Maurice G. (Maurice Garland) Fulton.

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To all appearance nobody could have been more than Abraham
Lincoln a man of his own time and place. Until 1858 his outer
life ran much in the same groove as that of hundreds of other
western politicians and lawyers. Beginning as a poor and
ignorant boy, even less provided with props and stepping-stones
than were his associates, he had worked his way to a position
of ordinary professional and political distinction. He was not,

iFrom The Promise of American Life. (Copyright, 1909, The Macmillan Company.)
Reprinted by permission.


like Douglas, a brilliant success. He was not, like Grant, an
apparently hopeless failure. He had achieved as much and as
little as hundreds of others had achieved. He was respected
by his neighbors as an honest man and as a competent lawyer.
They credited him with ability, but not to any extraordinary
extent. No one would have pointed him out as a remarkable
and distinguished man. He had shown himself to be desirous
of recognition and influence; but ambition had not been the
compelling motive in his life. In most respects his ideas, in-
terests, and standards were precisely the same as those of his
associates. He accepted with them the fabric of traditional
American political thought and the ordinary standards of con-
temporary political morality. He had none of the moral strenu-
ousness of the reformer, none of the exclusiveness of a man
whose purposes and ideas were consciously perched higher than
those of his neighbors. Probably the majority of his more
successful associates classed him as a good and able man who
was somewhat lacking in ambition and had too much of a dis-
position to loaf. He was most at home, not in his own house,
but in the corner grocery store, where he could sit with his feet
on the stove swapping stories with his friends; and if an English
traveler of 1850 had happened in on the group, he would most
assuredly have discovered another instance of the distressing
vulgarity to which the absence of an hereditary aristocracy and
an established church condemned the American democracy.
Thus no man could apparently have been more the average
product of his day and generation. Nevertheless, at bottom,
Abraham Lincoln differed as essentially from the ordinary
western American of the middle period as St. Francis af Assisi
differed from the ordinary Benedictine monk of the thirteenth

The average western American of Lincoln's generation was
fundamentally a man who subordinated his intelligence to cer-
tain dominant practical interests and purposes. He was far
from being a stupid or slow-witted man. On the contrary,
his wits had been sharpened by the traffic of American politics
and business, and his mind was shrewd, flexible, and alert.


But he was wholly incapable either of disinterested or of con-
centrated intellectual exertion. His energies were bent in the
conquest of certain stubborn external forces, and he used his
intelligence almost exclusively to this end. The struggles, the
hardships, and the necessary self-denial of pioneer life con-
stituted an admirable training of the will. It developed a body
of men with great resolution of purpose and with great ingenuity
and fertility in adapting their insufficient means to the realiza-
tion of their important business affairs. But their almost
exclusive preoccupation with practical tasks and their failure
to grant then* intelligence any room for independent exercise
bent them into exceedingly warped and one-sided human beings.
Lincoln, on the contrary, much as he was a man of his own
time and people, was precisely an example of high and disin-
terested intellectual culture. During all the formative years in
which his life did not superficially differ from that of his asso-
ciates, he was in point of fact using every chance which the
material of western life afforded to discipline and inform his
mind. These materials were not very abundant; and in the use
which he proceeded to make of them Lincoln had no assistance,
either from a sound tradition or from a better educated master.
On the contrary, as the history of the times shows, there was
every temptation for a man with a strong intellectual bent to
be betrayed into mere extravagance and aberration. But with
the sound instinct of a well-balanced intelligence Lincoln seized
upon the three available books, the earnest study of which
might best help to develop harmoniously a strong and many-
sided intelligence. He seized, that is, upon the Bible, Shaks-
pere, and Euclid. To his contemporaries the Bible was for the
most part a fountain of fanatic revivalism, and Shakspere, if
anything, a name of quotations. But in the case of Lincoln,
Shakspere and the Bible served, not merely to awaken his
taste and fashion his style, but also to liberate his literary and
moral imagination. At the same time he was training his powers
of thought by an assiduous study of algebra and geometry. The
absorbing hours he spent over his Euclid were apparently of
no use to him in his profession; but Lincoln was in his way an


