Lincoln's Personal Life HTML version

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 self-reliance. Before the end, to be sure, he
attained a type of self-reliance, 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 self-
reliance. 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