Isaac Newton Phillips.

Abraham Lincoln. A short study of a great man and his work (Volume 2) online

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J&tUoc 71. Tn^u^,

Abraham Lincoln




Bloomington, Illinois.


Et-5 7

Copyright, 1901, by Isaac N. Phillips.

Artie 1

FEB 2 6 1925

"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."

— Lincoln'' s Speech at Cooper Institute, Neiv York.


WHEN Abraham Lincoln, after having - been
named for President, was questioned by a
campaign biographer as to his early life, he very
pathetically said the whole story might be told in a
single line of Gray's Elegy: "The short and simple
annals of the poor." All the world now knows that
the man who spoke thus modestly of himself was
born in the State of Kentucky on the 12th day of
February, 1809. His cradle, if he ever had one, stood
upon the dirt floor of a rude log hut; above it was a
clap-board roof; about it was that kind of supersti-
tion which an isolated people, full of rude elemental
force, always manifest, and that kind of poverty
which, in a new and wild country, casts no shadow
of degradation, for it is not the absence of goods
but the invidious and blighting contrast of condi-
tions which constitutes real poverty. This boy, too,
was surrounded by people profoundly ignorant of
the world and of the ways of men, and almost as
profoundly ignorant of all bookish learning. It is
certain that the humblest child in the country might
now, within the limits of a single year, obtain a far

better schooling - than was accessible to Lincoln dur-
ing" all the years of his minority. His surroundings
from birth to manhood remained practically un-
changed, and although his roving father made in
that time something more than the number of re-
moves which Poor Richard deemed equal to one fire,
there is no evidence that in the first twenty-one years
of his life Abraham Lincoln met with any personal
example or fell under any social influence which
would ordinarily be expected to quicken his mind,
arouse his hope or inspire his ambition.

This rise of one of the greatest statesmen of his-
tory from an environment apparently so luckless
naturally awakens intense interest and even enthu-
siasm. But the phenomenon is less wonderful than
it seems. Had Lincoln arisen from out the slums of
a great city, or even from the social opulence and
pampered ease of a palace at Newport, to the intel-
lectual and moral plane where the assassin's bullet
found him, the case would be more truly wonderful
than it is. Though of obscure parentage, Abraham
Lincoln was no mongrel. In spite of the industrious
muck-rakes <>f shameless so railed biographers, it
is now known that, both through his lather and his
mother, this boy received rich strains of honest Eng-
lish blood,— blood which had been strengthened and
sweetened on its course through the veins of genera-
tions of sturdy American pioneers. He lived with


nature and learned of her. He toiled, but his toil
was never hopeless and degrading. His feet were
upon the earth, but the stars, shining in perennial
beauty, were ever above him to inspire contempla-
tion. He heard the song of the thrush and the carol
of the lark. He watched the sun in its course. He
knew the dim paths of the forest, and his soul was
awed by the power of the storm. Out of the heart
of nature's solitudes he drew the primal elements of
high success, namely, a good heart, a clear head and
a strong body; and these factors, under the stimulat-
ing influence of free institutions, at length wrought
in the rude backwoodsman a wonderful, personal
transfiguration, the successive stages of which my
plan does not permit me to trace. At the day of his
death Lincoln's reputation had already filled the
world, and the intense popular affection for his mem-
ory, which still constantly grows although its sub-
ject has been for more than a third of a century in
his tomb, may be regarded as the sure sign of one
of those transcendant fames such as popular favor
confers scarcely once in a century.

