BY LORD CHARNWOOD
GARDEN CITY, NEW YORK
GARDEN CITY PUBLISHING CO., INC.
HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY
GENERAL EDITOR'S PREFACE
Statesmen—even the greatest—have rarely won the same unquestioning recognition that falls to the great warriors or those supreme in science, art or literature. Not in their own lifetime and hardly to this day have the claims to supremacy of our own Oliver Cromwell, William III. and Lord Chatham rested on so sure a foundation as those of a Marlborough or a Nelson, a Newton, a Milton or a Hogarth. This is only natural. A warrior, a man of science, an artist or a poet are judged in the main by definite achievements, by the victories they have won over foreign enemies or over ignorance and prejudice, by the joy and enlightenment they have brought to the consciousness of their own and succeeding generations. For the statesman there is no such exact measure of greatness. The greater he is, the less likely is his work to be marked by decisive achievement which can be recalled by anniversaries or signalised by some outstanding event: the chief work of a great statesman rests in a gradual change of direction given to the policy of his people, still more in a change of the spirit within them. Again, the statesman must work with a rough and ready instrument. The soldier finds or makes his army ready to yield unhesitating obedience to his commands, the sailor animates his fleet with his own personal touch, and the great man in art, literature or science is master of his material, if he can master himself. The statesman cannot mould a heterogeneous people, as the men of a well-disciplined army or navy can be moulded, to respond to his call and his alone. He has to do all his work in a society of which a large part cannot see his object and another large part, as far as they do see it, oppose it. Hence his work at the best is often incomplete and he has to be satisfied with a rough average rather than with his ideal.
Lincoln, one of the few supreme statesmen of the last three centuries, was no exception to this rule. He was misunderstood and underrated in his lifetime, and even yet has hardly come to his own. For his place is among the great men of the earth. To them he belongs by right of his immense power of hard work, his unfaltering pursuit of what seemed to him right, and above all by that childlike directness and simplicity of vision which none but the greatest carry beyond their earliest years. It is fit that the first considered attempt by an Englishman to give a picture of Lincoln, the great hero of America's struggle for the noblest cause, should come at a time when we in England are passing through as fiery a trial for a cause we feel to be as noble. It is a time when we may learn much from Lincoln's failures and success, from his patience, his modesty, his serene optimism and his eloquence, so simple and so magnificent.
GENERAL EDITOR'S PREFACE
I. BOYHOOD OF LINCOLN
II. THE GROWTH OF THE AMERICAN NATION 1. The Formation of a National Government 2. Territorial Expansion 3. The Growth of the Practice and Traditions of the Union Government 4. The Missouri Compromise 5. Leaders, Parties, and Tendencies in Lincoln's Youth 6. Slavery and Southern Society 7. Intellectual Development
III. LINCOLN'S EARLY CAREER 1. Life at New Salem 2. In the Illinois Legislature 3. Marriage
IV. LINCOLN IN CONGRESS AND IN RETIREMENT 1. The Mexican War and Lincoln's Work in Congress 2. California and the Compromise of 1850 3. Lincoln in Retirement 4. The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise
V. THE RISE OF LINCOLN 1. Lincoln's Return to Public Life 2. The Principles and the Oratory of Lincoln 3. Lincoln against Douglas 4. John Brown 5. The Election of Lincoln as President
VI. SECESSION 1. The Case of the South against the Union 2. The Progress of Secession 3. The Inauguration of Lincoln 4. The Outbreak of War
VII. THE CONDITIONS OF THE WAR
VIII. THE OPENING OF THE WAR AND LINCOLN'S ADMINISTRATION 1. Preliminary Stages of the War 2. Bull Run 3. Lincoln's Administration Generally 4. Foreign Policy and England 5. The Great Questions of Domestic Policy
IX. THE DISASTERS OF THE NORTH 1. Military Policy of the North 2. The War in the West up to May, 1862 3. The War in the East up to May, 1863
XI. THE APPROACH OF VICTORY 1. The War to the End of 1863 2. Conscription and the Politics of 1863 3. The War in 1864 4. The Second Election of Lincoln: 1864
XII. THE END
BOYHOOD OF LINCOLN
The subject of this memoir is revered by multitudes of his countrymen as the preserver of their commonwealth. This reverence has grown with the lapse of time and the accumulation of evidence. It is blended with a peculiar affection, seldom bestowed upon the memory of statesmen. It is shared to-day by many who remember with no less affection how their own fathers fought against him. He died with every circumstance of tragedy, yet it is not the accident of his death but the purpose of his life that is remembered.
