Chauncey M. (Chauncey Mitchell) Depew.

Addresses by the Hon. Chauncey M. Depew, LL. D., on the occasion of the celebration of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln at Burlington, Vermont, Feb. 12th, 1895 online

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Online LibraryChauncey M. (Chauncey Mitchell) DepewAddresses by the Hon. Chauncey M. Depew, LL. D., on the occasion of the celebration of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln at Burlington, Vermont, Feb. 12th, 1895 → online text (page 1 of 4)
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Selekation of the Birthday of Abrahan? Lincoln


Burlington, Vermont, Feb. 12th, 1895,

6on«ncement Exercises of the University of Ghicago,

April 1st, 1895,


His Birthday Dir^er,


April 20tri, 1895


s •

j ! 2






Birthday of Abraham Lincoln,


FEBRUARY 12th, 1895.

Ladies and Gentlemen :

The pleasure of appearing before you this after-
noon is great, but marred by circumstances. I had
supposed the occasion was to be the usual recrea-
tion for a busy man of the after-dinner speech which
pleasantly occupies the mind without tiring it. To
have it transformed into an afternoon address or
oration means a preparation, or the use of the Hor-
atian method of the file and thumb-nail, and my
conditions made that impossible. You will pardon
the absence of formality and accept the earnest-
ness with which I approach a subject so grand in it-
self as the hero whose memory -we celebrate, and
principles so enduring and vivifying as those of
the party of which he is the greatest ornament.

The tendency in all times has been for the people
to grow so far apart from their National heroes

that the hero becomes impossible. We cannot
live with perfection ; we cannot have the cam-
araderie of personal communion with saints. The
force and effect of continuing leadership is to be in
touch with the leader. We have idealized already
the worthies of the revolutionary period, and
especially Washington, so that they are out of the
pale of humanity. To us they never possessed the
foibles and weaknesses which are common to our
race. I doubt if Washington ever did. I had oc-
casion at the time of the Centennial to study closely
his character and career. It was impossible to
lower him to any plane where a horizontal view
could be had of him. In the camp and in the cab-
inet, in the Continental Convention and around the
campfire, in the midst of his soldiers, or at the mess
with his staff, he was always the same dignified,
majestic and unapproachable figure. For the times
in which he lived, for the mission to which he was
destined, these lofty characteristics were appropri-
ate. The revolution knew little of the fierce dem-
ocracy. The classes and the masses were distinctly
defined and separated. The pride of birth, of an-
cestry and landed proprietorship was never
more distinctly asserted and never more
generally recognized. It is probable that for the
purpose of bringing the wealth and the intelligence
of the country to the support of the patriot cause
it was necessary that one of this class who was infi-
nitely superior to his fellows, and whose aim and
ambition were only his country and its liberties,

should lead the movement. The processes of evo-
lution of democracy for one hundred years had
created a condition where Washington would have
been a failure in the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln,
his opposite in every respect, t because he was so
different, was the most successful leader of any re-
volution of modern or ancient times.

As we study the characteristics which made Lin-
coln great and successful, we find them not in the
usual gifts of great statesmen. Others have been
more cultured, others have had more genius,
others have had more experience and training, but
none of any time had as the motive power of every
action an indomitable and resistless moral force.
You may call it the principle of natural religion,
or whatever you may. It was an instinct for the
right, a comprehension of justice, a boundless
sympathy and compassion, an intense and yearn :
ing love for his fellows and their welfare which
knew neither rank nor race, but gathered within
its boundless charity all mankind. The force and
effect of this power in Lincoln can be best illus-
trated by the contrast between him and his great
antagonist, Douglas. Douglas was born in Ver-
mont ; about him were all the influences of this
liberty-loving and intelligent commonwealth ; his
father was a clergyman, a college graduate, a man
of brains and culture, and his mother a worthy
helpmeet for her minister husband. Every author-
ity of environment and atmosphere was for right,
justice and liberty. His struggles with poverty