As a politician Abraham Lincoln was in breadth
and sincerity the superior, and in shrewdness and
success the full equal, of Thomas Jefferson; yet he
was much more than a politician. No man of his
age wrote better English than he; yet it is not as a
rhetorician that Americans revere him. His keen-

ness of humor and aptness of anecdote were never
surpassed by any public man; yet history sternly
refuses to regard Abraham Lincoln as a jester. He
was a patriot high and true; but in his day many
others were also patriots, giving even life to the
cause. He was a statesman of prodigious breadth
and grasp, fearless, imperturbable, self-reliant, and
when he judged principle to be at stake, absolutely
immovable; 3^et even the high term "statesman" does
not express quite the full measure of Lincoln or of
Lincoln's fame. To all these elements he united
a personality the most striking, the most singular
and the most original which is met with in history,
and beneath it all lay the unfathomable mystery of
a human soul. In the depths of that rugged and
pathetic face were the signs of a spirit that in its
highest moments communed with itself and walked
alone. In the language of Wordsworth, "His soul
was like a star, and dwelt apart."

Public life has its illusions and fame has its
counterfeits. The relative importance of contem-
porary historic characters, like the relative height
and size of adjacent mountains, is not fully known
until thf whole group is seen from a distance. The
vain and noisy little man of each period "struts and
frets his hour upon the stage" with such a deal of
pomposity and show that he appears to his undis-
criminating contemporaries quite as important as


the real makers of history. Like the mother frog
in the fable, he tries with breath alone to puff him-
self up to a colossal stature, and not unfrequently,
like the frog, collapses in the process.

True greatness is the consecration of either great
talents or great character to the service of mankind.
When we read the story of a truly great life we learn
of high purposes pursued by effective methods; we
learn of a lofty devotion to truth, of supreme faith
in the right, of heroic self-sacrifice; in short, we
learn of a supreme struggle of genius in the service
of mankind. Then, too, a great cause is necessary
to a great public career. Mere feats of intellectual
agility send no man's name to the Pantheon. There
may, for aught I know, be "mute, inglorious Miltons"
in this world, but being mute they are not of much
consequence. During several years Lincoln filled
the public eye. He had a cause, and directly in pro-
portion to the greatness of that cause his career was
great. That cause measures Lincoln's public career,
but it does not completely measure Lincoln. After
the voluminous biographies have all been read; after
the garrulous "old settler," who never so much as
suspected the greatness of the man in his lifetime,
has related his apochryphal "recollections" and told
his mythical anecdotes, always exaggerating his
own familiar relations with Lincoln, we feel there
is a Lincoln still unrevealed who is now rapidly

fading away. But his work is known and lives, and
that we shall now briefly study.

It is necessary that in an appreciative study of
Lincoln we take a comprehensive view of his work.
We must note that which had preceded him as well
as that which immediately surrounded him. I must
ask you to bear with me, therefore, while I go back a
little to find the historic background of our picture.

There was in the last century a "Critical Period"
of American history, which Mr. Fiske places be-
tween the surrender of Cornwallis and the adoption
of the Federal constitution. This period was '•criti-
cal" for the reason that in that time it was pain fully
uncertain wether a permanent union could ever be
formed of the American States. The upheaval of
the revolution had unsettled the conservative force
of the American mind, and more follies than would
have re-filled Pandora's box a hundred times had
broken out in all the American colonies, — follies
which in their consequences threatened to become
even worse than '"taxation without representation."
Revolutions are not well adapted to the training of
statesmen. A very good revolutionary patriot may
be only a destruetionist, and destructionists are al-
ways plenty and cheap. The hand that wrote the
Declaration of Independence was not the hand to
frame the Federa I constitution. Samuel Adams knew
far better how to knock down King( l-eorge than how


to set up George Washing-ton, first President of a
great nation. Patrick Henry could shout in a tempest
of eloquence, "Give me liberty or give me death!"
but he was scarcely less eloquent in resisting the
formation of the Federal Union; while James Mon-
roe, the reputed author of the "Monroe Doctrine,"
was very sure the adoption of the Federal consti-
tution would endanger, if not entirely destroy, the
people's liberties.

