|Walt Whitman (18191892). Prose Works. 1892.|
|9. Death of Abraham Lincoln|
HOW often since that dark and dripping Saturdaythat chilly April day, now fifteen years bygonemy heart has entertaind the dream, the wish, to give of Abraham Lincolns death, its own special thought and memorial. Yet now the sought-for opportunity offers, I find my notes incompetent, (why, for truly profound themes, is statement so idle? why does the right phrase never offer?) and the fit tribute I dreamd of, waits unprepared as ever. My talk here indeed is less because of itself or anything in it, and nearly altogether because I feel a desire, apart from any talk, to specify the day, the martyrdom. It is for this, my friends, I have calld you together. Oft as the rolling years bring back this hour, let it again, however briefly, be dwelt upon. For my own part, I hope and desire, till my own dying day, whenever the 14th or 15th of April comes, to annually gather a few friends, and hold its tragic reminiscence. No narrow or sectional reminiscence. It belongs to these States in their entiretynot the North only, but the Southperhaps belongs most tenderly and devoutly to the South, of all; for there, really, this mans birth-stock. There and thence his antecedent stamp, Why should I not say that thence his manliest traitshis universalityhis canny, easy ways and words upon the surfacehis inflexible determination and courage at heart? Have you never realized it, my friends, that Lincoln, though grafted on the West, is essentially, in personnel and character, a Southern contribution?
LECTURE deliverd in New York, April 14,1879in Philadelphia, 80in Boston,81.
| And though by no means proposing to resume the Secession war to-night, I would briefly remind you of the public conditions preceding that contest. For twenty years, and especially during the four or five before the war actually began, the aspect of affairs in the United States, though without the flash of military excitement, presents more than the survey of a battle, or any extended campaign, or series, even of Natures convulsions. The hot passions of the Souththe strange mixture at the North of inertia, incredulity, and conscious powerthe incendiarism of the abolitioniststhe rascality and grip of the politicians, unparalled in any land, any age. To these I must not omit adding the honesty of the essential bulk of the people everywhereyet with all the seething fury and contradiction of their natures more arousd than the Atlantics waves in wildest equinox. In politics, what can be more ominous, (though generally unappreciated then)what more significant than the Presidentiads of Fillmore and Buchanan? proving conclusively that the weakness and wickedness of elected rulers are just as likely to afflict us here, as in the countries of the Old World, under their monarchies, emperors, and aristocracies. In that Old World were everywhere heard underground rumblings, that died out, only to again surely return. While in America the volcano, though civic yet, continued to grow more and more convulsivemore and more stormy and threatening.|| 2|
| In the height of all this excitement and chaos, hovering on the edge at first, and then merged in its very midst, and destined to play a leading part, appears a strange and awkward figure. I shall not easily forget the first time I ever saw Abraham Lincoln. It must have been about the 18th or 19th of February, 1861. It was rather a pleasant afternoon, in New York city, as he arrived there from the West, to remain a few hours, and then pass on to Washington, to prepare for his inauguration. I saw him in Broadway, near the site of the present Post-office. He came down, I think from Canal street, to stop at the Astor House. The broad spaces, sidewalks, and street in the neighborhood, and for some distance, were crowded with solid masses of people, many thousands. The omnibuses and other vehicles had all been turnd off, leaving an unusual hush in that busy part of the city. Presently two or three shabby hack barouches made their way with some difficulty through the crowd, and drew up at the Astor House entrance. A tall figure stepd out of the centre of these barouches, pausd leisurely on the sidewalk, lookd up at the granite walls and looming architecture of the grand old hotelthen, after a relieving stretch of arms and legs, turnd round for over a minute to slowly and good-humoredly scan the appearance of the vast and silent crowds. There were no speechesno complimentsno welcomeas far as I could hear, not a word said. Still much anxiety was conceald in that quiet. Cautious persons had feard some markd insult or indignity to the President-electfor he possessd no personal popularity at all in New York city, and very little political. But it was evidently tacitly agreed that if the few political supporters of Mr. Lincoln present would entirely abstain from any demonstration on their side, the immense majority, who were any thing but supporters, would abstain on their side also. The result was a sulky, unbroken silence, such as certainly never before characterized so great a New York crowd.|| 3|
