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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Lincoln’s Death and Fame
By John Hay (1838–1905) and John George Nicolay (1832–1901)
 
From ‘Abraham Lincoln: a History’

IN fact, it was among the common people of the entire civilized world that the most genuine and spontaneous manifestations of sorrow and appreciation were produced, and to this fact we attribute the sudden and solid foundation of Lincoln’s fame. It requires years, perhaps centuries, to build the structure of a reputation which rests upon the opinion of those distinguished for learning or intelligence; the progress of opinion from the few to the many is slow and painful. But in the case of Lincoln the many imposed their opinion all at once; he was canonized, as he lay on his bier, by the irresistible decree of countless millions. The greater part of the aristocracy of England thought little of him; but the burst of grief from the English people silenced in an instant every discordant voice. It would have been as imprudent to speak slightingly of him in London as it was in New York. Especially among the Dissenters was honor and reverence shown to his name. The humbler people instinctively felt that their order had lost its wisest champion.  1
  Not only among those of Saxon blood was this outburst of emotion seen. In France a national manifestation took place, which the government disliked but did not think it wise to suppress. The students of Paris marched in a body to the American Legation to express their sympathy. A two-cent subscription was started to strike a massive gold medal; the money was soon raised, but the committee was forced to have the work done in Switzerland. A committee of French Liberals brought the medal to the American minister, to be sent to Mrs. Lincoln. “Tell her,” said Eugène Pelletan, “the heart of France is in that little box.” The inscription had a double sense; while honoring the dead republican, it struck at the Empire: “Lincoln—the Honest Man; abolished Slavery, re-established the Union; Saved the Republic, without veiling the Statue of Liberty.”  2
  Everywhere on the Continent the same swift apotheosis of the people’s hero was seen. An Austrian deputy said to the writer, “Among my people his memory has already assumed superhuman proportions; he has become a myth, a type of ideal democracy.” Almost before the earth closed over him he began to be the subject of fable. The Freemasons of Europe generally regard him as one of them—his portrait in Masonic garb is often displayed; yet he was not one of that brotherhood. The Spiritualists claim him as their most illustrious adept, but he was not a Spiritualist; and there is hardly a sect in the Western world, from the Calvinist to the atheist, but affects to believe he was of their opinion.  3
  A collection of the expressions of sympathy and condolence which came to Washington from foreign governments, associations, and public bodies of all sorts, was made by the State Department, and afterwards published by order of Congress. It forms a large quarto of a thousand pages, and embraces the utterances of grief and regret from every country under the sun, in almost every language spoken by man.  4
  But admired and venerated as he was in Europe, he was best understood and appreciated at home. It is not to be denied that in his case, as in that of all heroic personages who occupy a great place in history, a certain element of legend mingles with his righteous fame. He was a man, in fact, especially liable to legend. We have been told by farmers in central Illinois that the brown thrush did not sing for a year after he died. He was gentle and merciful, and therefore he seems in a certain class of annals to have passed all his time in soothing misfortune and pardoning crime. He had more than his share of the shrewd native humor, and therefore the loose jest-books of two centuries have been ransacked for anecdotes to be attributed to him. He was a great and powerful lover of mankind, especially of those not favored by fortune. One night he had a dream, which he repeated the next morning to the writer of these lines, which quaintly illustrates his unpretending and kindly democracy. He was in some great assembly; the people made a lane to let him pass. “He is a common-looking fellow,” some one said. Lincoln in his dream turned to his critic and replied in his Quaker phrase, “Friend, the Lord prefers common-looking people; that is why he made so many of them.” He that abases himself shall be exalted. Because Lincoln kept himself in such constant sympathy with the common people, whom he respected too highly to flatter or mislead, he was rewarded by a reverence and a love hardly ever given to a human being. Among the humble working people of the South whom he had made free, this veneration and affection easily passed into the supernatural. At a religious meeting among the negroes of the Sea Islands a young man expressed the wish that he might see Lincoln. A gray-headed negro rebuked the rash aspiration: “No man see Linkum. Linkum walk as Jesus walk; no man see Linkum.”  5
  But leaving aside these fables, which are a natural enough expression of a popular awe and love, it seems to us that no more just estimate of Lincoln’s relation to his time has ever been made, nor perhaps ever will be, than that uttered by one of the wisest and most American of thinkers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a few days after the assassination. We cannot forbear quoting a few words of this remarkable discourse, which shows how Lincoln seemed to the greatest of his contemporaries:—
          “A plain man of the people, an extraordinary fortune attended him. Lord Bacon says, ‘Manifest virtues procure reputation; occult ones fortune.’… 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. Rarely was a man so fitted to the event…. It cannot be said that there is any exaggeration of his worth. If ever a man was fairly tested, he was. There was no lack of resistance, nor of slander, nor of ridicule…. Then what an occasion was the whirlwind of the war! Here 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 resources, 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 minds articulated by his tongue.”
