his birth and environment, is to be found

18 Lincoln as a Man of Letters

in much of his written work, but it enriched his
personality and deepened his sympathy and imagi-
nation. But when his mind was moved to its high-
est points of feeHng and sincerity, his expression
took on a purity, an elegance, and an insight, which
gave it the qualities of literature.
]/ If the last paragraph of the "handbill" of 1832
contains a glimpse of that negative influence which
Lincoln did so much to overcome, but never wholly
escaped, the platform upon which he became for the
third time a candidate for the legislature, in 1836,
still better illustrates the point. In the interim he
had studied English grammar, had made some prog-
ress in the study of law, had read newspapers and
had committed to memory certain poems which ap-
pealed to him. He had been deputy surveyor, and
had already had one term's experience in the legis-
lature. This platform was written for publication,
yet has the form and language of a pioneer to pio-
neers. It is, however, concerned exclusively with
the writer's political convictions, and contains Lin-
coln's only known declaration in support of woman
suffrage. This declaration is not expressed in a
separate paragraph or with any formality, but is
abruptly tacked on to the end of a sentence.* In

I Page 289, Appendix.

The Beginnings 19

less than two weeks after the puljHcation- of this
plebeian utterance, Lincoln penned a letter to one
Colonel Robert Allen — who had intimated a knowl-
edge of facts damaging to Lincoln's personal char-
acter — which leaves nothing to be desired in dignity
or choice of words. ^ The sentences are well con-
structed and the style and language are unecjui vocal
and perspicuous.

Throughout Lincoln's works the reader traces
these opposite marks of style — the homebred and
the finished. The intellectual elements entering into
his mind's growth during the three years he was
postmaster at New Salem ( 1833- 1836) were impor-
tant. During his brief experience as storekeeper he
read Blackstone's "Commentaries on the Laws of
England" and followed this up with other law
books borrowed from Springfield friends. He had
been a diligent reader of newspapers, an opportu-
nity favored by his incumbency as postmaster. His
acquaintance during this time with the Rogers
family, who had come to Illinois from Coopers-
town, N. Y., in 1818, and at whose place, a few
miles from New Salem, another postoffice was estab-
lished, furnished Lincoln with new cultural inter-
ests. His trips to take mail from New Salem to the

I Page 290. Appendix.

20 Lincoln as a Man of Letters

Rogers office gave him access not only to additional
newspapers, but to the "chest of books" which the
Rogers family had brought with them to Illinois.^
Newspapers remained with Lincoln an important
source of intellectual stimulus. From them he ob-
tained political information and comment, reports
of lectures, poems, and foreign intelligence.

Lincoln's studious reading of newspapers and
such books as came within his reach constantly en-
larged as he came into wider contact with people.
This wider contact was afforded by his attendance
upon the legislature at Springfield, where he made
industrious use of the new State library, chiefly to
enhance his knowledge of the law, preparatory to
his future profession. His biographers agree that
Lincoln had a highly retenti\'e memory. There is
evidence to show that both upon the stump and in
private conversation, he was acquiring a vocabulary
of ever-increasing range and accuracy. He had
become a careful and ambitious student of words,
and sought rather than avoided the stimulus of a
crowd in the practice of speech-making. As a young
man at Gentryville, Indiana, and later at New Salem,
he had the reputation of knowing more as a result

I Rankin, "Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, pp.

The Beginnings 21

of reading than anyone else in the neighborhood.'
It was during his New Salem experience that his
courtship of Anne Rutledge occurred. Apparently he
encouraged her own intellectual aspirations, for at
this time their mutual friend, Arminda Rogers, tu-
tored Miss Rutledge in Kirkham's grammar, Blair's
rhetoric, and other elementary subjects, as a foun-
dation for her admission to a young women's acad-
emy at Jacksonville.- Anne Rutledge's death in 1835
destroyed their cherished hopes. Lincoln's recov-
ery from a severe illness was followed by two years
of assiduous study during the intervals between
legislative and other employments concerned with
his livelihood.

