You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Lord Charnwood's Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln by Lord Charnwood.
Makers of the Nineteenth Century Series. New York: Henry Holt & Co. $2.00.

The frankness and commonsense of Lord Charnwood's treatment of much debated matters in our political history may be illustrated by a passage relating to Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. That was not a very candid state paper, he says, and the sentiments aroused for it afterwards by the popularity of Jefferson not wholly free from humbug. But the critics of the equality clause misconceive it. The proposition that "all men are created equal" is, he says, the easiest of marks to "unintelligently clever criticism."

"It should not be necessary to explain, as Lincoln did long after, that Jefferson did not suppose all men to be of equal height or weight or equally wise or equally good. He did, however, contend for a principle of which one elementary application is the law which makes murder the same crime whatever be the relative position of the murderer and the murdered man. . . There are indefinitely further ways in which men who are utterly unequal had best be treated as equally entitled to the consideration of government and of their neighbors. It is safer to carry this principle too far than not to carry it far enough. . . . He [Jefferson] imparted to the very recent historical origin of his country, and his followers imparted to its material conditions a certain element of poetry and the felt presence of a wholesome national ideal. The patriotism of an older country derives its glory and its pride from influences deep rooted in the past, creating a tradition of public and private action which needs, no definite formula. The man who did more than any other to supply this lack in a new country, by imbuing its national consciousness--even its national cant--with high aspiration, did—it may well be—more than any strong administration or constructive statesman to create a Union that was worth preserving."

This view of Jefferson as a statesman does not in any way blind the author to his defects. He thinks there is truth in the portrait of a "burly fellow" and "good shot" who never gave a sign of wanting to strike a blow throughout the seven years of war that he had "heralded in" and of a dealer in philanthropic sentiments in public who privately was "vindictive and malignant." There is a keen sense of actuality in all Lord Charnwood's views of personalities, plenty of light and shade, and though a partisan his friends and his foes are never improbable.

His partisanship, candidly avowed at the start, is that of a believer in the ideals of a progressive, democratic national state, a hater of slavery, sectionalism and aristocratic pretension, and a lover of Lincoln. In short there is nothing in his central ideas to save his work from seeming as stale as many of his predecessors. What does save it is his method of approach and his manner of writing. As a foreigner he is not entangled in American legality and he can look at the Constitution, not as a sort of pattern of all governments, but as a "curious machine," with its balanced opposition between two chambers and with its independent executive, which had not "worked conspicuously better than other political constitutions." As a writer, possessed of certain native gifts, he can make familiar things seem new. He discusses no historical topic that does not in some way relate to Lincoln, but necessarily in writing for Englishmen as well as for Americans he covers rather a wide range in his explanations and summaries. The account of Lincoln's life is prefaced by sixty pages on the growth of the nation and the account of Lincoln's administration includes somewhat detailed consideration of the stages of secession, the conditions under which the war was fought, and the course of the war itself. The scope is wide, but the treatment is proportionate and there is the effect of unity throughout. There are mistakes such as any American student of history could have readily prevented had he read the proof, errors in names, and sometimes in matters of fact, as when certain aspects of the Dred Scott case are misstated, but for the most part having no effect on essentials.

He ranks Lincoln among the greatest men of our time, but he denies him any "frigid perfections," and he produces many concrete evidences of weakness. The view that he had all his virtues upon him when born he dismisses as absurd. His persistent self-training was wonderful, but after all there is an advantage in having to make the most of a few books, if they are good ones. "The few books and the great many men were part of one study." In his rough environment there was much to stimulate him. Though uneducated, and uncouth, he was from the first ambitious of ascendancy over others and had the gift that odd, shy people sometimes have for "using their very oddity as a weapon in their struggles." Lord Charnwood does not think it remarkable that in the conditions of equality that prevailed in a frontier community he should have found his way into political life at the age of twenty-five. He had an originality of mind not to be subdued, but it is idle to deny, thinks the author, that his early disadvantages left their mark upon him; that he lacked certain sound instructive perceptions in men or matters appears early in his muddled love affairs, and his judgment of men individually was often slow and dull. Of men in the mass and of individuals whom he thought it worth while to study his judgment was sound, but he lacked the ready sense of personal distinctions which, according to his biographer, men otherwise inferior derive from early social experience. As to the enormities so much remarked by genteel contemporaries, the queer clothes, the "preposterous gold-knobbed cane," etc., Lord Charnwood refuses to be serious. He was guilty of course of a "tragic misfeasance" in New York when he appeared with black kid gloves at the opera, but "in the city," says his biographer, "if it may be said with respect, there has existed from of old a fashionable circle not convinced of its gentility and insisting the more rigorously on minor decorum"; and he thinks that among educated Easterners generally there was a well bred indifference to these points. He cites Salmon P. Chase as an exception:

"Salmon P. Chase must have really been a good man before he fell in love with his own goodness. . . . Those who read Lincoln's important letters and speeches see in him at once a great gentleman; there were but a few among the really well educated men of America who made much of his lacking some of the minor points of gentility to which most of them were born; but of those few Chase betrayed himself at once."

He could be very unfair in his judgments of men, says the author, and as an instance he cites his harsh view of John Brown, towards whom Seward was far more just. Fanatics indeed, he adds, came the nearest to stirring him to unreasonable wrath. Perhaps the wrath would seem more reasonable to the historian, had he spent his life here and come in contact with certain breeds of fanatics that we have always produced largely. Our history abounds in people who value some china nest egg more than any egg that ever could be hatched, and when seen near-to these people are extremely irritating. They seem to be placed in the world as the reductio ad absurdum of the unattached moral principle, or as a sort of intellectual danger signal, a milestone on the way to paranoia. Life is no tangled web for them. Their moral existence is passed in a social vacuum. Lincoln in his day knew or felt many of these creatures, and any mature man since Lincoln's time is well aware of them. If a man wishes to push through some reform, he immediately encounters people ablaze with reforming zeal, who will reject one by one every means that will bring the thing about. Compromise is so repugnant to them that they will not compromise on any human means for gaining the object of their own desires. The weight of all this unintelligible world never troubled this moral gentry, as it troubled Lincoln. They were fortified by temperament to a degree that made them impregnable to many things which worried Lincoln almost to death. They were the sort of folk who would not have a man save the life of a nation lest in his course he might upset some legal or social ant hill.

It is evident that Lord Charnwood conscientiously stresses Lincoln's faults in order to correct his own tendency toward hero-worship. The author of this volume could not bleed himself so white that he could write like a scientific historian. He has quite surrendered himself to Lincoln's spell. Intellectually he is a robust progressive liberal modern moralist without one philosophic qualm, and he writes this book from the point of view that the way progress has taken is the way it ought to take and that the devil would have been to pay if its course had been altered. But his picture of Lincoln as an extraordinary, powerful, complex and charming personality is more convincing than that of any American historical writer whom the present reviewer, a desultory reader in that field, to be sure, has ever encountered.

In summing up after the war, he says:

"This most unrelenting enemy to the project of the Confederacy was the one man who had quite purged his heart and mind from hatred or even anger towards his fellow countrymen of the South. That fact came to be seen in the South, too, and generations in America are likely to remember it when all other features of his statecraft are grown indistinct."

He lets you infer a contrast between Lincoln and the leaders in the present war in remarking that Lincoln carried through the bitterest of civil wars without letting fall a single word of hatred or reproach toward his opponents.