Joseph Hodges Choate.

The career and character of Abraham Lincoln : an address delivered by Joseph H. Choate, ambassador to Great Britain, at the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh, November 13, 1900 online

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Online LibraryJoseph Hodges ChoateThe career and character of Abraham Lincoln : an address delivered by Joseph H. Choate, ambassador to Great Britain, at the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh, November 13, 1900 → online text (page 1 of 3)
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C, M. & St. P. Ry. Series No. 22.





Delivered by Joseph K. Choate, Ambassador to Great Britain,

at the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh,

November 13, 1900.


; 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."

SIS Chestnt


Genf^al Passenger Dfpaf.tment


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"When you asked me to deliver the inaugural address on
this occasion, I recognized that I owed this compliment to the
fact that I was the official representative of America — and in
selecting a subject I ventured to think that I might interest you
for an hour in a brief study in popular government, as illustrated
by the life of the most American of all Americans. I, therefore,
offer no apology for asking your attention to Abraham Lincoln
— to his unique character and the parts he bore in two important
achievements of modern history — the preservation of the integ-
rity of the American Union and the emancipation of the colored

" During his brief term of power he was probably the object
of more abuse, vilification and ridicule than any other man in
the world, but when he fell by the hand of an assassin, at the
very moment of his stupendous victory, all the nations of the
earth vied with one another in paying homage to his character,
and the thirty-five years that have since elapsed have established
his place in history as one of the great benefactors, not of his
own country alone, but of the human race.

"One of many noble utterances upon the occasion of his
death was that in which Punch made its magnanimous recanta-
tion of the spirit with which it had pursued him :

Beside this corpse that bears for winding, sheet
The Stars and Stripes he lived to rear anew,

Between the mourners at his head and feet,
Say, scurrile jester, is there room for you?

Yes, he had lived to shame me from my sneer,
To lame my pencil, and confute my pen —

To make me own this hind — of Princes peer,
This railsplitter — a true-born king of men.

" Fiction can furnish no match for the romance of his life,
and biography will be searched in vain for such startling vicis-
situdes of fortune, so great power and glory won out of such
humble beginnings and adverse circumstances.

''Doubtless, you are all familiar with the salient points of
his extraordinary career. In the zenith of his fame he was the
wise, patient, courageous, successful ruler of men, exercising
more power than any monarch of his time, not for himself but
for the good of the people who had placed it in his hands.
Commander in chief of a vast military power, which waged
with ultimate success the greatest war of the century ; the tri-
umphant champion of popular government, the deliverer of
4,000,000 of his fellow-men from bondage; honored by man-
kind as statesman, President, and liberator.

" Let us glance now at the first half of the brief life of which
this was the glorious and happy consummation. Nothing could
be more squalid and miserable than the home in which Abraham
Lincoln was born — a one-room cabin without floor or window,
in what was then the wilderness of Kentucky, in the heart of
that frontier life which swiftly moved westward from the Alle-
ghanies to the Mississippi, always in advance of schools and
churches, of books and money, of railroads and newspapers, of
all things which are generally regarded as the comforts and even
necessaries of life. His father, ignorant, needy, and thriftless,,
together for himself and his family, was ever seeking, without
success, to better his unhappy condition by moving on from
one such scene of dreary desolation to another. The rude
society which surrounded them was not much better. The
struggle for existence was hard, and absorbed all their energies.
They were fighting the forest, the wild beast, and the retreating
savage. From the time when he could hardly handle tools until
he attained his majority, Lincoln's life was that of a simple farm
laborer, poorly clad, housed, and fed, at work either on his

