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facts, - "and in general," he adds, "send me everything you think will
be a good war-club, The nomination of Harrison takes first-rate. You
know I am never sanguine; but I believe we will carry the State. The
chance for doing so appears to me twenty-five per cent, better than it
did for you to beat Douglas. A great many of the grocery sort of Van
Buren men are out for Harrison. Our Irish blacksmith Gregory is for
Harrison.... You have heard that the Whigs and Locos had a political
discussion shortly after the meeting of the Legislature. Well, I made
a big speech which is in progress of printing in pamphlet form. To
enlighten you and the rest of the world, I shall send you a copy when
it is finished." The "big speech" was the one from which we have just

The sanguine mood continued in his next letter, March 1: "I have never
seen the prospects of our party so bright in these parts as they are
now. We shall carry this county by a larger majority than we did in
1836 when you ran against May. I do not think my prospects
individually are very flattering, for I think it probable I shall not
be permitted to be a candidate; but the party ticket will succeed
triumphantly. Subscriptions to the 'Old Soldier' pour in without
abatement. This morning I took from the post-office a letter from
Dubois, inclosing the names of sixty subscribers, and on carrying it
to Francis [Simeon Francis, editor of the 'Sangamo Journal'] I found
he had received one hundred and forty more from other quarters by the
same day's mail.... Yesterday Douglas, having chosen to consider
himself insulted by something in the 'Journal,' undertook to cane
Francis in the street. Francis caught him by the hair and jammed him
back against a market-cart, where the matter ended by Francis being
pulled away from him. The whole affair was so ludicrous that Francis
and everybody else, Douglas excepted, have been laughing about it ever

Douglas seems to have had a great propensity to such rencontres, of
which the issue was ordinarily his complete discomfiture, as he had
the untoward habit of attacking much bigger and stronger men than
himself. He weighed at that time little, if anything, over a hundred
pounds, yet his heart was so valiant that he made nothing of
assaulting men of ponderous flesh like Francis, or of great height and
strength like Stuart. He sought a quarrel with the latter, during
their canvass in 1838, in a grocery, with the usual result. A
bystander who remembers the incident says that Stuart "jest mopped the
floor with him." In the same letter Mr. Lincoln gives a long list of
names to which he wants documents to be sent. It shows a remarkable
personal acquaintance with the minutest needs of the canvass: this one
is a doubtful Whig; that one is an inquiring Democrat; that other a
zealous young fellow who would be pleased by the attention; three
brothers are mentioned who "fell out with us about Early and are
doubtful now"; and finally he tells Stuart that Joe Smith is an
admirer of his, and that a few documents had better be mailed to the
Mormons; and he must be sure, the next time he writes, to send Evan
Butler his compliments.

It would be strange, indeed, if such a politician as this were
slighted by his constituents, and in his next letter we find how
groundless were his forebodings in that direction. The convention had
been held; the rural delegates took all the nominations away from
Springfield except two, Baker for the Senate, and Lincoln for the
House of Representatives. "Ninian," he says, meaning Ninian W.
Edwards, "was very much hurt at not being nominated, but he has become
tolerably well reconciled. I was much, very much, wounded myself, at
his being left out. The fact is, the country delegates made the
nominations as they pleased, and they _pleased_ to make them all
from the country, except Baker and me, whom they supposed necessary to
make stump speeches. Old Colonel Elkin is nominated for Sheriff -
that's right."

Harrison was elected in November, and the great preoccupation of most
of the Whigs was, of course, the distribution of the offices which
they felt belonged to them as the spoils of battle. This demoralizing
doctrine had been promulgated by Jackson, and acted upon for so many
years that it was too much to expect of human nature that the Whigs
should not adopt it, partially at least, when their turn came, But we
are left in no doubt as to the way in which Lincoln regarded the
unseemly scramble. It is probable that he was asked to express his
preference among applicants, and he wrote under date of December 17:
"This affair of appointments to office is very annoying - more so to
you than to me doubtless. I am, as you know, opposed to removals to
make places for our friends. Bearing this in mind, I express my
preference in a few cases, as follows: for Marshal, first, John
Dawson, second, B. F. Edwards; for postmaster here, Dr. Henry; at
Carlinville, Joseph C. Howell."

