William H. (William Henry) Branigan.

Abraham Lincoln, online

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This Sermon was preached in the Unitarian Church,

Peterboro, N. H., Lincoln Centennial Sunday,

February 7, 1909, and is printed

by request.





" A leader and commander to the people."— /ja/aA 55:4-
I know of no words that more fitly describe, in a general
way, our great war President, than do these words of the Old
Testament. Abraham Lincoln was preeminently a leader. He
was a born commander, and he was a " leader and commander
to the people." Not to the people of any one section or party
merely— not to the people of the North or South, of the East
or West— but to the people of this whole nation, over which, in
the providence of God, he was appointed to rule. It is said
that at the moment of Lincoln's death, Stanton uttered this
eulogy : " There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world
has ever seen."

The life of Abraham Lincoln reads more like a romance of
fiction than a tale of reality. The elements which enter in-
to his biography are of the simplest, plainest, homeliest, most
common-place nature imaginable ; and yet as we look back
upon them in the light of history, there is somehow about them
a singular fascination. They are, as it were, transfigured be-
fore us. They are clothed in a glory and beauty which mere
art were powerless either to create or to portray. Born in ob-
scurity and poverty, sharing the hardships and privations of pio-
neer life in the South and West during his childhood and
youth and early manhood, then through the successive occu-
pations of rail-splitter, grocery clerk, postmaster, surveyor, law-
yer, politician and statesman, slowly but surely climbing the
ladder of success until at last he stood on its topmost round
as President of the United States— from which, in the very
moment of his fame and triumph, he was translated by martyr-
dom into the great company of earth's immortals— I know of
no other life in human history (save that of Jesus himself ) so

alluring, so helpful, so uplifting, so encouraging, so inspir-
ing to men, as the life of Lincoln.

Wherein, let us ask ourselves, lies the secret of the strange
hold which Lincoln has upon our day and generation, one
hundred years after his birth and nearly half a century since
the date of his death ? What gives him his secure place in
the memory and affections of the American people ? Wjiat
is the key to the ever-growing influence which he exerts up-
on our modern civilization and our twentieth-century institu-
tions? Why is it that being dead he yet speaks? What is the
vital quality of such a life as his which not only shapes the
course of history in its own time but which moulds the events
of ages ? What, in a word, constitutes the greatness and re-
nown of Lincoln which makes his name a familiar household
word the world around, and crowns it with the tributes of
men's praise ?

To begin with, it is not wealth. If it were true — as it is
not true — that the American people of the present day wor-
ship at the shrine of the great god Mammon, then the life of
Lincoln would have but little claim upon our attention. If it
were true that the aim and ambition and end of life were mon-
ey-getting, then the successful career of a Russell Sage or a
John D. Rockefeller would be of more absorbing interest to our
American youth than the story of Lincoln the boy who slept on
a bed of leaves ; or of Lincoln the lawyer whose conscientious
scruples would not permit him to charge exorbitant fees for his
services ; or of Lincoln the most prominent statesman of his
time who, throughout his public career, lived simply and unos-
tentatiously, and died a comparatively poor man. No, the life
of Abraham Lincoln is a standing rebuke to the false and per-
nicious doctrine of materialism, that wealth spells success.
" Wealth," he once said himself, " is simply a superfluity of
things we don't need."

It is not aristocratic birth, or illustrious lineage, or social
prestige that accounts for the greatness of Lincoln. There was
no royal blood in his veins. He was too proud to care from
whence he came. " I don't know who my grandfather was,"

he said, " and am much more concerned to know what his
grandson will be."

Nor had Lincoln any of the exterior graces of personal beau-
ty and polished manners to recommend him. Raw-boned, awk-
ward, ugly in form and features, he was one of the homeliest of
men. He was called " that tall, crooked man," " the long-armed
creature from Illinois." It is said that a wood cut of him in the
New York Tribune, the day after his nomination, lost him
twenty-five votes in one township. His appearance is described
as that " of a rustic on his first visit to the circus." Col.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, speaking of Dr. Holmes's ideal
of a President of the United States, that he should be conven-
tionally a gentleman, " suited to walk directly as he was, into
any court of the world and not astonish anybody," says that
tried by that standard. President Lincoln would not have ful-
filled the conception.

Nor can you account for Lincoln's success on the ground of
mere luck. Like all success in this world it was " the legiti-
mate result of adequate causes."