| Almost in the same neighborhood I distinctly rememberd seeing Lafayette on his visit to America in 1825. I had also personally seen and heard, various years afterward, how Andrew Jackson, Clay, Webster, Hungarian Kossuth, Filibuster Walker, the Prince of Wales on his visit, and other celebres, native and foreign, had been welcomd thereall that indescribable human roar and magnetism, unlike any other sound in the universethe glad exulting thunder-shouts of countless unloosd throats of men! But on this occasion, not a voicenot a sound. From the top of an omnibus, (driven up one side, close by, and blockd by the curbstone and the crowds,) I had, I say, a capital view of it all, and especially of Mr. Lincoln, his look and gaithis perfect composure and coolnesshis unusual and uncouth height, his dress of complete black, stovepipe hat pushd back on the head, dark-brown complexion, seamd and wrinkled yet canny-looking face, black, bushy head of hair, disproportionately long neck, and his hands held behind as he stood observing the people. He lookd with curiosity upon that immense sea of faces, and the sea of faces returnd the look with similar curiosity. In both there was a dash of comedy, almost farce, such as Shakspere puts in his blackest tragedies. The crowd that hemmd around consisted I should think of thirty to forty thousand men, not a single one his personal friendwhile I have no doubt, (so frenzied were the ferments of the time,) many an assassins knife and pistol lurkd in hip or breast-pocket there, ready, soon as break and riot came.|| 4|
| But no break or riot came. The tall figure gave another relieving stretch or two of arms and legs; then with moderate pace, and accompanied by a few unknown looking persons, ascended the portico-steps of the Astor House, disappeard through its broad entranceand the dumb-show ended.|| 5|
| I saw Abraham Lincoln often the four years following that date. He changed rapidly and much during his Presidencybut this scene, and him in it, are indelibly stamped upon my recollection. As I sat on the top of my omnibus, and had a good view of him, the thought, dim and inchoate then, has since come out clear enough, that four sorts of genius, four mighty and primal hands, will be needed to the complete limning of this mans future portraitthe eyes and brains and finger-touch of Plutarch and Eschylus and Michel Angelo, assisted by Rabelais.|| 6|
| And now(Mr. Lincoln passing on from this scene to Washington, where he was inaugurated, amid armed cavalry, and sharpshooters at every pointthe first instance of the kind in our historyand I hope it will be the last)now the rapid succession of well-known events, (too well knownI believe, these days, we almost hate to hear them mentiond)the national flag fired on at Sumterthe uprising of the North, in paroxysms of astonishment and ragethe chaos of divided councilsthe call for troopsthe first Bull Runthe stunning cast-down, shock, and dismay of the Northand so in full flood the Secession war. Four years of lurid, bleeding, murky, murderous war. Who paint those years, with all their scenes?the hard-fought engagementsthe defeats, plans, failuresthe gloomy hours, days, when our Nationality seemd hung in pall of doubt, perhaps deaththe Mephistophelean sneers of foreign lands and attachésthe dreaded Scylla of European interference, and the Charybdis of the tremendously dangerous latent strata of secession sympathizers throughout the free States, (far more numerous than is supposed)the long marches in summerthe hot sweat, and many a sunstroke, as on the rush to Gettysburg in 63the night battles in the woods, as under Hooker at Chancellorsvillethe camps in winterthe military prisonsthe hospitals(alas! alas! the hospitals.)|| 7|
| The Secession war? Nay, let me call it the Union war. Though whatever calld, it is even yet too near ustoo vast and too closely overshadowingits branches unformd yet, (but certain,) shooting too far into the futureand the most indicative and mightiest of them yet ungrown. A great literature will yet arise out of the era of those four years, those scenesera compressing centuries of native passion, first-class pictures, tempests of life and deathan inexhaustible mine for the histories, drama, romance, and even philosophy, of peoples to comeindeed the verteber of poetry and art, (of personal character too,) for all future Americafar more grand, in my opinion, to the hands capable of it, than Homers siege of Troy, or the French wars to Shakspere.|| 8|
