The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7


iSpeech

"The real issue in this country is the eternal struggle between
these two principles--right and wrong--throughout the world.
They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the
beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one
is the common right of humanity, and the other the divine right
of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops
itself. It is the same spirit that says, "You work and toil and
earn bread and I'll eat it."

He foresaw with unerring vision that the conflict was inevitable
and irrepressible--that one or the other, the right or the wrong,
freedom or slavery, must ultimately prevail and wholly prevail,
throughout the country; and this was the principle that carried
the war, once begun, to a finish.

One sentence of his is immortal:

"Under the operation of the policy of compromise, the slavery
agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented.
In my opinion it will not cease until a crisis shall have been
reached and passed. 'A house divided against itself cannot
stand.' I believe this government cannot endure permanently half
slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved.
I do not expect the house to fall, but I do expect it will cease
to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other;
either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of
it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief
that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates
will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the
States, old as well as new, North as well as South."

During the entire decade from 1850 to 1860 the agitation of the
slavery question was at the boiling point, and events which have
become historical continually indicated the near approach of the
overwhelming storm. No sooner had the Compromise Acts of 1850
resulted in a temporary peace, which everybody said must be final
and perpetual, than new outbreaks came. The forcible carrying
away of fugitive slaves by Federal troops from Boston agitated
that ancient stronghold of freedom to its foundations. The
publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, which truly exposed the
frightful possibilities of the slave system; the reckless
attempts by force and fraud to establish it in Kansas against the
will of the vast majority of the settlers; the beating of Summer
in the Senate Chamber for words spoken in debate; the Dred Scott
decision in the Supreme Court, which made the nation realize that
the slave power had at last reached the fountain of Federal
justice; and finally the execution of John Brown, for his wild
raid into Virginia, to invite the slaves to rally to the standard
of freedom which he unfurled:--all these events tend to
illustrate and confirm Lincoln's contention that the nation could
not permanently continue half slave and half free, but must
become all one thing or all the other. When John Brown lay under
sentence of death he declared that now he was sure that slavery
must be wiped out in blood; but neither he nor his executioners
dreamt that within four years a million soldiers would be
marching across the country for its final extirpation, to the
music of the war-song of the great conflict:

"John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul is marching on."

And now, at the age of fifty-one, this child of the wilderness,
this farm laborer, rail-sputter, flatboatman, this surveyor,
lawyer, orator, statesman, and patriot, found himself elected by
the great party which was pledged to prevent at all hazards the
further extension of slavery, as the chief magistrate of the
Republic, bound to carry out that purpose, to be the leader and
ruler of the nation in its most trying hour.

Those who believe that there is a living Providence that
overrules and conducts the affairs of nations, find in the
elevation of this plain man to this extraordinary fortune and to
this great duty, which he so fitly discharged, a signal
vindication of their faith. Perhaps to this philosophical
institution the judgment of our philosopher Emerson will commend
itself as a just estimate of Lincoln's historical place

"His occupying the chair of state was a triumph of the good sense
of mankind and of the public conscience. He grew according to
the need; his mind mastered the problem of the day: and as the
problem grew, so did his comprehension of it. In the war there
was no place for holiday magistrate, nor fair-weather sailor.
The new pilot was hurried to the helm in a tornado. In four
years--four years of battle days--his endurance, his fertility of
resource, his magnanimity, were sorely tried, and never found
wanting. There, by his courage, his justice, his even temper,
his fertile counsel, his humanity, he stood a heroic figure in
the centre of a heroic epoch. He is the true history of the
American people in his time, the true representative of this
continent--father of his country, the pulse of twenty millions
throbbing in his heart, the thought of their mind--articulated in
his tongue."

He was born great, as distinguished from those who achieve
greatness or have it thrust upon them, and his inherent capacity,
mental, moral, and physical, having been recognized by the
educated intelligence of a free people, they happily chose him
for their ruler in a day of deadly peril.

It is now forty years since I first saw and heard Abraham
Lincoln, but the impression which he left on my mind is
ineffaceable. After his great successes in the West he came to
New York to make a political address. He appeared in every sense
of the word like one of the plain people among whom he loved to
be counted. At first sight there was nothing impressive or
imposing about him--except that his great stature singled him out
from the crowd: his clothes hung awkwardly on his giant frame;
his face was of a dark pallor, without the slightest tinge of
color; his seamed and rugged features bore the furrows of
hardship and struggle; his deep-set eyes looked sad and anxious;
his countenance in repose gave little evidence of that brain
power which had raised him from the lowest to the highest station
among his countrymen; as he talked to me before the meeting, he
seemed ill at ease, with that sort of apprehension which a young
man might feel before presenting himself to a new and strange
audience, whose critical disposition he dreaded. It was a great
audience, including all the noted men--all the learned and
cultured of his party in New York editors, clergymen, statesmen,
lawyers, merchants, critics. They were all very curious to hear
him. His fame as a powerful speaker had preceded him, and
exaggerated rumor of his wit--the worst forerunner of an orator--
had reached the East. When Mr. Bryant presented him, on the high
platform of the Cooper Institute, a vast sea of eager upturned
faces greeted him, full of intense curiosity to see what this
rude child of the people was like. He was equal to the occasion.
When he spoke he was transformed; his eye kindled, his voice
rang, his face shone and seemed to light up the whole assembly.
For an hour and a half he held his audience in the hollow of his
hand. His style of speech and manner of delivery were severely
simple. What Lowell called "the grand simplicities of the
Bible," with which he was so familiar, were reflected in his
discourse. With no attempt at ornament or rhetoric, without
parade or pretence, he spoke straight to the point. If any came
expecting the turgid eloquence or the ribaldry of the frontier,
they must have been startled at the earnest and sincere purity of
his utterances. It was marvellous to see how this untutored man,
by mere self-discipline and the chastening of his own spirit, had
outgrown all meretricious arts, and found his own way to the
grandeur and strength of absolute simplicity.

