Augustus Woodbury.

A sketch of the character of Abraham Lincoln : a discourse preached in the Westminster Church, Providence, R.I., Thursday, June 1, 1865 online

. (page 1 of 2)
Online LibraryAugustus WoodburyA sketch of the character of Abraham Lincoln : a discourse preached in the Westminster Church, Providence, R.I., Thursday, June 1, 1865 → online text (page 1 of 2)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook



, 9.

\ li 6

.•-•- /■ /


gi ^M(% of m mtmcm





■ -•> *-■ >'■



Thursday, June 1, 1865,






m ^Mdx H m (fiharartcv





Thursday, June 1, 1865,






Knowles, ANTiioNt & Co., Printers.


Eom. XIV. 7.— No man dieth to himself.

THE wave of sorrow that has swept over the Ameri-
can Kepublic, for the ^eath of its Chief Magistrate,
has by no means spent its force. It is now flowing back
to us from the old world, bearing so rich and so complete
a burden of sympathy and appreciation as almost to in-
duce the feeling that we knew not the entire worth of
him whom we have lost. The indications are too clear
and unmistakable to deceive us. The expressions of
aifection and esteem which have been made, both at home
and abroad, are heartfelt and sincere. Even reluctant
lips have spoken the praises of the dead President.
Those who once scorned and ridiculed his homely sim-
plicity now acknowledge their mistake, declare their
repentance, and are earnest to assure the world that he
was better than they thought. Certainly the man who
has evoked such unanimous approval must have been
no ordinary man. It was natural that our own people,
in their gratitude for what he has done for them, should
weave a chaplet for his tomb ; that, in their profound
sense of bereavement, they should bow with deepest
sorrow, as they felt that he was taken from them for-

ever. Surely, this man was the most cordially beloved,
the most widely respected of any man within the bor-
ders of the Republic. The rich and the poor, the wise
and the simple, the scholar and the unlettered seem to
emulate one another as they unite in paying honor to
his memory. Even his foes in arms against him had
learned to admire him ; and they who fought him shed
tears of genuine sorrow when they heard of the fatal deed
that struck him out of life. All this, perhaps, was to
be expected. But that this plain Republican, bringing
an honest heart and a sao:acious mind to the direction
of public aifairs in a time of unexampled difficulty,
should so have won over to him the hearts of men
throughout the civilized world, — should have so con-
quered their prejudices, by the sheer and simple force
of his upright and truthful character, — should have so
closely touched and so completely moved the best part
of human nature and of mankind — that was hardly to
be hoped. We knew how coldly Europe had looked
upon us ; how chary of its sympathy, nay, how hostile
in its sentiments, it had been. We knew how utterly
incongruous with all the preconceptions, the traditional
ideas, the long established formalism of European soci-
ety, our President, and the movement which he repre-
sented and which he led, were thought to be. We
knew how slow the conventionalism of the old world
was to recognize any worth or any ability, except as it
bore the stamp of regularity. It was almost too much
to believe, that the old world would see with the eye of
the new. We thought that we were partial, and that
possibly a disinterested judgment, or a judgment that
was affected by unfriendly prejudices might reverse our
decision, and depreciate our estimate. But as we read

what has been spoken and written on the other side of
the ocean, and see with what hearty admiration every
word is full, we come near to feeling that even our par-
tiality was not generous enough, and that our estimate
of Mr. Lincoln's worth was, after all, too low. Hostile
eyes have seen excellences which we were slow to dis-
cover, and they, who have refused to be our friends,
have spoken words warmer than our own. It is a great
triumph which has thus been achieved. It has been
bravely won. It will be worthily enjoyed.

