Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Personal Reminiscences of Lincoln
By Noah Brooks (18301903)
[Born in Castine, Maine, 1830. Died in Pasadena, Cal., 1903. The Century Magazine. 1878.]
DURING the presidential campaign of 1856 I lived in Northern Illinois. As one who dabbled a little in politics and a good deal in journalism, it was necessary for me to follow up some of the more important mass-meetings of the Republicans. At one of these great assemblies in Ogle County, to which the country people came on horseback, in farm-wagons, or afoot, from far and near, there were several speakers of local celebrity. Dr. Egan of Chicago, famous for his racy stories, was one, and Joe Knox of Bureau County, a stump-speaker of renown, was another attraction. Several other orators were on the bills for this long-advertised Fremont and Dayton rally, among them being a Springfield lawyer who had won some reputation as a shrewd, close reasoner and a capital speaker on the stump. This was Abraham Lincoln, popularly known as Honest Abe Lincoln. In those days he was not so famous in our part of the State as the two speakers whom I have named. Possibly he was not so popular among the masses of the people; but his ready wit, his unfailing good-humor, and the candor which gave him his character for honesty, won for him the admiration and respect of all who heard him. I remember once meeting a choleric old Democrat striding away from an open-air meeting where Lincoln was speaking, striking the earth with his cane as he stumped along and exclaiming, Hes a dangerous man, sir! a dd dangerous man! He makes you believe what he says, in spite of yourself! It was Lincolns manner. He admitted away his whole case, apparently, and yet, as his political opponents complained, he usually carried conviction with him. As he reasoned with his audience, he bent his long form over the railing of the platform, stooping lower and lower as he pursued his argument, until, having reached his point, he clinched it (usually with a question), and then suddenly sprang upright, reminding one of the springing open of a jack-knife blade.
At the Ogle County meeting to which I refer, Lincoln led off, the raciest speakers being reserved for the later part of the political entertainment. I am bound to say that Lincoln did not awaken the boisterous applause which some of those who followed him did, but his speech made a more lasting impression. It was talked about for weeks afterward in the neighborhood, and it probably changed votes; for that was the time when Free-soil votes were being made in Northern Illinois. I had made Lincolns acquaintance early in that particular day; after he had spoken, and while some of the others were on the platform, he and I fell into a chat about political prospects. We crawled under the pendulous branches of a tree, and Lincoln, lying flat on the ground, with his chin in his hands, talked on, rather gloomily as to the present, but absolutely confident as to the future I was dismayed to find that he did not believe it possible that Fremont could be elected. As if half pitying my youthful ignorance, but admiring my enthusiasm, he said: Dont be discouraged if we dont carry the day this year. We cant do it, thats certain. We cant carry Pennsylvania; those old Whigs down there are too strong for us. But we shall, sooner or later, elect our president. I feel confident of that.
Well, I dont know. Everything depends on the course of the Democracy. Theres a big anti-slavery element in the Democratic party, and if we could get hold of that, we might possibly elect our man in 1860. But its doubtfulvery doubtful. Perhaps we shall be able to fetch it by 1864; perhaps not. As I said before, the Free-soil party is bound to win, in the long run. It may not be in my day; but it will in yours, I do really believe.
Of course, at this distance of time, I cannot pretend to give Lincolns exact words. When I heard them, the speaker was only one of many politicians of a limited local reputation. And if it had not been for Lincolns earnestness, and the almost affectionate desire that he manifested to have me, a young newspaper writer, understand the political situation, I should not have remembered them for a day. Four years afterward, when Lincoln was nominated at Chicago, his dubious speculations as to the future of his party, as we lay under the trees in Ogle County, came back to me like a curious echo. If he was so despondent in 1856, when another man was the nominee, would he not be still more so in 1860, when he, with his habit of underrating his own powers, was the candidate?
It was not long before Lincoln heard that I was in Washington, and sent for me to come and see him. He recollected the little conversation we had had together, and had not forgotten my name and occupation. And he recalled with great glee my discomfiture when he had dispelled certain rosy hopes of Fremonts election, so many years before. It seemed quite wonderful. But, as I afterward observed, Lincolns memory was very retentive. It only needed a word or a suggestion to revive in his mind an accurate picture of the minutest incidents in his life. A curious instance of this happened at our very first interview. Naturally, we fell to talking of Illinois, and he related several stories of his early life in that region. Particularly, he remembered his share in the Black Hawk war, in which he was a captain. He referred to his share of the campaign lightly, and said that he saw very little fighting. But he remembered coming on a camp of white scouts, one morning just as the sun was rising. The Indians had surprised the camp, and had killed and scalped every man.
