Chapter 38.

  • Lincoln's early environment
  • -- its effect on his character -- his attitude toward slavery and the slaveholder -- -- his schooling in disappointment -- his seeming failures -- his real successes- -- the final trial -- his achievements -- his place in history
    A child born to an inheritance of want; a boy growing into a narrow world of ignorance; a youth taking up the burden of coarse manual labor; a man entering on the doubtful struggle of a local backwoods career — these were the beginnings of Abraham Lincoln, if we analyze them under the hard practical cynical philosophy which takes for its motto that “nothing succeeds but success.” If, however, we adopt a broader philosophy, and apply the more generous and more universal principle that “everything succeeds which attacks favorable opportunity with fitting endeavor,” then Awe see that it was the strong vitality, the active intelligence, and the indefinable psychological law of moral growth that assimilates the good and rejects the bad, which Nature gave this obscure child, that carried him to the service of mankind and to the admiration of the centuries with the same certainty with which the acorn grows to be the oak.

    We see how even the limitations of his environment helped the end. Self-reliance, that most vital characteristic of the pioneer, was his by blood and birth and training; and developed through the privations of his lot and the genius that was in him to the mighty [550] strength needed to guide our great country through the titanic struggle of the Civil War.

    The sense of equality was his, also by virtue of his pioneer training — a consciousness fostered by life from childhood to manhood in a state of society where there were neither rich to envy nor poor to despise, where the gifts and hardships of the forest were distributed impartially to each, and where men stood indeed equal before the forces of unsubdued nature.

    The same great forces taught liberality, modesty, charity, sympathy — in a word, neighborliness. In that hard life, far removed from the artificial aids and comforts of civilization, where all the wealth of Croesus, had a man possessed it, would not have sufficed to purchase relief from danger, or help in time of need, neighborliness became of prime importance. A good neighbor doubled his safety and his resources, a group of good neighbors increased his comfort and his prospects in a ratio that grew like the cube root. Here was opportunity to practise that virtue that Christ declared to be next to the love of God--the fruitful injunction to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

    Here, too, in communities far from the customary restraints of organized law, the common native intelligence of the pioneer was brought face to face with primary and practical questions of natural right. These men not only understood but appreciated the American doctrine of self-government. It was this understanding, this feeling, which taught Lincoln to write: “When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government — that is despotism” ; and its philosophic corollary: “He who would be no slave must consent to have no slave.” [551]

    Abraham Lincoln sprang from exceptional conditions — was in truth, in the language of Lowell, a “new birth of our new soil.” But this distinction was not due alone to mere environment. The ordinary man, with ordinary natural gifts, found in Western pioneer communities a development essentially the same as he would have found under colonial Virginia or Puritan New England: a commonplace life, varying only with the changing ideas and customs of time and locality. But for the man with extraordinary powers of body and mind; for the individual gifted by nature with the genius which Abraham Lincoln possessed; the pioneer condition, with its severe training in self-denial, patience, and industry, was favorable to a development of character that helped in a preeminent degree to qualify him for the duties and responsibilities of leadership and government. He escaped the formal conventionalities which beget insincerity and dissimulation. He grew up without being warped by erroneous ideas or false principles; without being dwarfed by vanity, or tempted by self-interest.

    Some pioneer communities carried with them the institution of slavery; and in the slave State of Kentucky Lincoln was born. He remained there only a short time, and we have every reason to suppose that wherever he might have grown to maturity his very mental and moral fiber would have spurned the doctrine and practice of human slavery. And yet so subtle is the influence of birth and custom, that we can trace one lasting effect of this early and brief environment. Though he ever hated slavery, he never hated the slaveholder. This ineradicable feeling of pardon and sympathy for Kentucky and the South played no insignificant part in his dealings with grave problems of statesmanship. He struck slavery its death-blow with [552] the hand of war, but he tendered the slaveholder a golden equivalent with the hand of friendship and peace.

    His advancement in the astonishing career which carried him from obscurity to world-wide fame; from postmaster of New Salem village to President of the United States; from captain of a backwoods volunteer company to commander-in-chief of the army and navy, was neither sudden, nor accidental, nor easy. He was both ambitious and successful, but his ambition was moderate and his success was slow. And because his success was slow, his ambition never outgrew either his judgment or his powers. From the day when he left the paternal roof and launched his canoe on the head waters of the Sangamon River to begin life on his own account, to the day of his first inauguration, there intervened full thirty years of toil, of study, self-denial, patience; often of effort baffled, of hope deferred; sometimes of bitter disappointment. Given the natural gift of great genius, given the condition of favorable environment, it,yet required an average lifetime and faithful unrelaxing effort to transform the raw country stripling into a competent ruler for this great nation.

