John George Nicolay.

Abraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 online

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alarm in any present, you are safe beyond question," seeking by every
device of subtle affection to lift up the heart of his friend.

With a solicitude apparently greater than that of the nervous
bridegroom, he awaited the announcement of the marriage, and when it
came he wrote (February 25): "I opened the letter with intense anxiety
and trepidation; so much that, although it turned out better than I
expected, I have hardly yet, at the distance of ten hours, become calm.
I tell you, Speed, our forebodings, for which you and I are peculiar,
are all the worst sort of nonsense. I fancied from the time I received
your letter of Saturday that the one of "Wednesday was never to come,"
and yet it did come, and, what is more, it is perfectly clear, both
from its tone and handwriting, that ... you had obviously improved at
the very time I had so much fancied you would have grown worse. You say
that something indescribably horrible and alarming still haunts you.
You will not say that three months from now, I will venture." The
letter goes on in the same train of sympathetic cheer, but there is one
phrase which strikes the keynote of all lives whose ideals are too high
for fulfillment: "It is the peculiar misfortune of both you and me to
dream dreams of Elysium far exceeding all that anything earthly can

But before long a letter came from Speed, who had settled with his
black-eyed Kentucky wife upon a well-stocked plantation, disclaiming
any further fellowship of misery and announcing the beginnings of that
life of uneventful happiness which he led ever after. His peace of
mind has become a matter of course; he dismisses the subject in a
line, but dilates, with a new planter's rapture, upon the beauties and
attractions of his farm. Lincoln frankly answers that he cares nothing
about his farm. "I can only say that I am glad _you_ are satisfied
and pleased with it. But on that other subject, to me of the most
intense interest whether in joy or sorrow, I never had the power to
withhold my sympathy from you. It cannot be told how it now thrills me
with joy to hear you say you are 'far happier than you ever expected to
be.'.. I am not going beyond the truth when I tell you that the short
space it took me to read your last letter gave me more pleasure than
the total sum of all I have enjoyed since the fatal 1st of January,
1841. Since then it seems to me I should have been entirely happy, but
for the never-absent idea that there is _one_ still unhappy whom I
have contributed to make so. That still kills my soul. I cannot but
reproach myself for even wishing myself to be happy while she is

During the summer of 1842 the letters of the friends still discuss,
with waning intensity, however, their respective affairs of the heart.
Speed, in the ease and happiness of his home, thanks Lincoln for his
important part in his welfare, and gives him sage counsel for himself.
Lincoln replies (July 4, 1842): "I could not have done less than I
did. I always was superstitious; I believe God made me one of the
instruments of bringing your Fanny and you together, which union I
have no doubt he foreordained. Whatever he designs, he will do for me
yet." A better name than "superstition" might properly be applied to
this frame of mind. He acknowledges Speed's kindly advice, but says:
"Before I resolve to do the one thing or the other, I must gain my
confidence in my own ability to keep my resolves when they are made.
In that ability you know I once prided myself, as the only or chief
gem of my character; that gem I lost, how and where you know too well.
I have not yet regained it; and until I do I cannot trust myself in
any matter of much importance. I believe now, that had you understood
my case at the time as well as I understood yours afterwards, by the
aid you would have given me I should have sailed through clear; but
that does not afford me confidence to begin that, or the like of that,
again." Still, he was nearing the end of his doubts and self-torturing
sophistry. A last glimpse of his imperious curiosity, kept alive by
saucy hopes and fears, is seen in his letter to Speed of the 5th of
October. He ventures, with a genuine timidity, to ask a question which
we may believe has not often been asked by one civilized man of
another, with the hope of a candid answer, since marriages were
celebrated with ring and book. "I want to ask you a close question -
Are you now, in _feeling_ as well as _judgment,_ glad you are
married as you are? From anybody but me this would be an impudent
question, not to be tolerated; but I know you will pardon it in me.
Please answer it quickly, as I am impatient to know." It is probable
that Mr. Speed replied promptly in the way in which such questions
must almost of necessity be answered. On the 4th of November, 1842, a
marriage license was issued to Lincoln, and on the same day he was
married to Miss Mary Todd, the ceremony being performed by the Rev.
Charles Dresser. Four sons were the issue of this marriage: Robert
Todd, born August 1, 1843; Edward Baker, March 10, 1846; William
Wallace, December 21, 1850; Thomas, April 4, 1853. Of these only the
eldest lived to maturity.