intellectual gymnast and enjoyed the exertion for its own sake.
Such a use of his leisure must have seemed a sheer waste of time
to his more practical friends, and they might well have accounted
for his comparative lack of success by his indulgence hi such
secret and useless pastimes. Neither would this criticism have
been beside the mark, for if Lincoln's great energy and powers
of work had been devoted exclusively to practical ends, he might
well have become in the early days a more prominent lawyer
and politician than he actually was. But he preferred the satis-
faction of his own intellectual and social instincts, and so quali-
fied himself for achievements beyond the power of a Douglas.
In addition, however, to these private gymnastics Lincoln
shared with his neighbors a public and popular source of intel-
lectual and human insight. The western pioneers, for all their
exclusive devotion to practical purposes, wasted a good deal of
time on apparently useless social intercourse. In the middle
western towns of that day there was, as we have seen, an ex-
traordinary amount of good-fellowship, which was quite the most
wholesome and humanizing thing which entered into the lives
of these hard-working and hard-featured men. The whole male
countryside was in its way a club; and when the presence of
women did not make them awkward and sentimental, the men
let themselves loose in an amount of rough pleasantry and free
conversation which added the one genial and liberating touch to
their lives. This club life of his own people Lincoln enjoyed
and shared much more than did his average neighbor. He
passed the greater part of what he would have called his leisure
time in swapping stories with his friends, in which the genial
and humorous side of western life was embodied. Doubtless
his domestic unhappiness had much to do with his vagrancy; but
his native instinct for the wholesome and illuminating aspect of
the life around him brought him more frequently than any other
cause to the club of loafers in the general store. And whatever
the promiscuous conversation and the racy yarns meant to his
associates, they meant vastly more to Lincoln. His hours of
social vagrancy really completed the process of his intellectual
training. It relieved his culture from the taint of bookishness.


It gave substance to his humor. It humanized his wisdom and
enabled him to express it in a familiar and dramatic form. It
placed at his disposal, that is, the great classic vehicle of popular
expression, which is the parable and the spoken word.

Of course, it was just because he shared so completely the
amusements and the occupations of his neighbors that his pri-
vate personal culture had no embarrassing effects. Neither he
nor his neighbors were in the least aware that he had been
placed thereby hi a different intellectual class. No doubt the
loneliness and sadness of his personal life may be partly ex-
plained by a dumb sense of difference from his fellows; and no
doubt this very loneliness and sadness intensified the mental
preoccupation which was both the sign and the result of his
personal culture. But his unconsciousness of his own distinction,
as well as his regular participation in political and professional
practice, kept his will as firm and vigorous as if he were really
no more than a man of action. His natural steadiness of purpose
had been toughened in the beginning by the hardships and
struggles which he shared with his neighbors; and his self-im-
posed intellectual discipline in no way impaired the stability of
his character, because his personal culture never alienated him
from his neighbors and threw him into a consciously critical
frame of mind. The time which he spent in intellectual diver-
sion may have diminished to some extent his practical efficiency
previous to the gathering crisis. It certainly made him less
inclined to the aggressive self-assertion which a successful
political career demanded. But when the crisis came, when the
minds of northern patriots were stirred by the ugly alternative
offered to them by the South, and when Lincoln was by the
course of events restored to active participation in politics, he
soon showed that he had reached the highest of all objects of
personal culture. While still remaining one of a body of men
who, all unconsciously, impoverished their minds in order to
increase the momentum of their practical energy, he none the
less achieved for himself a mutually helpful relation between a
firm will and a luminous intelligence. . The training of his mind,
the awakening of his imagination, the formation of his taste and


style, the humorous dramatizing of his experience all this dis-
cipline had failed to pervert his character, narrow his sympa-
thies, or undermine his purposes. His intelligence served to
enlighten his will, and his will to establish the mature decisions
of his intelligence. Late in life the two faculties became in their
exercise almost indistinguishable. His judgments, in so far as
they were decisive, were charged with momentum, and his
actions were instinct with sympathy and understanding.

Just because his actions were instinct with sympathy and
understanding, Lincoln was certainly the most humane states-
man who ever guided a nation through a great crisis. He always
regarded other men and acted toward them, not merely as the
embodiment of an erroneous or harmful idea, but as human
beings, capable of better things; and consequently all of his
thoughts and actions looked in the direction of a higher level
of human association. It is this characteristic which makes
him a better and, be it hoped, a more prophetic democrat than
any other national American leader. His peculiar distinction
does not consist in the fact that he was a "man of the people"
who passed from the condition of splitting rails to the condition
of being President. No doubt he was in this respect as good a
democrat as you please, and no doubt it was desirable that he
should be this kind of a democrat. But many other Americans
could be named who were also men of the people, and who
passed from the most insignificant to the most honored positions
in American life. Lincoln's peculiar and permanent distinction
as a democrat will depend rather upon the fact that his thoughts
and his actions looked toward the realization of the highest
and most edifying democratic ideal. Whatever his theories
were, he showed by his general outlook and behavior that de-
mocracy meant to him more than anything else the spirit and
principle of brotherhood. He was the foremost to deny liberty
to the South, and he had his sensible doubts about the equality
between the negro and the white man; but he actually treated
everybody the southern rebel, the negro slave, the northern
deserter, the personal enemy in a just and kindly spirit.
Neither was this kindliness merely an instance of ordinary


