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The Backwoodsman at the Center of Eastern Culture

Lincoln’s modesty made it impossible for him to be ambitious. He appreciated honors, and he desired them up to a certain point. But they did not, in his way of looking at them, seem to belong to him. He was slow to realize that he was of more than ordinary importance to the community.

At the first republican convention in 1856, when Fremont was nominated for President, 111 votes were cast for Lincoln as the nominee for vice- president. The fact was published in the papers. When he saw the item it did not enter his head that he was the man. He said “there was a celebrated man of that name in Massachusetts; doubtless it was he.”

In 1858, when he asked Douglas the fatal question at Freeport, he was simply killing off Douglas’s aspirations for the presidency. It was with no thought of being himself the successful rival.

Douglas had twice been a candidate for nomination before the democratic convention. Had it not been for this question he would have been elected at the next following presidential election.

As late as the early part of 1860, Lincoln vaguely desired the nomination for the vice-presidency. He would have been glad to be the running-mate of Seward, nothing more. Even this honor he thought to be beyond his reach, so slowly did he come to realize the growth of his fame.

The reports of the Lincoln-Douglas debates had produced a profound sensation in the West. They were printed in large numbers and scattered broadcast as campaign literature. Some Eastern men, also, had been alert to observe these events. William Cullen Bryant, the scholarly editor of the New York Evening Post, had shown keen interest in the debates.

Even after the election Lincoln did not cease the vigor of his criticisms. It will be remembered that before the formal debate Lincoln voluntarily went to Chicago to hear Douglas and to answer him. He followed him to Springfield and did the same thing. He now, after the election of 1858, followed him to Ohio and answered his speeches in Columbus and Cincinnati.

The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, who was always watchful of the development of the anti-slavery sentiment, now invited Lincoln to lecture in Plymouth Church, Brooklyn. The invitation was accepted with the provision that the lecture might be a political speech.

J. G. Holland, who doubtless knew whereof he wrote, declares that it was a great misfortune that Lincoln was introduced to the country as a rail-splitter. Americans have no prejudice against humble beginnings, they are proud of self-made men, but there is nothing in the ability to split rails which necessarily qualifies one for the demands of statesmanship. Some of his ardent friends, far more zealous than judicious, had expressed so much glory over Abe the rail-splitter, that it left the impression that he was little more than a rail-splitter who could talk volubly and tell funny stories. This naturally alienated the finest culture east of the Alleghanies. “It took years for the country to learn that Mr. Lincoln was not a boor. It took years for them to unlearn what an unwise and boyish introduction of a great man to the public had taught them. It took years for them to comprehend the fact that in Mr. Lincoln the country had the wisest, truest, gentlest, noblest, most sagacious President who had occupied the chair of state since Washington retired from it.”

When he reached New York he found that there had been a change of plan, and he was to speak in Cooper Institute, New York, instead of Beecher’s church. He took the utmost care in revising his speech, for he felt that he was on new ground and must not do less than his best.

But though he made the most perfect intellectual preparation, the esthetic element of his personal appearance was sadly neglected. He was angular and loose-jointed,–he could not help that. He had provided himself, or had been provided, with a brand-new suit of clothes, whether of good material or poor we cannot say, whether well-fitting or ill-fitting we do not know, though we may easily guess. But we do know that it had been crowded into a small carpet-bag and came out a mass of wrinkles. And during the speech the collar or lappel annoyed both speaker and audience by persisting in rising up unbidden.

These details are mentioned to show the difficulty of the task before the orator. In the audience and on the platform were many of the most brilliant and scholarly men of the metropolis. There were also large numbers who had come chiefly to hear the westerner tell a lot of funny stories. The orator was introduced by Bryant.

The speech was strictly intellectual from beginning to end. Though Lincoln was not known in New York, Douglas was. So he fittingly took his start from a quotation of Douglas. The speech cannot be epitomized, but its general drift may be divined from its opening and closing sentences.

The quotation from Douglas was that which had been uttered at Columbus a few months before: “Our fathers, when they framed the government under which we live, understood this question (the question of slavery) just as well, and even better, than we do now.” To this proposition the orator assented. That raised the inquiry, What was their understanding of the question? This was a historical question, and could be answered only by honest and painstaking research.

Continuing, the speaker said: “Does the proper division of local from Federal authority, or anything in the Constitution, forbid our Federal government to control as to slavery in our Federal territories? Upon this Senator Douglas holds the affirmative and the republicans the negative. This affirmation and denial form an issue, and this issue– this question–is precisely what the text declares our fathers understood ’better than we.’

“I defy any one to show that any living man in the whole world ever did, prior to the beginning of the present century (and I might almost say prior to the beginning of the last half of the present century), declare that in his understanding any proper division of local from Federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal government to control as to slavery in the Federal territories. To those who now so declare, I give, not only ’our fathers who framed the government under which we live,’ but with them all other living men within the century in which it was framed, among whom to search, and they shall not be able to find the evidence of a single man agreeing with them.”

One paragraph is quoted for the aptness of its illustration: “But you will not abide the election of a republican President! In that supposed event, you say you will destroy the Union; and then you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ’Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!’ To be sure, what the robber demanded of me–my money–was my own, and I had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote is my own; and the threat of death to me to extort my money, and the threat of destruction to the Union to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle.”

The speech reached its climax in its closing paragraph: “Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that so much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the national territories, and to overrun us here in the free states? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored–contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who would be neither a living man nor a dead man; such as a policy of ’don’t care’ on a question about which all true men do care; such as Union appeals to beseech all true Union men to yield to Disunionists; reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous, to repentance; such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.

“Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the government, nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

This speech placed Lincoln in the line of the presidency. Not only was it received with unbounded enthusiasm by the mass of the people, but it was a revelation to the more intellectual and cultivated. Lincoln afterwards told of a professor of rhetoric at Yale College who was present. He made an abstract of the speech and the next day presented it to the class as a model of cogency and finish. This professor followed Lincoln to Meriden to hear him again. The Tribune gave to the speech unstinted praise, declaring that “no man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience.”

The greatest compliment, because the most deliberate, was that of the committee who prepared the speech for general distribution. Their preface is sufficiently explicit:

“No one who has not actually attempted to verify its details can understand the patient research and historical labors which it embodies. The history of our earlier politics is scattered through numerous journals, statutes, pamphlets, and letters; and these are defective in completeness and accuracy of statement, and in indices and tables of contents. Neither can any one who has not traveled over this precise ground appreciate the accuracy of every trivial detail, or the self-denying impartiality with which Mr. Lincoln has turned from the testimony of ’the fathers’ on the general question of slavery, to present the single question which he discusses. From the first line to the last, from his premises to his conclusion, he travels with a swift, unerring directness which no logician ever excelled, an argument complete and full, without the affectation of learning, and without the stiffness which usually accompanies dates and details. A single, easy, simple sentence of plain Anglo-Saxon words, contains a chapter of history that, in some instances, has taken days of labor to verify, and which must have cost the author months of investigation to acquire.”

Surely Mr. Bryant and Mr. Beecher and the rest had every reason for gratification that they had introduced this man of humble beginnings to so brilliant a New York audience.

Lincoln went to Exeter, N.H., to visit his son who was in Phillips Academy preparing for Harvard College. Both going and returning he made several speeches, all of which were received with more than ordinary favor. By the time he returned home he was no longer an unknown man. He was looked on with marked favor in all that portion of the country which lies north of Mason and Dixon’s line.