The mention of this last post-office rouses his righteous indignation,
and he calls for justice upon a wrong-doer. "There is no question of
the propriety of removing the postmaster at Carlinville, I have been
told by so many different persons as to preclude all doubt of its
truth, that he boldly refused to deliver from his office during the
canvass all documents franked by Whig members of Congress."

Once more, on the 23d of January, 1841, he addresses a letter to Mr.
Stuart, which closes the correspondence, and which affords a glimpse
of that strange condition of melancholia into whose dark shadow he was
then entering, and which lasted, with only occasional intervals of
healthy cheerfulness, to the time of his marriage. We give this
remarkable letter entire, from the manuscript submitted to us by the
late John T. Stuart:

DEAR STUART: Yours of the 3d instant is received, and I proceed to
answer it as well as I can, though from the deplorable state of my
mind at this time I fear I shall give you but little satisfaction.
About the matter of the Congressional election, I can only tell you
that there is a bill now before the Senate adopting the general ticket
system; but whether the party have fully determined on its adoption is
yet uncertain. There is no sign of opposition to you among our
friends, and none that I can learn among our enemies; though of course
there will be if the general ticket be adopted. The Chicago
"American," Peoria "Register," and Sangamo "Journal" have already
hoisted your flag upon their own responsibility; and the other Whig
papers of the district are expected to follow immediately. On last
evening there was a meeting of our friends at Butler's, and I
submitted the question to them and found them unanimously in favor of
having you announced as a candidate. A few of us this morning,
however, concluded that as you were already being announced in the
papers we would delay announcing you, as by your authority, for a week
or two. We thought that to appear too keen about it might spur our
opponents on about their general ticket project. Upon the whole I
think I may say with certainty that your reelection is sure, if it be
in the power of the Whigs to make it so.

For not giving you a general summary of news, you _must_ pardon
me; it is not in my power to do so. I am now the most miserable man
living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human
family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall
ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To
remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to
me. The matter you speak of on my account you may attend to as you
say, unless you shall hear of my condition forbidding it. I say this
because I fear I shall be unable to attend to any business here, and a
change of scene might help me. If I could be myself, I would rather
remain at home with Judge Logan. I can write no more. Your friend as




The foregoing letter brings us to the consideration of a remarkable
passage in Lincoln's life. It has been the cause of much profane and
idle discussion among those who were constitutionally incapacitated
from appreciating ideal sufferings, and we would be tempted to refrain
from adding a word to what has already been said if it were possible
to omit all reference to an experience so important in the development
of his character.

In the year 1840 he became engaged to be married to Miss Mary Todd, of
Lexington, Kentucky, a young lady of good education and excellent
connections, who was visiting her sister, Mrs. Ninian W. Edwards, at
Springfield. [Transcriber's Note: Lengthy footnote relocated to
chapter end.] The engagement was not in all respects a happy one, as
both parties doubted their compatibility, and a heart so affectionate
and a conscience so sensitive as Lincoln's found material for
exquisite self-torment in these conditions. His affection for his
betrothed, which he thought was not strong enough to make happiness
with her secure; his doubts, which yet were not convincing enough to
induce him to break off all relations with her; his sense of honor,
which was wounded in his own eyes by his own act; his sense of duty,
which condemned him in one course and did not sustain him in the
opposite one - all combined to make him profoundly and passionately
miserable. To his friends and acquaintances, who were unused to such
finely wrought and even fantastic sorrows, his trouble seemed so
exaggerated that they could only account for it on the ground of
insanity. But there is no necessity of accepting this crude
hypothesis; the coolest and most judicious of his friends deny that
his depression ever went to such an extremity. Orville H. Browning,
who was constantly in his company, says that his worst attack lasted
only about a week; that during this time he was incoherent and
distraught; but that in the course of a few days it all passed off,
leaving no trace whatever. "I think," says Mr. Browning, "it was only
an intensification of his constitutional melancholy; his trials and
embarrassments pressed him down to a lower point than usual."