I remember just how those men looked, said Lincoln, as we rose up the little hill where their camp was. The red light of the morning sun was streaming upon them as they lay, heads toward us, on the ground. And every man had a round red spot on the top of his head, about as big as a dollar, where the redskins had taken his scalp. It was frightful, but it was grotesque, and the red sunlight seemed to paint everything all over. Lincoln paused, as if recalling the vivid picture, and added, somewhat irrelevantly: I remember that one man had buckskin breeches on.
One Saturday night, the President asked me if I had any objection to accompanying him to a photographers on Sunday. He said that it was impossible for him to go on any other day, and he would like to have me see him set. Next day we went together, and as he was leaving the house he stopped and said: Hold on, I have forgotten Everett! Stepping hastily back, he brought with him a folded paper, which he explained was a printed copy of the oration that Mr. Everett was to deliver, in a few days, at Gettysburg. It occupied nearly the whole of two pages of the Boston Journal, and looked very formidable indeed. As we walked away from the house, Lincoln said: It was very kind in Mr. Everett to send me this. I suppose he was afraid I should say something that he wanted to say. He neednt have been alarmed. My speech isnt long.
Well, no, was the reply. It is not exactly written. It is not finished, anyway. I have written it over, two or three times, and I shall have to give it another lick before I am satisfied. But it is short, short, short.
I found, afterward, that the Gettysburg speech was actually written, and rewritten a great many times. The several draughts and interlineations of that famous address, if in existence, would be an invaluable memento of its great author. Lincoln took the copy of Everetts oration with him to the photographers, thinking that he might have time to look it over while waiting for the operator. But he chatted so constantly, and asked so many questions about the art of photography, that he scarcely opened it. The folded paper is seen lying on the table, near the President, in the picture which was made that day.
Early in May, the country was anxiously waiting for news from Chancellorsville. The grand movement had been only partially successful, but everybody expected to hear that the first repulse was only temporary, and that the army was pressing on gloriously to Richmond. One bright forenoon, in company with an old friend of Lincolns, I waited in one of the family rooms of the White House, as the President had asked us to go to the navy-yard with him to see some experiments in gunnery. A door opened and Lincoln appeared, holding an open telegram in his hand. The sight of his face and figure was frightful. He seemed striken with death. Almost tottering to a chair, he sat down, and then I mechanically noticed that his face was of the same color as the wall behind himnot pale, not even sallow, but gray, like ashes. Extending the dispatch to me, he said, with a sort of far-off voice: Read itnews from the army. The telegram was from General Butterfield, I think, then chief of staff to Hooker. It was very brief, simply saying that the army of the Potomac had safely recrossed the Rappahannock and was now at its old position on the north bank of that stream. The Presidents friend, Dr. Henry, an old man and somewhat impressionable, burst into tears,not so much, probably, at the news, as on account of its effect upon Lincoln. The President regarded the old man for an instant with dry eyes, and said: What will the country say? Oh, what will the country say? He seemed hungry for consolation and cheer, and sat a little while talking about the failure. Yet, it did not seem that he was disappointed. He only thought that the country would be.
While the talk was going on, the cards of Congressman Hooper and Professor Agassiz were brought in by a servant. Agassiz! exclaimed the President with great delight; I never met him yet, and Hooper promised to bring him up to-night. I rose to go, when he said: Dont go, dont go. Sit down, and let us see what we can pick up thats new from this great man.
