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The Lincoln of Fact

ISSUE:  Spring 1929

Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1858. By Albert J. Beveridge, 2 vols. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company. $12.50.

The writing of his biography of Lincoln was a revelation to Albert J. Beveridge, the author. He had been engaged for a year in intensive research upon it when I spent an evening with him at his home in Indianapolis. With solemnity and manifest feeling he said: “My father and brothers were in the Union army, and my boyhood and youth were spent in an atmosphere of intense partisanship and hostility to the South. I was taken regularly to old fashioned political rallies where orators indulged in the most shameless misrepresentations of men, measures and motives of the twenty years before. I believed the things that were told me, and continued assuming them to be true even when I was in the Senate and until I began going back to the original sources in preparation for the writing of this biography.”

He paused a moment and the lines in his face tightened.

“With the realization now of how shamelessly I and all my generation was deceived I feel a sense of personal outrage.”

This was the spirit in which Mr. Beveridge approached the herculean task to which he had set himself. During the progress of his work I saw him frequently and found that he had determined to find the truth if possible and to tell the truth regardless of myths and traditions. The result is a thoroughly honest, scientific production which plays havoc with many figments of the fancy. In his search for the truth he passionately traversed every avenue of possible information, devoted weary months to musty, manuscripts, examined thousands of old letters, turned the yellowing pages of scores of newspapers, and perused hitherto disregarded pamphlets expressive of the sentiment of both the North and South. He had hardly entered upon his task when he was appalled at the inadequacy of former treatments of his subject. Quite as much so at the unnecessary idealization of the emancipator.

The result is the emergence of a Lincoln differing vastly from that of popular fancy—a less perfect, and a more human figure, with weaknesses and flaws, but more understandable on that account. Thus he has given us not a piece of colorful fiction but a human document that fairly throbs with vitality; and tells the story of a Lincoln of slow development, who stumbled not a little on his way, with sympathy and comprehension. When he encounters a fact that mars the perfection of the cherished portrait he does not dodge— he states it. The steel engraving becomes the man of flesh and blood who lived in Springfield—the Lincoln of reality.

Writing biography on the grand scale, and using an enormous canvas in the painting of his picture, he has given himself ample room for an adequate background. We see here, not only Lincoln and his contemporaries but the movements of masses of men and the dramatic play, of forces that explain the emotions and motives of the leaders. Not satisfied with that, the author goes into the antecedents of the time with which he deals, and the result is more than the biography of a man—it is the biography of a people.

From the viewpoint of literary artistry the book is splendid. It reeks with atmosphere; events and places live again; the multitude of actors in the scenes move like men and not automatons. The portraits are masterful, the style brilliant without any sacrificing of virility to decoration. Some of the chapters were written as many as fifteen times, and this has made for clarity, simplicity, and power.

In the treatment of the earlier phases of Lincoln’s life the biographer has dealt relentlessly with myths and some of the most favored have been sent to the scrap heap. The boy stretched out on his stomach reading by the light of the burning logs in the fireplace, goes. Goes too, the story of the young giant eager for manual labor—for it appears that he disliked physical toil, indulged in it as little as possible, and was not favored as a hand on neighboring farms because he was more prone to tell stories than to work. Goes likewise, the touching tale of the young orphan writing a minister a plea that he preach a sermon over his mother’s grave—for at the time he could not write at all. These are minor myths, which, in the ensemble however, have created an entirely false impression. More important is Beveridge’s rejection of the story of Lincoln’s flaming fury on witnessing the sale of a slave from an auction block in New Orleans. He saw the sale with curiosity without observations then or later, and his indifference to slavery for many years thereafter bears out the conclusions of the biographer.

It is in dealing with Lincoln’s relations to the slave question that the author especially plays havoc with the myth makers. On this he was tested early when in the Legislature. The years spent in this body have hitherto been slovenly treated, if at all, and yet there was scarcely a public question or policy with which he was to deal in later life on which he did not take a position then. The earlier biographers failed to turn the pages of the nine huge volumes of Proceedings, published in small print and without an index; Beveridge spent weeks poring over them through a magnifying glass. The result is many revelations. One thing stands out—he was then a typical politician, a master in management and intrigue, cunning, partisan, and in no sense an idealist or reformer. His trading on the removal of the capital to Springfield contributed largely to the wildcat expenditures for internal improvements that pushed the commonwealth to the verge of bankruptcy. Douglas, then a member too, was opposed to these schemes, and at this period Lincoln fails to measure up to his great rival in statesmanship or vision.

