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

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Unsatisfying Recognition


Lincoln's career as a Congressman, 1847-1849, was just what might have been expected-his career in the Illinois Legislature on a larger scale. It was a pleasant, companionable, unfruitful episode, with no political significance. The leaders of the party did not take him seriously as a possible initiate to their ranks. His course was that of a loyal member of the Whig mass. In the party strategy, during the debates over the Mexican War and the Wilmot Proviso, he did his full party duty, voting just as the others did. Only once did he attempt anything original--a bill to emancipate the slaves of the District, which was little more than a restatement of his protest of ten years before--and on this point Congress was as indifferent as the Legislature had been. The bill was denied a hearing and never came to a vote before the House.[1]

And yet Lincoln did not fail entirely to make an impression at Washington. And again it was the Springfield experience repeated. His companionableness was recognized, his modesty, his good nature; above all, his story-telling. Men liked him. Plainly it was his humor, his droll ways, that won them; together with instant recognition of his sterling integrity.

"During the Christmas holidays," says Ben Perley Poore, "Mr. Lincoln found his way into the small room used as the Post Office of the House, where a few genial reconteurs used to meet almost every morning after the mail had been distributed into the members' boxes, to exchange such new stories as any of them might have acquired since they had last met. After modestly standing at the door for several days, Mr. Lincoln was reminded of a story, and by New Year's he was recognized as the champion story-teller of the Capital. His favorite seat was at the left of the open fireplace, tilted back in his chair with his long legs reaching over to the chimney jamb."[2]

In the words of another contemporary, "Congressman Lincoln was very fond of howling and would frequently. . . meet other members in a match game at the alley of James Casparus. . . . He was an awkward bowler, but played the game with great zest and spirit solely for exercise and amusement, and greatly to the enjoyment and entertainment of the other players, and by reason of his criticisms and funny illustrations. . . . When it was known that he was in the alley, there would assemble numbers of people to witness the fun which was anticipated by those who knew of his fund of anecdotes and jokes. When in the alley, surrounded by a crowd of eager listeners, he indulged with great freedom in the sport of narrative, some of which were very broad."[3]

Once, at least, he entertained Congress with an exhibition of his humor, and this, oddly enough, is almost the only display of it that has come down to us, first hand. Lincoln's humor has become a tradition. Like everything else in his outward life, it changed gradually with his slow devious evolution from the story-teller of Pigeon Creek to the author of the Gettysburg Oration. It is known chiefly through translation. The "Lincoln Stories" are stories someone else has told who may or may not have heard them told by Lincoln. They are like all translations, they express the translator not the original--final evidence that Lincoln's appeal as a humorist was in his manner, his method, not in his substance. "His laugh was striking. Such awkward gestures belonged to no other man. They attracted universal attention from the old sedate down to the schoolboy."[4] He was a famous mimic.

Lincoln is himself the authority that he did not invent his stories. He picked them up wherever he found them, and clothed them with the peculiar drollery of his telling. He was a wag rather than a wit. All that lives in the second-hand repetitions of his stories is the mere core, the original appropriated thing from which the inimitable decoration has fallen off. That is why the collections of his stories are such dreary reading,--like Carey's Dante, or Bryant's Homer. And strange to say, there is no humor in his letters. This man who was famous as a wag writes to his friends almost always in perfect seriousness, often sadly. The bit of humor that has been preserved in his one comic speech in Congress,--a burlesque of the Democratic candidate of 1848, Lewis Cass,--shorn as it is of his manner, his tricks of speech and gesture, is hardly worth repeating.[5]

Lincoln was deeply humiliated by his failure to make a serious impression at Washington.[6] His eyes opened in a startled realization that there were worlds he could not conquer. The Washington of the 'forties was far indeed from a great capital; it was as friendly to conventional types of politician as was Springfield or Vandalia. The man who could deal in ideas as political counters, the other man who knew the subtleties of the art of graft, both these were national as well as local figures. Personal politics were also as vicious at Washington as anywhere; nevertheless, there was a difference, and in that difference lay the secret of Lincoln's failure. He was keen enough to grasp the difference, to perceive the clue to his failure. In a thousand ways, large and small, the difference came home to him. It may all be symbolized by a closing detail of his stay. An odd bit of incongruity was the inclusion of his name in the list of managers of the Inaugural Ball of 1849. Nothing of the sort had hitherto entered into his experience. As Mrs. Lincoln was not with him he joined "a small party of mutual friends" who attended the ball together. As one of them relates, "he was greatly interested in all that was to be seen and we did not take our departure until three or four o'clock in the morning."[7] What an ironic picture--this worthy provincial, the last word for awkwardness, socially as strange to such a scene as a little child, spending the whole night gazing intently at everything he could see, at the barbaric display of wealth, the sumptuous gowns, the brilliant uniforms, the distinguished foreigners, and the leaders of America, men like Webster and Clay, with their air of assured power, the men he had failed to impress. This was his valedictory at Washington. He went home and told Herndon that he had committed political suicide.[8] He had met the world and the world was too strong for him.

And yet, what was wrong? He had been popular at Washington, in the same way in which he had been popular at Springfield. Why had the same sort of success inspired him at Springfield and humiliated him at Washington? The answer was in the difference between the two worlds. Companionableness, story-telling, at Springfield, led to influence; at Washington it led only to applause. At Springfield it was a means; at Washington it was an end. The narrow circle gave the good fellow an opportunity to reveal at his leisure everything else that was in him; the larger circle ruthlessly put him in his place as a good fellow and nothing more. The truth was that in the Washington of the 'forties, neither the inner nor the outer Lincoln could by itself find lodgment. Neither the lonely mystical thinker nor the captivating buffoon could do more than ripple its surface. As superficial as Springfield, it lacked Springfield's impulsive generosity. To the long record of its obtuseness it had added another item. The gods had sent it a great man and it had no eyes to see. It was destined to repeat the performance.

And so Lincoln came home, disappointed, disillusioned. He had not succeeded in establishing the slightest claim, either upon the country or his party. Without such claim he had no ground for attempting reelection. The frivolity of the Whig machine in the Sangamon region was evinced by their rotation agreement. Out of such grossly personal politics Lincoln had gone to Washington; into this essentially corrupt system he relapsed. He faced, politically, a blank wall. And he had within him as yet, no consciousness of any power that might cleave the wall asunder. What was he to do next?

At this dangerous moment--so plainly the end of a chapter--he was offered the governorship of the new Territory of Oregon. For the first time he found himself at a definite parting of the ways, where a sheer act of will was to decide things; where the pressure of circumstance was of secondary importance.

In response to this crisis, an overlooked part of him appeared. The inheritance from his mother, from the forest, had always been obvious. But, after all, he was the son not only of Nancy and of the lonely stars, but also of shifty, drifty Thomas the unstable. If it was not his paternal inheritance that revived in him at this moment of confessed failure, it was something of the same sort. Just as Thomas had always by way of extricating himself from a failure taken to the road, now Abraham, at a psychological crisis, felt the same wanderlust, and he threatened to go adrift. Some of his friends urged him to accept. "You will capture the new community," said they, "and when Oregon becomes a State, you will go to Washington as its first Senator." What a glorified application of the true Thomasian line of thought. Lincoln hesitated--hesitated--

And then the forcible little lady who had married him put her foot down. Go out to that far-away backwoods, just when they were beginning to get on in the world; when real prosperity at Springfield was surely within their grasp; when they were at last becoming people of importance, who should be able to keep their own carriage? Not much!

 Her husband declined the appointment and resumed the practice of law in Springfield.[9]