The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7

He was, indeed, while President, violently denounced by the
opposition as a tyrant and a usurper, for having gone beyond his
constitutional powers in authorizing or permitting the temporary
suppression of newspapers, and in wantonly suspending the writ of
habeas corpus and resorting to arbitrary arrests. Nobody should
be blamed who, when such things are done, in good faith and from
patriotic motives protests against them. In a republic,
arbitrary stretches of power, even when demanded by necessity,
should never be permitted to pass without a protest on the one
hand, and without an apology on the other. It is well they did
not so pass during our civil war. That arbitrary measures were
resorted to is true. That they were resorted to most sparingly,
and only when the government thought them absolutely required by
the safety of the republic, will now hardly be denied. But
certain it is that the history of the world does not furnish a
single example of a government passing through so tremendous a
crisis as our civil war was with so small a record of arbitrary
acts, and so little interference with the ordinary course of law
outside the field of military operations. No American President
ever wielded such power as that which was thrust into Lincoln’s
hands. It is to be hoped that no American President ever will
have to be entrusted with such power again. But no man was ever
entrusted with it to whom its seductions were less dangerous than
they proved to be to Abraham Lincoln. With scrupulous care he
endeavored, even under the most trying circumstances, to remain
strictly within the constitutional limitations of his authority;
and whenever the boundary became indistinct, or when the dangers
of the situation forced him to cross it, he was equally careful
to mark his acts as exceptional measures, justifiable only by the
imperative necessities of the civil war, so that they might not
pass into history as precedents for similar acts in time of
peace. It is an unquestionable fact that during the
reconstruction period which followed the war, more things were
done capable of serving as dangerous precedents than during the
war itself. Thus it may truly be said of him not only that under
his guidance the republic was saved from disruption and the
country was purified of the blot of slavery, but that, during the
stormiest and most perilous crisis in our history, he so
conducted the government and so wielded his almost dictatorial
power as to leave essentially intact our free institutions in all
things that concern the rights and liberties of the citizens. He
understood well the nature of the problem. In his first message
to Congress he defined it in admirably pointed language: “Must a
government be of necessity too strong for the liberties of its
own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence? Is there
in all republics this inherent weakness?” This question he
answered in the name of the great American republic, as no man
could have answered it better, with a triumphant “No….”

It has been said that Abraham Lincoln died at the right moment
for his fame. However that may be, he had, at the time of his
death, certainly not exhausted his usefulness to his country. He
was probably the only man who could have guided the nation
through the perplexities of the reconstruction period in such a
manner as to prevent in the work of peace the revival of the
passions of the war. He would indeed not have escaped serious
controversy as to details of policy; but he could have weathered
it far better than any other statesman of his time, for his
prestige with the active politicians had been immensely
strengthened by his triumphant re-election; and, what is more
important, he would have been supported by the confidence of the
victorious Northern people that he would do all to secure the
safety of the Union and the rights of the emancipated negro, and
at the same time by the confidence of the defeated Southern
people that nothing would be done by him from motives of
vindictiveness, or of unreasoning fanaticism, or of a selfish
party spirit. “With malice toward none, with charity for all,”
the foremost of the victors would have personified in himself the
genius of reconciliation.

He might have rendered the country a great service in another
direction. A few days after the fall of Richmond, he pointed out
to a friend the crowd of office-seekers besieging his door.
“Look at that,” said he. ” Now we have conquered the rebellion,
but here you see something that may become more dangerous to this
republic than the rebellion itself.” It is true, Lincoln as
President did not profess what we now call civil service reform
principles. He used the patronage of the government in many
cases avowedly to reward party work, in many others to form
combinations and to produce political effects advantageous to the
Union cause, and in still others simply to put the right man into
the right place. But in his endeavors to strengthen the Union
cause, and in his search for able and useful men for public
duties, he frequently went beyond the limits of his party, and
gradually accustomed himself to the thought that, while party
service had its value, considerations of the public interest
were, as to appointments to office, of far greater consequence.
Moreover, there had been such a mingling of different political
elements in support of the Union during the civil war that
Lincoln, standing at the head of that temporarily united motley
mass, hardly felt himself, in the narrow sense of the term, a
party man. And as he became strongly impressed with the dangers
brought upon the republic by the use of public offices as party
spoils, it is by no means improbable that, had he survived the
all-absorbing crisis and found time to turn to other objects, one
of the most important reforms of later days would have been
pioneered by his powerful authority. This was not to be. But
the measure of his achievements was full enough for immortality.

