Lincoln's Personal Life by Nathaniel Wright Stephenson - HTML preview

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The Dark Horse


One of the most curious things in Lincoln is the way his confidence in himself came and went. He had none of Douglas's unwavering selfreliance. Before the end, to be sure, he attained a type of selfreliance, higher and more imperturbable. But this was not the fruit of a steadfast unfolding. Rather, he was like a tree with its alternating periods of growth and pause, now richly in leaf, now dormant. Equally applicable is the other familiar image of the successive waves.

The clue seems to have been, in part at least, a matter of vitality. Just as Douglas emanated vitality--so much so that his aura filled the whole Senate chamber and forced an unwilling response in the gifted but hostile woman who watched him from the gallery

 -Lincoln, conversely, made no such overpowering impression. His observers, however much they have to say about his humor, his seasons of Shakespearian mirth, never forget their impression that at heart he is sad. His fondness for poetry in the minor key has become a byword, especially the line "Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud."

It is impossible to discover any law governing the succession of his lapses in selfreliance. But they may be related very plausibly to his sense of failure or at least to his sense of futility. He was one of those intensely sensitive natures to whom the futilities of this world are its most discouraging feature. Whenever such ideas were brought home to him his energy flagged; his vitality, never high, sank. He was prone to turn away from the outward life to lose himself in the inner. All this is part of the phenomena which Herndon perceived more clearly than he comprehended it, which led him to call Lincoln a fatalist.

A humbler but perhaps more accurate explanation is the reminder that he was son to Thomas the unstable. What happened in Lincoln's mind when he returned defeated from Washington, that ghost-like rising of the impulses of old Thomas, recurred more than once thereafter. In fact there is a period well-defined, a span of thirteen years terminating suddenly on a day in 1862, during which the ghost of old Thomas is a thing to be reckoned with in his son's life. It came and went, most of the time fortunately far on the horizon. But now and then it drew near. Always it was lurking somewhere, waiting to seize upon him in those moments when his vitality sank, when his energies were in the ebb, when his thoughts were possessed by a sense of futility.

The year 1859 was one of his ebb tides. In the previous year the rising tide, which had mounted high during his success on the circuit, reached its crest The memory of his failure at Washington was effaced. At Freeport he was a more powerful genius, a more dominant personality, than he had ever been. Gradually, in the months following, the high wave subsided. During 1859 he gave most of his attention to his practice. Though political speech-making continued, and though he did not impair his reputation, he did nothing of a remarkable sort. The one literary fragment of any value is a letter to a Boston committee that had invited him to attend a "festival" in Boston on Jefferson's birthday. He avowed himself a thoroughgoing disciple of Jefferson and pronounced the principles of Jefferson "the definitions and axioms of free society." Without conditions he identified his own cause with the cause of Jefferson, "the man who in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there that today and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression."[1]

While the Boston committee were turning their eyes toward this great new phrase-maker of the West, several politicians in Illinois had formed a bold resolve. They would try to make him President. The movement had two sources--the personal loyalty of his devoted friends of the circuit, the shrewdness of the political managers who saw that his duel with Douglas had made him a national figure. As one of them said to him, "Douglas being so widely known, you are getting a national reputation through him." Lincoln replied that he did not lack the ambition but lacked altogether the confidence in the possibility of success.[2]

This was his attitude during most of 1859. The glow, the enthusiasm, of the previous year was gone. "I must in candor say that I do not think myself fit for the Presidency," he wrote to a newspaper editor in April. He used the same words to another correspondent in July. As late as November first, he wrote, "For my single self, I have enlisted for the permanent success of the Republican cause, and for this object I shall labor faithfully in the ranks, unless, as I think not probable, the judgment of the party shall assign me a different position."[3]

Meanwhile, both groups of supporters had labored unceasingly, regardless of his approval. In his personal following, the companionableness of twenty years had deepened into an almost romantic loyalty. The leaders of this enthusiastic attachment, most of them lawyers, had no superiors for influence in Illinois. The man who had such a following was a power in politics whether he would or no. This the mere politicians saw. They also saw that the next Republican nomination would rest on a delicate calculation of probabilities. There were other Republicans more conspicuous than Lincoln--Seward in New York, Sumner in Massachusetts, Chase in Ohio--but all these had inveterate enemies. Despite their importance would it be safe to nominate them? Would not the party be compelled to take some relatively minor figure, some essentially new man? In a word, what we know as a "dark horse." Believing that this would happen, they built hopefully on their faith in Lincoln.