were not those which enervate or degrade, but
those which inspire men of fiber, energy, ambition
and genius to the efforts which make a career. His
natural abilities, trained in the best of schools,
made him a teacher, a lawyer, a judge, a legislator,
a senator and the leader of his party. It made
him the ablest of debaters in the United States
Senate, the most formidable of foes upon the
platform in a political campaign, and the most
adroit of politicians in framing issues which
should capture or mislead the people. In
any condition of the country's affairs, when
great moral questions were not at issue,
Stephen A. Douglas would have been President.
Lincoln, on the other hand, was born in a slave
State, the son of a poor white, and lived during his
early youth in a cabin of one room, under condi-
tions of abject poverty and ignorance. His mother
died, his shiftless father moved to Indiana, a log
cabin was erected which had neither partitions nor
floors and scarcely windows or doors, a few acres
were cleared to get the bare necessaries of life,
and almost at the period of manhood Lincoln had
no education, was dressed in skins, was associated
with semi-savages who relieved the hard conditions
of their lives by brutal debauches and equally
brutal fights among themselves, and yet he remained
uncontaminated by the drinking, swearing, idle
loafers, roughs or thugs who constituted his com-
panionship. His energies would be shown occa-
sionally with his enormous strength in protecting

the weak or rescuing the defeated, and a promise
of his future powers given by holding spellbound
at times his rough auditors by his rustic eloquence,
or entertaining them at night with his endless f and
of anecdote, drollery and mimicry. An insatiable
craving for knowledge led him to learn to read and
to write. The only books within miles about him
were Robinson Crusoe, a short history of the United
States, Weem'sLifeof Washington, and Banyan's
Pilgrim's Progress. These he soon knewb}^ heart.
This master of the English tongue, this most felici-
tous of phrase makers, this most eloquent of
speakers, framed his sentences and formed his
style by writing compositions with charcoal upon
a wooden shovel or the shingles from the mill. A
clerk in a store on starvation wages, a storekeeper
without capital, and his business sold out by the
sheriff, a surveyor earning ten or fifteen dollars a
month, and a lawyer with no other equipment than
Blackstone and the statutes of Illinois — such was
Lincoln at a period when the accomplished and
cultured Douglas was already the idol of his State.
And yet thus, on the threshold of a career, with
such surroundings, such teachings and such im-
pressions, in the midst of a community which
drank, Lincoln was a temperance man ; in the
midst of a community that swore, Lincoln was
free from blasphemy ; in the midst of a com-
munity not highly moral, Lincoln w 7 as as
pure as an angel ; in the midst of a com-
munity which regarded the negro as no better


than the horse or the mule, Lincoln was an abol-

Sailing down the Mississippi River upon a flat
boat, with a crew composed of his rough comrades,
who boasted they were half horse and half alli-
gator, who anchored at night for roystering riots
in the villages and continued them when they
reached New Orleans, Lincoln was apart from
them, while of them. He wandered one day into
the slave market and saw a young girl put up at
auction. He witnessed the brutal examination of
her by the buyers and spectators, the coarse jokes
that were exchanged in the crowd and the cynical
beastliness of the auctioneer, and the slumbering
tire of moral and religious wrath planted in him by
his mother, or inherited from some saintly ances-
tor, broke out with the declaration, "If I live, the
day will come when I will hit slavery a blow from
which it shall perish." That slave girl on the
block aroused the moral forces within him which
kept him from the temptations of his environ-
ment and made him the hero and the martyr of

The peoples in all ages have loved gladiatorial
combats, whether of the mind or muscle. The
keen delight of the Greek in the contests of his
orators, and of the Roman in the bloody fights of
his gladiators, illustrated the principle. The de-
bate between Douglas, the leader of his party, the
inventor of the phrase, "popular sovereignty,"
which was to stand both for the principle and the

