Lately I have been spending time in the nineteenth century. My conveyance has been the massive two-volume biography, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, by Michael Burlingame (2008, John Hopkins University Press). Professor Burlingame’s work supersedes poet Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of our sixteenth president because it is scholarly, with endnotes referring to primary sources. By way of those endnotes, I discovered that I have acquired a respectable Lincoln library over the years.
(Yes, that is the kind of dilatory reader I am. I read endnotes. I love footnotes. I read not only the prefatory matter, but also the acknowledgments. Then I skim the bibliography. All this before I actually begin reading the book. Having nibbled a bit, I begin the feast, because that is the kind of dilatory reader I am.)
My interest in Abraham Lincoln began when I was a wee lad. We had in our small bookcase a book of American history in pictures. I was too young to read, but I could spend an hour going from Jamestown to World War II. It was then I discovered that I was related to Abraham Lincoln. I was very young, probably had not been speaking intelligibly for very long, but I could see that my paternal grandfather looked remarkably like the clean-shaven Lincoln. Eventually, I grew out of this childish fantasy – for the most part.
My interest was encouraged further at public school as the country observed the centenary of the Civil War (1861-1865). Of course, the Civil Rights Movement and the general turmoil of the 1960s also turned my attention to all unresolved problems of the great fratricidal war. I never became a Civil War buff, but did join the forty million viewers who watched Ken Burns’ The Civil War. Later I read Shelby Foote’s three-volume history from which Mr. Burns learned much.
I own – and have read – David Herbert Donald’s unsurpassed single-volume biography, Lincoln. Donald was Burlingame’s mentor. Now they are both in my library, along with Harold Holzer’s masterful work on Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech, Ronald C. White Jr.’s noteworthy single-volume biography, Gary Wills’ wonderful monograph on the Gettysburg Address, and perhaps a half-dozen other books on subjects relating to Lincoln or the Civil War. No, I have not read all of them. Who wants a library of books one has already read?
Significantly, one of my unread books was Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher (Library of America, 1989).
An endnote in Burlingame’s biography drew me to take Fehrenbacher off the shelf. Burlingame recounted the events culminating in an October 1854 speech by Lincoln. This speech he indicated was Lincoln’s first significant speech, even before the famous 1856 “House Divided.” I found the full speech in Fehrenbacher. I found it, however, after I had first stumbled across this:
Fragments on Government
The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves – in their separate, and individual capacities.
In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.
The desirable things which the individuals of a people can not do, or can not well do, for themselves, fall into two classes: those which have relation to wrongs, and those which have not. Each of these branch off into an infinite variety of subdivisions.
The first – that in relation to wrongs – embraces all crimes, misdemeanors, and non-performance of contracts. The other embraces all which, in its nature, and without wrong, requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.
From this it appears that if all men were just, there still would be some, though not so much, need of government.
Lincoln kept no diary. He wrote notes to himself. The Collected Works of Lincoln, from which Fehrenbacher drew this fragment, suggests that this was written in 1854. It was the year the Republican Party was formed. Lincoln was forty-five years old. It is one of three memoranda covering the topics of government and slavery. He was writing this for himself. He was writing for reasons unknown. The fragment was not meant for publication. It was not meant for our eyes.
The first thing that we see is that the sixteenth president of the United States of America thinks very much like the forty-fourth president of the United States of America. Both Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln hold that there is a positive role for government to play in the life of its citizens that goes beyond mere defense against internal and external enemies of the peace. This is just one fragment. It is not a full treatise. This alone proves little. If one spends just a little time in the nineteenth century, however, it becomes clear that the Republican Party of the twenty-first century not only is not the party of Lincoln, but also would oppose the party of Lincoln.
There is something more about Lincoln shown here. It is the felicity of expression in this personal memorandum. Regardless of any assessment of the wisdom conveyed here, one should appreciate the grammar of clarity, the logical progression of thought, the dialectic that includes and excludes. All of this done in the audacious pursuit of the the “object of government.”
A recent discovery of a math notebook page suggests that Lincoln may have had more formal education than previously thought. From what he admitted in official campaign biographies, people have speculated the he attended school for between three to nine months. He may have attended school for up to two years.
It is doubtful that “Honest Abe” misled the public on this point. The difference between nine months and two years is negligible in terms of formal education in the untamed West – which was Indiana at the time. In all probability, they were two very irregular years. The family was poor. Young Abe had to work and bring all his earnings to his father until he reached majority.
Lincoln benefited little from formal schooling. He taught himself grammar, geometry, and trigonometry. He read history. He read the Bible. He read Shakespeare and Robert Burns. He read. Abraham Lincoln attended no high school. He mastered the liberal arts without receiving a bachelor of arts. He read the law, not in a school, but with a lawyer.