But more interesting are the disclosures of Lincoln’s real attitude toward slavery. Mr. Beveridge finds that on the day Lincoln entered the legislature the local papers contained three advertisements for runaway slaves, and the abolition agitation was becoming acute. It was the time the Southern Legislatures were adopting resolutions protesting against the activities of the abolitionists and sending them to the Legislatures of the North. In the body in which Lincoln was a leading member, resolutions were offered unqualifiedly denouncing the methods of the abolitionists, and a prolonged debate followed. Through it all Lincoln sat mute. It was not until six weeks later that he and another member offered a minority resolution for the record, and the remarkable delay throws no little light on his character as a politician and manager. Had he offered his resolution six weeks before it would have deprived him of votes for the removal of the capital to Springfield! Of greater significance, however, is the nature of his resolution setting forth, for the first time, his views on slavery. In effect it was a declaration that while slavery was unjust the methods of the abolitionists were intolerable. This was the general view of conservatives in the North and of thousands of slave owners in the South. It declared that Congress had no power to interfere with slavery in the States—and that put him beyond the pale of the abolitionists. It said that Congress might legislate on slavery in the District of Columbia—provided however that it acted on the expressed mandate of the people there.

From this general position, we find, in these pages, Lincoln never deviated until the last phase, when he had reached the age of fifty. No one more heartily disapproved of the abolitionists and their methods.

It was during these years, too, that the Lovejoy incident aroused the burning wrath of the abolition element. We find that among all the numerous mass meetings in Illinois, Lincoln made no appearance. Through all the excitement he remained silent. Significantly enough he did speak out against mob violence following the assassination of some white gamblers in Mississippi, but in enumerating various instances of mob action he did not mention the Love joy incident in his own State. Following the trail relentlessly, Mr. Beveridge finds that in his campaigning in 1840 the name of Love joy never escaped his lips. “Two decades were to pass,” says Beveridge, “before Lincoln showed much concern about slavery. Never the apostle of a cause, he was to become the perfect interpreter of public thought and feeling and so an instrument of events.”

This lack of a crusading spirit against slavery he carried into Congress, where he failed utterly to make an impression or to assume any role of leadership. The Lincoln of this phase described by the author had all the characteristics of a conventional politician, without dash or sparkle of any kind. Amazingly, enough, in view of the myths, the only approach he made toward leadership was in co-operation with Southern pro-slavery members, including the fire-eating Toombs of Georgia. The future President’s most intimate associates appear to have been from the South; and it was with these, Whigs like himself, that he formulated the plans leading to the nomination of Taylor, a slave owner, for the presidency. It is a reasonable presumption that his co-workers were moved by the fact that Taylor was a slave owner; and impossible to believe that Lincoln, who was clever, did not understand. Even this late he was indifferent as to slavery; he was never indifferent to the success of his party, and he counted on the military popularity of the slave owner to carry the Whigs to victory.

Thus the author sweeps away innumerable myths concerning Lincoln’s early dedication of his genius to the abolition of slavery.

In dealing with the abolition agitation, Mr. Beveridge apparently sympathizes with Lincoln’s point of view. It was my privilege to discuss with him the provocative abolition pamphlets and publications with which the Southern mails were flooded, and also the replies. He found the reformers’ literature frequently intolerable and unthinkable; the replies, for the most part, in better temper and in a more reasonable tone. It was his discovery of the Southern replies, utterly ignored by the historian hitherto, that impressed him most. The result is the first chapter of the second volume—a brilliant and sympathetic picture of Southern society in ante-bellum days, in which the extremists in the North are not spared.

Thus he has sternly put all sectional feeling behind him, as has no other outstanding Northern biographer or historian; and, partisan as he was, and as his treatment of Jefferson in his “Marshall” showed him to be, he has won a victory over himself in this new work by putting partisanship behind him too. This his treatment of Pierce and Douglas and Taney attests. But it is most in evidence in his treatment of Douglas, who looms larger and more impressive in these pages than in any other work yet written. Never once did I see him during the five years he was engaged on the book that he did not marvel at the power and genius of the Little Giant. “I am almost afraid it is going to be a Life of Douglas,” he once said. There was, perhaps, a psychological reason for this sympathetic understanding of the great Democrat. Beveridge and Douglas had much in common. Both were great orators; both were independent thinkers; both were natural leaders and a little arrogant in their leadership; both encountered factional opposition in their own parties; both as chairmen of the Committee on Territories engaged in the statesmanship of making States; both were fighters. Whenever Beveridge ouches on Lincoln’s great antagonist one feels the zest with vhich he makes the approach. And the result is a portrait that fairly breathes and commands admiration.