Readers of history in another country cannot doubt that the praise so given is rightly given; yet any bare record of the American Civil War may leave them wondering why it has been so unquestioningly accorded. The position and task of the American President in that crisis cannot be understood from those of other historic rulers or historic leaders of a people; and it may seem as if, after that tremendous conflict in which there was no lack of heroes, some perverse whim had made men single out for glory the puzzled civil magistrate who sat by. Thus when an English writer tells again this tale, which has been well told already and in which there can remain no important new facts to disclose, he must endeavour to make clear to Englishmen circumstances and conditions which are familiar to Americans. He will incur the certainty that here and there his own perspective of American affairs and persons will be false, or his own touch unsympathetic. He had better do this than chronicle sayings and doings which to him and to those for whom he writes have no significance. Nor should the writer shrink too timidly from the display of a partisanship which, on one side or the other, it would be insensate not to feel. The true obligation of impartiality is that he should conceal no fact which, in his own mind, tells against his views.
Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States of America, was born on February 12, 1809, in a log cabin on a barren farm in the backwoods of Kentucky, about three miles west of a place called Hodgensville in what is now La Rue County.
Fifty years later when he had been nominated for the Presidency he was asked for material for an account of his early life. "Why," he said, "it is a great folly to attempt to make anything out of me or my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence; and that sentence you will find in Gray's 'Elegy':—
"'The short and simple annals of the poor.'
That's my life, and that's all you or anyone else can make out of it." His other references to early days were rare. He would repeat queer reminiscences of the backwoods to illustrate questions of state; but of his own part in that old life he spoke reluctantly and sadly. Nevertheless there was once extracted from him an awkward autobiographical fragment, and his friends have collected and recorded concerning his earlier years quite as much as is common in great men's biographies or can as a rule be reproduced with its true associations. Thus there are tales enough of the untaught student's perseverance, and of the boy giant's gentleness and prowess; tales, too, more than enough in proportion, of the fun which varied but did not pervade his existence, and of the young rustic's occasional and somewhat oafish pranks. But, in any conception we may form as to the growth of his mind and character, this fact must have its place, that to the man himself the thought of his early life was unattractive, void of self-content over the difficulties which he had conquered, and void of romantic fondness for vanished joys of youth.
Much the same may be said of his ancestry and family connections. Contempt for lowly beginnings, abhorrent as it is to any honest mind, would to Lincoln's mind have probably been inconceivable, but he lacked that interest in ancestry which is generally marked in his countrymen, and from talk of his nearer progenitors he seems to have shrunk with a positive sadness of which some causes will soon be apparent. Since his death it has been ascertained that in 1638 one Samuel Lincoln of Norwich emigrated to Massachusetts. Descent from him could be claimed by a prosperous family in Virginia, several of whom fought on the Southern side in the Civil War. One Abraham Lincoln, grandfather of the President and apparently a grandson of Samuel, crossed the mountains from Virginia in 1780 and settled his family in Kentucky, of which the nearer portions had recently been explored. One morning four years later he was at work near his cabin with Mordecai, Josiah, and Thomas, his sons, when a shot from the bushes near by brought him down. Mordecai ran to the house, Josiah to a fort, which was close to them. Thomas, aged six, stayed by his father's body. Mordecai seized a gun and, looking through the window, saw an Indian in war paint stooping to pick up Thomas. He fired and killed the savage, and, when Thomas had run into the cabin, continued firing at others who appeared among the bushes. Shortly Josiah returned with soldiers from the fort, and the Indians ran off, leaving Abraham the elder dead. Mordecai, his heir-at-law, prospered. We hear of him long after as an old man of substance and repute in Western Illinois. He had decided views about Indians. The sight of a redskin would move him to strange excitement; he would disappear into the bushes with his gun, and his conscience as a son and a sportsman would not be satisfied till he had stalked and shot him. We are further informed that he was a "good old man." Josiah also moved to Illinois, and it is pleasant to learn that he also was a good old man, and, as became a good old man, prospered pretty well. But President Lincoln and his sister knew neither these excellent elders nor any other of their father's kin.