It is only as we go back of all the adventitious circumstances
which I have named, that we discover the real explanation of
Lincoln's greatness. Its source was not from without, but from
within the man. It lay in the strength of his intellectual and
moral and spiritual qualities. Lincoln stands for supremacy of
character in the struggle of life ; for man's superiority to his
environment ; for the triumph of truth and rightousness over the
powers of darkness and evil. Lowell rightly calls Lincoln "our
first great American." He preeminently typifies the ideas of a
great Republic. He represents ideal democracy. He is the
very embodiment of the fundamental principles of our American
institutions. He is more thoroughly American in this respect
than Washington even. Between Washington and Lincoln
there is a likeness and a difference. They were both self-
taught, both surveyors, both rose by their own abilities to posi-
tions of the highest usefulness and honor ; both became Presi-
dents of the United States, and both were great and good men.
But Washington was an aristocrat, a patrician. He was born

of a Virginia family in easy circumstances. His boyhood was
one of pleasure rather than of hardship ; and later he himself
became a typical southern planter, and a large slaveholder.
Lincoln, on the other hand, was a plebeian of the plebeians;
of the lowliest and most obscure origin ; inured to toil and hard-
ship from the first ; a representative of the laboring classes ; a
man of the common people. He was a life-long champion of
the poor, the friendless, the down-trodden and the oppressed.
Hating with every drop of his blood the iniquitous system
of slavery, he stood for the American conception of the equal
rights of man — that is, of giving to every man, as far as possi-
ble, an equal chance in life.

It is this intensely human quality in Lincoln which appeals
to men, which draws them to him, which inspires them with
reverence and affection for his memory. The more human
we are, the greater and nobler we must perforce become; for
it is the human element in man which is akin to the divine ele-
ment in God. And Lincoln was the great humanitarian. He
is our foremost American citizen. He stands upon his lofty
pedestal of fame not by the favor of fortune, but through the
virtue of achievement. He is a splendid example — not only to
America but to the world — of the imperishable success, though
it be crowned with martyrdom, which waits on godlike charac-

We must not speak of character, however, in too general a
way. We must not think of it as some vague, abstract, myste-
rious quality of human nature. It is capable of being ana-
lyzed into its component parts, and so studied for our instruc-
tion and benefit. What were some of the more conspicuous
traits then, let us go on to inquire, of Abraham Lincoln's

I. I name, in the first place, his honesty. That has become
proverbial. Honesty with Lincoln was not mere prudential
policy, it was a sacred principle. He was more than honest,
he was the very soul of honor. He was true to himself, to his
own conscience, to the best and noblest instincts of his nature.
Honesty is the golden thread that is interwoven with the very

fabric of his manhood and shines throughout his whole career,
from beginning to end.

We see it in his business dealings. It is Lincoln the grocery
clerk who returns the money which he has received by mistake,
and walks a mile to correct a slight error which he has made in
weighing a half-pound of tea for one of his customers. It is
Lincoln who, later on, becoming involved in a business fail-
ure, refuses to take advantage of the law of bankruptcy and set-
tles his partner's debts — though it takes years of the closest
economy to do so — because a promise is a moral obligation
from which no legal excuse can absolve a man.

Again, the honesty of Lincoln's character is revealed con-
spicuously in his profession as a lawyer. He held honor to be
the essential quality of that profession. He believed that " those
things which detract from the character of the man detract
from the character of the lawyer." "If, in your judgment,
you cannot be an honest lawyer," was his advice to young men,
"resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some
other occupation rather than one in the choosing of which you
do, in advance, consent to be a knave." " Discourage litiga-
tion," was his advice to lawyers themselves. "Persuade your
neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them
how the nominal winner is often the real loser — in fees, expenses
and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior
opportunity of becoming a good man. There will always be
enough business. Never stir up litigation. A worse man can
scarcely be found than one who does this. Who can be more
nearly a fiend than he who habitually overhauls the register of
deeds in search of defects in titles, whereon to stir up strife and
put money in his pocket ? A moral tone ought to be infused
into the profession which should drive such men out of it."

Lincoln practised what he preached. He lived up to the high-
est ideals of his profession. It is said that he was only formi-
dable in court when he believed thoroughly in "the justice of his
cause," and that he would abandon a client if he found he was
defending a guilty man. But, with the truth on his side, no
man could appeal to a jury more convincingly than he.