In this critical period two conflicting theories of
government contended for mastery in the American
colonies. One side, led by Washington, Hamilton,
Franklin, Madison, Jay, Marshall, and their co-
workers, realized the supreme importance of a strong
central authority — a firm union of the States under
one stable government. With the true national in-
stinct they appealed earnestly to the patriotism and
good sense of their fellow-citizens. By bitter experi-
ence they knew the evils of a many-headed confed-
eracy of weak and discordant States, which, if not
fused together, they believed would waste all their
energies in jealous bickerings with each other, pre-
senting to the nations of the world no broad frontage
of sovereignty and power. They knew a weak gov-
ernment would produce confusion at home and breed
contempt abroad, and, worse than all, would con-
stantly invite foreign alliance and intervention, to
the final destruction of that independence which had


been purchased with so much treasure and blood.
The old Federalists garnered and preserved the
fruits of the American revolution. They believed
that so long" as a government is of the people and by
the people it will not cease to be also /or the people.
The outcry of that day against "consolidated gov-
ernment," with which ambitious demagogues were
frightening the ignorant, did not alarm the old Fed-
eralists, who were the true friends of the people and
the real republicans of their day.

Such was the character of the party which bore
us through the critical period of our early history,
leaving us as a legacy the Federal Union, which
Lincoln, with the help of the Union army, saved.
Opposed to the Federalists, however, was another
party of political philosophers, who, in their dread
of centralization, opposed the adoption of the Fed-
eral constitution. In the days of war they had been
good destroyers, but they were not equally good as
builders. The wrongs they had suffered under King
George not unnaturally led them to distrust all
forms of government, hence centralization meant to
them only a renewal of despotism. They thought
the people's only safeguard lay in the weakness of
the central government That was an age in which
the infection of "red republicanism" was abroad in
tin- world. Rousseau bad dreamed Intoxicating and
contagious dreams. Voltaire had philosophized and


sneered. The mad re-action against power long-
abused had come, and in France already the chasm
was opening - to engulf the monstrosities of ages.
Alexander Hamilton's wise saying that "the vigor of
government is essential to the security of liberty,"
was then, as a consequence, far less appreciated
than it is to-day.

In 1788, however, the country was prostrate and
the tottering old Confederation was powerless to
give relief. Riot, repudiation and anarchy were in
the very air. As a choice of evils the people at last,
with many misgivings, accepted of the Union. But
it was power grudgingly given, and repented by
many of the rampant revolutionists of that day
almost as quickly as bestowed.

The heresy of 1787, that the best government is
the weakest government, and that whatever govern-
ment we have should be distrusted by the people
and hampered as much as possible in its action in
order to insure the liberty of the individual, sur-
vived in the form of "State sovereignty" to produce
infinite mischief during full three-quarters of a
century of our subsequent history. Attempts were
made, after the constitution was adopted, to prac-
tically nullify it by what was called "strict construc-
tion." The theory was held that each State of the
Union had the right to judge for itself what powers
were conferred by the constitution upon the national


government. Such was,|in effect, the doctrine of
the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and it was
a doctrine sincerely advocated in that day by many
men who were really attached to the cause of civil
liberty but who seemed not to know the means by
which, alone, liberty can be insured.*

Later, the motives of the foes of nationality
changed. The slavery question rose, and strict con-
struction and State rights, at first largely specula-
tive political doctrines, became the pretext for the
slave power's frantic effort to fortify and intrench
slavery. Accordingly, in 1861 the old slavocracy of
the South, after long threats, resolved to trample
down the government of George Washington and the
grand old Federalists and upon its ruins to erect a
slave confederacy. And then it was that the Union
army, called into being by Abraham Lincoln and
acting under his sagacious policy, met and slew to-
gether the dragons, slavery and State sovereignty.

*Thomas Jefferson lived and died in the belief that each
State of the Union was a sovereign nation, and that these
several nations had, by adopting the constitution, formed a
compact, — a sort of treaty, — which each of the States had a
rijrht to construe for itself, there being no common judicial
power over them. On April 8, 1*26, — less than three months
before he died, — Jefferson wrote a Utter, being the Last but
four of those preserved in his work-, in which letter be -aid:
"I think with you. also, that the constitution of the United
state- i- a compact of Independent nation-, bud j eel to the
rules acknowledged in similar cases, as well that of amend-
ment provided within itself, as, Ln case of abuse, the justly
dreaded but unavoidable ultimo ratio gentium." Jefferson's
Works, (Putnam's) vol. 10, p. 385.