He spoke upon the theme which he had mastered so thoroughly. He
demonstrated by copious historical proofs and masterly logic that
the fathers who created the Constitution in order to form a more
perfect union, to establish justice, and to secure the blessings
of liberty to themselves and their posterity, intended to empower
the Federal Government to exclude slavery from the Territories.
In the kindliest spirit he protested against the avowed threat of
the Southern States to destroy the Union if, in order to secure
freedom in those vast regions out of which future States were to
be carved, a Republican President were elected. He closed with
an appeal to his audience, spoken with all the fire of his
aroused and kindling conscience, with a full outpouring of his
love of justice and liberty, to maintain their political purpose
on that lofty and unassailable issue of right and wrong which
alone could justify it, and not to be intimidated from their high
resolve and sacred duty by any threats of destruction to the
government or of ruin to themselves. He concluded with this
telling sentence, which drove the whole argument home to all our
hearts: "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."
That night the great hall, and the next day the whole city, rang
with delighted applause and congratulations, and he who had come
as a stranger departed with the laurels of great triumph.

Alas! in five years from that exulting night I saw him again, for
the last time, in the same city, borne in his coffin through its
draped streets. With tears and lamentations a heart-broken
people accompanied him from Washington, the scene of his
martyrdom, to his last resting-place in the young city of the
West where he had worked his way to fame.

Never was a new ruler in a more desperate plight than Lincoln
when he entered office on the fourth of March, 1861, four months
after his election, and took his oath to support the Constitution
and the Union. The intervening time had been busily employed by
the Southern States in carrying out their threat of disunion in
the event of his election. As soon as the fact was ascertained,
seven of them had seceded and had seized upon the forts,
arsenals, navy yards, and other public property of the United
States within their boundaries, and were making every preparation
for war. In the meantime the retiring President, who had been
elected by the slave power, and who thought the seceding States
could not lawfully be coerced, had done absolutely nothing.
Lincoln found himself, by the Constitution, Commander-in-Chief of
the Army and Navy of the United States, but with only a remnant
of either at hand. Each was to be created on a great scale out
of the unknown resources of a nation untried in war.

In his mild and conciliatory inaugural address, while appealing
to the seceding States to return to their allegiance, he avowed
his purpose to keep the solemn oath he had taken that day, to see
that the laws of the Union were faithfully executed, and to use
the troops to recover the forts, navy yards, and other property
belonging to the government. It is probable, however, that
neither side actually realized that war was inevitable, and that
the other was determined to fight, until the assault on Fort
Sumter presented the South as the first aggressor and roused the
North to use every possible resource to maintain the government
and the imperilled Union, and to vindicate the supremacy of the
flag over every inch of the territory of the United States. The
fact that Lincoln's first proclamation called for only 75,000
troops, to serve for three months, shows how inadequate was even
his idea of what the future had in store. But from that moment
Lincoln and his loyal supporters never faltered in their purpose.
They knew they could win, that it was their duty to win, and that
for America the whole hope of the future depended upon their
winning; for now by the acts of the seceding States the issue of
the election to secure or prevent the extension of slavery--stood
transformed into a struggle to preserve or to destroy the Union.

We cannot follow this contest. You know its gigantic
proportions; that it lasted four years instead of three months;
that in its progress, instead of 75,000 men, more than 2,000,000
were enrolled on the side of the government alone; that the
aggregate cost and loss to the nation approximated to
1,000,000,000 pounds sterling, and that not less than 300,000
brave and precious lives were sacrificed on each side. History
has recorded how Lincoln bore himself during these four frightful
years; that he was the real President, the responsible and actual
head of the government, through it all; that he listened to all
advice, heard all parties, and then, always realizing his
responsibility to God and the nation, decided every great
executive question for himself. His absolute honesty had become
proverbial long before he was President. "Honest Abe Lincoln"
was the name by which he had been known for years. His every act
attested it.

In all the grandeur of the vast power that he wielded, he never
ceased to be one of the plain people, as he always called them,
never lost or impaired his perfect sympathy with them, was always
in perfect touch with them and open to their appeals; and here
lay the very secret of his personality and of his power, for the
people in turn gave him their absolute confidence. His courage,
his fortitude, his patience, his hopefulness, were sorely tried
but never exhausted.

He was true as steel to his generals, but had frequent occasion
to change them, as he found them inadequate. This serious and
painful duty rested wholly upon him, and was perhaps his most
important function as Commander-in-Chief; but when, at last, he
recognized in General Grant the master of the situation, the man
who could and would bring the war to a triumphant end, he gave it
all over to him and upheld him with all his might. Amid all the
pressure and distress that the burdens of office brought upon
him, his unfailing sense of humor saved him; probably it made it
possible for him to live under the burden. He had always been
the great story-teller of the West, and he used and cultivated
this faculty to relieve the weight of the load he bore.

It enabled him to keep the wonderful record of never having lost
his temper, no matter what agony he had to bear. A whole night
might be spent in recounting the stories of his wit, humor, and
harmless sarcasm. But I will recall only two of his sayings,
both about General Grant, who always found plenty of enemies and
critics to urge the President to oust him from his command. One,
I am sure, will interest all Scotchmen. They repeated with
malicious intent the gossip that Grant drank. "What does he
drink?" asked Lincoln. "Whiskey," was, of course, the answer;
doubtless you can guess the brand. "Well," said the President,
"just find out what particular kind he uses and I'll send a
barrel to each of my other generals." The other must be as
pleasing to the British as to the American ear. When pressed
again on other grounds to get rid of Grant, he declared, "I can't
spare that man, he fights!"

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