In this way Abraham Lincoln met and passed through one of the most
important crises of his life. There was so much of idiosyncrasy in it
that it has been, and will continue to be for years to come, the
occasion of endless gossip in Sangamon County and elsewhere. Because
it was not precisely like the experience of other people, who are
married and given in marriage every day without any ado, a dozen
conflicting stories have grown up, more or less false and injurious to
both contracting parties. But it may not be fanciful to suppose that
characters like that of Lincoln, elected for great conflicts and
trials, are fashioned by different processes from those of ordinary
men, and pass their stated ordeals in a different way. By
circumstances which seem commonplace enough to commonplace people, he
was thrown for more than a year into a sea of perplexities and
sufferings beyond the reach of the common run of souls.

It is as useless as it would be indelicate to seek to penetrate in
detail the incidents and special causes which produced in his mind
this darkness as of the valley of the shadow of death. There was
probably nothing worth recording in them; we are only concerned with
their effect upon a character which was to be hereafter for all time
one of the possessions of the nation. It is enough for us to know that
a great trouble came upon him, and that he bore it nobly after his
kind. That the manner in which he confronted this crisis was strangely
different from that of most men in similar circumstances need surely
occasion no surprise. Neither in this nor in other matters was he
shaped in the average mold of his contemporaries. In many respects he
was doomed to a certain loneliness of excellence. There are few men
that have had his stern and tyrannous sense of duty, his womanly
tenderness of heart, his wakeful and inflexible conscience, which was
so easy towards others and so merciless towards himself. Therefore
when the time came for all of these qualities at once to be put to the
most strenuous proof, the whole course of his development and the
tendency of his nature made it inevitable that his suffering should be
of the keenest and his final triumph over himself should be of the
most complete and signal character. In that struggle his youth of
reveries and day-dreams passed away. Such furnace-blasts of proof,
such pangs of transformation, seem necessary for exceptional natures.
The bread eaten in tears, of which Goethe speaks, the sleepless nights
of sorrow, are required for a clear vision of the celestial powers.
Fortunately the same qualities that occasion the conflict insure the
victory also. From days of gloom and depression, such as we have been
considering, no doubt came precious results in the way of sympathy,
self-restraint, and that sober reliance on the final triumph of good
over evil peculiar to those who have been greatly tried but not
destroyed. The late but splendid maturity of Lincoln's mind and
character dates from this time, and, although he grew in strength and
knowledge to the end, from this year we observe a steadiness and
sobriety of thought and purpose, as discernible in his life as in his
style. He was like a blade forged in fire and tempered in the ice-
brook, ready for battle whenever the battle might come.

[Relocated Footnote: Mrs. Lincoln was the daughter of the Hon. Robert
S. Todd of Kentucky. Her great-uncle John Todd, and her grandfather
Levi Todd, accompanied General George Rogers Clark to Illinois, and
were present at the capture of Kaskaskia and Vincennes. In December,
1778, John Todd was appointed by Patrick Henry, Governor of Virginia,
to be lieutenant of the county of Illinois, then a part of Virginia.
He was killed at the battle of the Blue Licks, in 1782. His brother
Levi was also at that battle and was one of the few survivors of it.

Colonel John Todd was one of the original proprietors of the town of
Lexington, Ky. While encamped on the site of the present city, he
heard of the opening battle of the Revolution and named his infant
settlement in its honor. - Arnold's "Life of Lincoln," p. 68.]