In the fierce arbitrament of war and through the
terrific adjudication of force and blood the Federal
constitution at length received its final and authori-
tative construction.

I thus recapitulate facts well known merely to
show that in the constitutional development of the
nation Abraham Lincoln stands in line of direct suc-
cession from those great constructive statesmen who
formed and set in operation the government of the
United States. He finished their great work. In the
highest sense he was himself a constructive states-
man. He was a conservative; a savior — not a de-
stroyer. He stands pre-eminently for law and order,
for the conservation of popular institutions, for hu-
man rights secured and enforced by a supreme, mu-
nicipal law. Back of Lincoln we see, among many
others, Washington, Madison, Franklin, Gouverneur
Morris, John Jay, and that other colossus of Ameri-
can statesmanship, Alexander Hamilton.

But between these men and Lincoln were many
others conspicuous for great services rendered to
the same great cause. John Marshall, of Virginia,
statesman and judge, who for thirty-four years, as
head of the Federal judiciary, read "between the
lines" of the constitution and found there the "im-
plied powers" by the exercise of which Lincoln was
at length able to save the Union; Andrew Jackson,
who laid low beneath the mandate of his imperious


will the first outbreak against national sovereignty,
arousing" by his appeal to the people of South Caro-
lina a national enthusiasm which had not yet spent
itself when Lincoln delivered his first inaugural;
Henry Clay, the greatest of parliamentary leaders,
who applied his rare powers to the healing expedi-
ent of compromise, thus relieving the strain until
the cement of the Union had time to set; Daniel
Webster, the invincible defender of the constitution,
who in debate combined the strength of Goliath and
the skill of David, overwhelming the enemies of the
Union with torrents of logic and eloquence; Thomas
H. Benton, the sturdy and truculent old patriot, him-
self representing a slave State, whose every heart-
throb was true to the nation he served, — all these
great nationalists, and many others equally devoted
though perhaps less conspicuous, had consecrated
themselves to the maintenance of the union of the
States. But to Abraham Lincoln among them all
it was given to act and suffer in the fierce heat and
light of terrific and final conflict. Prom the cross
of national redemption whereon lie agonized was at
length borne away forever the great sin of disunion,
which like a malignant spirit had so long rent our
fair land.

I hit Lincoln's statesmanship embraced more than
a mere constitutional doctrine. The destruction of
the Onion as a political end, without an ulterior ob-

ject, would in 1861 have been sheer madness, how-
ever doubtful the policy of its original formation
might have seemed to some of the colonists. In 1860
the nation had demonstrated its right to live, and
but for the slave interest the doctrine of State sov-
ereignty would have died with the generation that
wrote and adopted the Virginia and Kentucky Reso-
lutions. It was because the Union had proved less
subservient to the slave interest than was desired,
that the South, by a convenient application of this
decaying political doctrine, sought to disrupt the
Union and set up a distinctive slave confederacy.
The constitutional question and the slavery question
were thus thrown together into the crucible of war.
The republicans in 1860 had no purpose to abol-
ish slavery, nor was it the then avowed principles
of that party which slaveholders feared. Far more
ominous than the platform of any political party
was the moral sentiment of the civilized world which
the South saw everywhere rising against her favor-
ite institution. The fact that Uncle Tom's Cabin
found millions of eager readers, both in Europe and
America, was to southern statesmen far more dis-
quieting than any party declaration. Adverse public
opinion — that universal solvent of modern democ-
racy — threatened to dissolve the very rock upon
which the industrial and social institutions of the
South had been built. The high falsetto which a


few abolitionists were singing would have excited
only contempt in the South but for the contagion
which, in spite of all northern assurances, was known
to be in that cr}'. The South knew abolition fire was
falling - upon tinder, not only all over the North but
all over the world; and, morals aside, there was
real wisdom in the plan of forming" a new govern-
ment of which slavery should be the corner stone.
An institution like slavery must be the corner stone
or nothing.

