John George Nicolay.

Abraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 online

. (page 20 of 31)
Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 20 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

itself to a popular vote in the District as a condition of its
promulgation as law.

These are the essential points of the measure and the success of Mr.
Lincoln in gaining the adhesion of the abolitionists in the House is
more remarkable than that he should have induced the Washington
Conservatives to approve it. But the usual result followed as soon as
it was formally introduced to the notice of Congress, It was met by
that violent and excited opposition which greeted any measure, however
intrinsically moderate and reasonable, which was founded on the
assumption that slavery was not in itself a good and desirable thing.
The social influences of Washington were brought to bear against a
proposition which the Southerners contended would vulgarize society,
and the genial and liberal mayor was forced to withdraw his approval
as gracefully or as awkwardly as he might. The prospects of the bill
were seen to be hopeless, as the session was to end on the 4th of
March, and no further effort was made to carry it through. Fifteen
years afterwards, in the stress and tempest of a terrible war, it was
Mr. Lincoln's strange fortune to sign a bill sent him by Congress for
the abolition of slavery in Washington; and perhaps the most
remarkable thing about the whole transaction, was that while we were
looking politically upon a new heaven and a new earth, - for the vast
change in our moral and economic condition might justify so audacious
a phrase, - when there was scarcely a man on the continent who had not
greatly shifted his point of view in a dozen years, there was so
little change in Mr. Lincoln. The same hatred of slavery, the same
sympathy with the slave, the same consideration for the slaveholder as
the victim of a system he had inherited, the same sense of divided
responsibility between the South and the North, the same desire to
effect great reforms with as little individual damage and injury, as
little disturbance of social conditions as possible, were equally
evident when the raw pioneer signed the protest with Dan Stone at
Vandalia, when the mature man moved the resolution of 1849 in the
Capitol, and when the President gave the sanction of his bold
signature to the act which swept away the slave-shambles from the city
of Washington.

[Illustration: JOSHUA R. GIDDINGS.]

His term in Congress ended on the 4th of March, 1849, and he was not a
candidate for reflection. A year before he had contemplated the
possibility of entering the field again. He then wrote to his friend
and partner Herndon: "It is very pleasant for me to learn from yon
that there are some who desire that I should be reelected. I most
heartily thank them for their kind partiality; and I can say, as Mr.
Clay said of the annexation of Texas, that 'personally I would not
object' to a reelection, although I thought at the time [of his
nomination], and still think, it would be quite as well for me to
return to the law at the end of a single term. I made the declaration
that I would not be a candidate again, more from a wish to deal fairly
with others, to keep peace among our friends, and keep the district
from going to the enemy, than for any cause personal to myself, so
that, if it should so happen that nobody else wishes to be elected, I
could not refuse the people the right of sending me again. But to
enter myself as a competitor of others, or to authorize any one so to
enter me, is what my word and honor forbid."

But before his first session ended he gave up all idea of going back,
and heartily concurred in the nomination of Judge Logan to succeed
him. The Sangamon district was the one which the Whigs of Illinois had
apparently the best prospect of carrying, and it was full of able and
ambitious men, who were nominated successively for the only place
which gave them the opportunity of playing a part in the national
theater at Washington. They all served with more or less distinction,
but for eight years no one was ever twice a candidate. A sort of
tradition had grown up, through which a perverted notion of honor and
propriety held it discreditable in a member to ask for reelection.
This state of things was not peculiar to that district, and it
survives with more or less vigor throughout the country to this day,
to the serious detriment of Congress. This consideration, coupled with
what is called the claim of locality, must in time still further
deteriorate the representatives of the States at Washington. To ask in
a nominating convention who is best qualified for service in Congress
is always regarded as an impertinence; but the question "what county
in the district has had the Congressman oftenest" is always considered
in order. For such reasons as these Mr. Lincoln refused to allow his
name to go before the voters again, and the next year he again
refused, writing an emphatic letter for publication, in which he said
that there were many Whigs who could do as much as he "to bring the
district right side up."