The President of the United States has called us to-
gether to renew the expression of our grief and to open
once ao'ain the sources of consolation. It is eminently
proper that this day should be set apart for a day of humil-
iation and prayer. When the intelligence of the terrible
misfortune that had overtaken the country, in the murder
of Mr. Lincoln, was first brought to us, we were stunned —
we were overpowered by the shock. We could not make
it real to us. If we ventured upon an expression of our
feelino's, it was necessarily feeble and broken. Our
minds were bewildered by the strange experience.
Our hearts were suffused by the emotions of grief which
crowded them. We scarcely knew what to say, except
as it became the utterance of the perplexing and per-
plexed sentiments which filled our natures. We could
not tell of how much we had been deprived, nor by
what means Divine Providence would compensate our
lo?s. We hardly dared to look forward to the future.
We hoped, indeed, — for no grief is too severe to expel
that sweet visitant from the soul, — yet we hoped with
tremblino-. Now we mav look with more calmness and
deliberation upon this event. We can judge somewhat
of its character. We can perceive the indications of


the results which it promises to work out. We can
better understand, and we can more correctly appre-
ciate the character of the illustrious victim himself.
We can read more plainly the lessons which the great
Ruler of nations and the great Teacher of mankind would
illustrate, enforce and apply. God give us grace to speak
and to learn with trueand faithful hearts I

It is needless now to recite the events of Mr. Lin-
coln's life. They are familiar to our knowledge. His
obscure parentage, his early privations, his struggle with
circumstances, his victory over unpropitious influences
and his efreat success in overcomino- the difficulties of
his career, his brave, honest and hopeful persistence, till
the humble laborer became the eloquent advocate, the
honored statesman, and the trusted ruler of the most
powerful nation of freemen in the world — all these things
are well known. What need to recount them, except
as the means of perceiving how Providence and events
train a man for the o^reatest and noblest deeds ? For
looking back over all these years, who now is not ready
to say, that Divine Providence was educating this man,
in this way, for the prominent part which he had to play
in history ? Clearly and distinctly can we see the finger
of God, in the continuous course of that career which
led Abraham Lincoln to the Presidential chair of the
United States. I have, upon former occasions during
the progress of the rebellion, spoken of the exceeding
good fortune which we enjoyed in having such a ruler
at such a crisis in our national life. It was not for-
tune — it was God who gave him to us, who made him
what he was, and enabled him to do what he did for us
and for the world. I think that he felt this, to a very
great extent ; that he believed with all the solemn con-

sciousness of such a faith, that he was an instrument in
the hands of Divine Providence for accomplishing a
certain important result for the American people. He
had no pride in himself. He had but little confidence
in his own strength. But he believed in the presence,
the help and the inspiration of God, with an almost fatal-
istic confidence and submissiveness. What was revealed
to his conscience as the just and right thing to do, he
did; and he did it because he felt that God had made
it known to him. I think that you will perceive this
implicit faith in the Divine superintendence of aflPairs
among us, in all his State papers and his oflflcial cor-
respondence. Yet in all this you find no trace of the
enthusiast. His mind always worked calmly and delib-
erately. His inspiration came to him with the slow
movement of an ever-flowing stream, and in no case
with the rapidity of a raging torrent. His well poised,
evenly balanced reason was as regular in its reception
of Divine influences as the tides of ocean beneath the
influence of the moon. If he saw the right slowly,
when he saw it, he saw it clearly. He saw it as a God-
ordained principle. He knew that it must succeed at
last, because God was on its side, and was carrying it
through to its triumph, by the irresistible impulse of an
Omnipotent will !

I look upon this unquestioning faith as the secret of
his firmness of purpose and of execution in the work
which God had entrusted to his hands. Perhaps we
do not appreciate the magnitude of that work as we
should. Recall, then, the fact, that the institution of
slavery has been the great crucial experiment of our
statesmanshij) for the last half century — nay, since the
formation of the Constitution. What to do with this


