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The Universalist

Recollected Works of Abraham Lincoln

Compiled and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher
(Stanford University Press, 648 pp., $60)

When the Republican Party nominated him in May 1860 to run for president, Abraham Lincoln started to see double:

A very singular occurrence took place the day I was nominated at Chicago four years ago, of which I am reminded tonight. In the afternoon of the day, returning home from downtown, I went upstairs to Mrs. Lincoln's sitting room. Feeling somewhat tired, I lay down upon a couch in the room, directly opposite a bureau upon which was a looking-glass. As I reclined, my eye fell upon the glass, and I saw distinctly two images of myself, exactly alike, except that one was a little paler than the other. I arose and lay down again, with the same result. It made me quite uncomfortable for a few moments, but some friends coming in, the matter passed out of my mind.

As the United States was splitting into two, Lincoln felt something similar happening to him, or so it would seem, if we can trust these eerie words, reported in 1865 by the painter Francis Carpenter. Lincoln may even have had a presentiment that a spectral twin would accompany him through life and beyond. Already before the start of his presidency, he was participating in the construction of his own image with carefully posed photographs, with the few personal words he wrote or spoke in public, even with his choice of confidantes. After his death, the process of mythologization continued: he was swiftly memorialized as a giant of ages past, and each successive age has reconceived him in relation to its own preoccupations.

The ceaseless work of reckoning anew with Lincoln depends in part on what David Donald, his most recent biographer, calls "conversations recorded by reliable witnesses." For this reason, everyone interested in Lincoln has to decide sooner or later whom to trust. Was Billy Herndon--Lincoln's law partner, who blamed Mary Todd for his friend's fatigue and distraction--a "reliable witness"? What about Frederick Douglass, who reported that in their last interview Lincoln remarked, "I hate slavery as much as you do"? Now the eminent scholar Don E. Fehrenbacher, in collaboration with his wife Virginia, has collected the raw material of Lincoln lore and sorted it by degrees of credibility. In this fascinating book we have the source (Andrew Curtin, the governor of Pennsylvania) of the legend that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on an envelope just before delivering it, and of the tradition (invented by Lincoln's Illinois friend, Isaac Cogdal, and publicized by Herndon) that the death of his beloved Anne Rutledge left him near despair, unable to bear the thought of rain falling on her grave.

Each attributed remark is graded by the Fehrenbachers on a scale of A (for entries most likely to be authentic) through E (for those that ought to be removed from the Lincoln gospel and treated as apocrypha). It seems rude to be less than grateful for the Fehrenbachers' painstaking labor, but I find myself sorry to learn that Lincoln might not have said about a vain politician that if he "had known how big a funeral he would have had, he would have died years ago." This remark gets a C; I'd give it an A . I'd like to believe (as reported by the owner of the Springfield drugstore where Lincoln was a customer in the 1850s) that, when asked what was the matter with Willie and Tad as they screamed in tandem, Lincoln replied, "Just what's the matter with the whole world. I've got three walnuts and each of them wants two." And alas, it turns out that he also might not have said, in countenancing interracial marriage, that "if a white man wants to marry a Negro woman, let him do it--if the Negro woman can stand it."

This book is not reassuring about the possibility of writing "true" history. But does it really matter? In fact, as the Fehrenbachers acknowledge, "the legendary Lincoln, created in part out of dubious recollective material, may have been, in the long run, as powerful an influence in American life as the historical Lincoln." They have given us a glimpse not so much of the historical Lincoln as of the Lincoln created by the collective American imagination. If he did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him.

In fact, it was necessary to invent him. Why is Lincoln the only American president regarded over many generations with something approaching religious devotion? There is a clue, I think, in a phrase that one shrewd contemporary used to describe him: he was, said Nathaniel Hawthorne, "the pattern American." A mirror in which ordinary people saw themselves in all their defects and dignity, Lincoln always felt under hostile inspection by what his private secretary, John Hay, called the "patent-leather, kid-glove set." During the speech at Cooper Union that established him as a national candidate, he worried "before he became warmed up" (according to Herndon) that his suit showed "the creases made while packed in the valise." In the words of an Illinois friend, "he never felt his own utter unworthiness so much as when in the presence of a hotel clerk or waiter."

But Lincoln did not primp or posture in response to these anxieties; he was an iconoclast who never spared himself from his own leveling wit. According to one witness, he spoke of making his first trip to Massachusetts "with hayseed in my hair ... to take a few lessons in deportment." This is the Lincoln of Herndon and Sandburg, whose un-Eastern folksiness was picked up by Will Rogers and Harry Truman, eventually to become a commodity sold to the public by Garrison Keillor and the like. Diagnosed with a mild form of smallpox, this Lincoln tells his physician, "There is one consolation about the matter, doctor, it cannot in the least disfigure me." It would be difficult to find comparable remarks among the attributed sayings (not to mention the documented speeches and writings) of the bewigged and solemn presidents who preceded him.