American amiability and good nature. It was the result, not
of superficial feeling which could be easily ruffled, but of his
personal, moral, and intellectual discipline. He had made for
himself a second nature, compact of insight and loving-kindness.
It must be remembered, also, that this higher humanity
resided in a man who was the human instrument partly re-
sponsible for an awful amount of slaughter and human anguish.
He was not only the commander-in-chief of a great army which
fought a long and bloody war, but he was the statesman who
had insisted that, if necessary, the war should be fought. His
mental attitude was dictated by a mixture of practical common
sense with genuine human insight, and it is just this mixture
which makes him so rare a man and, be it hoped, so prophetic
a democrat. He could at one and the same moment order his
countrymen to be killed for seeking to destroy the American
nation and forgive them for their error. His kindliness and his
brotherly feeling did not lead him, after the manner of Jefferson,
to shirk the necessity and duty of national defence. Neither
did it lead him, after the manner of William Lloyd Garrison, to
advocate non-resistance, while at the same tune arousing in his
fellow-countrymen a spirit of fratricidal warfare. In the midst
of that hideous civil contest which was provoked, perhaps un-
necessarily, by hatred, irresponsibility, passion, and disloyalty,
and which has been the fruitful cause of national disloyalty down
to the present day, Lincoln did not for a moment cherish a
bitter or unjust feeling against the national enemies. The
southerners, filled as they were with a passionate democratic
devotion to their own interests and liberties, abused Lincoln
until they really came to believe that he was a military tyrant,
yet he never failed to treat them in a fair and forgiving spirit.
When he was assassinated, it was the South, as well as the
American nation, which had lost its best friend, because he
alone among the Republican leaders had the wisdom to see that
the divided House could only be restored by justice and kind-
ness; and if there are any defects in its restoration today, they
are chiefly due to the baleful spirit of injustice and hatred which
the Republicans took over from the Abolitionists.


His superiority to his political associates in constructive states-
manship is measured by his superiority in personal character.
There are many men who are able to forgive the enemies of their
country, but there are few who can forgive their personal ene-
mies. I need not rehearse the well-known instances of Lincoln's
magnanimity. He not only cherished no resentment against
men who had intentionally and even maliciously injured him,
but he seems at times to have gone out of his way to do them a
service. This is, perhaps, his greatest distinction. Lincoln's
magnanimity is the final proof of the completeness of his self-
discipline. The quality of being magnanimous is both the con-
summate virtue and the one which is least natural. It was cer-
tainly far from being natural among Lincoln's own people.
Americans of his time were generally of the opinion that it was
dishonorable to overlook a personal injury. They considered it
weak and unmanly not to quarrel with another man a little
harder than he quarreled with you. The pioneer was good-
natured and kindly; but he was aggressive, quick-tempered, un-
reasonable, and utterly devoid of personal discipline. A slight
or an insult to his personality became in his eyes a moral wrong
which must be cherished and avenged, and which relieved him
of any obligation to be just or kind to his enemy. Many con-
spicuous illustrations of this quarrelsome spirit are to be found
in the political life of the middle period, which, indeed, cannot
be understood without constantly falling back upon the influ-
ence of lively personal resentments. Every prominent politician
cordially disliked or hated a certain number of his political ad-
versaries and associates; and his public actions were often dic-
tated by a purpose either to injure these men or to get ahead of
them. After the retirement of Jackson these enmities and resent-
ments came to have a smaller influence; but a man's right and
duty to quarrel with anybody who, in his opinion, had done him
an injury was unchallenged, and was generally considered to be
the necessary accompaniment of American democratic virility.

As I have intimated above, Andrew Jackson was the most
conspicuous example of this quarrelsome spirit, and for this
reason he is wholly inferior to Lincoln as a type of democratic


manhood. Jackson had many admirable qualities and on the
whole he served his country well. He also was a "man of the
people" who understood and represented the mass of his fellow-
countrymen, and who played the part, according to his lights,
of a courageous and independent political leader. He also
loved and defended the Union. But with all his excellence he
should never be held up as a model to American youth. The
world was divided into his personal friends and followers and
his personal enemies, and he was as eager to do the latter an
injury as he was to do the former a service. His quarrels were
not petty, because Jackson was, on the whole, a big rather
than a little man, but they were fierce and they were for the most
part irreconcilable. They bulk so large hi his life that they can-
not be overlooked. They stamp him a type of the vindictive
man without personal discipline, just as Lincoln's behavior
towards Stanton, Chase, and others stamps him a type of
the man who has achieved magnanimity. He is the kind of
national hero the admiring imitation of whom can do nothing
but good.