Toward the end of the year he was at last persuaded to take his candidacy seriously. The local campaign for his nomination had gone so far that a failure to go further would have the look of being discarded as the local Republican leader. This argument decided him. Before the year's end he had agreed to become a candidate before the convention. In his own words, "I am not in a position where it would hurt much for me to not be nominated on the national ticket; but I am where it would hurt some for me to not get the Illinois delegates."[4]

It was shortly after this momentous decision that he went to New York by invitation and made his most celebrated, though not in any respect his greatest, oration.[5] A large audience filled Cooper Union, February 27, 1860. William Cullen Bryant presided. David Dudley Field escorted Lincoln to the platform. Horace Greeley was in the audience. Again, the performance was purely literary. No formulation of new policies, no appeal for any new departure. It was a masterly restatement of his position; of the essence of the debates with Douglas. It cleansed the Republican platform of all accidental accretions, as if a ship's hull were being scraped of barnacles preparatory to a voyage; it gave the underlying issues such inflexible definition that they could not be juggled with. Again he showed a power of lucid statement not possessed by any of his rivals. An incident of the speech was his unsparing condemnation of John Brown whose raid and death were on every tongue. "You charge that we stir up insurrections among your slaves," said he, apostrophizing the slave-holders. "We deny it, and what is your proof? 'Harper's Ferry; John Brown!' John Brown was no Republican; and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in this Harper's Ferry enterprise. . .

"John Brown's effort was peculiar. It was not a slave insurrection. It was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate. In fact, it was so absurd that the slaves with all their ignorance saw plainly enough that it could not succeed. That affair in its philosophy corresponds with the many attempts related in history at the assassination of kings and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of the people until he fancies himself commissioned by heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt which ends in little else than his own execution. Orsini's attempt on Louis Napoleon, and John Brown's attempt at Harper's Ferry were, in their philosophy, precisely the same. The eagerness to cast blame on old England in the one case and on New England in the other, does not disprove the sameness of the two things."

The Cooper Union speech received extravagant praise from all the Republican newspapers. Lincoln's ardent partisans assert that it took New York "by storm." Rather too violent a way of putting it! But there can be no doubt that the speech made a deep impression. Thereafter, many of the Eastern managers were willing to consider Lincoln as a candidate, should factional jealousies prove uncompromising. Any port in a storm, you know. Obviously, there could be ports far more dangerous than this "favorite son" of Illinois.

Many national conventions in the United States have decided upon a compromise candidate, "a dark horse," through just such reasoning. The most noted instance is the Republican Convention of 1860. When it assembled at Chicago in June, the most imposing candidate was the brilliant leader of the New York Republicans, Seward. But no man in the country had more bitter enemies. Horace Greeley whose paper The Tribune was by far the most influential Republican organ, went to Chicago obsessed by one purpose: because of irreconcilable personal quarrels he would have revenge upon Seward. Others who did not hate Seward were afraid of what Greeley symbolized. And all of them knew that whatever else happened, the West must be secured.

The Lincoln managers played upon the Eastern jealousies and the Eastern fears with great skill. There was little sleep among the delegates the night previous to the balloting. At just the right moment, the Lincoln managers, though their chief had forbidden them to do so, offered promises with regard to Cabinet appointments.[6] And they succeeded in packing the galleries of the Convention Hall with a perfectly organized claque-"rooters," the modern American would say.

 The result on the third ballot was a rush to Lincoln of all the enemies of Seward, and Lincoln's nomination amid a roaring frenzy of applause.