The conversation, however, was not very learned. The President and the savant seemed like two boys who wanted to ask questions which appeared commonplace, but were not quite sure of each other. Each man was simplicity itself. Lincoln asked for the correct pronunciation and derivation of Agassizs name, and both men prattled on about curious proper names in various languages, and odd correspondences between names of common things in different tongues. Agassiz asked Lincoln if he ever had engaged in lecturing, in his life. Lincoln gave the outline of a lecture, which he had partly written, to show the origin of inventions, and prove that there is nothing new under the sun. I think I can show, said he, at least, in a fanciful way, that all the modern inventions were known centuries ago. Agassiz begged that Lincoln would finish the lecture, some time. Lincoln replied that he had the manuscript somewhere in his papers, and, said he, when I get out of this place, Ill finish it up, perhaps, and get my friend B to print it somewhere. When these two visitors had departed, Agassiz and Lincoln shaking hands with great warmth, the latter turned to me with a quizzical smile and said: Well, I wasnt so badly scared, after all! were you? He had evidently expected to be very much oppressed by the great mans learning. He admitted that he had cross-examined him on things not in the books.
Scripture stories were used by Lincoln to illustrate his argument or to enforce a point. Judge E. had been concerned in a certain secret organization of radical Republicans, whose design was to defeat Lincolns renomination. When this futile opposition had died out, the judge was pressed by his friends for a profitable office. Lincoln appointed him, and to one who remonstrated against such a display of magnanimity, he replied: Well, I suppose Judge E., having been disappointed before, did behave pretty ugly; but that wouldnt make him any less fit for this place; and I have Scriptural authority for appointing him. You remember that when the Lord was on Mount Sinai getting out a commission for Aaron, that same Aaron was at the foot of the mountain making a false god for the people to worship. Yet Aaron got his commission, you know.
So much has been written about Lincolns private life and personal habits, that it seems unnecessary now to add more than a word. He was simple in all his tastes; liked old songs and old poetry. He was always neatly, but not finically, dressed. He disliked gloves, and once I saw him extract seven or eight pairs of gloves from an overcoat pocket, where they had accumulated after having been furnished him by Mrs. Lincoln. Usually, he drank tea and coffee at the table, but he preferred milk, or cold water. Wine was never on the table at the White House, except when visitors, other than familiar friends, were present. The Presidents glass was always filled, and he usually touched it to his lips. Sometimes he drank a few swallows, but never a whole glass, probably. He was cordial and affable, and his simple-hearted manners made a strong impression upon those who met him for the first time. I have known impressionable women, touched by his sad face and his gentle bearing, to go away in tears. Once I found him sitting in his chair so collapsed and weary that he did not look up or speak when I addressed him. He put out his hand, mechanically, as if to shake hands, when I told him I had come at his bidding. It was several minutes before he was aroused enough to say that he had had a mighty hard day. Once, too, at a reception in the White House, I joined the long queue of people, shook hands with him, received the usual Glad to see you, sir, and passed on. Later in the evening, meeting me, he declared that he had not seen me before, and explained his preoccupation of manner while the people were shaking hands with him by saying that he was thinking of a man down South. It afterward came out that the man down South was Sherman. Once, when a visitor used profane language in his presence, he rose and said: I thought Senator C. had sent me a gentleman. I am mistaken. There is the door, and I wish you good-night. At another time, a delegation from a distant State waited on him with a written protest against certain appointments. The paper contained some reflections upon the character of Senator Baker, Lincolns old and beloved friend. With great dignity, the President said: This is my paper which you have given me? Assured that it was, he added: To do with as I please? Certainly, Mr. President. Lincoln stooped to the fire-place behind him, laid it on the burning coals, turned, and said: Good day, gentlemen.
After Lincoln had been reëlected, he began to consider what he should do when his second term of office had expired. Mrs. Lincoln desired to go to Europe for a long tour of pleasure. The President was disposed to gratify her wish, but he fixed his eyes on California as a place of permanent residence. He thought that that country offered better opportunities for his two boys, one of whom was then in college, than the older States. He had heard so much of the delightful climate and the abundant natural productions of California, that he had become possessed of a strong desire to visit the State, and remain there if he were satisfied with the results of his observations. When we leave this place, he said, one day, we shall have enough, I think, to take care of us old people. The boys must look out for themselves. I guess mother will be satisfied with six months or so in Europe. After that, I should really like to go to California and take a look at the Pacific coast.
I have thus recalled and set forth some of the incidents in Lincolns life as they remain in my mind. To many persons these details, written without any attempt at symmetrical arrangement, may seem trivial. But the purpose of this record will have been fulfilled if it shall help anybody to a better understanding of the character of one of the greatest and wisest men who ever lived.