  6
  The quick instinct by which the world recognized him even at the moment of his death as one of its greatest men, was not deceived. It has been confirmed by the sober thought of a quarter of a century. The writers of each nation compare him with their first popular hero. The French find points of resemblance in him to Henry IV.; the Dutch liken him to William of Orange: the cruel stroke of murder and treason by which all three perished in the height of their power naturally suggests the comparison, which is strangely justified in both cases, though the two princes were so widely different in character. Lincoln had the wit, the bonhomie, the keen practical insight into affairs, of the Béarnais; and the tyrannous moral sense, the wide comprehension, the heroic patience of the Dutch patriot, whose motto might have served equally well for the American President—Sævis tranquillus in undis.” European historians speak of him in words reserved for the most illustrious names. Merle d’Aubigné says, “The name of Lincoln will remain one of the greatest that history has to inscribe on its annals.” Henri Martin predicts nothing less than a universal apotheosis: “This man will stand out in the traditions of his country and the world as an incarnation of the people, and of modern democracy itself.” Emilio Castelar, in an oration against slavery in the Spanish Cortes, called him “humblest of the humble before his conscience, greatest of the great before history.”  7
  In this country, where millions still live who were his contemporaries, and thousands who knew him personally; where the envies and jealousies which dog the footsteps of success still linger in the hearts of a few; where journals still exist that loaded his name for four years with daily calumny, and writers of memoirs vainly try to make themselves important by belittling him,—his fame has become as universal as the air, as deeply rooted as the hills. The faint discords are not heard in the wide chorus that hails him second to none and equaled by Washington alone. The eulogies of him form a special literature. Preachers, poets, soldiers, and statesmen employ the same phrases of unconditional love and reverence. Men speaking with the authority of fame use unqualified superlatives. Lowell in an immortal ode calls him “new birth of our new soil, the first American.” General Sherman says, “Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.” General Grant, after having met the rulers of almost every civilized country on earth, said Lincoln impressed him as the greatest intellectual force with which he had ever come in contact.  8
  He is spoken of with scarcely less of enthusiasm by the more generous and liberal spirits among those who revolted against his election and were vanquished by his power. General Longstreet calls him “the greatest man of Rebellion times, the one matchless among forty millions for the peculiar difficulties of the period.” An eminent Southern orator, referring to our mixed Northern and Southern ancestry, says: “From the union of those colonists, from the straightening of their purposes and the crossing of their blood, slowly perfecting through a century, came he who stands as the first typical American, the first who comprehended within himself all the strength and gentleness, all the majesty and grace of this republic—Abraham Lincoln.”  9
  It is not difficult to perceive the basis of this sudden and worldwide fame, nor rash to predict its indefinite duration. There are two classes of men whose names are more enduring than any monument: the great writers, and the men of great achievement,—the founders of States, the conquerors. Lincoln has the singular fortune to belong to both these categories; upon these broad and stable foundations his renown is securely built. Nothing would have more amazed him while he lived than to hear himself called a man of letters; but this age has produced few greater writers. We are only recording here the judgment of his peers. Emerson ranks him with Æsop and Pilpay, in his lighter moods, and says: “The weight and penetration of many passages in his letters, messages, and speeches, hidden now by the very closeness of their application to the moment, are destined to a wide fame. What pregnant definitions, what unerring common-sense, what foresight, and on great occasions what lofty, and more than national, what human tone! His brief speech at Gettysburg will not easily be surpassed by words on any recorded occasion.”  10
  His style extorted the high praise of French Academicians; Montalembert commended it as a model for the imitation of princes. Many of his phrases form part of the common speech of mankind. It is true that in his writings the range of subjects is not great; he is concerned chiefly with the political problems of the time, and the moral considerations involved in them. But the range of treatment is remarkably wide; it runs from the wit, the gay humor, the florid eloquence of his stump speeches to the marvelous sententiousness and brevity of the letter to Greeley and the address of Gettysburg, and the sustained and lofty grandeur of the Second Inaugural.  11