LINCOLN. From the original in the Keyes Lincoln Memorial Collection,

[Sidenote: "Western Characters," p. 134.]

This taint of constitutional sadness was not peculiar to Lincoln; it
may be said to have been endemic among the early settlers of the West.
It had its origin partly in the circumstances of their lives, the
severe and dismal loneliness in which their struggle for existence for
the most part went on. Their summers were passed in the solitude of
the woods; in the winter they were often snowed up for months in the
more desolate isolation of their own poor cabins. Their subjects of
conversation were limited, their range of thoughts and ideas narrow
and barren. There was as little cheerfulness in their manners as there
was incentive to it in their lives. They occasionally burst out into
wild frolic, which easily assumed the form of comic outrage, but of
the sustained cheerfulness of social civilized life they knew very
little. One of the few pioneers who have written their observations of
their own people, John L. McConnell, says, "They are at the best not a
cheerful race; though they sometimes join in festivities, it is but
seldom, and the wildness of their dissipation is too often in
proportion to its infrequency. There is none of that serene
contentment which distinguishes the tillers of the ground in other
lands.... Acquainted with the character [of the pioneer], you do not
expect him to smile much, but now and then he laughs."

Besides this generic tendency to melancholy, very many of the pioneers
were subject in early life to malarial influences, the effect of which
remained with them all their days. Hewing out their plantations in the
primeval woods amid the undisturbed shadow of centuries, breaking a
soil thick with ages of vegetable decomposition, sleeping in half-
faced camps, where the heavy air of the rank woods was in their lungs
all night, or in the fouler atmosphere of overcrowded cabins, they
were especially subject to miasmatic fevers. Many died, and of those
who survived, a great number, after they had outgrown the more
immediate manifestations of disease, retained in nervous disorders of
all kinds the distressing traces of the maladies which afflicted their
childhood. In the early life of Lincoln these unwholesome physical
conditions were especially prevalent. The country about Pigeon Creek
was literally devastated by the terrible malady called "milk-
sickness," which carried away his mother and half her family. His
father left his home in Macon County, also, on account of the
frequency and severity of the attacks of fever and ague which were
suffered there; and, in general, Abraham was exposed through all the
earlier part of his life to those malarial influences which made,
during the first half of this century, the various preparations of
Peruvian bark a part of the daily food of the people of Indiana and
Illinois. In many instances this miasmatic poison did not destroy the
strength or materially shorten the lives of those who absorbed it in
their youth; but the effects remained in periodical attacks of gloom
and depression of spirits which would seem incomprehensible to
thoroughly healthy organizations, and which gradually lessened in
middle life, often to disappear entirely in old age.

[Sidenote: "Western Characters" p. 126.]

Upon a temperament thus predisposed to look at things in their darker
aspect, it might naturally be expected that a love-affair which was
not perfectly happy would be productive of great misery. But Lincoln
seemed especially chosen to the keenest suffering in such a
conjuncture. The pioneer, as a rule, was comparatively free from any
troubles of the imagination. To quote Mr. McConnell again: "There was
no romance in his [the pioneer's] composition. He had no dreaminess;
meditation was no part of his mental habit; a poetical fancy would, in
him, have been an indication of insanity. If he reclined at the foot
of a tree, on a still summer day, it was to sleep; if he gazed out
over the waving prairie, it was to search for the column of smoke
which told of his enemies' approach; if he turned his eyes towards the
blue heaven, it was to prognosticate tomorrow's rain or sunshine. If
he bent his gaze towards the green earth, it was to look for 'Indian
sign' or buffalo trail. His wife was only a helpmate; he never thought
of making a divinity of her." But Lincoln could never have claimed
this happy immunity from ideal trials. His published speeches show how
much the poet in him was constantly kept in check; and at this time of
his life his imagination was sufficiently alert to inflict upon him
the sharpest anguish. His reverence for women was so deep and tender
that he thought an injury to one of them was a sin too heinous to be
expiated. No Hamlet, dreaming amid the turrets of Elsinore, no Sidney
creating a chivalrous Arcadia, was fuller of mystic and shadowy
fancies of the worth and dignity of woman than this backwoods
politician. Few men ever lived more sensitively and delicately tender
towards the sex.