An incident which occurred during the summer preceding Mr. Lincoln's
marriage, and which in the opinion of many had its influence in
hastening that event, deserves some attention, if only from its
incongruity with the rest of his history. This was the farce - which
aspired at one time to be a tragedy - of his first and last duel. Among
the officers of the State Government was a young Irishman named James
Shields, who owed his post as Auditor, in great measure, to that alien
vote to gain which the Democrats had overturned the Supreme Court. The
finances of the State were in a deplorable condition: the treasury was
empty; auditor's warrants were selling at half their nominal value; no
more money was to be borrowed, and taxation was dreaded by both
political parties more than disgrace. The currency of the State banks
was well-nigh worthless, but it constituted nearly the only
circulating medium in the State.

In the middle of August the Governor, Auditor, and Treasurer issued a
circular forbidding the payment of State taxes in this depreciated
paper. This order was naturally taken by the Whigs as indicating on
the part of these officers a keener interest in the integrity of their
salaries than in the public welfare, and it was therefore severely
attacked in all the opposition newspapers of the State.

The sharpest assault it had to endure, however, was in a
communication, dated August 27, and printed in the "Sangamo Journal"
of September 2, not only dissecting the administration circular with
the most savage satire, but covering the Auditor with merciless
personal ridicule. It was written in the dialect of the country, dated
from the "Lost Townships," and signed "Rebecca," and purported to come
from a farmer widow of the county, who expressed in this fashion her
discontent with the evil course of affairs.

Shields was a man of inordinate vanity and a corresponding
irascibility. He was for that reason an irresistible mark for satire.
Through a long life of somewhat conspicuous public service, he never
lost a certain tone of absurdity which can only be accounted for by
the qualities we have mentioned. Even his honorable wounds in battle,
while they were productive of great public applause and political
success, gained him scarcely less ridicule than praise. He never could
refrain from talking of them himself, having none of Coriolanus's
repugnance in that respect, and for that reason was a constant target
for newspaper wits.

After Shields returned from the Mexican war, with his laurels still
green, and at the close of the canvass which had made him Senator, he
wrote an incredible letter to Judge Breese, his principal competitor,
in which he committed the gratuitous folly of informing him that "he
had sworn in his heart [if Breese had been elected] that he should
never have profited by his success; and depend upon it," he added, in
the amazing impudence of triumph, "I would have kept that vow,
regardless of consequences. That, however, is now past, and the vow is
canceled by your defeat." He then went on, with threats equally
indecent, to make certain demands which were altogether inadmissible,
and which Judge Breese only noticed by sending this preposterous
letter to the press.

[Sidenote: "National Intelligencer," Feb. 28, 1849.]

It may easily be imagined that a man who, after being elected a
Senator of the United States, was capable of the insane insolence of
signing his name to a letter informing his defeated competitor that he
would have killed him if the result had been different, would not have
been likely, when seven years younger, to bear newspaper ridicule with
equanimity. His fury against the unknown author of the satire was the
subject of much merriment in Springfield, and the next week another
letter appeared, from a different hand, but adopting the machinery of
the first, in which the widow offered to make up the quarrel by
marrying the Auditor, and this, in time, was followed by an
epithalamium, in which this happy compromise was celebrated in very
bad verses. In the change of hands all the humor of the thing had
evaporated, and nothing was left but feminine mischief on one side and
the exasperation of wounded vanity on the other.

Shields, however, had talked so much about the matter that he now felt
imperatively called upon to act, and he therefore sent General
Whitesides to demand from the "Journal" the name of its contributor.
Mr. Francis, the editor, was in a quandary. Lincoln had written the
first letter, and the antic fury of Shields had induced two young
ladies who took a lively interest in Illinois politics - and with good
reason, for one was to be the wife of a Senator and the other of a
President - to follow up the game with attacks in prose and verse
which, however deficient in wit and meter, were not wanting in
pungency. In his dilemma he applied to Lincoln, who, as he was
starting to attend court at Tremont, told him to give his name and
withhold the names of the ladies. As soon as Whitesides received this
information, he and his fiery principal set out for Tremont, and as
Shields did nothing in silence, the news came to Lincoln's friends,
two of whom, William Butler and Dr. Merryman, one of those combative
medical men who have almost disappeared from American society, went
off in a buggy in pursuit. They soon came in sight of the others, but
loitered in the rear until evening, and then drove rapidly to Tremont,
arriving there some time in advance of Shields; so that in the ensuing
negotiations Abraham Lincoln had the assistance of friends whose
fidelity and whose nerve were equally beyond question.