Colonel Baker had come back from the wars with all the glitter of
Cerro Gordo about him, but did not find the prospect of political
preferment flattering in Sangamon County, and therefore, with that
versatility and sagacity which was more than once to render him signal
service, he removed to the Galena district, in the extreme north-
western corner of the State, and almost immediately on his arrival
there received a nomination to Congress. He was doubly fortunate in
this move, as the nomination he was unable to take away from Logan
proved useless to the latter, who was defeated after a hot contest.
Baker therefore took the place of Lincoln as the only Whig member from
Illinois, and their names occur frequently together in the
arrangements for the distribution of "Federal patronage" at the close
of the Administration of Polk and the beginning of that of Taylor.

[Sidenote: MS letter from Lincoln to Schooler. Feb. 2, 1869.]

During the period while the President-elect was considering the
appointment of his Cabinet, Lincoln used all the influence he could
bring to bear, which was probably not very much, in favor of Baker for
a place in the Government. The Whig members of the Legislatures of
Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin joined in this effort, which came to
nothing. The recommendations to office which Lincoln made after the
inauguration of General Taylor are probably unique of their kind. Here
is a specimen which is short enough to give entire. It is addressed to
the Secretary of the Interior: "I recommend that William Butler be
appointed Pension Agent for the Illinois agency when the place shall
be vacant. Mr. Hurst, the present incumbent, I believe has performed
the duties very well. He is a decided partisan, and I believe expects
to be removed. Whether he shall be, I submit to the Department. This
office is not confined to my district, but pertains to the whole
State; so that Colonel Baker has an equal right with myself to be
heard concerning it. However, the office is located here (at
Springfield); and I think it is not probable any one would desire to
remove from a distance to take it."

We have examined a large number of his recommendations - for with a
complete change of administration there would naturally be great
activity among the office-seekers - and they are all in precisely the
same vein. He nowhere asks for the removal of an incumbent; he never
claims a place as subject to his disposition; in fact, he makes no
personal claim whatever; he simply advises the Government, in case a
vacancy occurs, who, in his opinion, is the best man to fill it. When
there are two applicants, he indicates which is on the whole the
better man, and sometimes adds that the weight of recommendations is
in favor of the other! In one instance he sends forward the
recommendations of the man whom he does not prefer, with an
indorsement emphasizing the importance of them, and adding: "From
personal knowledge I consider Mr. Bond every way worthy of the office
and qualified to fill it. Holding the individual opinion that the
appointment of a different gentleman would be better, I ask especial
attention and consideration for his claims, and for the opinions
expressed in his favor by those over whom I can claim no superiority."
The candor, the fairness and moderation, together with the respect for
the public service which these recommendations display, are all the
more remarkable when we reflect that there was as yet no sign of a
public conscience upon the subject. The patronage of the Government
was scrambled for, as a matter of course, in the mire into which
Jackson had flung it.

For a few weeks in the spring of 1849 Mr. Lincoln appears in a
character which is entirely out of keeping with all his former and
subsequent career. He became, for the first and only time in his life,
an applicant for an appointment at the hands of the President. His
bearing in this attitude was marked by his usual individuality. In the
opinion of many Illinoisans it was important that the place of
Commissioner of the General Land Office should be given to a citizen
of their State, one thoroughly acquainted with the land law in the
West and the special needs of that region. A letter to Lincoln was
drawn up and signed by some half-dozen of the leading Whigs of the
State asking him to become an applicant for that position.