And those with whom the story of his own first twenty-one years is bound up invite almost as summary treatment. Thomas Lincoln never prospered like Mordecai and Josiah, and never seems to have left the impress of his goodness or of anything else on any man. But, while learning to carpenter under one Joseph Hanks, he married his employer's niece Nancy, and by her became the father first of a daughter Sarah, and four years later, at the farm near Hodgensville aforesaid, of Abraham, the future President. In 1816, after several migrations, he transported his household down the Ohio to a spot on the Indiana shore, near which the village of Gentryville soon sprang up. There he abode till Abraham was nearly twenty-one. When the boy was eight his mother died, leaving him in his sister's care; but after a year or so Thomas went back alone to Kentucky and, after brief wooing, brought back a wife, Sarah, the widow of one Mr. Johnston, whom he had courted vainly before her first marriage. He brought with her some useful additions to his household gear, and her rather useless son John Johnston. Relatives of Abraham's mother and other old neighbours—in particular John and Dennis Hanks—accompanied all the family's migrations. Ultimately, in 1830, they all moved further west into Illinois. Meanwhile Abraham from an early age did such various tasks for his father or for neighbouring farmers as from time to time suited the father. When an older lad he was put for a while in charge of a ferry boat, and this led to the two great adventures of his early days, voyages with a cargo boat; and two mates down by river to New Orleans. The second and more memorable of these voyages was just after the migration to Illinois. He returned from it to a place called New Salem, in Illinois, some distance from his father's new farm, in expectation of work in a store which was about to be opened. Abraham, by this time, was of age, and in accordance with custom had been set free to shift for himself.
Each of these migrations was effected with great labour in transportation of baggage (sometimes in home-made boats), clearing of timber, and building; and Thomas Lincoln cannot have been wanting in the capacity for great exertions. But historians have been inclined to be hard on him. He seems to have been without sustained industry; in any case he had not much money sense and could not turn his industry to much account. Some hint that he drank, but it is admitted that most Kentucky men drank more. There are indications that he was a dutiful but ineffective father, chastising not too often or too much, but generally on the wrong occasion. He was no scholar and did not encourage his son that way; but he had a great liking for stories. He was of a peaceable and inoffensive temper, but on great provocation would turn on a bully with surprising and dire consequences. Old Thomas, after Abraham was turned loose, continued a migrant, always towards a supposed better farm further west, always with a mortgage on him. Abraham, when he was a struggling professional man, helped him with money as well as he could. We have his letter to the old man on his death-bed, a letter of genuine but mild affection with due words of piety. He explains that illness in his own household makes it impossible for him to pay a last visit to his father, and then, with that curious directness which is common in the families of the poor and has as a rule no sting, he remarks that an interview, if it had been possible, might have given more pain than pleasure to both. Everybody has insisted from the first how little Abraham took after his father, but more than one of the traits attributed to Thomas will certainly reappear.
Abraham, as a man, when for once he spoke of his mother, whom he very seldom mentioned, spoke with intense feeling for her motherly care. "I owe," he said, "everything that I am to her." It pleased him in this talk to explain by inheritance from her the mental qualities which distinguished him from the house of Lincoln, and from others of the house of Hanks. She was, he said, the illegitimate daughter of a Virginian gentleman, whose name he did not know, but from whom as he guessed the peculiar gifts, of which he could not fail to be conscious, were derived.
Sarah his sister was married at Gentryville to one Mr. Grigsby. The Grigsbys were rather great people, as people went in Gentryville. It is said to have become fixed in the boy's mind that the Grigsbys had not treated Sarah well; and this was the beginning of certain woes.
Sarah Bush Lincoln, his stepmother, was good to him and he to her. Above all she encouraged him in his early studies, to which a fretful housewife could have opposed such terrible obstacles. She lived to hope that he might not be elected President for fear that enemies should kill him, and she lived to have her fear fulfilled. His affectionate care over her continued to the end. She lived latterly with her son John Johnston. Abraham's later letters to this companion of his youth deserve to be looked up in the eight large volumes called his Works, for it is hard to see how a man could speak or act better to an impecunious friend who would not face his own troubles squarely. It is sad that the "ever your affectionate brother" of the earlier letters declines to "yours sincerely" in the last; but it is an honest decline of affection, for the man had proved to be cheating his mother, and Abraham had had to stop it.