It would be useless to recount all the tedious preliminaries of the
affair. Shields opened the correspondence, as might have been
expected, with blustering and with threats; his nature had no other
way of expressing itself. His first letter was taken as a bar to any
explanation or understanding, and he afterwards wrote a second, a
little less offensive in tone, but without withdrawing the first. At
every interview of the seconds General Whitesides deplored the
bloodthirsty disposition of his principal, and urged that Mr. Lincoln
should make the concessions which alone would prevent lamentable
results. These representations seemed to avail nothing, however, and
the parties, after endless talk, went to Alton and crossed the river
to the Missouri shore. It seemed for a moment that the fight must take
place. The terms had been left by the code, as then understood in the
West, to Lincoln, and he certainly made no grudging use of his
privilege. The weapons chosen were "cavalry broadswords of the largest
size"; and the combatants were to stand on either side of a board
placed on the ground, each to fight in a limit of six feet on his own
side of the board. It was evident that Lincoln did not desire the
death of his adversary, and did not intend to be materially injured
himself. The advantage morally was altogether against him. He felt
intensely the stupidity of the whole affair, but thought he could not
avoid the fight without degradation; while to Shields such a fracas
was a delight. The duel came to its natural end by the intervention of
the usual "gods out of a machine," the gods being John J. Hardin and
one Dr. English, and the machine a canoe in which they had hastily
paddled across the Mississippi. Shields suffered himself to be
persuaded to withdraw his offensive challenge. Lincoln then made the
explanation he had been ready to make from the beginning; avowing the
one letter he had written, and saying that it had been printed solely
for political effect, and without any intention of injuring Shields

One would think that, after a week passed in such unprofitable
trifling, the parties, principal and secondary, would have been
willing to drop the matter forever. We are sure that Lincoln would
have been glad to banish it, even from his memory; but to men like
Shields and Whitesides, the peculiar relish and enjoyment of such an
affair is its publicity. On the 3d of October, therefore, eleven days
after the meeting, as public attention seemed to be flagging,
Whitesides wrote an account of it to the "Sangamo Journal," for which
he did not forget to say, "I hold myself responsible!" Of course he
seized the occasion to paint a heroic portrait of himself and his
principal. It was an excellent story until the next week, when Dr.
Merryman, who seems to have wielded a pen like a scalpel, gave a much
fuller history of the matter, which he substantiated by printing all
the documents, and, not content with that, gave little details of the
negotiations which show, either that Whitesides was one of the most
grotesque braggarts of the time, or that Merryman was an admirable
writer of comic fiction. Among the most amusing facts he brought
forward was that Whitesides, being a Fund Commissioner of the State,
ran the risk of losing his office by engaging in a duel; and his
anxiety to appear reckless and dangerous, and yet keep within the
statute and save his salary, was depicted by Merryman with a droll
fidelity. He concluded by charging Whitesides plainly with
"inefficiency and want of knowledge of those laws which govern
gentlemen in matters of this kind," and with "trying to wipe out his
fault by doing an act of injustice to Mr. Lincoln."


The town was greatly diverted by these pungent echoes of the bloodless
fight, and Shields and Whitesides felt that their honor was still out
of repair. A rapid series of challenges succeeded among the parties,
principals and seconds changing places as deftly as dancers in a
quadrille. The Auditor challenged Mr. Butler, who had been very
outspoken in his contemptuous comments on the affair. Butler at once
accepted, and with a grim sincerity announced his conditions - "to
fight next morning at sunrising in Bob Allen's meadow, one hundred
yards' distance, with rifles." This was instantly declined, with a
sort of horror, by Shields and Whitesides, as such a proceeding would
have proved fatal to their official positions and their means of
livelihood. They probably cared less for the chances of harm from
Butler's Kentucky rifle than for the certainty of the Illinois law
which cut off all duelists from holding office in the State.