| But I must leave these speculations, and come to the theme I have assignd and limited myself to. Of the actual murder of President Lincoln, though so much has been written, probably the facts are yet very indefinite in most persons minds. I read from my memoranda, written at the time, and revised frequently and finally since.|| 9|
| The day, April 14, 1865, seems to have been a pleasant one throughout the whole landthe moral atmosphere pleasant toothe long storm, so dark, so fratricidal, full of blood and doubt and gloom, over and ended at last by the sun-rise of such an absolute National victory, and utter break-down of Secessionismwe almost doubted our own senses! Lee had capitulated beneath the apple-tree of Appomattox. The other armies, the flanges of the revolt, swiftly followd. And could it really be, then? Out of all the affairs of this world of woe and failure and disorder, was there really come the confirmd, unerring sign of plan, like a shaft of pure lightof rightful ruleof God? So the day, as I say, was propitious. Early herbage, early flowers, were out. (I remember where I was stopping at the time, the season being advanced, there were many lilacs in full bloom. By one of those caprices that enter and give tinge to events without being at all a part of them, I find myself always reminded of the great tragedy of that day by the sight and odor of these blossoms. It never fails.)|| 10|
| But I must not dwell on accessories. The deed hastens. The popular afternoon paper of Washington, the little Evening Star, had spatterd all over its third page, divided among the advertisements in a sensational manner, in a hundred different places, The President and his Lady will be at the Theatre this evening.
(Lincoln was fond of the theatre. I have myself seen him there several times. I remember thinking how funny it was that he, in some respects the leading actor in the stormiest drama known to real historys stage through centuries, should sit there and be so completely interested and absorbd in those human jack-straws, moving about with their silly little gestures, foreign spirit, and flatulent text.)|| 11|
| On this occasion the theatre was crowded, many ladies in rich and gay costumes, officers in their uniforms, many well-known citizens, young folks, the usual clusters of gas-lights, the usual magnetism of so many people, cheerful, with perfumes, music of violins and flutes(and over all, and saturating all, that vast, vague wonder, Victory, the nations victory, the triumph of the Union, filling the air, the thought, the sense, with exhilaration more than all music and perfumes.)|| 12|
| The President came betimes, and, with his wife, witnessd the play from the large stage-boxes of the second tier, two thrown into one, and profusely draped with the national flag. The acts and scenes of the piecesone of those singularly written compositions which have at least the merit of giving entire relief to an audience engaged in mental action or business excitements and cares during the day, as it makes not the slightest call on either the moral, emotional, esthetic, or spiritual naturea piece, (Our American Cousin,) in which, among other characters, so calld, a Yankee, certainly such a one as was never seen, or the least like it ever seen, in North America, is introduce in England, with a varied fol-de-rol of talk, plot, scenery, and such phantasmagoria as goes to make up a modern popular dramahad progressd through perhaps a couple of its acts, when in the midst of this comedy, or non-such, or whatever it is to be calld, and to offset it, or finish it out, as if in Natures and the great Muses mockery of those poor mimes, came interpolated that scene, not really or exactly to be described at all, (for on the many hundreds who were there it seems to this hour to have left a passing blur, a dream, a blotch)and yet partially to be described as I now proceed to give it. There is a scene in the play representing a modern parlor, in which two unprecedented English ladies are informd by the impossible Yankee that he is not a man of fortune, and therefore undesirable for marriage-catching purposes; after which, the comments being finishd, the dramatic trio make exit, leaving the stage clear for a moment. At this period came the murder of Abraham Lincoln. Great as all its manifold train, circling round it, and stretching into the future for many a century, in the politics, history, art, &c., of the New World, in point of fact the main thing, the actual murder, transpired with the quiet and simplicity of any commonest occurrencethe bursting of a bud or pod in the growth of vegetation, for instance. Through the general hum following the stage pause, with the change of positions, came the muffled sound of a pistol-shot, which not one-hundredth part of the audience heard at the timeand yet a moments hushsomehow, surely, a vague startled thrilland then, through the ornamented, draperied, starrd and striped space-way of the Presidents box, a sudden figure, a man, raises himself with