Table of Contents
Two Things That Lincoln Missed
Lincoln’s intimate friends have noted that he seemed to be under the impression that he was a man of destiny. This phrase was a favorite with Napoleon, who often used it of himself. But the two men were so widely different in character and career, that it is with reluctance that one joins their names even for the moment that this phrase is used. Napoleon was eager to sacrifice the whole of Europe to satisfy the claims of his personal ambition; Lincoln was always ready to stand aside and sacrifice himself for the country. The one was selfishness incarnate; the other was a noble example of a man who never hesitated to subordinate his own welfare to the general good, and whose career came to its climax in his martyrdom. Whether the presidency was or was not, Lincoln’s destiny, it was certainly his destination. Had anything occurred to thrust him one side in this career, it would have prevented his complete development, and would have been an irreparable calamity to his country and to the world.
Twice in his life he earnestly desired certain offices and failed to get them. Had he succeeded in either case, it is not at all probable that he would ever have become President. One therefore rejoices in the knowledge that he missed them.
After his term in congress he was, in a measure, out of employment. Political life is like to destroy one’s taste for the legitimate practise of the law, as well as to scatter one’s clients. Lincoln was not a candidate for reelection. Upon the election of General Taylor it was generally understood that the democrats would be turned out of office and their places supplied by whigs. The office of Land Commissioner was expected to go to Illinois. At the solicitation of friends he applied for it, but so fearful was he that he might stand in the way of others, or impede the welfare of the state, that he did not urge his application until too late. The President offered him the governorship of the territory of Oregon, which he declined. Had he been successful in his application, it would have kept him permanently out of the study and practise of the law. It would have kept his residence in Washington so that it would not have been possible for him to hold himself in touch with his neighbors. So far as concerned his illustrious career, it would have side-tracked him. He himself recognized this later, and was glad that he had failed in this, his first and only application for a government appointment.
About six years later he again missed an office to which he aspired. This was in 1854, the year of the speeches at Springfield and Peoria described in the last chapter. Shields, the man of the duel with broad- swords, was United States senator. His term of office was about to expire and the legislature would elect his successor. The state of Illinois had been democratic,–both the senators, Shields and Douglas, were democrats,–but owing to the new phases of the slavery question, the anti-slavery men were able to carry the legislature, though by a narrow margin.
Lincoln had been very useful to the party during the campaign and had been elected to the legislature from his own district. He wanted to be senator. He was unquestionably the choice of nearly all the whigs. Had an election taken place then, he would undoubtedly have been elected.
But a curious obstacle intervened. There was a provision in the constitution of Illinois which disqualified members of the legislature from holding the office of United States senator. Lincoln was therefore not eligible. He could only become so by resigning his seat. There appeared to be no risk in this, for he had a safe majority of 605. It seemed as though he could name his successor. But there are many uncertainties in politics.
The campaign had been one of unusual excitement and it was followed by that apathy which is the common sequel to all excessive activity. The democrats kept quiet. They put up no candidate. They fostered the impression that they would take no part in the special election. Only one democrat was casually named as a possible victim to be sacrificed to the triumph of the whigs. He was not a popular nor an able man, and was not to be feared as a candidate for this office.
But the unusual quietness of the democrats was the most dangerous sign. They had organized a “still hunt.” This was an adroit move, but it was perfectly fair. It is not difficult to guess whose shrewdness planned this, seeing that the question was vital to the career of Douglas. The democratic party preserved their organization. The trusted lieutenants held the rank and file in readiness for action. When the polls were opened on election day, the democrats were there, and the whigs were not. At every election precinct appeared democratic workers to electioneer for the man of their choice. Carriages were provided for the aged, the infirm, and the indifferent who were driven to the polls so that their votes were saved to the party.
The whigs were completely taken by surprise. It was too late to talk up their candidate. They had no provision and no time to get the absent and indifferent to the polls. The result was disastrous to them. Lincoln’s “safe” majority was wiped out and a Douglas democrat was chosen to succeed him.
It may be surmised that this did not tend to fill the whigs with enthusiasm, nor to unite the party. From all over the state there arose grumblings that the Sangamon contingent of the party had been so ignobly outwitted. Lincoln had to bear the brunt of this discontent. This was not unnatural nor unreasonable, for he was the party manager for that district. When the legislature went into joint session Lincoln had manifestly lost some of his prestige. It may be said by way of palliation that the “still hunt” was then new in politics. And it was the only time that Lincoln was caught napping.
Even with the loss to the whigs of this seat, the Douglas democrats were in a minority. Lincoln had a plurality but not a majority. The balance of power was held by five anti-Nebraska democrats, who would not under any circumstances vote for Lincoln or any other whig. Their candidate was Lyman Trumbull. After a long and weary deadlock, the democrats dropped their candidate Shields and took up the governor of the state. The governor has presumably a strong influence with the legislature, and this move of the partisans was a real menace to the anti-slavery men. Lincoln recognized the danger, at once withdrew his candidacy, and persuaded all the anti-slavery men to unite on Trumbull. This was no ordinary conciliation, for upon every subject except the Nebraska question alone, Trumbull was an uncompromising democrat. The whig votes gave him the necessary majority. The man who started in with five votes won the prize. Lincoln not only failed to get into the senate, but he was out of the legislature.
In commenting on this defeat of Lincoln for the United States senate, the present writer wishes first of all to disavow all superstitions and all belief in signs. But there is one fact which is worthy of mention, and for which different persons will propose different explanations. It is a fact that in all the history of the United States no person has been elected direct from the senate to the presidency. This is the more interesting because the prominent senator wields a very powerful influence, an influence second only to that of the President himself. When one considers the power of a leading senator, one would suppose that that was the natural stepping-stone to the presidency. But history does not support this supposition. It teaches the opposite.
Many prominent senators have greatly desired to be president, but no one has succeeded unless he first retired from the senate. Among the more widely known aspirants to the presidency who have been unsuccessful, are Jackson (his first candidacy), Clay, Webster, Douglas, Morton, Seward, Sherman, and Blaine. So many failures may be a mere coincidence. On the other hand there may be a reason for them. They seem to teach that the senate is not the best start for the presidential race, but the worst.
The history of ethics teaches that the most determined hostility against the best is the good, not the bad. So it may be that in the politics of this country, the greatest obstacle to the highest position may be the next highest.
These facts, of course, do not prove that if Lincoln had been elected senator in 1854, or in 1858 when he was the opposing candidate to Douglas, he would therefore have failed of election to the presidency. He may have been an exception. He may have been the only one to break this rule in over a hundred years. But the sequel proved that he was best where he was. He remained among his people. He moused about the state library, enduring criticism but mastering the history of slavery. He kept a watchful eye on the progress of events. He was always alert to seize an opportunity and proclaim in trumpet tones the voice of conscience, the demands of eternal righteousness. But he waited. His hour had not yet come. He bided his time. It was not a listless waiting, it was intensely earnest and active. Far more than he could realize, he was in training for the stupendous responsibilities which should in due time fall upon him. It is fortunate for all that he did not learn to limit his powers to the arena of the senate, which, though great, is limited. He kept near to the people. When his hour struck, he was ready.
For this reason we call his two failures escapes. He did not get the government land office, he did not get the senatorship. He did get the presidency, and that in the crisis of the history of the nation. What is more, when he got that he was thoroughly furnished unto every good work.