To the younger generation Abraham Lincoln has already become a
half-mythical figure, which, in the haze of historic distance,
grows to more and more heroic proportions, but also loses in
distinctness of outline and feature. This is indeed the common
lot of popular heroes; but the Lincoln legend will be more than
ordinarily apt to become fanciful, as his individuality,
assembling seemingly incongruous qualities and forces in a
character at the same time grand and most lovable, was so unique,
and his career so abounding in startling contrasts. As the state
of society in which Abraham Lincoln grew up passes away, the
world will read with increasing wonder of the man who, not only
of the humblest origin, but remaining the simplest and most
unpretending of citizens, was raised to a position of power
unprecedented in our history; who was the gentlest and most
peace-loving of mortals, unable to see any creature suffer
without a pang in his own breast, and suddenly found himself
called to conduct the greatest and bloodiest of our wars; who
wielded the power of government when stern resolution and
relentless force were the order of the day and then won and ruled
the popular mind and heart by the tender sympathies of his
nature; who was a cautious conservative by temperament and mental
habit, and led the most sudden and sweeping social revolution of
our time; who, preserving his homely speech and rustic manner
even in the most conspicuous position of that period, drew upon
himself the scoffs of polite society, and then thrilled the soul
of mankind with utterances of wonderful beauty and grandeur; who,
in his heart the best friend of the defeated South, was murdered
because a crazy fanatic took him for its most cruel enemy; who,
while in power, was beyond measure lampooned and maligned by
sectional passion and an excited party spirit, and around whose
bier friend and foe gathered to praise him which they have since
never ceased to do–as one of the greatest of Americans and the
best of men.



[This Address was delivered before the Edinburgh Philosophical
Institution, November 13, 1900. It is included in this set with
the courteous permission of the author and of Messrs. Thomas Y.
Crowell & Company.]


When you asked me to deliver the Inaugural Address on this
occasion, I recognized that I owed this compliment to the fact
that I was the official representative of America, and in
selecting a subject I ventured to think that I might interest you
for an hour in a brief study in popular government, as
illustrated by the life of the most American of all Americans. I
therefore offer no apology for asking your attention to Abraham
Lincoln–to his unique character and the part he bore in two
important achievements of modern history: the preservation of the
integrity of the American Union and the emancipation of the
colored race.

During his brief term of power he was probably the object of more
abuse, vilification, and ridicule than any other man in the
world; but when he fell by the hand of an assassin, at the very
moment of his stupendous victory, all the nations of the earth
vied with one another in paying homage to his character, and the
thirty-five years that have since elapsed have established his
place in history as one of the great benefactors not of his own
country alone, but of the human race.

One of many noble utterances upon the occasion of his death was
that in which ‘Punch’ made its magnanimous recantation of the
spirit with which it had pursued him:

“Beside this corpse that bears for winding sheet
The stars and stripes he lived to rear anew,
Between the mourners at his head and feet,
Say, scurrile jester, is there room for you?


“Yes, he had lived to shame me from my sneer,
To lame my pencil, and confute my pen
To make me own this hind–of princes peer,
This rail-splitter–a true born king of men.”

Fiction can furnish no match for the romance of his life, and
biography will be searched in vain for such startling
vicissitudes of fortune, so great power and glory won out of such
humble beginnings and adverse circumstances.