father's wretched farm or hired out to the neighboring farmers.
But in spite, or, perhaps, by means of this rude environ-
ment, he grew to be a stalwart giant, reaching six feet four at
nineteen, and fabulous stories are told of his feats of strength.
With the growth of this mighty frame began that strange educa-
tion which in his ripening years was to qualify him for the great
destiny that awaited him, and the development of those mental
faculties and moral endowments which, by the time he reached
middle life, were to make him the sagacious, patient, and tri-
umphant leader of a great Nation in the crisis of its fate. His
whole schooling, obtained during such odd times as could be
spared from grinding labor, did not amount in all to as much as
one year, and the quality of the teaching was of the lowest pos-
sible grade, including only the elements of reading, writing and
ciphering. But out of these simple elements, when rightly used
by the right man, education is achieved ; and Lincoln knew
how to use them. As so often happens, he seemed to take
warning from his father's unfortunate example. Untiring indus-
try, an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and an ever-growing
desire to rise above his surroundings, were early manifestations
of his character.

" Books were almost unknown in that community, but the
Bible was in every house, and somehow or other ' The Pilgrim's
Progress,' '^sop's Fables,' a history of the United States, and
a life of Washington fell into his hands. He trudged on foot
many miles through the wilderness to borrow an English gram-
mar, and is said to have devoured greedily the contents of the
statutes of Indiana that fell in his way. These few volumes he
read and re-read— and his power of assimilation* was great. To
be shut in with a few books, and to master them thoroughly,
sometimes does more for the development of the mind and
character than freedom to range at large in a cursory and- indis-
criminate way through wide domains of literature. This youth's
mind, at any rate, was thoroughly saturated with Biblical knowl-
edge and Biblical language, which, in after life, he used with
great readiness and effect. But it was the constant use of the
little knowledge which he had, that developed and exercised his

mental powers. After the hard day's work was done, while
others slept, he toiled on, always reading or writing. From an
early age he did his own thinking, and made up his own mind
— invaluable traits in the future President. Paper was such a
scarce commodity that, by the evening firelight, he would write
and cipher on the back of a wooden shovel, and then shave it
off to make room for more. By and by, as he approached man-
hood, he began speaking in the rude gatherings of the neighbor-
hood, and so laid the foundation of that art of persuading his
fellow-men, which was one rich result of his education, and one
great secret of his subsequent success.

''Accustomed as we are in these days of steam and tele-
graphs to have every intelligent boy survey the whole world each
morning before breakfast, and inform himself as to what is go-
ing on in every nation, it is hardly possible to conceive how be-
nighted and isolated was the condition of the community at
Pigeon Creek, in Indiana, of which the family of Lincoln's
father formed a part, or how eagerly an ambitious and high-
spirited boy such as he must have yearned to escape. The first
glimpse that he ever got of any world beyond the narrow con-
fines of his home was" in 1828, at the age of nineteen, when a
neighbor employed him to accompany his son down the river to
New Orleans to dispose of a flatboat of produce, a commission
which he discharged with great success.

"Shortly after his return from this first excursion into the
outer world, his father, tired of failure in Indiana, packed his
family and all his worldly goods into a single wagon drawn by
two yoke of oxen, and after a fourteen days' tramp through the
wilderness, pitched his camp once more in Illinois. Here Abra-
ham, having come of age and being now his own master, ren-
dered the last service of his minority by plowing the fifteen acre
lot and splitting from the tall walnut trees of the primeval forest
enough rails to surround the little clearing with a fence. Such
was the meagre outfit of this corning leader of men, at the age
when the future British Prime Minister or statesman emerges
from the university as a double first or senior wrangler, with
every advantage that high training with broad culture and asso-

ciation with the wisest and the best of men and women can
give, and enters upon some form of public service on the road
to usefulness and honor, the university course being only the
first stage of the public training. So Lincoln, at twenty-one,
had just begun his preparation for the public life to which he
soon began to aspire. For some years he must continue to earn
his daily bread by the sweat of his brow, having absolutely no
means, no home, no friend to consult. More farm work as a
hired hand, a clerkship in a village store, the running of a mill,
another trip to New Orleans on a flatboat of his own contriving,
a pilot's berth on the river, these were the means by which he
subsisted until, in the summer of 1832, when he was twenty-
three years of age, an event occurred which gave him public