He promptly answered, saying that if the position could be secured for
a citizen of Illinois only by his accepting it, he would consent; but
he went on to say that he had promised his best efforts to Cyrus
Edwards for that place, and had afterwards stipulated with Colonel
Baker that if J. L. D. Morrison, another Mexican hero, and Edwards
could come to an understanding with each other as to which should
withdraw, he would join in recommending the other; that he could not
take the place, therefore, unless it became clearly impossible for
either of the others to get it. Some weeks later, the impossibility
referred to having become apparent, Mr. Lincoln applied for the place;
but a suitor for office so laggard and so scrupulous as he, stood very
little chance of success in contests like those which periodically
raged at Washington during the first weeks of every new
administration. The place came, indeed, to Illinois, but to neither of
the three we have mentioned. The fortunate applicant was Justin
Butterfield, of Chicago, a man well and favorably known among the
early members of the Illinois bar, [Transcriber's Note: Lengthy
footnote relocated to chapter end.] who, however, devoted less
assiduous attention to the law than to the business of office-seeking,
which he practiced with fair success all his days.

It was in this way that Abraham Lincoln met and escaped one of the
greatest dangers of his life. In after days he recognized the error he
had committed, and congratulated himself upon the happy deliverance he
had obtained through no merit of his own. The loss of at least four
years of the active pursuit of his profession would have been
irreparable, leaving out of view the strong probability that the
singular charm of Washington life to men who have a passion for
politics might have kept him there forever. It has been said that a
residence in Washington leaves no man precisely as it found him. This
is an axiom which may be applied to most cities in a certain sense,
but it is true in a peculiar degree of our capital.

To the men who go there from small rural communities in the South and
the West, the bustle and stir, the intellectual movement, such as it
is, the ordinary subjects of conversation, of such vastly greater
importance than anything they have previously known, the daily, even
hourly combats on the floor of both houses, the intrigue and the
struggle of office-hunting, which engage vast numbers besides the
office-seekers, the superior piquancy and interest of the scandal
which is talked at a Congressional boarding-house over that which
seasons the dull days at village-taverns - all this gives a savor to
life in Washington the memory of which doubles the tedium of the
sequestered vale to which the beaten legislator returns when his brief
hour of glory is over. It is this which brings to the State
Department, after every general election, that crowd of specters, with
their bales of recommendations from pitying colleagues who have been
reelected, whose diminishing prayers run down the whole gamut of
supplication from St. James to St. Paul of Loando, and of whom at the
last it must be said, as Mr. Evarts once said after an unusually heavy
day, "Many called, but few chosen." Of those who do not achieve the
ruinous success of going abroad to consulates that will not pay their
board, or missions where they avoid daily shame only by hiding their
penury and their ignorance away from observation, a great portion
yield to their fate and join that fleet of wrecks which floats forever
on the pavements of Washington.

It is needless to say that Mr. Lincoln received no damage from his
term of service in Washington, but we know of nothing which shows so
strongly the perilous fascination of the place as the fact that a man
of his extraordinary moral and mental qualities could ever have
thought for a moment of accepting a position so insignificant and
incongruous as that which he was more than willing to assume when he
left Congress. He would have filled the place with honor and credit -
but at a monstrous expense. We do not so much refer to his exceptional
career and his great figure in history; these momentous contingencies
could not have suggested themselves to him. But the place he was
reasonably sure of filling in the battle of life should have made a
subordinate office in Washington a thing out of the question. He was
already a lawyer of skill and reputation; an orator upon whom his
party relied to speak for them to the people. An innate love of combat
was in his heart; he loved discussion like a medieval schoolman. The
air was already tremulous with faint bugle-notes that heralded a
conflict of giants on a field of moral significance to which he was
fully alive and awake, where he was certain to lead at least his
hundreds and his thousands. Yet if Justin Butterfield had not been a
more supple, more adroit, and less scrupulous suitor for office than
himself, Abraham Lincoln would have sat for four inestimable years at
a bureau-desk in the Interior Department, and when the hour of action
sounded in Illinois, who would have filled the place which he took as
if he had been born for it? Who could have done the duty which he bore
as lightly as if he had been fashioned for it from the beginning of

His temptation did not end even with Butterfield's success. The
Administration of General Taylor, apparently feeling that some
compensation was due to one so earnestly recommended by the leading
Whigs of the State, offered Mr. Lincoln the governorship of Oregon.
This was a place more suited to him than the other, and his acceptance
of it was urged by some of his most judicious friends [Footnote: Among
others John T. Stuart, who is our authority for this statement.] on
the ground that the new Territory would soon be a State, and that he
could come back as a senator. This view of the matter commended itself
favorably to Lincoln himself, who, however, gave it up on account of
the natural unwillingness of his wife to remove to a country so wild
and so remote.

