Table of Contents
The Measure of a Man
God’s plan And measure of a stalwart man."
Lincoln’s physical characteristics have been sufficiently described,– his unmanageable height and his giant strength. His mental traits have been treated in chapter xxxv. We now consider his moral qualities, that is to say his character.
Conspicuous was his honesty. The sobriquet “Honest Abe Lincoln,” which his neighbors fastened on him in his youth was never lost, shaken off, or outgrown. This was something more than the exactness of commercial honesty which forbade him to touch a penny of the funds that remained over from the extinct post-office of New Salem, though the government was for years negligent in the matter of settling up. In youth he always insisted on fairness in sports so that he came to be the standing umpire of the neighborhood. It came out also in his practise of the law, when he would not lend his influence to further scoundrel schemes, nor would he consent to take an unfair advantage of an opponent. But the glory of his honesty appeared in his administration. It is a wonderful fact that there has never been any suspicion, even among his enemies, that he used the high powers of his office for gain, or for the furtherance of his political ambition. When contracts, to the amount of many millions of dollars, were being constantly given out for a period of four years, there was never a thought that a dishonest dollar would find its way, either directly or indirectly, into the hands of the President, or with his consent into the hands of his friends. When he was a candidate for reelection he was fully aware that some officials of high station were using their prerogatives for the purpose of injuring him. It was in his power to dismiss these in disgrace,–and they deserved it. This he refused to do. So long as they did well their official duties, he overlooked their injustice to him. No President has surpassed him in the cleanness of his record, and only Washington has equaled him.
His tenderness of heart over-rode almost everything. In childhood he would not permit boys to put live coals on the back of a turtle. In youth he stayed out all night with a drunkard to prevent his freezing to death, a fate which his folly had invited. In young manhood with the utmost gentleness he restored to their nest some birdlings that had been beaten out by the storm. When a lawyer on the circuit, be dismounted from his horse and rescued a pig that was stuck in the mud. This spoiled a suit of clothes, because he had to lift the pig in his arms. His explanation was that he could not bear to think of that animal in suffering, and so he did it simply for his own peace of mind.
But when he became President, his tenderness of heart was as beautiful as the glow of the sunset. To him the boys in blue were as sons. On him as on no one else the burden of the nation’s troubles rested. It may with reverence be said that he “bore our sorrows, he carried our grief.” Not only was this true in general, but in specific cases his actions showed it. When the soldiers were under sentence from court- martial–many of them mere boys–the sentence came to Lincoln for approval. If he could find any excuse whatever for pardon he would grant it. His tendency to pardon, his leaning towards the side of mercy, became proverbial and greatly annoyed some of the generals who feared military discipline would be destroyed. But he would not turn a deaf ear to the plea of mercy, and he could not see in it any permanent danger to the republic. One or two examples will stand fairly for a large number. When a boy was sentenced to death for desertion, he said:
“Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, and not touch a hair of the wily agitator who induces him to desert? I think that in such a case, to silence the agitator and save the boy, is not only constitutional, but withal a great mercy.”
Early in the war he pardoned a boy who was sentenced to be shot for sleeping at his post as sentinel. By way of explanation the President said: “I could not think of going into eternity with the blood of that poor young man on my skirts. It is not to be wondered at that a boy, raised on a farm, probably in the habit of going to bed at dark, should, when required to watch, fall asleep; and I cannot consent to shoot him for such an act.” The sequel is romantic. The dead body of this boy was found among the slain on the field of the battle of Fredericksburg. Next his heart was a photograph of the President on which he had written “God bless President Abraham Lincoln!”
On the 21st day of November, 1864, he wrote to Mrs. Bixby, of Boston, Mass., the following letter which needs no comment or explanation:
“DEAR MADAM: I have been shown, in the files of the War Department, a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully, ABRAHAM LINCOLN.”
A different side of his character is shown in the following incident. A slave-trader had been condemned, in Newburyport, Mass., to a fine of one thousand dollars and imprisonment for five years. He served out his term of imprisonment, but he could not pay his fine, because he had no money and no way of getting any. Consequently he was still held for the fine which he was unable to pay. Some people of influence interested themselves in the case, and a congressman from eastern Massachusetts, who stood very near to the President, laid the facts before him with the request for a pardon. He was indeed much moved by the appeal, but he gave his decision in substantially the following words: “My friend, this appeal is very touching to my feelings, and no one knows my weakness better than you. I am, if possible to be, too easily moved by appeals for mercy; and I must say that if this man had been guilty of the foulest murder that the arm of man could perpetrate, I might forgive him on such an appeal. But the man who could go to Africa, and rob her of her children, and then sell them into interminable bondage, with no other motive than that which is furnished by dollars and cents, is so much worse than the most depraved murderer that he can never receive pardon at my hand. No, sir; he may stay in jail forever before he shall have liberty by any act of mine.”