But, on the other hand, - so unreasonable is human nature as displayed
among politicians, - General Whitesides felt that if he bore patiently
the winged words of Merryman, his availability as a candidate was
greatly damaged; and he therefore sent to the witty doctor what Mr.
Lincoln called "a quasi-challenge," hurling at him a modified
defiance, which should be enough to lure him to the field of honor,
and yet not sufficiently explicit to lose Whitesides the dignity and
perquisites of Fund Commissioner. Merryman, not being an office-holder
and having no salary to risk, responded with brutal directness, which
was highly unsatisfactory to Whitesides, who was determined not to
fight unless he could do so lawfully; and Lincoln, who now acted as
second to the doctor in his turn, records the cessation of the
correspondence amid the agonized explanations of Whitesides and the
scornful hootings of Merryman, "while the town was in a ferment and a
street fight somewhat anticipated." In respect to the last diversion
the town was disappointed.

Shields lost nothing by the hilarity which this burlesque incident
created. He was reserved for a career of singular luck and glory
mingled with signal misfortunes. On account of his political
availability he continued throughout a long lifetime to be selected at
intervals for high positions. After he ceased to be Auditor he was
elected a judge of the Supreme Court of Illinois; while still holding
that position he applied for the place of Commissioner of the General
Land Office, and his application was successful. When the Mexican war
broke out he asked for a commission as brigadier-general, although he
still held his civil appointment, and, to the amazement of the whole
army, he was given that important command before he had ever seen a
day's service. At the battle of Cerro Glordo he was shot through the
lungs, and this wound made him a United States Senator as soon as he
returned from the war. After he had served one term in the Senate, he
removed from Illinois, and was soon sent back to the same body from
Minnesota. In the war of the rebellion he was again appointed a
brigadier-general by his old adversary, and was again wounded in a
battle in which his troops defeated the redoubtable Stonewall Jackson;
and many years after Lincoln was laid to sleep beneath a mountain of
marble at Springfield, Shields was made the shuttlecock of contending
demagogues in Congress, each striving to make a point by voting him
money - until in the impulse of that transient controversy, the State
of Missouri, finding the gray-headed soldier in her borders, for the
third time sent him to the Senate of the United States for a few
weeks - a history unparalleled even in America.

We have reason to think that the affair of the duel was excessively
distasteful to Lincoln. He did not even enjoy the ludicrousness of it,
as might have been expected. He never - so far as we can learn - alluded
to it afterwards, and the recollection of it died away so completely
from the minds of people in the State, that during the heated canvass
of 1860 there was no mention of this disagreeable episode in the
opposition papers of Illinois. It had been absolutely forgotten.

This was Mr. Lincoln's last personal quarrel. [Transcriber's Note:
Lengthy footnote relocated to chapter end.] Although the rest of his
life was passed in hot and earnest debate, he never again descended to
the level of his adversaries, who would gladly enough have resorted to
unseemly wrangling. In later years it became his duty to give an
official reprimand to a young officer who had been court-martialed for
a quarrel with one of his associates. The reprimand is probably the
gentlest recorded in the annals of penal discourses, and it shows in
few words the principles which ruled the conduct of this great and
peaceable man. It has never before been published, and it deserves to
be written in letters of gold on the walls of every gymnasium and

The advice of a father to his son, "Beware of entrance to a quarrel,
but being in, bear it that the opposed may beware of thee!" is good,
but not the best. Quarrel not at all. No man resolved to make the most
of himself can spare time for personal contention. Still less can he
afford to take all the consequences, including the vitiating of his
temper and the loss of self-control. Yield larger things to which you
can show no more than equal right; and yield lesser ones though
clearly your own. Better give your path to a dog than be bitten by him
in contesting for the right. Even killing the dog would not cure the

[Relocated Footnote: Lincoln's life was unusually free from personal
disputes. We know of only one other hostile letter addressed to him.
This was from W. G. Anderson, who being worsted in a verbal encounter
with Lincoln at Lawrenceville, the county-seat of Lawrence County,

Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 14 of 31)