Doubtless you are all familiar with the salient points of his
extraordinary career. In the zenith of his fame he was the wise,
patient, courageous, successful ruler of men; exercising more
power than any monarch of his time, not for himself, but for the
good of the people who had placed it in his hands; commander-in-
chief of a vast military power, which waged with ultimate success
the greatest war of the century; the triumphant champion of
popular government, the deliverer of four millions of his fellow-
men from bondage; honored by mankind as Statesman, President, and

Let us glance now at the first half of the brief life of which
this was the glorious and happy consummation. Nothing could be
more squalid and miserable than the home in which Abraham Lincoln
was born–a one-roomed cabin without floor or window in what was
then the wilderness of Kentucky, in the heart of that frontier
life which swiftly moved westward from the Alleghanies to the
Mississippi, always in advance of schools and churches, of books
and money, of railroads and newspapers, of all things which are
generally regarded as the comforts and even necessaries of life.
His father, ignorant, needy, and thriftless, content if he could
keep soul and body together for himself and his family, was ever
seeking, without success, to better his unhappy condition by
moving on from one such scene of dreary desolation to another.
The rude society which surrounded them was not much better. The
struggle for existence was hard, and absorbed all their energies.
They were fighting the forest, the wild beast, and the retreating
savage. From the time when he could barely handle tools until he
attained his majority, Lincoln’s life was that of a simple farm
laborer, poorly clad, housed, and fed, at work either on his
father’s wretched farm or hired out to neighboring farmers. But
in spite, or perhaps by means, of this rude environment, he grew
to be a stalwart giant, reaching six feet four at nineteen, and
fabulous stories are told of his feats of strength. With the
growth of this mighty frame began that strange education which in
his ripening years was to qualify him for the great destiny that
awaited him, and the development of those mental faculties and
moral endowments which, by the time he reached middle life, were
to make him the sagacious, patient, and triumphant leader of a
great nation in the crisis of its fate. His whole schooling,
obtained during such odd times as could be spared from grinding
labor, did not amount in all to as much as one year, and the
quality of the teaching was of the lowest possible grade,
including only the elements of reading, writing, and ciphering.
But out of these simple elements, when rightly used by the right
man, education is achieved, and Lincoln knew how to use them. As
so often happens, he seemed to take warning from his father’s
unfortunate example. Untiring industry, an insatiable thirst for
knowledge, and an ever-growing desire to rise above his
surroundings, were early manifestations of his character.

Books were almost unknown in that community, but the Bible was in
every house, and somehow or other Pilgrim’s Progress, AEsop’s
Fables, a History of the United States, and a Life of Washington
fell into his hands. He trudged on foot many miles through the
wilderness to borrow an English Grammar, and is said to have
devoured greedily the contents of the Statutes of Indiana that
fell in his way. These few volumes he read and reread–and his
power of assimilation was great. To be shut in with a few books
and to master them thoroughly sometimes does more for the
development of character than freedom to range at large, in a
cursory and indiscriminate way, through wide domains of
literature. This youth’s mind, at any rate, was thoroughly
saturated with Biblical knowledge and Biblical language, which,
in after life, he used with great readiness and effect. But it
was the constant use of the little knowledge which he had that
developed and exercised his mental powers. After the hard day’s
work was done, while others slept, he toiled on, always reading
or writing. From an early age he did his own thinking and made
up his own mind–invaluable traits in the future President.
Paper was such a scarce commodity that, by the evening firelight,
he would write and cipher on the back of a wooden shovel, and
then shave it off to make room for more. By and by, as he
approached manhood, he began speaking in the rude gatherings of
the neighborhood, and so laid the foundation of that art of
persuading his fellow-men which was one rich result of his
education, and one great secret of his subsequent success.

Accustomed as we are in these days of steam and telegraphs to
have every intelligent boy survey the whole world each morning
before breakfast, and inform himself as to what is going on in
every nation, it is hardly possible to conceive how benighted and
isolated was the condition of the community at Pigeon Creek in
Indiana, of which the family of Lincoln’s father formed a part,
or how eagerly an ambitious and high-spirited boy, such as he,
must have yearned to escape. The first glimpse that he ever got
of any world beyond the narrow confines of his home was in 1828,
at the age of nineteen, when a neighbor employed him to accompany
his son down the river to New Orleans to dispose of a flatboat of
produce–a commission which he discharged with great success.

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