It was his magnanimity that constructed his cabinet. Hardly another man in the world would have failed to dismiss summarily both Seward and Chase. But, thanks to his magnanimous forbearance, Seward became not only useful to the country, but devotedly loyal to his chief. After Chase’s voluntary retirement Lincoln appointed him Chief Justice. To his credit be it said that he adorned the judiciary, but he never did appreciate the man who saved him from oblivion, not to say disgrace. Up to the year 1862, his only personal knowledge of Stanton was such as to rouse only memories of indignation, but when he believed that Stanton would make a good Secretary of War he did not hesitate to appoint him. It is safe to say that this appointment gave Stanton the greatest surprise of his life.
He was always ready to set aside his preference, or to do the expedient thing when no moral principle was involved. When such a principle was involved he was ready to stand alone against the world. He was no coward. In early youth he championed the cause of temperance in a community where the use of liquors was almost universal. In the Illinois legislature and in congress he expressed his repugnance to the whole institution of slavery, though this expression could do him no possible good, while it might do him harm. When, he was a lawyer, he was almost the only lawyer of ability who did not dread the odium sure to attach to those who befriended negroes.
When in the White House, he stood out almost alone against the clamors of his constituents and directed the release of Mason and Slidell.
Personally he was a clean man. The masculine vices were abhorrent to him. He was not profane. He was not vulgar. He was as far removed from suspicion as Caesar could have demanded of his wife. He was not given to drink. When a young man he could not be tricked into swallowing whisky. At the close of the war, a barrel of whisky was sent him from some cellar in Richmond, as a souvenir of the fall of the city, but he declined to receive it. Wine was served at the table of the White House in deference to foreign guests who did not know, and could not be taught, how to dine without it. As a matter of courtesy he went through the form of touching the glass to his lips, but he never drank. How widely his life was separated from many of his associates! The atmosphere of the White House has been sweeter and purer ever since he occupied it, and this is largely due to the influence of his incorruptible purity.
In the matter of religion, he did not wear his heart on his sleeve, and some of his friends have refused to believe that he was religious. It is true that he was not a church member, but there were special reasons for this. The church with which he was naturally affiliated was the Presbyterian. The most eloquent preacher of that denomination was the Reverend Dr. Palmer of New Orleans, who was an aggressive champion of slavery as a divine institution. His teachings were feebly echoed in thousands of other pulpits. Now Lincoln abhorred slavery. He incorporated human freedom into his religion. The one point on which he insisted all his life was that “slavery is wrong!” It may therefore be seen that the church did not give him a cordial invitation. If this needs any proof, that proof is found in the fact that the pastors in Springfield voted almost unanimously against him. Even Peter Cartwright had denounced him as an atheist.
The marvel is that this did not embitter him against the church. But all his life long he kept up such bonds of sympathy with the church as were possible. He bore with the faults of the church and of ministers with that patience which made his whole character so remarkably genuine. He was a constant attendant at the services, he was favorable to all the legitimate work of the church, and he was exceptionally kind to ministers, though they were often a sore trial to him.
In childhood he would not rest until a clergyman had traveled many miles through the forests to preach a memorial discourse over the grave of his mother. When his father was ill he wrote a letter of religious consolation intended for him: “Tell him to remember to call upon and confide in our great and good and merciful Maker, who will not turn away from him in any extremity. He notes the fall of a sparrow, and numbers the hairs of our heads, and He will not forget the dying man who puts his trust in Him.”
Hugh McCulloch, in a personal letter to the author, January 28, 1889, wrote: “He was, as far as I could judge, a pure man, and ’in spirit and temper’ a Christian.” His pastor, Dr. Gurley, regarded him as a Christian. Other clergymen who were acquainted with him did so.
J. G. Holland has preserved the following incident:
Colonel Loomis, who was commandant of Fort Columbus, Governor’s Island, in New York Harbor, reached the age at which by law he should be put on the retired list. He was a very religious man, and his influence was so marked that the chaplain and some others, determined to appeal to the President to have him continued at the post. The Reverend Dr. Duryea of Brooklyn was sent to Washington to prefer the request. “What does the clergyman know of military matters?” inquired the President. “Nothing," was the reply. “It is desired to retain Colonel Loomis solely for the sake of his Christian influence. He sustains religious exercises at the fort, leads a prayer-meeting, and teaches a Bible class in the Sunday School.” “That is the highest possible recommendation,” replied the President. He approved the request, and the Christian officer was retained there until imperative military duty called him elsewhere.
The religious strain that runs through his papers and addresses cannot be overlooked. But there are two that deserve special mention. The first is the “Sunday Order,” which is as follows:
“The importance for man and beast of the prescribed weekly rest, the sacred rights of Christian soldiers and sailors, a becoming deference to the best sentiment of a Christian people, and a due regard for the Divine will, demand that Sunday labor in the army and navy be reduced to the measure of strict necessity. The discipline and character of the national forces should not suffer, nor the cause they defend be imperiled, by the profanation of the day or the name of the Most High.”
The other is his thanksgiving proclamation. He it was who nationalized this festival which had previously been local and irregular. His successors in office have done well to follow his example in the matter. Every November, when the entire population turns from daily toil to an hour of thanksgiving, they should not forget that they are thereby acting on his recommendation, and in doing this they are strengthening the best possible monument to the grand, good man whom the Most High mercifully gave to this country in the time of her direst need.
“He was a man; take him for all in all I shall not look upon his like again.”