policy which would save his party from being over-
whelmed by the rising spirit of liberty inthecoun-
trj 7- , and the possible President of the United
States, and a man who, though unknown, excited
interest because the Republican party in his State
deemed him worthy to be placed against the
champion, was a picture which made Illinois the
battle ground of freedom. If Lincoln had pos-
sessed less of this controlling moral principle — if
he had been actuated by the same motives which
governed Douglas— if his God had been his per-
sonal ambition more than the welfare of the race,
or the Presidency more than patriotism — he would
have defeated Douglas. The repeal of the Mis-
souri Compromise had thrown open the territories
of the great northwest to slavery. Douglas had
met the rising tide of indignation and stemmed it
by a proposition which apparently left the people
of the territory to decide whether their institutions
should be free or slave. The decision of the Su-
preme Court in the Dred Scott case had shown that
this alleged principle was a flimsy pretext. Never-
theless it was generally accepted. The South was
committed to slavery and regarded its extension
as necessary to the existence of the system. The
business of the North was bound up in the preser-
vation of slavery. The press and the pulpit were
largely with their congregations, their constitu-
encies and their readers. "Abolitionist" was a
term of reproach and opprobrium. " Anti-
slavery " was little better. To touch slavery was


to touch the Union, and to touch the Union was to
imperil the Republic, and so slavery became the
cornerstone of the Republic. The Declaration of
Independence was an empty sound for Fourth of
July declamations and assaults upon the mon-
archial systems of other countries. Lincoln wrote
his speech. He read it to the leaders of his party.
It was based upon this thought, couched in these
words, " A house divided against itself cannot
stand. I believe this government cannot endure
permanently half slave and half free. I do not
expect the Union to be dissolved. I do not expect
the house to fall, but I expect it will cease to be
divided. It will become all one thing or all the
other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest
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." The leaders of the party with
one voice said, "That speech defeats you and
elects Douglas." u Ah ! " said Lincoln, " I know
that, but I am looking beyond Douglas and be-
yond the Senatorship. That sentiment appeals to
the conscience of the north against the extension
of slavery in the territories and against the system
of slavery." It was the gauntlet of liberty
thrown into the arena which began the battle that
ended with the publication of the Proclamation
of Emancipation.


There never was such a President — never such
a ruler as Abraham Lincoln. He did not repre-
sent hereditary privileges, for he came from the
plainest of the plain people ; he did not repre-
sent heredity, for he had none ; he did not
represent the colleges or the universities, for
he knew them not ; he did not represent capital
and great accumulations, for he had neither ; but
he did represent the toiler upon the farm, in the
workshop, upon the highway, in the factory, any-
where, everywhere where honest men and honest
women were striving to better their conditions and
to illustrate the dignity of labor and the nobility
of American citizenship. Without this touch with
the plain people his ability, his genius, would have
made him distrusted, for it may be taken as almost
an axiom that there is no career for great genius
by popular vote. He knew the country, the lim-
itations of his power, how far and how fast the
administration could go in the great struggle,
better than the cabinet, or Congress, or journalists,
or advisers. "Call for troops to suppress the
rebellion," shouted the northern press, the north-
ern pulpit and the representatives in Congress. But
he said, with the adoration that exists for the con-
stitution and its strict interpretation, and for the
Union, and with the dread there is of its dissolution,
the flag must be assailed before a response can be
had. Against the advice of every member of his
cabinet he said, "Let us send provisions to the be-
leaguered United States soldiers heroically defend-


ing the flag in Charleston Harbor." The unarmed
provision ship was driven back, the flag fired upon,
the fort was captured, the plain people who were
his constituents understood then the situation, and
millions of soldiers responded to his call.

Mr. Greeley thundered in the Tribune, Mr. Sum-
ner in the Senate, the clergymen in their pulpits,
and the orators upon the platform, that he should
destroy the confederacy at once by freeing the
slaves. He knew as no other man did I he strength
and power of the feeling which had grown up in
the country of the sort of sacredness that hedged
about property in slaves. But when defeat after
defeat came, when there was despair of the result,
when the future of the Republic looked dark,
when the people had been educated to regard
the Union as more sacred than slavery, then he
promulgated his immortal proclamation. Other
Presidents and other rulers have deemed their full
duty performed in their annual communications
to their congresses or their parliaments, but
Lincoln every day was addressing letters by
which he was counseling and arguing with
the people upon the questions of the hour, the
perils of the country and the duties and dangers
that were before him. Now he writes to Mr.
Greeley, now to the workiiigmen of Manchester.
now to the workingmen of New York, now to a
State Convention, now to a convocation of clergy-
men ; but always to the people of the United
States. Whenever his great brain and his great