Besides his step-mother, who was a plain, God-fearing woman, he had
not known many others until he came to live in New Salem. There he had
made the acquaintance of the best people the settlement contained, and
among them had become much attached to a young girl named Ann
Rutledge, the daughter of one of the proprietors of the place. She
died in her girlhood, and though there does not seem to have been any
engagement between them, he was profoundly affected by her death. But
the next year a young woman from Kentucky appeared in the village, to
whom he paid such attentions as in his opinion fully committed him as
a suitor for her hand. He admired her, and she seems to have merited
the admiration of all the manhood there was in New Salem. She was
handsome and intelligent and of an admirable temper and disposition.
While they were together he was constant in his attentions, and when
he was at Vandalia or at Springfield he continued his assiduities in
some of the most singular love-letters ever written. They are filled
mostly with remarks about current politics, and with arguments going
to show that she had better not marry him! At the same time he clearly
intimates that he is at her disposition if she is so inclined. At
last, feeling that his honor and duty were involved, he made a direct
proposal to her, and received an equally direct, kind, and courteous
refusal. Not knowing but that this indicated merely a magnanimous
desire to give him a chance for escape, he persisted in his offer, and
she in her refusal. When the matter had ended in this perfectly
satisfactory manner to both of them, he sat down and wrote, by way of
epilogue to the play, a grotesquely comic account of the whole affair
to Mrs. O. H. Browning, one of his intimate Vandalia acquaintances.

[Illustration: JOSHUA SPEED AND WIFE.]

This letter has been published and severely criticised as showing a
lack of gentlemanlike feeling. But those who take this view forget
that he was writing to an intimate friend of a matter which had
greatly occupied his own mind for a year; that he mentioned no names,
and that he threw such an air of humorous unreality about the whole
story that the person who received it never dreamed that it recorded
an actual occurrence until twenty-five years afterwards, when, having
been asked to furnish it to a biographer, she was warned against doing
so by the President himself, who said there was too much truth in it
for print. The only significance the episode possesses is in showing
this almost abnormal development of conscience in the young man who
was perfectly ready to enter into a marriage which he dreaded simply
because he thought he had given a young woman reason to think that he
had such intentions. While we admit that this would have been an
irremediable error, we cannot but wonder at the nobleness of the
character to which it was possible.

In this vastly more serious matter, which was, we may say at once, the
crucial ordeal of his life, the same invincible truthfulness, the same
innate goodness, the same horror of doing a wrong, are combined with
an exquisite sensibility and a capacity for suffering which mark him
as a man "picked out among ten thousand." His habit of relentless
self-searching reveals to him a state of feeling which strikes him
with dismay; his simple and inflexible veracity communicates his
trouble and his misery to the woman whom he loves; his freedom, when
he has gained it, yields him nothing but an agony of remorse and
humiliation. He could not shake off his pain, like men of cooler heads
and shallower hearts. It took fast hold of him and dragged him into
awful depths of darkness and torture. The letter to Stuart, which we
have given, shows him emerging from the blackest period of that time
of gloom. Immediately after this, he accompanied his close friend and
confidant, Joshua F. Speed, to Kentucky, where, in a way so singular
that no writer of fiction would dare to employ the incident, he became
almost cured of his melancholy, and came back to Illinois and his work