Lincoln had abandoned the illusion of his own peculiar per-
sonal importance. He had become profoundly and sincerely
humble, and his humility was as far as possible from being
either a conventional pose or a matter of nervous self-distrust.
It did not impair the firmness of his will. It did not betray
him into shirking responsibilities. Although only a country
lawyer without executive experience, he did not flinch from
assuming the leadership of a great nation in one of the gravest
crises of its national history, from becoming commander-in-chief
of an army of a million men, and from spending $3,000,000,000
in the prosecution of a war. His humility, that is, was precisely
an example of moral vitality and insight rather than of moral
awkwardness and enfeeblement. It was the fruit of reflection
on his own personal experience the supreme instance of his
ability to attain moral truth both in discipline and in idea; and
in its aspect of a moral truth it obtained a more explicit expres-
sion than did some other of his finer personal attributes. His
practice of cherishing and repeating the plaintive little verses


which inquire monotonously whether the spirit of mortal has
any right to be proud indicates the depth and the highly con-
scious character of this fundamental moral conviction. He is
not only humble himself, but he feels and declares that men have
no right to be anything but humble; and he thereby enters into
possession of the most fruitful and the most universal of all
religious ideas.

Lincoln's humility, no less than his liberal intelligence and
his magnanimous disposition, is more democratic than it is
American; but in this, as in so many other cases, his personal
moral dignity and his peculiar moral insight did not separate
him from his associates. Like them, he wanted professional
success, public office, and the ordinary rewards of American
life; and like them, he bears no trace of political or moral
purism. But unlike them, he was not the intellectual and moral
victim of his own purposes and ambitions; and unlike them, his
life is a tribute to the sincerity and depth of his moral insight.
He could never have become a national leader by the ordinary
road of insistent and clamorous self-assertion. Had he not been
restored to public life by the crisis, he would have remained in
all probability a comparatively obscure and a wholly under-
valued man. But the political ferment of 1856 and the threat
of ruin overhanging the American Union pushed him again on
to the political highway; and once there, his years of intellectual
discipline enabled him to play a leading and a decisive part.
His personality obtained momentum, direction, and increasing
dignity from its identification with great issues and events. He
became the individual instrument whereby an essential and
salutary national purpose was fulfilled; and the instrument was
admirably effective, precisely because it had been silently and
unconsciously tempered and formed for high achievement.
Issue as he was of a society in which the cheap tool, whether
mechanical or personal, was the immediately successful tool,
he had none the less labored long in the making of a consum-
mate individual instrument.

Some of my readers may protest that I have over-emphasized
the difference between Lincoln and his contemporary fellow-


countrymen. In order to exalt the leader have I not too much
disparaged the followers? Well, a comparison of this kind
always involves the risk of unfairness; but if there is much truth
in the foregoing estimate of Lincoln, the lessons of the com-
parison are worth its inevitable risks. The ordinary interpre-
tation of Lincoln as a consummate democrat and a "man of
the people" has implied that he was, like Jackson, simply a
bigger and a better version of the plain American citizen; and
it is just this interpretation which I have sought to deny and
to expose. In many respects he was, of course, very much like
his neighbors and associates. He accepted everything whole-
some and useful in their life and behavior. He shared their
good-fellowship, their strength of will, their excellent faith, and
above all their innocence; and he could never have served his
country so well, or reached as high a level of personal dignity,
in case he had not been good-natured and strong and innocent.
But, as all commentators have noted, he was not only good-
natured, strong, and innocent; he had made himself intellectually
candid, concentrated, and disinterested, and morally humane,
magnanimous, and humble. All these qualities, which were the
very flower of his personal life, were not possessed either by
the average or the exceptional American of his day; and not only
were they not possessed, but they were either wholly ignored
or consciously undervalued. Yet these very qualities of high
intelligence, humanity, magnanimity, and humility are pre-
cisely the qualities which Americans, in order to become better
democrats, should add to their strength, their homogeneity, and
their innocence; while at the same time they are just the qualities
which Americans are prevented by their individualistic practice
and tradition from attaining or properly valuing. Their deepest
convictions make the average unintelligent man the repre-
sentative democrat, and the aggressive successful individual the
admirable national type; and in conformity with these convic-
tions their uppermost ideas in respect to Lincoln are that he
was a "man of the people" and an example of strong will.
He was both of these things, but his great distinction is that he
was also something vastly more and better. He cannot be


fully understood and properly valued as a national hero with-
out an implicit criticism of these traditional convictions. Such
a criticism he himself did not and could not make. In case he
had made it, he could never have achieved his great political
task and his great personal triumph. But other times bring other
needs. It is as desirable today that the criticism should be made
explicit as it was that Lincoln himself in his day should preserve
the innocence and integrity of a unique unconscious example.



[Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) is well known in nineteenth century English
literature as a poet, but more particularly as a critic of literature and of
society. He twice visited America on lecture tours once in 1883-1884 and
again in 1886 and it was during the first of these visits that he delivered
his notable address on Emerson, which was subsequently published, together
with others of his lectures, in the volume entitled, Discourses in America.

Online LibraryMaurice G. (Maurice Garland) FultonNational ideals and problems; essays for college English → online text (page 8 of 39)