heart welled up so that he seemed about to be
suffocated by the difficulties of the situation, and
by the impossibility of solving his problems, Lincoln
poured his troubles out to the people of the United
States, and asked for their sympathy, their advice
and their support. The appeal was never made in
vain. Politicians raved against him, and said that
his utterances were unwise, and his actions indis-
creet. Earnest men, who had the cause at heart,
called conventions to prevent his renomination,
and then to defeat him for re-election, but the
plain people with whom he had been talking as
with familiar friends, whose homes he had en-
tered, at whose firesides he had sat, by whose bed-
sides he had talked, in whose inmost circles and in
the midst of whose family prayers he had been, re-
sponded with an overwhelming support which
gave him again the presidency, and the presidency
by rjractically the unanimous voice of the people.

Lincoln knew nothing of the dignity, so far as
it is expressed in manner and dress, which belongs
to high station. The instinctive sense of propriety
and consciousness of superiority and greatness
which hedged Washington was absent in him. In
our time, in the fierce light of our publicity, with
the scintillations of electricity rendering brilliant
every nook and corner and cranny of a public
man's existence and thought, the temptations to
enlarge the wreath which the people place upon
his head are almost irresistible. The test of
greatness is the wearing of the halo. It destroyed


Napoleon, it ruined two-thirds of the generals in
the war, it hasdriven great and little politicians,
from the commencement of our Republic until
now. into obscurity. But Lincoln was never
troubled as to the size of his head. He never over-
estimated nor underestimated who he was, what
he was nor what he represented. He never for-
got where he came from, and never lost sight
of the fact that except by the accident of
position he was neither better nor worse than
those who placed him in the Presidential chair.
He possessed what no other ruler ever did, or, if he
did, no other ruler dared to use, the power of humor.
The portentous solemnity of our public men per-
vades our political atmosphere, even to depressing
melancholy. The less the statesman knows the
more solemn he is, the thicker his head the more
owlish [his bearing. A President of the United
States once said to me, " No man can ever succeed
in this country who gives rein to his humor or his
fun. The people no longer look upon him as a
serious man, and only serious men are recognized in
the consideration of public affairs."

When Mr. Lincoln came to Washington he was
unknown to the great leaders of the party. He had
the courage, which only a very great man can have,
of summoning them all into his Cabinet. The rule
has been growing to summon only lesser men into
the Cabinet. In modern times as soon as the Presi-
dent has selected his constitutional advisers the
wiiole detective agency of the newspapers is set to


work to find out who they are, where they come
from and what they have done. The village attor-
ney, the village scribe, the local philosopher bound
upon the national platform with theories as broad
as their environment, and as useful. The process
has the merit of elevating the chief by the depre-
ciation of his subordinates. Lincoln believed in
more harmonious pictures. Napoleon, surrounded
by the Marshals of France, every one of them a hero
of a great battle, every one of them the demon-
strated leader of a mighty army, himself the ac-
knowledged chief and leader of them all, formed a
picture that commanded the admiration of his time
and has arrested the attention of posterity. This
Illinois lawyer, orator and statesman, called to his
aid the men who had demonstrated in the Senate,
in the House and in the Courts that they were the
leaders of men. What a spectacle ! This ungainly
giant of the west, angular and awkward, uncouth
of manner, inelegant of address, with the courtly
Seward for Secretary of State, the stately Chase for
Secretary of the Treasury, the worldly, dominant
and shrewd Cameron for Secretary of War, and the
imperious Stanton as his successor ! Chase turns
to his friends and intimates that the country has a
mountebank for President. Seward, ever anxious to
be useful, writes a private note offering to perform
all the duties of the Presidency and leave the orna-
ments of its name and station to Lincoln. He re-
ceives in reply a letter which ignores the insult but
says in effect, " I will run the administration and


you run your department, except when I think that
you had better run it in some other wa} r ." In less
than a year everyone of those great leaders recog-
nized that he was in the jDresence of his chief and