This was all as it should be. The best place for him was Illinois, and
he went about his work there until his time should come.

[Relocated Footnote: Butterfield had a great reputation for ready wit
and was suspected of deep learning. Some of his jests are still
repeated by old lawyers in Illinois, and show at least a well-marked
humorous intention. On one occasion he appeared before Judge Pope to
ask the discharge of the famous Mormon Prophet, Joe Smith, who was in
custody surrounded by his church dignitaries. Bowing profoundly to the
court and the ladies who thronged the hall, he said: "I appear before
you under solemn and peculiar circumstances. I am to address the Pope,
surrounded by angels, in the presence of the holy apostles, in behalf
of the Prophet of the Lord." We once heard Lincoln say of Butterfield
that he was one of the few Whigs in Illinois who approved the Mexican
war. His reason, frankly given, was that he had lost an office in New
York by opposing the war of 1812. "Henceforth," he said with cynical
vehemence, "I am for war, pestilence, and famine." He was once
defending the Shawneetown Bank and advocating the extension of its
charter; an opposing lawyer contended that this would be creating a
new bank. Butterfield brought a smile from the court and a laugh from
the bar by asking "whether when the Lord lengthened the life of
Hezekiah he made a new man, or whether it was the same old Hezekiah?"]



In that briefest of all autobiographies, which Mr. Lincoln wrote for
Jesse Fell upon three pages of note-paper, he sketched in these words
the period at which we have arrived: "From 1849 to 1854, both
inclusive, I practiced law more assiduously than ever before ... I was
losing interest in politics, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise
aroused me again." His service in Congress had made him more generally
known than formerly, and had increased his practical value as a member
of any law firm. He was offered a partnership on favorable terms by a
lawyer in good practice in Chicago; but he declined it on the ground
that his health would not endure the close confinement necessary in a
city office. He went back to Springfield, and resumed at once his
practice there and in the Eighth Judicial Circuit, where his
occupations and his associates were the most congenial that he could
anywhere find. For five years he devoted himself to his work with more
energy and more success than ever before.

It was at this time that he gave a notable proof of his unusual powers
of mental discipline. His wider knowledge of men and things, acquired
by contact with the great world, had shown him a certain lack in
himself of the power of close and sustained reasoning. To remedy this
defect, he applied himself, after his return from Congress, to such
works upon logic and mathematics as he fancied would be serviceable.
Devoting himself with dogged energy to the task in hand, he soon
learned by heart six books of the propositions of Euclid, and he
retained through life a thorough knowledge of the principles they

[Sidenote: I.N. Arnold in the "History of Sangamon County."]

The outward form and fashion of every institution change rapidly in
growing communities like our Western States, and the practice of the
law had already assumed a very different degree of dignity and
formality from that which it presented only twenty years before. The
lawyers in hunting-shirts and mocassins had long since passed away; so
had the judges who apologized to the criminals that they sentenced,
and charged them "to let their friends on Bear Creek understand it was
the law and the jury who were responsible." Even the easy familiarity
of a later date would no longer be tolerated. No successor of Judge
Douglas had been known to follow his example by coming down from the
bench, taking a seat in the lap of a friend, throwing an arm around
his neck, and in that intimate attitude discussing, _coram publico_,
whatever interested him, David Davis - afterwards of the Supreme Court
and of the Senate - was for many years the presiding judge of this
circuit, and neither under him nor his predecessor, S. H. Treat, was
any lapse of dignity or of propriety possible. Still there was much
less of form and ceremony insisted upon than is considered proper and
necessary in older communities.