element in the State — how to treat it — by what means
to make the State secure either with it or against it —
these have been the questions that have tried and tested
all our public men and public measures. All our pub-
lic men of any note, from the framers of the Constitu-
tion down to the men of the present generation, have
been obliged to meet the institution of slavery and the
questions which it propounded both to their moral sense
and their political sagacity. All have felt it to be
wrong — have known that its existence was incompati-
ble with a free State and the declarations of liberty
which the State had made. Scarcely one has ventured
to declare, in express terms, its wrongfulness and the
necessity of its extirpation. The advocates of the insti-
tution declared it divine, and attempted to prove it so.
They defended it against the moral sense of the civil-
ized world. But their very efforts betrayed that they
had a latent consciousness that they were in the wrong.
For if the institution were right, what need of defence ?
Those who opposed the institution were not at all pre-
pared to say, when the time came for the expression of
their opinion, " Let it be destroyed I " Indeed, the
people of the north were divided upon the subject. It
had become a partizan power, either controlling the
action of parties or decreeing their death. The politi-
cal leaders of the north Avere also aspirants for office.
Even those who were the ablest among them, and whose
fame ox influence did not require an elevation to the
chief magistracy to give it permanence, were still greedy
for power. They thought that power was to be obtained
by serving the Institution which yet they could not
comimend. So, while some professed indifference, others
attempted to bridge ovex the difficulty of their position


by compromise. If others still were moved by their
moral sense and the power of conscience, to oppose the
Institution even in the face of violence and death, there
was always some sinister influence at work which baf-
fled their eff^brts, and made their opposition of no eflect.
A mistaken courtesy, a time-serving policy, bitterness
of spirit, or pusillanimity of sentiment, or a temperament
averse from strife, rendered all attempts abortive, and it
seemed as though the nation was to be given over to
the delusion that slavery was better than freedom, for
the direction of the policy of the Republic. The states-
men of the past had relied too much on the progress of
events, and did not wish to cast a stigma upon the con-
science of posterity. The Administrations of more
recent times have thought that their safety lay in acqui-
escence, and so they simply and basely capitulated to
the power which they deemed irresistible.

It was reserved — wisely reserved, we now can say^
for the honest mind and the fearless conscience of
Abraham Lincoln to declare the entire truth, and to
apply the effectual remedy. " I believe this govern-
ment cannot endure permanently half slave and half
free. I do not expect this Union to be dissolved. I do
not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will
cease to be divided. It will become all one thino-, or
all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will ar-
rest the further spread of it, and place it where the
public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the
course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will
push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all
the States, old as well as new — North as well as
South." That was said at Springfield, 111., June ITth,
1858. In September, 1859, at Cincinnati, Mr. Lincoln


used the following language : " I think slavery is
wrong, morally and politically. I desire that it should
be no further spread in these United States, and I
should not object if it should gradually terminate in the
whole Union." * * * " Whoever desires the preven-
tion of the spread of slavery and the nationalization
of that institution, yields all, when he yields to any
policy that either recognizes it as being right or as
being an indifferent thing. Nothing will make you
successful but setting up a policy which shall treat the
thing as being wrong." At the close of the very re-
markable address which Mr. Lincoln delivered at the
Cooper Institute, New York, February 27th, 1860, he
expressed himself in this way : " If our sense of duty
forbids [us to allow the spread of slavery into the na-
tional territories and the free States,] let us stand by
our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted
by none of those sophistical contrivances, wherewith
we are so industriously plied and belabored ; contriv-
ances, such as groping for some middle ground between
right and the wrong, — vain as the search for a man who
should be neither a living man nor a dead man ; such
as a policy of ' don't care,' on a question about which
all true men do care ; such as Union appeals, beseech-
ing true Union men to yield to disunionists, — reversing
the divine rule, and calling not the sinners, but the
righteous to repentance ; such as invocations to Wash-
ington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said,
and undo what Washington did. Neither let us be
slandered from our duty by false accusations against us,
nor frightened from it by menace of destruction to the
government, or of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have
faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to


the end, dare to do our duty, as we understand it." I
think that this opinion may be stated briefly thus : " The
government of the United States cannot endure half
slave, half free. It must be either wholly one or the
other. It cannot be all slave. It must be all free. It
is the duty of the American people to prevent the one —
to accomplish the other."