Lincoln under other conditions might have made
a great playwright, or he might have been a great
actor. He was unconciously dramatic. His dis-
appearance at Harrisburg, on the way to Washing-
ton for the first inauguration, his reappearance at
the Capital when the thugs were waiting to assas-
sinate him, was a dramatic surprise which excited
the whole country. His arjpointment of Hooker
to the command of the Army of the Potomac, in a
letter which told him plainly his weaknesses and
his failures and the reasons why he ought not to
have the responsibility of the command placed
upon him, was both a comedy and a tragedy. His
offer to McClellan to borrow his army if he only
knew what to do with it, as it was apparent
McClellan did not know, was one of those strokes
of genius in expression which removed the popular
idol and broke it. . A messenger summoned the
cabinet to the White House. The first to enter
was the stately, the dignified, the always proper
Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase. The
President looked up from his book and said, " Mr.
Chase, I was just reading a most interesting work,
which I have enjo3^ed more than anything I have
met with in a long time. Let me read you a part
of it." And thereupon he began reading to him


Ar tenuis Ward's lecture on " Wax Figgers." The
astonished and irritated Secretary of the Treasury,
listening as the other members of the cabinet
gathered, indignantly exclaimed, " Mr. President,
we did not come here to hear this idiotic nonsense.
For what are we summoned?" Mr. Lincoln put
his hand in his drawer, pulled out a paper and
said, "Gentlemen, I summoned you to submit this
paper ; not to ask your advice as to whether I
should issue it or not, because I intend to issue it
no matter what your advice maybe ; but to ask sug-
gestions as to its form." And he read to them the
immortal Proclamation of Emancipation ; the docu-
ment which was to set four millions of human
beings free ; the document which was to relieve the
Constitution from the curse of slavery ; the docu-
ment which was to make the Declaration of Inde-
pendence for the first time in our history the vital
force in the principles and in the policies of the
United States ; the document which was to remove
the stain which made us a by-word and reproach
among all civilized people ; the document which
carried out in letter and spirit the vow made so
many years before when the fiat-boatman saw the
girl sold in the shambles at New Orleans. A few
suggestions were made, a few hesitating protests
against the fierce determination of the President
for publication, an earnest request for delay until
a victory should come, and that most memorable of
Cabinet meetings in the history of the United States
adjourned, and as they Hied out this incomprehen-


sible President put the Proclamation of Emancipa-
tion back in the drawer and resumed the reading of
Artemus Ward.

I remember as if it was yesterday an afternoon
with Mr. Lincoln. I was but a boy, though Secre-
tary of ~New York State. Horatio Seymour was
the Democratic Governor, and the Legislature was
Republican. The soldiers' vote was to be obtained.
The Republican Legislature would not trust the
Governor, and it devolved upon me the duty of
collecting the soldiers' vote. Mr. Lincoln looked
up as I pressed my way through the crowd in his
reception room and said : " Well, Depew, what
can I do for you ? " I said : ' ; Mr. President, I do
not want anything ; I am in Washington on a
mission from our State to get out from the armies
our New York soldiers' vote, and I simply called
to pay my respects." He said : " It is so rare that
anyone comes here who wants nothing, please wait
and I will get rid of these people in a few minutes."
The room was soon emptied, the faithful " Jerry "
was guarding the door, and on the lounge the tired
President was rocking to and fro, holding his long
knees in his arms and telling story after story to
relieve his mind, and he said : " Depew, they say
I tell a great many stories. I think I do. They
say I lower the dignity of the Presidential office
by these broad anecdotes. Possibly that is true.
But I have found, in the course of a long ex-
perience, that the plain people of the country take
them as they are, and are more easily reached and


influenced and argued with through the medium of
a humorous illustration than in any other way."

While I was there Mr. John Gfanson, of Buffalo,
was a member of Congress. His face and his head

1 3 4

Online LibraryChauncey M. (Chauncey Mitchell) DepewAddresses by the Hon. Chauncey M. Depew, LL. D., on the occasion of the celebration of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln at Burlington, Vermont, Feb. 12th, 1895 → online text (page 1 of 4)