In listening to John Drinkwater's legendary drama of Abraham Lincoln, I found obtruding upon my mind an irrelevant and disconcerting observation. I was watching the performance of a play about the life of the man whom the American people have canonized as half hero and half saint. He had earned their gratitude by helping them to steer a true course into and out of a civil war, which, had they gone astray, would have shattered the moral and political continuity of American national life. A new generation of his fellow-countrymen had just emerged as one of the victors in another war—one of the most bloody and costly which history has to record. Yet this play contained passages in which their national hero rebuked an attitude of mind towards the war of his day which no actor could have repeated with safety on the stage in any large American city during the war of our day. He said to Mrs. Blow, "You come to me talking of revenge and destruction and malice and enduring hate. These gentle people (the pacifists) are mistaken, but they are mistaken cleanly and in a great name. It is you that dishonor the cause for which we stand." No actor would have dared, we repeat, to speak these words on an American stage during the war. The prevailing opinion in
The contrast illustrates a characteristic of
It is not only, however, that he harbored purposes, convictions and feelings which were incompatible one with another in the minds of other people. He expressed and acted on these usually incompatible motives and ideas with such rare propriety and amenity that their union in his behavior and spirit passes not only without criticism but almost without comment. His fellow-countrymen, who like to consider him a magnified version of the ordinary American and to disguise flattery of themselves under the form of reverence for him, appear not to suspect how different he is from them. He seems to them a simple man whose feelings, motives and words are composed of familiar and homely material and whose values they can sum up in a few simple formulas. He is a simple man in the sense that power, responsibility and intensity of personal experience never divided him from his own people who had none of these things. More than any other statesman in history he is entitled to their trust and veneration. But he was not a simple man as simplicity is ordinarily understood. He was an extremely complicated and sophisticated product of a kind of moral and mental discipline which sharply distinguishes him from his fellow citizens both of his own day and today. His simplicity was not a gift. It was an expression of an integrity of feeling, mind and character which he himself elaborately achieved, and which he naturalized so completely that it wears the appearance of being simple and inevitable.
The ordinary characterization of
While Americans do not understand how complicated, many-sided and distinctively individual
equally well as the prophet both of conservatism and radicalism. The National Industrial Conference Board has issued a leaflet, intended obviously for circulation among wage earners, in which
But the Labor party of New York carries on its letterhead an emphatic affirmation by Lincoln of the prior claim of labor as compared to capital on the product of industry; and the New York World reproduces a passage from the First Inaugural about the right of revolution, which, if uttered by an alien, would render him liable to deportation and which would be condemned as seditious by the proposed Congressional legislation.
The interests, the sects and the parties all labor to exploit for the benefit of their own propaganda the name of Lincoln, but although they can usually find sentences and acts which they construe for their own benefit, the man himself as a spiritual force always breaks out of the breastworks of any particular cause. He never purveyed one particular political, moral or social specialty. His generation was particularly given to spiritual sectarianism and social crotchets. He himself was extremely accessible to generous emotions and humane ideas. But he was too complete a man to allow his mind to pass into the possession of any cause. And just as he freed himself from the obsessions of the reformer, so he was also too much of a man to yield to the weakness of a tolerant and balanced intelligence and take refuge in intellectual eclecticism. He was first of all himself. With the tact of moral genius he appropriated all that he needed from his surroundings and dismissed apparently without hesitation or struggle all that was superfluous and distracting. Whatever he appropriated he completely domesticated in his own life. The memory of
Hence it is that