There is the statement, homely and quaint as it may
be, but entire and true. It was declared without bit-
terness. It was declared without fear. It was declared
without distrust. We were accustomed to think it a
very harmless statement. We did not understand how
pregnant it was with wisdom and with truth. We
thought it strange, that the people of the Southern
States should be so powerfully wrought up with indig-
nation at such a simple declaration. Why should they
resist, even to blood, the election of the man who made
it ? It was because they saw, more readily than we,
that it touched the very heart and marrow of the whole
subject. The calmness and deliberation of the state-
ment only made it more forcible. They knew that the
man who could reach such a conclusion as that, as the
result of the honest convictions of his soul, — w4io could
state it so clearly, and could adhere to it so faithfully, —
was neither to be cajoled, nor aflPrighted,^ nor moved
from his conviction by allurement, threats or force.
They knew that they must surrender to, the force of his
judgment and his will, or that they must destroy the
government which was to be administered according to
that principle. They madly chose the latter course,
and, after four years of unavailing struggle with the
patient, inflexible man who impersonated the principle,


AYere compelled to submit to a govermnent which is
hereforth to be wholly free !

Yet Mr. Lincoln, in taking this position, always re-
membered that, as President of the United States, he
was under certain Constitutional obligations. He was
determined to save the nation according to the princi-
ples of the Declaration of Independence. But he was
careful not to allow his emotions to govern his conduct,
while his intellect was not clear as to the proper and
the right course to pursue. We know that he was
fully as earnest for the liberty of the bondman as any
man could possibly be ; that he was resolute to admin-
ister the government in the spirit of justice. To play
the part of the Emancipator of a race — dazzling as such
an enterprise might be — was still only to be undertaken
with the deepest sense of responsibility, and not with
any feeling of ambition. Many persons thought that
he was slow in coming to the conclusion to issue the
Proclamation of Emancipation. So did not I. You
know how I counselled patience. You know how fully
such patience was rewarded. For when the Proclama-
tion was issued, no word of it had to be re-written.
Having satisfied himself that he possessed both the
power and the right — feeling all the while, with sensi-
tive finger, the pulse of the people — he placed his name
to that sublime production. Then his word was, that
he should not " attempt to retract or modify the proc-
lamation." Still later, it was, that if the people desired
any retrograde policy, some other, and not he, must be
selected to carry out their wishes.

It is to be observed, that Mr. Lincoln adopted the
opinions which he held, after the most mature consider-
ation, thus precluding the possibility of their retraction.


It is also to be observed, thai he expressed them with-
out the slightest shade of personal animosity. I do not
believe that there was the remotest sentiment of vindic-
tiveness or revenge in his nature, nor even — what is
the great vice of politicians — of envy or rivalry. We
all know that our political discussions are conducted
with great asperity and bitterness of feeling on both
sides. But I think that we can safely challenge the
production of an expression of such sentiments in any
of Mr. Lincoln's addresses — numerous as they were,
and delivered before excited and excitable popular
assemblies. He never seems to have lost his temper ;
never says a sharp thing for effect ; never indulges in
personal abuse. It is true, that he often has occasion
to correct some misrepresentation, or to refute some
slander which his opponents brought against him. But
it is always done with such good-humored courtesy
and such complete self-command as to show that malice
was a stranger to his heart, and ill-nature had no abid-
ing place within him. I do not believe that he ever
harbored a single feeling of enmity against any person
in the wide world. At all events, he never betrayed
the existence of any such feeling amid all the strifes
and excitements of the j^olitical controversies in which
he was engaged.

Particularly is this trait of character to be noticed
during the prevalence of our civil war. These interne-
cine strifes are the most prolific of bad and hateful pas-
sions. They are the bloodiest strifes in history. When
brother arms against brother, the enmity which is
aroused is of the very worst and most irreconcilable
kind. Mr. Lincoln has been made the object of calumny
of the very blackest nature. Yet has he never, in a