Mr. Speed was a Kentuckian, carrying on a general mercantile business
in Springfield - a brother of the distinguished lawyer, James Speed, of
Louisville, who afterwards became Attorney-General of the United
States. He was one of those men who seem to have to a greater extent
than others the genius of friendship, the Pythias, the Pylades, the
Horatios of the world. It is hardly too much to say that he was the
only - as he was certainly the last - intimate friend that Lincoln ever
had. He was his closest companion in Springfield, and in the evil days
when the letter to Stuart was written he took him with brotherly love
and authority under his special care. He closed up his affairs in
Springfield, and went with Lincoln to Kentucky, and, introducing him
to his own cordial and hospitable family circle, strove to soothe his
perturbed spirit by every means which unaffected friendliness could
suggest. That Lincoln found much comfort and edification in that
genial companionship is shown by the fact that after he became
President he sent to Mr. Speed's mother a photograph of himself,
inscribed, "For Mrs. Lucy G. Speed, from whose pious hand I accepted
the present of an Oxford Bible twenty years ago."

But the principal means by which the current of his thoughts was
changed was never dreamed of by himself or by his friend when they
left Illinois. During this visit Speed himself fell in love, and
became engaged to be married; and either by a singular chance or
because the maladies of the soul may be propagated by constant
association, the feeling of despairing melancholy, which he had found
so morbid and so distressing an affliction in another, took possession
of himself, and threw him into the same slough of despondency from
which he had been laboring to rescue Lincoln. Between friends so
intimate there were no concealments, and from the moment Lincoln found
his services as nurse and consoler needed, the violence of his own
trouble seemed to diminish. The two young men were in Springfield
together in the autumn, and Lincoln seems by that time to have laid
aside his own peculiar besetments, in order to minister to his friend.
They knew the inmost thoughts of each other's hearts and each relied
upon the honesty and loyalty of the other to an extent rare among men.
When Speed returned to Kentucky, to a happiness which awaited him
there, so bright that it dazzled and blinded his moral vision, Lincoln
continued his counsels and encouragements in letters which are
remarkable for their tenderness and delicacy of thought and
expression. Like another poet, he looked into his own heart and wrote.
His own deeper nature had suffered from these same fantastic sorrows
and terrors; of his own grief he made a medicine for his comrade.

While Speed was still with him, he wrote a long letter, which he put
into his hands at parting, full of wise and affectionate reasonings,
to be read when he should feel the need of it. He predicts for him a
period of nervous depression - first, because he will be "exposed to
bad weather on his journey, and, secondly, because of the absence of
all business and conversation of friends which might divert his mind
and give it occasional rest from the intensity of thought which will
sometimes wear the sweetest idea threadbare, and turn it to the
bitterness of death." The third cause, he says, "is the rapid and near
approach of that crisis on which all your thoughts and feelings
concentrate." If in spite of all these circumstances he should escape
without a "twinge of the soul," his friend will be most happily
deceived; but, he continues, "if you shall, as I expect you will at
some time, be agonized and distressed, let me, who have some reason to
speak with judgment on the subject, beseech you to ascribe it to the
causes I have mentioned, and not to some false and ruinous suggestion
of the devil." This forms the prelude to an ingenious and affectionate
argument in which he labors to convince Speed of the loveliness of his
betrothed and of the integrity of his own heart; a strange task, one
would say, to undertake in behalf of a young and ardent lover. But the
two men understood each other, and the service thus rendered was
gratefully received and remembered by Speed all his life.

Lincoln wrote again on the 3d of February, 1842, congratulating Speed
upon a recent severe illness of his destined bride, for the reason
that "your present distress and anxiety about her health must forever
banish those horrid doubts which you feel as to the truth of your
affection for her." As the period of Speed's marriage drew near,
Lincoln's letters betray the most intense anxiety. He cannot wait to
hear the news from his friend, but writes to him about the time of the
wedding, admitting that he is writing in the dark, that words from a
bachelor may be worthless to a Benedick, but still unable to keep
silence. He hopes he is happy with his wife, "but should I be mistaken
in this, should excessive pleasure still be accompanied with a painful
counterpart at times, still let me urge you, as I have ever done, to
remember in the depth and even agony of despondency, that very shortly
you are to feel well again." Further on he says: "If you went through
the ceremony calmly, or even with sufficient composure not to excite

Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 13 of 31)