  The more his writings are studied in connection with the important transactions of his age, the higher will his reputation stand in the opinion of the lettered class. But the men of study and research are never numerous; and it is principally as a man of action that the world at large will regard him. It is the story of his objective life that will forever touch and hold the heart of mankind. His birthright was privation and ignorance—not peculiar to his family, but the universal environment of his place and time; he burst through those enchaining conditions by the force of native genius and will: vice had no temptation for him; his course was as naturally upward as the skylark’s; he won, against all conceivable obstacles, a high place in an exacting profession and an honorable position in public and private life; he became the foremost representative of a party founded on an uprising of the national conscience against a secular wrong, and thus came to the awful responsibilities of power in a time of terror and gloom. He met them with incomparable strength and virtue. Caring for nothing but the public good, free from envy or jealous fears, he surrounded himself with the leading men of his party, his most formidable rivals in public esteem, and through four years of stupendous difficulties he was head and shoulders above them all in the vital qualities of wisdom, foresight, knowledge of men, and thorough comprehension of measures. Personally opposed, as the radicals claim, by more than half of his own party in Congress, and bitterly denounced and maligned by his open adversaries, he yet bore himself with such extraordinary discretion and skill that he obtained for the government all the legislation it required, and so impressed himself upon the national mind that without personal effort or solicitation he became the only possible candidate of his party for re-election, and was chosen by an almost unanimous vote of the electoral colleges.  12
  His qualities would have rendered his administration illustrious even in time of peace; but when we consider that in addition to the ordinary work of the executive office, he was forced to assume the duties of commander-in-chief of the national forces engaged in the most complex and difficult war of modern times, the greatness of spirit as well as the intellectual strength he evinced in that capacity is nothing short of prodigious. Aftertimes will wonder, not at the few and unimportant mistakes he may have committed, but at the intuitive knowledge of his business that he displayed. We would not presume to express a personal opinion in this matter. We use the testimony only of the most authoritative names. General W. T. Sherman has repeatedly expressed the admiration and surprise with which he has read Mr. Lincoln’s correspondence with his generals, and his opinion of the remarkable correctness of his military views. General W. F. Smith says:—“I have long held to the opinion that at the close of the war Mr. Lincoln was the superior of his generals in his comprehension of the effect of strategic movements and the proper method of following up victories to their legitimate conclusions.” General J. H. Wilson holds the same opinion; and Colonel Robert N. Scott, in whose lamented death the army lost one of its most vigorous and best-trained intellects, frequently called Mr. Lincoln “the ablest strategist of the war.”  13
  To these qualifications of high literary excellence, and easy practical mastery of affairs of transcendent importance, we must add, as an explanation of his immediate and worldwide fame, his possession of certain moral qualities rarely combined in such high degree in one individual. His heart was so tender that he would dismount from his horse in a forest to replace in their nest young birds which had fallen by the roadside; he could not sleep at night if he knew that a soldier-boy was under sentence of death; he could not, even at the bidding of duty or policy, refuse the prayer of age or helplessness in distress. Children instinctively loved him; they never found his rugged features ugly; his sympathies were quick and seemingly unlimited. He was absolutely without prejudice of class or condition. Frederick Douglass says he was the only man of distinction he ever met who never reminded him, by word or manner, of his color; he was as just and generous to the rich and well-born as to the poor and humble—a thing rare among politicians. He was tolerant even of evil: though no man can ever have lived with a loftier scorn of meanness and selfishness, he yet recognized their existence and counted with them. He said one day, with a flash of cynical wisdom worthy of a La Rochefoucauld, that honest statesmanship was the employment of individual meanness for the public good. He never asked perfection of any one; he did not even insist, for others, upon the high standards he set up for himself. At a time before the word was invented he was the first of opportunists. With the fire of a reformer and a martyr in his heart, he yet proceeded by the ways of cautious and practical statecraft. He always worked with things as they were, while never relinquishing the desire and effort to make them better. To a hope which saw the Delectable Mountains of absolute justice and peace in the future, to a faith that God in his own time would give to all men the things convenient to them, he added a charity which embraced in its deep bosom all the good and the bad, all the virtues and the infirmities of men, and a patience like that of nature, which in its vast and fruitful activity knows neither haste nor rest.  14
  A character like this is among the precious heirlooms of the republic; and by a special good fortune, every part of the country has an equal claim and pride in it. Lincoln’s blood came from the veins of New England emigrants, of Middle-State Quakers, of Virginia planters, of Kentucky pioneers; he himself was one of the men who grew up with the earliest growth of the Great West. Every jewel of his mind or his conduct sheds radiance on each portion of the nation. The marvelous symmetry and balance of his intellect and character may have owed something to this varied environment of his race, and they may fitly typify the variety and solidity of the republic. It may not be unreasonable to hope that his name and his renown may be forever a bond of union to the country which he loved with an affection so impartial, and served, in life and in death, with such entire devotion.  15
 
 
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