"The Black Hawk war broke out, and the Governor of Illi-
nois, calling for volunteers to repel the band of savages whose
leader bore that name, Lincoln enlisted and was elected captain
of his comrades, among whom he had already established his
supremacy by signal feats of strength and more than one suc-
cessful single combat. During the brief hostilities he was en-
gaged in no battle and won no military glory, but his local
leadership was established. The same year he offered himself
as a candidate for the Legislature of Illinois, but failed at the
polls. Yet his vast popularity with those who knew him was
manifest. The district consisted of several counties, but the
unanimous vote of the people of his own county was for Lincoln.
Another unsuccessful attempt at storekecping was followed by
better luck at surveying, until his horse and instruments were
levied upon under execution for the debts of his business venture.

"I have thus gone into detail in sketching his early years,
because upon these strange foundations the structure of his great
fame and service was built. In the place of a school and uni-
versity training fortune substituted these trials, hardships and
struggles as a preparation for the great work which he had to do.
It turned out to be exactly what the emergency required. Ten
vears instead at the uublic school and the university certainly
^ever coma nave fitted tnis man for the unique work which was


to be thrown upon him. Some other Moses would have had to
lead us to our Jordan, to the sight of our promised land of

"At the age of twenty-five he became a member of the Leg-
islature of Illinois, and so continued for eight years, and, in the
meantime, qualified himself by reading such law books as he
could borrow at random — for he was too poor to buy any — to
be called to the bar. For his second quarter of a century —
during which a single term in Congress introduced him into the
arena of national questions — he gave himself up to law and pol-
itics. In spite of his soaring ambition, his two years in Con-
gress gave him no premonition of the great destiny that awaited
him, and at its close, in 1849, we find him an unsuccessful appli-
cant to the President for appointment as Commissioner of the
General Land Office, a purely administrative bureau, a fortunate
escape for himself and his country. Year by year his knowledge
and power, his experience and reputation extended, and his men-
tal faculties seemed to grow by what they fed on. His power
of persuasion, which had always been marked, was developed to
an extraordinary degree, now that he became engaged in con-
genial questions and subjects. Little by little he rose to prom-
inence at the bar, and became the most effective public speaker
in the west. Not that he possessed any of the graces of the
orator, but his logic was invincible, and his clearness and force
of statement impressed upon his hearers the convictions of his
honest mind, while his broad sympathies and sparkling and
genial humor made him a universal favorite as far and as fast as
his acquaintance extended.

"These twenty years that elapsed from the time of his estab-
lishment as a lawyer and legislator in Springfield, the new capi-
tal of Illinois, furnished a fitting theater for the development
and display of his great faculties, and with his new and enlarged
opportunities he obviously grew in mental stature in this second
period of his career, as if to compensate for the absolute lack of
advantages under which he had suffered in youth. As his powers
enlarged, his reputation extended, for he was always before the
people, felt a warm sympathy with all that concerned them, took

a zealous part in the discussion of every public question, and
made his personal influence ever more widely and deeply felt.

"My professional brethren will naturally ask me, how could
this rough backwoodsman, whose youth had been spent in the
forest or on the farm and flatboat, without culture and training,
education or study, by the random reading, on the wing, of a
few miscellaneous law books, become a learned and accom-
plished lawyer? Well, he never did. He never would have
earned his salt as a writer for The Signet \ nor have won a place
as advocate in the Court of Session, where the technique of the
profession has reached its highest perfection, and centuries of
learning and precedent are involved in the equipment of a law-
yer. Dr. Holmes, when asked by an anxious young mother,
< When should the education of a child begin ? ' replied, ' Madam,
at least two centuries before it is born/ and so I am sure it is
with the Scots lawyer.