Abraham Lincoln received no encouragement from his father. In youth, his father neglected him. As an adult, Abraham refused to visit his father’s deathbed. Abraham Lincoln did not ascend from a pastoral farming life to the head of the nation. By constant effort, he lifted himself up from grinding rural poverty to practice law, to participate in local and national politics, and eventually to the presidency of the United States of America.
Abraham Lincoln esteemed George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. Not one of them was the self-made man of the American dream that was Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham and the Will of God
The heart of Lincoln’s opposition to slave power was his the faith that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Lincoln did not hold some utopian ideal of equality of intellect, talent, political rights, or even race. He did fervently hold to equality of opportunity. Even as he had improved his station in life by his own effort, so too he held that even “the negro” equally deserved this opportunity. Slave labor was a denial of the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation of the Divine endowment of all men.
Speech in Cincinnati
I hold that if there is any one thing that can be proved to be the will of God by external nature around us, without reference to revelation, it is the proposition that whatever any one man earns with his hands and by the sweat of his brow, he shall enjoy in peace. I say that whereas God Almighty has given every man one mouth to be fed, and one pair of hands adapted to furnish food for that mouth, if anything can be proved to be the will of Heaven, it is proved by this fact, that that mouth is to be fed by those hands, without being interfered with by any other man who has also his mouth to feed and his hands to labor with. I hold that if the Almighty had ever made a set of men that should do all the eating and none of the work, he would have made them with mouths only and no hands, and if he had ever made another class that he had intended should do all the work and none of the eating, he would have made them without mouths and with all hands. But inasmuch as he has not chosen to make man in that way, if anything is proved, it is that those hands and mouths are to be co-operative through life and not to be interfered with. (Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, p. 567)
While we may think we recognize Abraham Lincoln, the self-made man, we will not know Lincoln the man if we stop with his estimation of equality. When asked to sum up what was singular about Lincoln, Michael Burlingame responded, “modesty.” Power corrupts. In the estimation of Professor Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln was extraordinary in that power did not corrupt him. The self-made man Abraham Lincoln did not completely own his success. The paradox emerges in the 1860 election.
Abraham Lincoln lived at a time when the office sought the man. He did not stump for his election. Stephen Douglas did tour the country in a desperate attempt to win the presidency and suffered correspondingly. Lincoln knew that “events” not a “man’s efforts on his own behalf” made a president.
His fatalism went deeper. The epigraph to David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln is a comment of Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges on 4 April 1864: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
No one can subtract in the least the accomplishment of Abraham Lincoln’s assent from ignorance and poverty to the presidency of the United States of America. No one, that is, except Mr. Lincoln himself. Theodore Roosevelt was born to privilege and preached virtues of “the strenuous life.” Abraham Lincoln was born to poverty and had no choice but to exert himself, if he was to accomplish anything. Mr. Roosevelt was imperious and oblivious of the evils of war. Abraham Lincoln was humble his whole life and hated violence.
There are many such paradoxes in the life of Abraham Lincoln. It begins with the self-made man who does not succumb to hubris. It continues with Abraham Lincoln the infidel who humbles himself under the will of an almighty God.
The Lord Almighty and Abraham Lincoln
No one can make a Christian out of Abraham Lincoln – except the Lord Himself in his mercy. That said, no one can deny that no president was more of a theologian than Abraham Lincoln. In his letters and speeches, Lincoln repeatedly shows that he has read the Bible and understands the sense of it. This fear of the Lord was not simply a matter for public display. During the darkest moments of the Civil War, when no one was watching, and with no anticipation that his thoughts would be read, Abraham Lincoln thought in long hand.
Meditation on the Divine Will
The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party---and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true---that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds. (Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, Don Fehrenbacher, LOA, p. 359 )
Abraham raised himself up from dismal poverty, took the reins of the government of the greatest nation on earth at the time of its greatest trial, and exerted all the power within his grasp to sustain that nation, believing all the while that he did not control events.
Abraham Lincoln was no infidel. He believed in a God who was just and merciful. In the great scheme of things, he knew he had only a part to play. He hoped it was a beneficent part.
From the slight vantage point we have of the great scheme of things we must concluded that Abraham Lincoln was a man divinely destined for our nation’s greatest trial. Any less assessment touches upon apostasy.
I began with reminiscence. Some might think that egotistical. Others might perceive that I spoke of the time of my youth, what I saw, what I experienced, what I received. For all our efforts, much of what we achieve is in what we receive. Even as Abraham Lincoln knew that for all his efforts, he was not the master of his fate or captain of his soul, so it is with me.
So it is with us all.
We are all beggars.