It was Lincoln who invented self-denigration as a political style. But how does this homely jokester of legend fit with the substantive Lincoln of record? For one thing, both have a taste for broad humor. "If it were not for these stories, jokes, jests," says Lincoln, according to Herndon, "I should die. They give vent--are the vents--of my moods and gloom." The historical Lincoln, explaining his retreat from an early courtship (in a letter whose authenticity seems secure), wrote that he realized his mistake when, looking upon the woman who once had pleased him, he found himself thinking instead of his "mother; and this, not from withered features, for her skin was too full of fat, to permit its contracting into wrinkles, but from her want of teeth, weather-beaten appearance in general, and from a kind of notion that ran in my head, that nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy, and reached her present bulk in less than thirty-five or forty years." In our anti-normative age, jokes about body shape tend to be denounced as cruel, but for Lincoln the point was to acknowledge that most human beings are inelegant specimens (Herndon lovingly described his tall friend as so long-legged that when he sat, "a marble placed on his knee ... would roll hipward, down an inclined plane"), and thereby to explode the pretension of being enchanted by oneself.

The prairie boy of legend and the Lincoln of record share more than wicked wit. They hate pomposity, and they are unfailingly alert to the stirrings of pride. The real Lincoln accrued enormous power while never presuming that the possession of power confers any special merit on its possessor. He referred bitterly to those occasions when he had to sign the execution orders of courts martial as "butcher-days," and though surrounded by flatterers and the trappings of high office, he never doubted that he was driven by forces larger than his own will. In a letter in 1864 to the Kentucky journalist Albert Hodges, he refused any "compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me." The Fehrenbachers' book is filled with echoes of this well-known remark, as when the ex-slave Sojourner Truth praised him for being the only president who had done anything for her people--to which Lincoln is said to have replied, "And the only one who had such opportunity. Had our friends in the south behaved themselves, I could have done nothing whatever."

A single, unbroken theme emerges from this book of spurious stories, and it is perfectly continuous with the Lincoln who exists independently of it. This theme is his lifelong contempt for the idea that accidents of worldly rank imply a hierarchy of intrinsic worth. Variously expressed through humor, anger, piety and self-doubt, this principle is what both the actual and the legendary man were essentially about. From the actual Lincoln, one hears it at its purest in the short speech that he delivered in February, 1861, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where he had stopped en route to his inauguration. Amid rumors of an assassination plot (a few hours later he would switch to a secret train at Baltimore, which then took him to Washington by night), he remarked that "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence." Then he elaborated:

     I have often pondered over the dangers which were
     incurred by the men who assembled here and
     adopted that Declaration of Independence. I have
     pondered over the toils that were endured by the
     officers and soldiers of the army, who achieved that
     Independence. [Applause.] I have often inquired of
     myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept
     this Confederacy so long together.

     It was not the mere matter of the separation of the
     colonies from the motherland; but something in that
     Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of
     this country, but hope to the world for all future time.
     [Great applause.] It was that which gave promise
     that in due time the weights should be lifted from the
     shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal
     chance. [Cheers.] This is the sentiment embodied in that
     Declaration of Independence.

     Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that
     basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest
     men in the world if I can help to save it. If it can't be saved
     upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But, if this country
     cannot be saved without giving up that principle--I was
     about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot
     than to surrender it.

Today it may seem callow to take very seriously this pledge of allegiance to equal opportunity as a universal principle. In 1861, however, neither Lincoln's audience in Philadelphia nor the secessionists (who, in response to his election, had already moved to break up the Union) doubted that he meant exactly what he said. When he declared that the "weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men in due time," it was widely understood that "weights" meant slavery, and that "due time" meant that slavery was doomed to die soon. As for the phrase "all men," it meant just that. All men. Black as well as white.

About a year earlier in New Haven, speaking not far from the site of a shoeworkers' strike, he had put the matter even more explicitly:

     I am glad to see that a system of labor prevails in New
     England under which laborers can strike when they
     want to, where they are not obliged to work under all
     circumstances, and are not tied down and obliged to
     labor whether you pay them or not! I like the system
     which lets a man quit when he wants to, and wish it
     might prevail everywhere. One of the reasons why I
     am opposed to Slavery is just here.... I want every
     man to have the chance--and I believe a black man is
     entitled to it--in which he can better his condition--when
     he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this
     year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally
     to hire men to work for him!