"But not so in Illinois in 1840. Between 1830 and 1880 its
population increased twentyfold, and when Lincoln began prac-
ticing law in Springfield, in 1837, life in Illinois was very crude
and simple, and so were the courts and the administration of
justice. Books and libraries were scarce. But the people loved
justice, upheld the law, and followed the courts, and soon found
their favorites among the advocates. The fundamental princi-
ples of the common law, as set forth by Blackstone and Chitty,
were not so difficult to acquire, and brains, common sense, force
of character, tenacity of purpose, ready wit and power of speech
did the rest, and supplied all the deficiencies of learning.

"The lawsuits of those days were extremely simple, and the
principles of natural justice were mainly relied on to dispose- of
them at the bar and on the bench, without resort to technical
learning. Railroads, corporations absorbing the chief business
of the community, combined and inherited wealth, with all the
subtle and intricate questions they breed, had not yet come in
— and so the professional agents and the equipment which they
require were not needed. But there were many highly educated
and powerful men at the bar of Illinois, even in those early days,
whom the spirit of enterprise had carried there in search of fame


and fortune. It was by constant contact and conflict with these
that Lincoln acquired professional strength and skill. Every
community and every age creates its own bar, entirely adequate
for its present uses and necessities. So in Illinois, as the popu-
lation and wealth of the state kept on doubling and quadru-
pling, its bar represented a growing abundance of learning and
science and technical skill. The early practitioners grew with
its growth and mastered the requisite knowledge. Chicago soon
grew to be one of the largest and richest and certainly the most
intensely active city on the continent, and if any of my profes-
sional friends here had gone there in Lincoln's later years to try
or argue a cause, or transact other business, with any idea that
Edinburgh or London had a monopoly of legal learning, science,
or subtlety, they would certainly have found their mistake.

"In those early days in the West, every lawyer, especially
every court lawyer, was necessarily a politician, constantly en-
gaged in the public discussion of the many questions evolved
from the rapid development of town, county, state, and federal
affairs. Then and there, in this regard, public discussion sup-
plied the place which the universal activity of the press has
since monopolized, and the public speaker who, by clearness,
force, earnestness, and wit, could make himself felt on the ques-
tions of the day would readily come to the front. In the
absence of that immense variety of popular entertainments
which now feed the public taste and appetite, the people found
their chief amusement in frequenting the courts and public and
political assemblies. In either place he who impressed, enter-
tained, and amused them most was the hero of the hour. They
did not discriminate very carefully between the eloquence of the
forum and the eloquence of the hustings. Human nature ruled
in both alike, and he who was the most effective speaker in a
political harangue was often retained as most likely to win in a
cause to be tried or argued.

"And I have no doubt in this way many retainers came to
Lincoln. Fees, money in any form, had no charms for him ; in
his eager pursuit of fame he could not afford to make money.
He was ambitious to distinguish himself by some great service


to mankind, and this ambition for fame and real public service
left no room for avarice in his composition. However much
he earned, he seemed to have ended every year hardly richer
than he began it, and yet as the years passed fees came to him
freely. One of $5,000 is recorded — a very large professional
fee at that time, even in any part of America, the paradise of
lawyers. I lay great stress on Lincoln's career as a lawyer —
much more than his biographers do — because in America a state
of things exists wholly different from that which prevails in
Great Britain. The profession of the law always has been, and
is to this day, the principal avenue to public life, and I am sure
that his training and experience in the courts had much to do
with the development of those forces of intellect and character
which he soon displayed on a broader arena.

" It was in political controversy, of course, that he acquired
his wide reputation, and made his deep and lasting impression
upon the people of what had now become the powerful state of
Illinois, and upon the people of the great West, to whom the
political power and control of the United States were already
surely and swiftly passing from the older Eastern States. It
was this reputation and this impression and the familiar knowl-
edge of his character which had come to them from his local
leadership, that happily inspired the people of the West to pre-
sent him as their candidate, and to press him upon the Repub-
lican Convention of 18G0, as the fit and necessary leader in the
struggle for life which was before the Nation.