After the famous murder trial in which Lincoln freed Arm-
strong by bringing an almanac into the courtroom and proving
thereby that there was no moon on the night in which the mur-
der was committed, contrary to the testimony of one of the im-
portant witnesses in the case — the story arose that Lincoln
fooled the jury by having an almanac printed for that special
purpose. Nothing could be farther from the truth, or a greater
libel upon Lincoln's integrity. He was absolutely incapable of
such deception. To him dissimulation was an unknown art.
His armor was his honest thought, and simple truth his highest

It is during his political career, perhaps — under those condi-
tions in which the practice of absolute honesty is usually con-
sidered most difficult — that we most admire it in Lincoln. In
a speech delivered in the legislature at Springfield, Illinois, on
a measure of which he did not approve, he uttered these brave
words : " You may burn my body to ashes, and scatter them to
the winds of heaven ; you may drag my soul down to the
regions of darkness and despair to be tormented forever ; but
you will never get me to support a measure which I believe to
be wrong, although by doing so I may accomplish that which I
believe to be right."

In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln eventually
vanquished his opponent and gained the Presidency, not through
superior force of intellect and eloquence alone, but through his
ability to find the sophistries in Douglas's arguments and thrust
them through and through with the naked sword of truth.

So during his whole career as President of the United States
— amid all the trials and temptations of those troublous times
— Lincoln was absolutely and uncompromisingly true to the
dictates of his own conscience. " I desire," he said, " to so
conduct the affairs of this administration that if, at the end,
when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every
other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and
that friend shall be down inside of me."

Honest Abraham Lincoln !

2. I name as the second great trait of Lincoln's character,

which it will be profitable for us to consider, his rare good judg-
ment and common-sense, springing from his wide knowledge of
human nature and his large mental grasp of public affairs

Uneducated, in the conventional sense of the term, Lincoln,
by his own efforts, acquired what few so-called educated people
possess — the ability to think. He had the rare faculty of re-
ducing the most perplexing legal and moral questions to their
simplest terms. By keeping these, in the form of propositions,
constantly before his mind, he never lost sight of the real issue.
He used to say that " Euclid, well studied, would free the world
of half its calamities." The object of education, with Lincoln,
was to reason clearly and to express himself clearly ; and the
practical results of this mental discipline appear in the con-
vincing logic of his political debates, in the charming literary
style of his state papers, and in his solution of the slavery
question and salvation of the Union. It is said that he " read
less and thought more than any man of his standing in America,
if not in the world." Herein lay one of the chief sources of
his greatness. He was self-reliant. He trusted himself. Like
all great men, he was chary of his friendships. We are told
that he never had more than two or three intimate friends whom
he admitted to his confidence. It is true he sought advice from
many sources — skillfully drawing out the opinions of men of all
shades of belief in his conversations with them — but in the end
he acted independently. Like all great leaders, also, he was an
opportunist. He knew the value of public opinion, and studied
it, and shaped his course in accordance with it. He realized
that without its sanction no law can be enforced ; and, as in the
case of the Emancipation Proclamation, he did not act until the
time was fully ripe. Issued sooner, in all probability, that proc-
lamation would have failed.

Lincoln had what has been called the distinguishing charac-
teristic of a great statesman, namely, the ability to see the
whole of a problem instead of a part of it merely. As a law-
yer, he could state the opposite side of a case as clearly as his
own side. His fairness to his opponents, in this respect, was
remarkable, and contributed greatly to his success. So, as

President of the United States, he viewed the pubHc questions
of his day in every possible light. Herein lay the secret of his
skill in dealing with the slavery issue. In the entire history of
this country there has never been a more intricate and difficult
problem confronting it than this, and the patience and wisdom
and tact and prudence of Lincoln in meeting it were wonder-
ful. Beset by conflicting views on every hand — opposed not
only by the deep-rooted traditions of the Southern slave-holding
states, but harrassed by pro-slavery sentiments in the North as
well , listening today to the arguments of the abolitionists, and
tomorrow to the "exponents of peace-at-any-price ; " with men
high in the counsels of the nation seeking to influence him in
different ways ; with Phillips and Garrison distrustful of him,
with Greely denouncing him and the members of his own
cabinet at variance with him — to me it is one of the most
remarkable instances of the guidance of a Divine Providence
in the history of nations, that Lincoln made no mistake in
dealing with the slavery question.

That question, however, we must remember, was not upper-
most in Lincoln's patriotic mind. His one idea was the preser-
vation of the Union. The fortunes of the institution of slavery
were contingent on that paramount issue. He would save the
Union, whether with slavery or without it. But the time came
when he realized " that slavery must die that the nation might
live ; " when he saw clearly that as a house divided against it-
self cannot stand, so this nation could not endure " half-slave
and half-free." Then the Emancipation Proclamation — the
greatest document since the Declaration of Independence, and
the demonstration of the assertion, as it has been called, that all
men are created free — was written. No wonder that when
Lincoln signed it his hand trembled ! "As affairs have turned,"
he afterwards said with reference to it, " it is the central act of
my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth cen-

Thus this great, wise, cautious, level-headed, far-seeing man,
— as Theodore Tilton said of him : " Bound the nation and un-
bound the slave."