Lincoln was not less opposed to slavery on moral
grounds than any man in the nation, but when he de-
clared he had no constitutional power, and therefore
no purpose, to interfere with slaver}' in the southern
States he was perfectly conscientious. When the
war came on Lincoln ceased to speak of slavery and
spoke only of the Union. He always seized upon
the largest fact, lie knew, if the old abolitionists
did not, that national preservation was the real
stake in that contest. As chief executive he rightly
disclaimed jurisdiction over slavery in time of peace,
but 1 thinlc he m-ver doubted his right, as com-
mander in chief of the army and navy, to save the
Union by any means fitting and necessary to accom-
plish that end even to the destruction of slavery by
an executive proclamation. The idea seemed to grow
upon 1 1 i tn through the early months of L862, and by
midsummer of that year his course was determined.


Starting" out only to preserve the Union, Lincoln,
by force of circumstances and through the inexora-
ble logic of events, became the liberator of a race.
He was the most modest of men, and distinctly dis-
claimed any personal credit for emancipation. He
wrote in April, 1864: "I claim not to have controlled
events, but confess plainly that events have con-
trolled me." This was honest and it was true, for
in the stress of war, events, under a popular gov-
ernment, must to a large extent control everybody.
Further discussing in the same letter the credit for
emancipation he reverently said, "God alone can
claim it."

Exactly one month before the preliminary proc-
lamation was issued Lincoln had written to Horace
Greeley these ever-memorable words: "If there be
those who would not save the Union unless they
could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree
with them. If there be those who would not save
the Union unless they could at the same time de-
stroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My para-
mount object is to save the Union, and not either to
save or destroy slavery." It argues nothing against
Lincoln's sincerity that when he wrote these words
the draft of the great proclamation was lying in his
desk awaiting only a Union victory to precede its
issuance, in order that it might not seem to be a
mere desperate expedient. Indeed, the student of


Lincoln's writing's cannot fail to see that at least

as early as March, 1862, — fully five months before

he wrote this letter to Greeley, — Lincoln had come

to the conclusion that the war must in the end be

given a turn that would destroy slavery, — not merely

to gratify his personal wish in the matter, much as

he hated slavery, but because of the inexorable logic

of events.* Lincoln was not an idealist. He was

not one of those moral egotists who are wont to set

their own scruples of conscience above statutes.

By nature a conservative, he would not resort to

revolutionary measures under gaiise of law. He was

the highest example of a constitutional ruler. When

the hour came that emancipation might fairly be

judged a military necessity, and when the public

opinion of the loyal States was ready to accept it

as such, then, and not before, Lincoln meant to

strike slavery down. The time at length came, and

Lincoln struck the blow which has resounded many

times round the word; and thus what seems one of

the most radical measures of American history in

fact came from the most conservative and cautious

mind which ever ruled in our councils.

Believing firmly the time would soon come when

emancipation must be proclaimed. Lincoln had long

i>. en earnestly,— almost pathetically,— urging the

*"I aver that, to this day, I have done no official ad in
mere deference to mj abstrarf judgment and Feeling on
slavery." {Lincoln to .1 0. Hodges, April ;, /■


border States to themselves adopt gradual emanci-
pation and take compensation for their slaves. He
procured the passage of an act by Congress under
which they could have done this, and in a proclama-
tion upon the subject, issued May 19, 1862, he elo-
quently said: "To the people of these (border) States
I now earnestly appeal. I do not argue, — I beseech
you to make the argument for yourselves. You can
not, if you would, be blind to the signs of the times.
* * * This proposal makes common cause for a com-
mon object. * * * It acts not the Pharisee. * * *
So much good has not been done by one effort in all
past time as in the providence of God it is now your

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Online LibraryIsaac Newton PhillipsAbraham Lincoln. A short study of a great man and his work (Volume 2) → online text (page 1 of 4)