'•'That struggle, as you all know, arose out of the terrible
question of slavery — and I must trust to your general knowl-
edge of the history of that question to make intelligible the
attitude and leadership of Lincoln as the champion of the hosts
cf freedom in the final contest. Negro slavery had been firmly
established in the Southern States from an early period of their
history. In 1619, the year before the Mayflower landed our
Pilgrim Fathers upon Plymouth Rock, a Dutch ship had dis-
charged a cargo of African slaves at Jamestown, in Virginia.
All through the Colonial period their importation had continued.
A few had found their way into the Northern States, but in none


of them in sufficient numbers to constitute danger or to afford
a basis for political power. At the time of the adoption of the
Federal Constitution there is no doubt that the principal mem-
bers of the convention not only condemned slavery as a moral,
social, and political evil, but believed that by the suppression
of the slave trade it was in the course of gradual extinction in
the South, as it certainly was in the North. Washington, in his
will, provided for the emancipation of his own slaves, and said
to Jefferson that it ' was among his first wishes to see some plan
adopted by which slavery in this country might be abolished. '
Jefferson said, referring to the institution: ' I tremble for my
country when I think that God is just ; that His justice cannot
sleep forever ' — and Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, and Patrick
Henry were all utterly opposed to it. But it was made the sub-
ject of a fatal compromise in the Federal Constitution, whereby
its existence was recognized in the States as a basis of repre-
sentation ; the prohibition of the importation of slaves was
postponed for twenty years, and the return of fugitive slaves
provided for. But no imminent danger was apprehended from
it till, by the invention of the cotton gin in 1792, cotton culture
by slave labor became at once the leading industry of the South
and gave a new impetus to the importation of slaves ; so that in
1808, when the Constitutional prohibition took effect, their
numbers had vastly increased. From that time forward slavery
became the basis of a great political power, and the Southern
States, under all circumstances and at every opportunity, car-
ried on a brave and unrelenting struggle for its maintenance and

"The conscience of the North was slow to rise against it,
though bitter controversies from time to time took place. The
Southern leaders threatened disunion if their demands were not
complied with. To save the Union, compromise after compro-
mise was made, but each one in the end was broken. The Mis-
souri Compromise, made in 1820 upon the occasion of the
admission of Missouri into the Union as a slave state whereby,
in consideration of such admission, slavery was forever excluded
from the Northwest Territory — was ruthlessly repealed in 1854


by a Congress elected in the interests of the slave power, the
intent being to force slavery into that vast territory which had
so long been dedicated to freedom. This challenge at last
aroused the slumbering conscience and passion of the North,
and led to the formation of the Republican party for the avowed
purpose of preventing, by Constitutional methods, the further
extension of slavery.

"In its first campaign, in 1856, though it failed to elect its
candidates, it received a surprising vote and carried many of the
States. No one could any longer doubt that the North had
made up its mind that no threats of disunion should deter it
from pressing its cherished purpose and performing its long neg-
lected duty. From the outset Lincoln was one of the most active
and effective leaders and speakers of the new party, and the
great debates between Douglas and Lincoln, in 1858, as the re-
spective champions of the extension and restriction of slavery,
attracted the attention of the whole country. Lincoln's power-
ful arguments carried conviction everywhere. His moral nature
was thoroughly aroused— his conscience was stirred to the quick.
Unless slavery was wrong, nothing was wrong. Was each man,
of whatever color, entitled to the fruits of his own labor, or
could one man live in idle luxury by the sweat of another's brow,
whose skin was darker? He was an implicit believer in that
principle of the Declaration of Independence, that all men are
vested with certain unalienable rights— the equal rights to life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness. On this doctrine he staked
his case and carried it. We have time only for one or two sen-
tences in which he struck the keynote of the contest :

" 'The real issue in this country is the eternal struggle be-
tween those two principles— right and wrong— throughout the
world. They are the two principles that have stood face to
face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to strug-
gle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other

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Online LibraryJoseph Hodges ChoateThe career and character of Abraham Lincoln : an address delivered by Joseph H. Choate, ambassador to Great Britain, at the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh, November 13, 1900 → online text (page 1 of 3)