hands and feet, stands a moment on the railing, leaps below to the stage, (a distance of perhaps fourteen or fifteen feet,) falls out of position, catching his boot-heel in the copious drapery, (the American flag,) falls on one knee, quickly recovers himself, rises as if nothing had happend, (he really sprains his ankle, but unfelt then)and so the figure, Booth, the murderer, dressd in plain black broadcloth, bare-headed, with full, glossy, raven hair, and his eyes like some mad animals flashing with light and resolution, yet with a certain strange calmness, holds aloft in one hand a large knifewalks along not much back from the footlightsturns fully toward the audience his face of statuesque beauty, lit by those basilisk eyes, flashing with desperation, perhaps insanitylaunches out in a firm and steady voice the words Sic semper tyrannisand then walks with neither slow nor very rapid pace diagonally across to the back of the stage, and disappears. (Had not all this terrible scenemaking the mimic ones preposteroushad it not all been rehearsd, in blank, by Booth, beforehand?)|| 13|
| A moments husha screamthe cry of murderMrs. Lincoln leaning out of the box, with ashy cheeks and lips, with involuntary cry, pointing to the retreating figure, He has killd the President. And still a moments strange, incredulous suspenseand then the deluge!then that mixture of horror, noises, uncertainty(the sound, somewhere back, of a horses hoofs clattering with speed)the people burst through chairs and railings, and break them upthere is inextricable confusion and terrorwomen faintquite feeble persons fall, and are trampled onmany cries of agony are heardthe broad stage suddenly fills to suffocation with a dense and motley crowd, like some horrible carnivalthe audience rush generally upon it, at least the strong men dothe actors and actresses are all there in their play-costumes and painted faces, with mortal fright showing through the rougethe screams and calls, confused talkredoubled, trebledtwo or three manage to pass up water from the stage to the Presidents boxothers try to clamber up&c., &c.|| 14|
| In the midst of all this, the soldiers of the Presidents guard, with others, suddenly drawn to the scene, burst in(some two hundred altogether)they storm the house, through all the tiers, especially the upper ones, inflamed with fury, literally charging the audience with fixd bayonets, muskets and pistols, shouting Clear out! clear out! you sons of ..
Such the wild scene, or a suggestion of it rather, inside the play-house that night.|| 15|
| Outside, too, in the atmosphere of shock and craze, crowds of people, filld with frenzy, ready to seize any outlet for it, come near committing murder several times on innocent individuals. One such case was especially exciting. The infuriated crowd, through some chance, got started against one man, either for words he utterd, or perhaps without any cause at all, and were proceeding at once to actually hang him on a neighboring lamppost, when he was rescued by a few heroic policemen, who placed him in their midst, and fought their way slowly and amid great peril toward the station house. It was a fitting episode of the whole affair. The crowd rushing and eddying to and frothe night, the yells, the pale faces, many frightend people trying the vain to extricate themselvesthe attackd man, not yet freed from the jaws of death, looking like a corpsethe silent, resolute, half-dozen policemen, with no weapons but their little clubs, yet stern and steady through all those eddying swarmsmade a fitting side-scene to the grand tragedy of the murder. They gaind the station house with the protected man, whom they placed in security for the night, and discharged him in the morning.|| 16|
| And in the midst of that pandemonium, infuriated soldiers, the audience and the crowd, the stage, and all its actors and actresses, its paint-pots, spangles, and gas-lightsthe life blood from those veins, the best and sweetest of the land, drips slowly down, and deaths ooze already begins its little bubbles on the lips.|| 17|
| Thus the visible incidents and surroundings of Abraham Lincolns murder, as they really occurd. Thus ended the attempted secession of these States; thus the four years war. But the main things come subtly and invisibly afterward, perhaps long afterwardneither military, political, nor (great as those are,) historical. I say, certain secondary and indirect results, out of the tragedy of this death, are, in my opinion, greatest. Not the event of the murder itself. Not that Mr. Lincoln strings the principal points and personages of the period, like beads, upon the single string of his career. Not that his idiosyncrasy, in its sudden appearance and disappearance, stamps this Republic with a stamp more markd and enduring than any yet given by any one man(more even than Washingtons;)but, joind with