The year 1837, while he was still a member of the
legislature, marks an eventful stage in Lincoln's
career. In this year he moved to Springfield, which
he had been influential in having made the capital
of the State. He gained admission to the Spring-
field bar, and entered into partnership with John T.
Stewart, a lawyer of ability and experience, w^hom
Lincoln met in the legislature, and from whom he
had borrowed books and received encouragement in
the prosecution of his legal studies. It is not pos-

1 Browne. "Everyday Life of Abraham Lincoln," pp. 26, 2^.

2 Rankin, ibid., p. 68.

22 Lincoln as a Man of Letters

sible, up to this time, to specify just what books had
entered into Lincohi's cultural reading. There is
evidence that this material included the English
Bible, certain of Shakespeare's plays, "Pilgrim's
Progress." "Robinson Crusoe," Weems's Wash-
ington, Statutes of Indiana, a history of the United
States, the Declaration of Independence, and the
Constitution.^ Just what knowledge he had of
poetry and of fiction is indefinite. He was familiar
with current political parties and issues, both State
and national, and had arrived at settled convictions
upon matters of public interest. He had already
exhibited the elan of a politician and had ambitions
looking toward the future. During this year he
made a well-considered speech before the legislature
on the State bank issue, which a capable student of
Lincoln regards as "an able argument, logical, con-
vincing, and expressed in the best English."- The
speech is indeed expressed in excellent English, and
.shows a studious grasp of the subject discussed.

1 Herndon and Weik, I -.37-45. Herndon speaks of Webster's
Spelling Book and the American Speller, Pike's Arithmetic,
Murray's English Reader, and /Esop's I'ables as among Lin-
coln's school books in Indiana. He quotes John Hanks on
Abe's devotion to reading, reproduces specimens of his juvenile
verse and mentions two prose compositions, one on the "Amer-
ican Government" and another on "Temperance." Arnold, in
liis "Abraham Lincoln," includes Burns's poems in his early
reading, p. 21.

2 Richards, "Abraham Lincoln, tlie Lawyer-Statesman," pp.
4, 5-

The Beginnings 23

Lincoln was now a man of advancing reputation
in the State, recognized as a resourceful debater and
as a man of integrity and ideals. On January 27
of this same year, he gave before the Young Men's
Lyceum of Springfield a written address on the
"Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions." The
language of this address as a whole is over-rhetor-
ical, as might be expected from a young man ambi-
tious as an orator, self -instructed in the art of
expression, and still under the spell of frontier stand-
ards. But the address has the substance of high
ideals and moral convictions as well as reflection.
It contains the following quotable passage on law
enforcement :

Let every American, every lover of liberty, every
well-wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of
the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular
the laws of the country, and never to tolerate their
violation by others. As the patriots of "seventy-six"
did to the support of the Declaration of Independence,
so to the support of the Constitution and the Laws let
every American pledge his life, his ])roperty, and his
sacred honor ; let every man remember that to violate
the law is to trample on the blood of his father, and
to tear the charter of his own and his children's liberty.
Let reverence for tlic laws l)e breathed bv everv

24 Lincoln as a Man of Letters

American mother to tlie lisping babe that prattles on
her lap. Let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and
in colleges. Let it be written in primers, spelling-
books, and in almanacs. Let it be preached from the
pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in
courts of justice. And. in short, let it become the
political religion of the nation.

This address, instinct with noble feeling and sin-
cerity, foreshadows the deep devotion to duty and
the natural refinement of spirit which Lincoln, under
the impress of experience, so often exhibited. It is
prophetic of the high seriousness and simplicity
w^hich gradually matured toward the faultless diction
in W'hich he conceived the Gettysburg Address and
the Second Inaugural.

The student of Lincoln's works is sometimes
tempted to ascribe his command of good English to
genius.^ He does indeed appear to have had some
native gift of style. There is a letter of Lincoln's,
dated April i, 1838, to Airs. O. H. Browning, anent
his courtship of Alary Owen and their contemplated
marriage.- The story is familiar to readers of Lin-
coln's biography, but it is told in this letter with a

1 Compare C. W. Eliot, in "The New Definition of an Edu-
cated Man."

2 Page 291, Appendi.x.

The Beginnings 25

freedom and elegance of diction which suggests the
artist in narration. As a composition the piece en-
gages greater interest with the re-reading. It be-
trays a certain Addisonian acumen for words that
goes far to persuade one that the writer held within
his endowments the possibility of a successful essay-
ist. The informal type of expression is lighted up
with delicacy of humor and a touch of literary allu-
sion. The lady in question, when he had first seen
her, was "over-size," but now had grow'n "a fair
match for Falstafif." Although he had misgivings
about his affection for her. he determined he would
make no concession to dishonor, but would stand
"firm as the surge-repelling rock."^

I For a ludicrously puritanic estimate of the letter to Mrs.
Browning, see Lamon's Life of Lincoln, p. i8i. Herndon takes
a more cheerful view of it, p. 156 flf.