single instance, shown a spirit of revenge. All his
appeals to the people of the South, both before and
after his election, have been of the kindest, as well as
of the firmest character. While they, and their sympa-
thizers abroad, heaped upon him the most opprobrious
epithets ; while they made him the subject of vile cari-
cature and scurrilous jesting ; he remained calm, quiet,
unruffled, and not to be provoked, in any manner, to an
angry remark, or a vindictive replication. Uniformly
forbearino: to foreiorn nations, holdincr out the olive-
branch of peace and repeated offer of pardon to his
misguided fellow-countrymen, he still would not allow
himself the easy satisfaction of vengeance, when his for-
bearance was met with additional taunts, and his offers
of mercy were rejected with scorn. At all times, he
preserved that equableness and equanimity of mind,
which is the index of a really good and great charac-
ter. Enmity could not move him from the even balance
which he kept. Disaster and defeat could not depress
him into undue despondency. Victory could not lift
him into unseemly exultation. The sublime faith which
he had in Divine Providence wrouo^ht in him a calm
reliance upon himself. With such completeness of mind
and soul, he could well afford to forego the pleasure of
revenge, and wait with patience for time and events to
prove his wisdom and integrity, to confound his ene-
mies, and establish his good name upon foundations
which never could be moved. Nor did he judge
wrongly, for time and events did vindicate him, and
compelled even those who ridiculed him worst, to say :

" Yes, he had lived to shame me from my sneer,
To lame my pencil, and confute my jien, —
To make me own this hind of princes peer.
This rail-splitter, a true-born king of men.


"My shallow judgment I had learnt to rue,
Noting how to occasion's height he rose ;
How his quaint wit made home-truth seem more true,
How, iron-like, his temper grew by blows.

" How humble, yet how hopeful he could be;
How in good fortune and in ill the same;
Nor bitter in success, nor boastful he.
Thirsty for gold, nor feverish for fame.

"He went about his work— such work as few
Ever had laid on head and heart and hand —
As one who knows where there's a task to do,
Man's honest will must Heaven's good grace command;

" Who trusts the strength will, with the burden, grow,
That God makes instruments to woi'k His will,
If but that will we can arrive to know.
Nor tamper with the weights of good and ill."

It Is to be observed, that our President had great firm-
ness, combined in just proportion with Ids prentleness of
spirit. Said a friend to me, just before Mr. Lincohi's
first Inauguration : " Have you ever seen the President
elect?" "Yes," — and I mentioned the time, when he
addressed a large audience in Pallroad Hall, in this city,
during his visit to the East, in the early part of 1860.
" What is your opinion of him ? Has he the requisite
firmness for the crisis which Is upon the country ? Is he
like Jackson?" I answered: "Mr. Lincoln is a man
thoroughly honest in his convictions, and devoted to
what he believes to be right. He may be slow in mak-
ing up his mind. But when he has once settled upon
any point, you may be sure that he will never be moved
from It. He will be firm as Jackson, without Jackson's
impetuosity." I certainly would claim no prescience
or sagacity in such a matter as this, because Mr. Lin-
coln's character was just as open then as it is now, to
any one wdio chose to study it carefully and without


prejudice. But I have seen no occasion, since that time,
for forming any different opinion. Whenever Mr. Lin-
coln was satisfied he was right, and was doing right,
he was inflexibly faithful to his conviction. He would
always hear advice — and no man ever had more offered
to him. He would always endure what he called the
" pressure " of other men's opinions. But he had his
own opinions. He convinced himself, and when thus
convinced, he took the step which commended itself
to his judgment — a step which was seldom or never
to be retraced, — and which in the end commended itself
as the wisest to the judgment of others.

There was observable in Mr. Lincoln a complete hon-
esty of thought, purpose, utterance and deed. Like
the upright man, of whom the Psalmist sings, he spoke
*' the truth in his heart." His political opponents used
to say, when we brought forward this trait in his char-
acter, " Oh, yes, he is an honest man, but it requires
something more than honesty to govern a State."' That
is true, but I claim for Mr. Lincoln that he had that
" something more." Moreover, I claim, that his hon-
esty of heart and mind clarified his judgment, and
increased the real administrative power which he pos-
sessed. The honesty that was in his heart did not per-
mit him to say a false or cowardly or mean word, or to
do a false, cowardly or mean act. He would not utter


Online LibraryAugustus WoodburyA sketch of the character of Abraham Lincoln : a discourse preached in the Westminster Church, Providence, R.I., Thursday, June 1, 1865 → online text (page 1 of 2)