these, the immeasurable value and meaning of that whole tragedy lies, to me, in senses finally dearest to a nation, (and here all our own)the imaginative and artistic sensesthe literary and dramatic ones. Not in any common or low meaning of those terms, but a meaning precious to the race, and to every age. A long and varied series of contradictory events arrives at last at its highest poetic, single, central, pictorial denouement. The whole involved, baffling, multiform whirl of the secession period comes to a head, and is gatherd in one brief flash of lightning-illuminationone simple, fierce deed. Its sharp culmination, and as it were solution, of so many bloody and angry problems, illustrates those climax-moments on the stage of universal Time, where the historic Muse at one entrance, and the tragic Muse at the other, suddenly ringing down the curtain, close an immense act in the long drama of creative thought, and give it radiation, tableau, stranger than fiction. Fit radiationfit close! How the imaginationhow the student loves these things! America, too, is to have them. For not in all great deaths, nor far or nearnot Cæsar in the Roman senate-house, or Napoleon passing away in the wild night-storm at St. Helenanot Paleologus, falling, desperately fighting, piled over dozens deep with Grecian corpsesnot calm old Socrates, drinking the hemlockoutvies that terminus of the secession war, in one mans life, here in our midst, in our own timethat seal of the emancipation of three million slavesthat parturition and delivery of our at last really free Republic, born again, henceforth to commence its career of genuine homogeneous Union, compact, consistent with itself.|| 18|
| Nor will ever future American Patriots and Unionists, indifferently over the whole land, or North or South, find a better moral to their lesson. The final use of the greatest men of a Nation is, after all, not with reference to their deeds in themselves, or their direct bearing on their times or lands. The final use of a heroic-eminent lifeespecially of a heroic-eminent deathis its indirect filtering into the nation and the race, and to give, often at many removes, but unerringly, age after age, color and fibre to the personalism of the youth and maturity of that age, and of mankind. Then there is a cement to the whole people, subtler, more underlying, than any thing in written constitution, or courts or armiesnamely, the cement of a death identified thoroughly with that people, at its head, and for its sake. Strange, (is it not?) that battles, martyrs, agonies, blood, even assassination, should so condenseperhaps only really, lasting condensea Nationality.|| 19|
| I repeat itthe grand deaths of the racethe dramatic deaths of every nationalityare its most important inheritance-valuein some respects beyond its literature and art(as the hero is beyond his finest portrait, and the battle itself beyond its choicest song or epic.) Is not here indeed the point underlying all tragedy? the famous pieces of the Grecian mastersand all masters? Why, if the old Greeks had had this man, what trilogies of playswhat epicswould have been made out of him! How the rhapsodes would have recited him! How quickly that quaint tall form would have enterd into the region where men vitalize gods, and gods divinify men! But Lincoln, his times, his deathgreat as any, any agebelong altogether to our own, and are autochthonic. (Sometimes indeed I think our American days, our own stagethe actors we know and have shaken hands, or talkd withmore fateful than any thing in Eschylusmore heroic than the fighters around Troyafford kings of men for our Democracy prouder than Agamemnonmodels of character cute and hardy as Ulyssesdeaths more pitiful than Priams.)|| 20|
| When, centuries hence, (as it must, in my opinion, be centuries hence before the life of these States, or of Democracy, can be really written and illustrated,) the leading historians and dramatists seek for some personage, some special event, incisive enough to mark with deepest cut, and mnemonize, this turbulent Nineteenth century of ours, (not only these States, but all over the political and social world)something, perhaps, to close that gorgeous procession of European feudalism, with all its pomp and caste-prejudices, (of whose long train we in America are yet so inextricably the heirs)something to identify with terrible identification, by far the greatest revolutionary step in the history of the United States, (perhaps the greatest of the world, our century)the absolute extirpation and erasure of slavery from the Statesthose historians will seek in vain for any point to serve more thoroughly their purpose, than Abraham Lincolns death.|| 21|
| Dear to the Musethrice dear to Nationalityto the whole human raceprecious to this Unionprecious to Democracyunspeakably and forever precioustheir first great Martyr Chief.|| 22|