A good man, through obscurest aspiration,
Has still an instinct of the one true way.

— Goethe

The chief art of learning, as Locke has observed, is to at-
tempt but little at a time. The widest excursions of th'e mind
are made by short flights frequently repeated; the most lofty
fabrics of science are formed by the continued accumulation
of single propositions. — Johnson.

In the year 1839, Lincoln, in company with E. D.
Baker and two other Whigs of local repute, engaged
in a public debate in Springfield against Stephen A.
Douglas and three other Democrats, on the relative
merits of the Independent Treasury and the Na-
tional Bank. Aside from being Mr. Lincoln's first
public appearance against Douglas — an early study
for the great debate nearly twenty years in the
future — his speech on this occasion contains abun-
dant evidence of his intimate acquaintance with
public documents and his capacity to gather and
assemble details of fact. There is a careful and
convincing arrangement of the materials of his ar-
gument, and a competent knowledge of the Con-


Intimations of a Public Career 27

stilution aiul contemporary hisUjry. On its argu-
mentative side, this speech is a notable augury of
the Peoria speech of 1854, also in reply to Douglas.
Its closing paragraphs, however, contain examples
of those antithetical aspects of his style to which
reference has been made. In his rebuttal of Mr.
Lamborn, one of his Democratic opponents, Lin-
coln uses a style that in the main is balanced and
restrained. His speech closes, however, with a
climax much too florid for impressive discussion.

This debate is important in an effort to trace the
development of Lincoln's power of thought and his
command of an adec[uate expression. It exhibits
his two-fold capacity for matter-ofrfact reasoning
from things well known and his strength of native
fancy and feeling. These could soar when touched
by the deeper aspects of the subject or the occasion.
They disclose the presence of a color-realm in his
soul which, upon occasion, could clothe his convic-
tions in the raiment of beautiful and moving words.
His sense for the practical made him a wise and
helpful counsellor. This side of his mind is re-
vealed in much that he wrote, but nowhere better
than in his letter to Herndon, July 10, 1848, on
the way for a young man to rise in the world. The
letter of June 22, also to Herndon, advised the

28 Lincoln as a Man of Letters

formation among the young men of his acquaintance
of a "Rough and Ready'' club, for pastime and the
improvement of the "intellectual faculties." ^ It em-
bodies a touch of political astuteness as well as
sympathy for "the shrewd, wild bo}s about town""
in need of incentives to improvement. How suc-
cinct in statement and worldly wisdom are the two
letters to his step-brother, John D. Johnston, in 1851,
on thriftlessness! " They remind one of the home-
bred sense of Franklin, in his character of Poor
Richard, who says :

I never saw an oft-removed Tree,

Nor yet an oft-removed Family,

That throve so well as those that settled be.

That Lincoln possessed something of the essay-
ist's bent of mind is not difficult to believe. He
was accustomed to generalize upon what he observed
and knew. The few fragments he has left us as
notes for a law lecture -^ and for a popular lecture on
Niagara Falls, as well as his observations on the
nature and objects of government, imply that at
times he sought escape from the limitations of his
profession. They reveal a mind of a contemplative
cast. There is little indication that he veered toward

I Page 295, Appendix. 2 Pages 296-298, Appendix.

3 Page 330, Appendix.

Intimations of a Public Career 29

speculative thinking. He concerned himself by
choice with concrete interests rather than with mat-
ters of hypothesis. Practical life and the experi-
ence of its institutions were at all times foremost
in his thought. Like Socrates, his mental urge was
ethical and spiritual before it was constructive. His
ideals looked always in the direction of attainment,
although his faculty was critical and interpretative
rather than creative.

The slight verse which Lincoln left was not prom-
ising in this sense. He had a deep-born love for
song, but in what he has left us of verse, there re-
sides, outside of a certain abundant human sympathy
and capacity to carry his thought toward a conclu-
sion, no special sense for rhythm, no spontaneous
impact of art. The honest, heartfelt verve is not

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryLuther Emerson RobinsonAbraham Lincoln as a man of letters (Volume 1) → online text (page 1 of 21)