Thus in the’ story of the great debates, we are happily spared the usual attempt to convey the impression of the giant Lincoln shaking the pigmy Douglas as a police dog shakes a poodle. There is genius in the painting of the scenes of these verbal encounters. We are shown the crowds—the multitudes on the highways in the dust or the mud; we see their reactions to the swaying fortunes of the fight. We note the varying expressions of the protagonists as the blows fall. At times Lincoln seems the victor; just as often Douglas. More fascinating, we are taken behind the scenes for the conversations and the letter writing, to learn, as the debates progress, of the motives behind this move and that. Unhappily Beveridge died just as he closed this chapter and before he could write his resume and conclusions on the struggle. But there was no pigmy, no ordinary man in that struggle as here depicted—but two giants at close grips.

It is this intimacy of treatment that makes this biography stand out as a great piece of biographical literature. It is not a panegyric, an apology, a piece of special pleading, but a recreation of the realities. The author is seeking to prove nothing—he is telling the story„ or better still, in possession of the hard-earned facts, he is letting them tell the story. Parts of it are painful, parts inspiring—as in the lives of men undeified.

Thus on the intimate side of Lincoln, we have some strange mysterious revelations. The world knows the story of his alleged mental sickness at the time of the death of Ann Rutledge and many tears have been shed over a love story that Mr. Beveridge’s intensive research fails to prove existed. The author has convincingly concluded that there was no real love on the part of Ann; if such a passion on the part of Lincoln as to have bereft him of his reason there had been nothing before her death indicative of such a feeling. With possibly one or two exceptions Lincoln’s mental eclipses, which were strangely recurrent, were associated with women. Thus the story of Ann Rutledge; thus the complete momentary mental collapse at the time of Lincoln’s failure to appear for the wedding to Mary Todd, when he was found in a pitiful state the morning after and carefully watched for days lest he attempt suicide.

But there were other times when his mental condition caused concern. Mr. Beveridge enumerates several occasions; that at New Salem, where his queer conduct persuaded his friends that he had overstudied; that in his office in Springfield, when after a prolonged and gloomy silence he burst into a weird hysterical laugh which alarmed his partner; and late in life that even stranger incident, when his bed-mate on the circuit was awakened to find him sitting on the edge of the bed talking incoherently to himself. These lapses one may. associate with genius; and were it possible to learn just what so frequently depressed him we should know perhaps the real secret of his tragic life. Through all these experiences Mr. Beveridge takes us sympathetically without any attempt at explanation. Happily he is a scholar writing history, and not a psycho-analyst explaining character on speculations. He deals with facts, not theories.

Thus no attempt is made to create the impression that Lincoln was a great lawyer or a great student. He is pictured here, and the picture is borne out by the researches of Paul Angle of the Lincoln Association of Springfield, as effective when opportunity was abundant for preparation, but he was not astonishingly successful as a lawyer. As a student he simply did not qualify. His reading, according to Mr. Beveridge’s investigations, was unsystematic, casual, desultory. That in history was superficial, albeit he did wade through Gibbon’s “Rome” after his retirement from Congress. In general literature he did read the Bible and Shakespeare in later life, but this has been overstressed by the myth makers. His favorite poet was Byron and he preferred “Childe Harold” to “King Lear.” Shocking enough to many, his favorite reading was the newspapers and over these he pored religiously, in this regard strongly resembling Andrew Johnson.

This deepens the mystery of the incomparable English style which came very late in life. While as a youth he had actually written verse, there is nothing in his speeches, until late, indicative of any literary impulse or special taste. Mr. Beveridge ascribes the change his style underwent to his having heard Seward make a political speech at the close of Lincoln’s congressional term. This might have taught him more dignity of expression than he had thought necessary or desirable, and the need of a more serious and studied treatment of public questions. But he could not have mastered the art of the Gettysburg Address from the style of Seward. The mystery of Lincoln’s mastery of exquisite English in his later-day speeches and letters is not lifted in these volumes, and it never can be.

It is a pity that Mr. Beveridge did not live to complete his book to the end of Lincoln’s career. He has achieved a triumph in these two volumes which will not be superseded, as to the period, by any future writer. He has set an example in honest craftsmanship, in honest scholarship, and in literary courage. In manner the “Lincoln” is richer and mellower than the “Marshall.” It is unmarred by the single fault of the “Marshall”—the author’s surrender to the Federalist conception of Jefferson and the Democrats. It is more dramatic too, more moving, more human, and that is a high tribute. No one but a writer with a political mind and with personal experience in political conferences and debates, could have interpreted the political activities of this period, or painted the actors with the accuracy and understanding that Beveridge has done.

The supreme test was to treat of a period of intense partisanship and sectional animosities without prejudice or passion and the author has stood the test. Himself a partisan, and brought up, as he admitted, on sectional prejudices, this stern fidelity to the truth and fine disregard of former predilections ranks him among the highest and greatest of the interpreters of the political history of this country.


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