3- In our enumeration of Lincoln's virtues we must not
overlook another fundamental quality of his greatness, namely,
his charity, his magnanimity. It is said that the key-note of
his character may be found in his own oft-quoted words in the
concluding sentence of the second inaugural address : " With
malice towards none, with charity for all." " Charity," says the
great apostle, " suffereth long, and is kind ; charity envieth not ;
charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave it-
self unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked,
thinketh no evil ; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the
truth ; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things,
endureth all things." Surely if these words might be written of
any one man, they might most appropriately be used to describe
the character of Abraham Lincoln. Absolutely free from the
spirit of resentment, humble, seeking the good of others rather
than his own advancement, self-controlled, seeing the virtues
rather than the vices of men, consecrated to truth, long-suffer-
ing, patient, hopeful, forbearing — Lincoln was the very embod-
iment of this thirteenth chapter of Paul's first epistle to the
Corinthians. The kindliness of his nature was especially dis-
closed in the generous, forgiving disposition which he mani-
fested toward his enemies. In the exercise of the pardoning
power, indeed, this was carried to such an extent that some re-
garded it as an element of weakness rather than of strength in
his character. '• Well, I don't believe shooting will do him any
good," he would say of some poor soldier who had been con-
demmed to die and whose case had been recommended to his
clemency. " Give me that pen,"— and he would sign a paper
granting his pardon. Lincoln's failings, in this respect, leaned
to virtue's side. He was the friend of the erring and the friend-
less. He put himself in their place, and entered into their ex-
periences and troubles. " I never felt sure," he said, speaking
of deserters from the army, " but I might drop my gun and run
away if I found myself in line of battle." The soldiers—
whether on the field or in the camps and prisons and hospitals
—never had a firmer, more faithful, warmer, personal friend than
"Father Abraham," as he was reverently and affectionately called.


4. It seems almost superfluous in this pulpit, after all that I
have said, to ask the question if Lincoln was a religious man ;
but I should not appropriately conclude my sermon did I not
pause for a moment to emphasize as the finest and highest
quality of Lincoln's noble and heroic nature, his belief in and
reliance upon a Supreme Power in the universe, regula-
ting and controlling the affairs of men. In evidence of this we
have only to turn to the speech which he made to his neighbors
and friends on leaving his home in Springfield, Illinois, for
Washington to assume the duties of the Presidency. On that
occasion he said : " A duty devolves upon me which is, perhaps,
greater than that which has devolved upon any other man since
the days of Washington. He never would have succeeded ex-
cept for the aid of Divine Providence, upon which he at all
times relied. I feel that I cannot succeed without the same
Divine aid which sustained him, and on the same Almighty Being
I place my reliance for support, and I hope you, my friends, will
all pray that I may receive that Divine assistance, without
which I cannot succeed, but with which success is certain."
And after slavery had been overthrown, and the long, bloody
conflict was ended, and the Union was saved — when that suc-
cess for which he prayed and toiled had indeed come at last —
" You must not give me the praise," he said humbly, " it be-
longs to God."

That was Lincoln's religion. Now just a word more concern-
ing his religious belief. Lincoln belonged to no church, though
he was a regular attendant of the Presbyterian church of
Springfield, Illinois, of which his wife, I think, was a member.
'■'■Lincoln's religion was a creedless Christianity y It was the re-
ligion of Unitarianism. " I have never united myself to any
church," he once said in conversation with a friend, " because
I have found difficulty in giving my assent, without mental res-
ervation, to the long, complicated statements of Christian doc-
trines which characterize their Articles of Belief and Confes-
sions of Faith. When any church will inscribe over its altar, as
the sole qualification for membership, the Saviour's condensed
statement of the substance of both Law and Gospel, ' Thou


shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy
soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself,' that
church will I join with all my heart and all my soul."

" Such was he, our Martyr-Chief,


Wise, steadfast in the strength of God, and true.


One whose meek flock the people joyed to be,

Not lured by any cheat of birth.
But by his clear-grained human worth,

And brave old wisdom of sincerity !


The kindly-earnest, brave, foreseeing man,
Sagacious, patient, dreading praise, not blame.
New birth of our new soil, the first American."

APR 27 1909



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Online LibraryWilliam H. (William Henry) BraniganAbraham Lincoln, → online text (page 1 of 1)