The bar in great measure was composed of the same men who used to
follow the circuit on horseback, over roads impassable to wheels, with
their scanty wardrobes, their law-books, and their documents crowding
each other in their saddle-bags. The improvement of roads which made
carriages a possibility had effected a great change, and the coming of
the railway had completed the sudden development of the manners and
customs of the modernized community. But they could not all at once
take from the bar of the Eighth Circuit its raciness and its
individuality. The men who had lived in log-cabins, who had hunted
their way through untrodden woods and prairies, who had thought as
much about the chances of swimming over swollen fords as of their
cases, who had passed their nights - a half-dozen together - on the
floors of wayside hostelries, could never be precisely the same sort
of practitioners as the smug barristers of a more conventional age and
place. But they were not deficient in ability, in learning, or in that
most valuable faculty which enables really intelligent men to get
their bearings and sustain themselves in every sphere of life to which
they may be called. Some of these very colleagues of Lincoln at the
Springfield bar have sat in Cabinets, have held their own on the floor
of the Senate, have led armies in the field, have governed States, and
all with a quiet self-reliance which was as far as possible removed
from either undue arrogance or undue modesty. [Footnote: A few of the
lawyers who practiced with Lincoln, and have held the highest official
positions, are Douglas, Shields, Logan, Stuart, Baker, Samuel H.
Treat, Bledsoe, O. H. Browning, Hardin, Lyman Trumbull, and Stephen T.

Among these able and energetic men Lincoln assumed and held the first
rank. This is a statement which ought not to be made without authority,
and rather than give the common repute of the circuit, we prefer to
cite the opinion of those lawyers of Illinois who are entitled to speak
as to this matter, both by the weight of their personal and
professional character and by their eminent official standing among the
jurists of our time. We shall quote rather fully from addresses
delivered by Justice David Davis, of the Supreme Court of the United
States, and by Judge Drummond, the United States District Judge for
Illinois. Judge Davis says:

I enjoyed for over twenty years the personal friendship of Mr.
Lincoln. We were admitted to the bar about the same time and traveled
for many years what is known in Illinois as the Eighth Judicial Court.
In 1848, when I first went on the bench, the circuit embraced fourteen
counties, and Mr. Lincoln went with the Court to every county.
Railroads were not then in use, and our mode of travel was either on
horseback or in buggies.

This simple life he loved, preferring it to the practice of the law in
a city, where, although the remuneration would be greater, the
opportunity would be less for mixing with the great body of the
people, who loved him, and whom he loved. Mr. Lincoln was transferred
from the bar of that circuit to the office of the President of the
United States, having been without official position since he left
Congress in 1849. In all the elements that constitute the great lawyer
he had few equals. He was great both at _nisi prius_ and before an
appellate tribunal. He seized the strong points of a cause, and
presented them with clearness and great compactness. His mind was
logical and direct, and he did not indulge in extraneous discussion.
Generalities and platitudes had no charms for him. An unfailing vein
of humor never deserted him; and he was able to claim the attention of
court and jury, when the cause was the most uninteresting, by the
appropriateness of his anecdotes. [Footnote: C. P. Linder once said to
an Eastern lawyer who expressed the opinion that Lincoln was wasting
his time in telling stories to the jury, "Don't lay that flattering
unction to your soul. Lincoln is like Tansey's horse, he 'breaks to
win.'" - T. W. S. Kidd, in the Lincoln Memorial Album.]

His power of comparison was large, and he rarely failed in a legal
discussion to use that mode of reasoning. The framework of his mental
and moral being was honesty, and a wrong cause was poorly defended by
him. The ability which some eminent lawyers possess, of explaining
away the bad points of a cause by ingenious sophistry, was denied him.
In order to bring into full activity his great powers, it was
necessary that he should be convinced of the right and justice of the
matter which he advocated. When so convinced, whether the cause was
great or small, he was usually successful. He read law-books but
little, except when the cause in hand made it necessary; yet he was
usually self-reliant, depending on his own resources, and rarely
consulting his brother lawyers, either on the management of his case

Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 20 of 31)