Now that the "American dream" is more and more becoming a cruel deception, this statement may sound no different from a hack politician peddling the entrepreneurial myth. But when Lincoln said that black men should have the right to become employers, it was hardly something a politician could say casually, especially since he did not rule out the possibility that their employees might be white. And this at a time when no sitting president had ever gone on record to express personal opposition to slavery.

What was the source of Lincoln's antipathy to the "peculiar institution," and how deep did it run? Was he really offended, as he once claimed, by the sight of slaves on a canalboat, "strung together precisely like so many fish upon a trot line"? The Fehrenbachers' book is not much help with these perennial questions, precisely because it is authoritative about the dubious authority of its contents. Take, for instance, the problem of motive raised by the famous letter of 1862 to Horace Greeley, in which Lincoln insisted that "my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that." Doubtless authentic (they were written in Lincoln's hand), these words come from the same man who a few years earlier had said that "I can not but hate" the "declared indifference" of Senator Douglas on the question of whether slavery should live or die.

Since these two public statements seem to need mediation, it is natural, as one reads along, to hope that the Fehrenbachers' impromptu Lincoln will arbitrate between them. One comes expectantly upon a comment from a reporter for the New York Tribune, Greeley's paper, that Lincoln had spelled out to a Chicago congressman exactly what he had meant: "The meaning of his letter to Mr. Greeley was this: that he was ready to declare emancipation when he was convinced that it could be made effective and that the people were with him." But the chain of transmission of this remark begins with the congressman, who tells it to the newspaperman, who tells it to an abolitionist activist, in whose papers it was ultimately found. Accordingly, the Fehrenbachers dismiss it with a D.

The problem is summed up in Lincoln's own words (as transcribed by the usually reliable John Hay): "It is impossible to determine the question of the motives that govern men or to gain absolute knowledge of their sympathies." Still, impossible as it may be, knowing how hot or cool were Lincoln's feelings about the suffering of the slaves has never been more important to his standing in the American pantheon than it is today. It is a question that cannot be begged. We can discount it as ahistorical; we can object to holding the past accountable to our own standards of enlightenment; we can even quote Lincoln quoting scripture: "Let us not judge that we be not judged." But the fact is that the persistence of our few national symbols depends on our ability to appropriate them for use--and there is reason to wonder whether Lincoln, the most durable of these symbols, is becoming another casualty of our race-obsessed age.

I believe that Lincoln spoke, and acted, out of profound revulsion at the outrage of slavery. But I state this conviction as a belief, since it is no more or less demonstrable than any religious or aesthetic judgment. Here, from Lincoln's speech on the Dred Scott decision, is one of the central interpretable passages:

     All the powers of the earth seem rapidly combining
     against [the Negro]. Mammon is after him; ambition
     follows, and philosophy follows, and the Theology of
     the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his
     prison they have searched his person, and left no
     prying instrument with him. One after another they
     have closed the heavy iron doors upon him,
     and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with
     a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked
     without the concurrence of every key; the keys
     in the hands of a hundred different men, and they
     scattered to a hundred different and distant places;
     and they stand musing as to what invention,
     in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be
     produced to make the impossibility of his escape
     more complete than it is.

I cannot read this without hearing the theme of human equality surging behind it. Therefore, I find no contradiction in the sentiment--whether or not the words are quoted accurately--when the Fehrenbachers' Lincoln calls the Fugitive Slave law of 1850 "ungodly" (the source is the abolitionist Alonzo Grover), or when he remarks (according to a New York businessman, James Gilmore) that "the war has educated our people into abolition."

And yet it is also true that the historical Lincoln, in his speech on the Dred Scott case, speaks of "a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people, to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races." Is this merely a description of a prevailing public attitude? (It takes a long search to find any mid-nineteenth-century spokesman for social equality between black and white.) Or is it an endorsement? At the end of this line of questions, there is no consensus.

On the more dispassionate question of why Lincoln thought slavery intolerable in a society putatively based on individual rights, there is something closer to a certain answer. He clearly believed that the violation of rights for anyone threatens the rights of everyone. This view was summed up in the extraordinary fragment on slavery that he composed in a meditative moment, probably in 1854:

If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right enslave B.--why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?--You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.

You do not mean color exactly?--You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.

But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.

Here, in full view, is Lincoln's proto-modern conviction that the very idea of race is incoherent. It is, as we would say, socially constructed. A monstrous idea, it is liable to turn on the masters who have invented and relied on it. Its poison infiltrates everywhere and cannot be contained.