    Almost every success was balanced-sometimes overbalanced by a seeming failure. Reversing the usual promotion, he went into the Black Hawk War a captain, and, through no fault of his own, came out a private. He rode to the hostile frontier on horseback, and trudged home on foot. His store “winked out.” His surveyor's compass and chain, with which he was earning a scanty living, were sold for debt. He was defeated in his first campaign for the legislature; defeated in his first attempt to be nominated for Congress; defeated in his application to be appointed commissioner [553] of the General Land Office; defeated for the Senate in the Illinois legislature of 1854, when he had forty-five votes to begin with, by Trumbull, who had only five votes to begin with; defeated in the legislature of 1858, by an antiquated apportionment, when his joint debates with Douglas had won him a popular plurality of nearly four thousand in a Democratic State; defeated in the nomination for Vice-President on the Fremont ticket in 1856, when a favorable nod from half a dozen wire-workers would have brought him success.

    Failures? Not so. Every seeming defeat was a slow success. His was the growth of the oak, and not of Jonah's gourd. Every scaffolding of temporary elevation he pulled down, every ladder of transient expectation which broke under his feet accumulated his strength, and piled up a solid mound which raised him to wider usefulness and clearer vision. He could not become a master workman until he had served a tedious apprenticeship. It was the quarter of a century of reading, thinking, speech-making and legislating which qualified him for selection as the chosen champion of the Illinois Republicans in the great Lincoln-Douglas joint debates of 1858. It was the great intellectual victory won in these debates, plus the title “Honest old Abe,” won by truth and manhood among his neighbors during a whole generation, that led the people of the United States to confide to his hands the duties and powers of President.

    And when, after thirty years of endeavor, success had beaten down defeat; when Lincoln had been nominated, elected, and inaugurated, came the crowning trial of his faith and constancy. When the people, by free and lawful choice, had placed honor and power in his hands; when his signature could convene Congress, [554] approve laws, make ministers, cause ships to sail and armies to move; when he could speak with potential voice to other rulers of other lands, there suddenly came upon the government and the nation the symptoms of a fatal paralysis; honor seemed to dwindle and power to vanish. Was he then, after all, not to be President? Was patriotism dead? Was the Constitution waste paper? Was the Union gone?

    The indications were, indeed, ominous. Seven States were in rebellion. There was treason in Congress, treason in the Supreme Court, treason in the army and navy. Confusion and discord rent public opinion. To use Lincoln's own forcible simile, sinners were calling the righteous to repentance. Finally, the flag, insulted on the Star of the West, trailed in capitulation at Sumter; and then came the humiliation of the Baltimore riot, and the President practically for a few days a prisoner in the capital of the nation.

    But his apprenticeship had been served, and there was no more failure. With faith and justice and generosity he conducted for four long years a civil war whose frontiers stretched from the Potomac to the Rio Grande; whose soldiers numbered a million men on each side; in which, counting skirmishes and battles small and great, was fought an average of two engagements every day; and during which every twenty-four hours saw an expenditure of two millions of money. The labor, the thought, the responsibility, the strain of intellect and anguish of soul that he gave to this great task, who can measure?

    The sincerity of the fathers of the Republic was impugned; he justified them. The Declaration of Independence was called a “string of glittering generalities” and a “self-evident lie” ; he refuted the aspersion. The Constitution was perverted; he corrected the error. The flag was insulted; he redressed the offense. The [555] government was assailed; he restored its authority. Slavery thrust the sword of civil war at the heart of the nation; he crushed slavery, and cemented the purified Union in new and stronger bonds.

    And all the while conciliation was as active as vindication was stern. He reasoned and pleaded with the anger of the South; he gave insurrection time to repent; he forbore to execute retaliation; he offered recompense to slaveholders; he pardoned treason.

    What but lifetime schooling in disappointment; what but the pioneer's self-reliance and freedom from prejudice; what but the patient faith, the clear perceptions of natural right, the unwarped sympathy and unbounding charity of this man with spirit so humble and soul so great, could have carried him through the labors he wrought to the victory he attained?

    As the territory may be said to be its body, and its material activities its blood, so patriotism may be said to be the vital breath of a nation. When patriotism dies, the nation dies, and its resources as well as its territory go to other peoples with stronger vitality.

    Patriotism can in no way be more effectively cultivated than by studying and commemorating the achievements and virtues of our great men — the men who have lived and died for the nation, who have advanced its prosperity, increased its power, added to its glory. In our brief history the United States can boast of many great men, and the achievement by its sons of many great deeds; and if we accord the first rank to Washington as founder, so we must unhesitatingly give to Lincoln the second place as preserver and regenerator of American liberty. So far, however, from being opposed or subordinated either to the other, the popular heart has already canonized these two as twin heroes in our national pantheon, as twin stars in the firmament of our national fame.

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