The only antidote to this poison is the idea of the individual; and Lincoln returns again and again to the axiom of individual rights. "A man who denies other men equality of rights is hardly worthy of freedom," he says, in another comment recorded by Hay, "but I would give even to him all the rights which I claim for myself"; and the Fehrenbachers' book is peppered with versions of the argument that reclaiming these rights for black people will serve the best interest of whites: "I do believe, that it will result in good to the white race as well as to those who have been made free by this act of emancipation."

There is, in Lincoln, a universalizing impulse (Herndon quotes him extolling "universal education" and "the universal ballot") that cuts across the flimsy barriers by which people try to wall themselves off from those whom they deem unworthy of inclusion in their circle. His mind was always moving away from the incidental differences among people and toward the affinities and linkages between them--sometimes to their credit (Herndon quotes him on democracy: "the intelligence of the mass of our people was the light and life of the republic"), and sometimes to their shame (on human motivation: "at bottom, the snaky tongue of selfishness will wag out"). Lincoln recognized mankind and he recognized persons; but he never recognized tribes or castes. And so he spoke fervently, in a documented speech in 1858, against the notion that the equality principle of the Declaration was somehow restricted to those descended by blood from its original beneficiaries, or to any other distinguishable group:

We have besides these men--descended by blood from our ancestors--among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all from these men, they are men who have come from Europe--German, Irish, French and Scandinavian--men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their  connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal," and they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration [loud and long continued applause], and so they are.

Lincoln did not fail to recognize that this process--which, pejoratively, we call assimilation--entailed damage to the historical community of those "whose ancestors have come hither." Like Tocqueville, he recognized that "in democratic communities the imagination is compressed when men consider themselves"; but also like Tocqueville, he believed that "it expands indefinitely when they think of the state." Devotion to the state, to the Union, was Lincoln's answer to the inescapable American problem of feeling unmoored from one's ancestral past.

Here we have the deepest reason that Lincoln's grip on our imagination may be weakening. In our time, the symbols through which he thought Americans could receive and transmit a sense of common destiny have been terribly vitiated. Consider this apposite comment from John Eaton, the army chaplain who became superintendent of freedmen under President Grant, who reported the president's remark at the height of the war

that there were some people who thought the work on the Capitol ought to stop on account of the war, people who begrudged the expenditure, and the detention of the workmen from the army.... [But] in his judgment, the finishing of the Capitol would be a symbol to the nation of the preservation of the Union. If [said he] people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.

This is the Lincoln about whom Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, observed that "the Union with him in sentiment rose to the sublimity of a religious mysticism." In the age of Gingrich, it takes a truly undiscourageable patriot to see the Capitol as a symbol of sublimity. Since Lincoln is finally the name we give to the concept of individual rights under the protection of federal authority, his future as a national icon seems in doubt--especially now that his promise of upward mobility as a realistic hope for all Americans threatens to become a sham. And since the academic left has responded with little more than a mantra about group identity, it is increasingly difficult to invoke Lincoln as a precedent for serious thinking about the live problems of our day. Income disparity, illegitimacy, affirmative action, abortion: these are problems that defy the old formula of individual rights on which Americans have traditionally found common ground.

Thus Lincoln the champion of self-reliance is in trouble for preaching an illusion. And Lincoln the anti-slavery man is in trouble for equivocating on racial equality. There will be those who use the Fehrenbachers' scrupulous work as a means to explode the whole Lincoln "myth"--built, as this book shows more clearly than has ever been showed before, on hearsay and imperfect memory. But the demythologizers should think again. For, in their core convictions, the mythical figure and the actual man have been indistinguishable since even before his martyrdom, as one discerns in the words of Lincoln's greatest celebrant. During the winter of 1863-64, Walt Whitman spent his days tending Union wounded in hospitals in and around Washington, where the most he could do was offer a hand in comfort or write a letter home for a maimed or illiterate boy. Afterwards, he would "wander about a good deal, sometimes at night under the moon" and on one mild February evening he stopped in front of the White House:

The white portico--the palace-like, tall, round columns, spotless as snow--the walls also--the tender and soft moonlight, flooding the pale marble, and making peculiar faint languishing shades, not shadows--everywhere a soft transparent hazy, thin, blue moon-lace, hanging in the air--the brilliant and extra-plentiful clusters of gas, on and around the facade, column, portico--everything so white, so marbly pure and dazzling yet soft--the White House of future poems, and of dreams and dramas, there in the soft and copious moon ...

When I closed the Fehrenbachers' wonderful collation of dreams and (some fanciful) dramas, I found myself doubting that many more future poems will be written.

Andrew Delbanco's new book, on classic American literature, will be published next fall by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.