Two of the cousinhood, Dennis Hanks, a character of comedy, and John Hanks, the serious and steady character of the connection, deserve mention. They and John Johnston make momentary reappearances again. Otherwise the whole of Abraham Lincoln's kindred are now out of the story. They have been disposed of thus hastily at the outset, not because they were discreditable or slight people, but because Lincoln himself when he began to find his footing in the world seems to have felt sadly that his family was just so much to him and no more. The dearest of his recollections attached to premature death; the next to chronic failure. Rightly or wrongly (and we know enough about heredity now to expect any guess as to its working in a particular case to be wrong) he attributed the best that he had inherited to a licentious connection and a nameless progenitor. Quite early he must have been intensely ambitious, and discovered in himself intellectual power; but from his twelfth year to his twenty-first there was hardly a soul to comprehend that side of him. This chill upon his memory unmistakably influenced the particular complexion of his melancholy. Unmistakably too he early learnt to think that he was odd, that his oddity was connected with his strength, that he might be destined to stand alone and capable of so standing.
The life of the farming pioneer in what was then the Far West afforded a fair prospect of laborious independence. But at least till Lincoln was grown up, when a time of rapid growth and change set in, it offered no hope of quickly gotten wealth, and it imposed severe hardship on all. The country was thickly wooded; the settler had before him at the outset heavy toil in clearing the ground and in building some rude shelter,—a house or just a "half-faced camp," that is, a shed with one side open to the weather such as that in which the Lincoln family passed their first winter near Gentryville. The site once chosen and the clearing once made, there was no such ease of cultivation or such certain fertility as later settlers found yet further west when the development of railways, of agricultural machinery, and of Eastern or European markets had opened out to cultivation the enormous stretches of level grass plain beyond the Mississippi.
Till population had grown a good deal, pioneer families were largely occupied in producing for themselves with their own hands what, in their hardy if not always frugal view, were the necessities and comforts of life. They had no Eastern market for their produce, for railways did not begin to be made till 1840, and it was many years before they crossed the Eastern mountains. An occasional cargo was taken on a flat-bottomed boat down the nearest creek, as a stream is called in America, into the Ohio and so by the innumerable windings of the Mississippi to New Orleans; but no return cargo could be brought up stream. Knives and axes were the most precious objects to be gained by trade; woollen fabrics were rare in the West, when Lincoln was born, and the white man and woman, like the red whom they had displaced, were chiefly dressed in deer skins. The woods abounded in game, and in the early stages of the development of the West a man could largely support himself by his gun. The cold of every winter is there great, and an occasional winter made itself long remembered, like the "winter of the deep snow" in Illinois, by the havoc of its sudden onset and the suffering of its long duration. The settling of a forest country was accompanied here as elsewhere by the occasional ravages of strange and destructive pestilences and the constant presence of malaria. Population was soon thick enough for occasional gatherings, convivial or religious, and in either case apt to be wild, but for long it was not thick enough for the life of most settlers to be other than lonely as well as hard.
Abraham Lincoln in his teens grew very fast, and by nineteen he was nearly six foot four. His weight was never quite proportionate to this. His ungainly figure, with long arms and large hands and relatively small development of chest, and the strange deep-cut lineaments of his face were perhaps the evidence of unfit (sometimes insufficient) food in these years of growth. But his muscular strength was great, and startling statistical tales are told of the weight he could lift and the force of his blows with a mallet or an axe. To a gentle and thoughtful boy with secret ambition in him such strength is a great gift, and in such surroundings most obviously so. Lincoln as a lad was a valuable workman at the varied tasks that came his way, without needing that intense application to manual pursuits which the bent of his mind made irksome to him. And he was a person of high consideration among the lads of his age and company. The manners of the people then settling in Indiana and Illinois had not the extreme ferocity for which Kentucky had earlier been famous, and which crops up here and there in frontier life elsewhere. All the same, as might naturally be supposed, they shared Plato's opinion that youths and men in the prime of life should settle their differences with their fists. Young Lincoln's few serious combats were satisfactorily decisive, and neither they nor his friendly wrestling bouts ended in the quarrels which were too common among his neighbours. Thus, for all his originality and oddity, he early grew accustomed to mix in the sort of company he was likely to meet, without either inward shrinking or the need of conscious self-assertion.
In one thing he stood aloof from the sports of his fellows. Most backwoodsmen were bred to the gun; he has told us that he shot a turkey when he was eight and never afterwards shot at all. There is an early tale of his protests against an aimless slaughter of mud turtles; and it may be guessed that the dislike of all killing, which gave him sore trouble later, began when he was young. Tales survive of his kindness to helpless men and animals. It marks the real hardness of his surroundings, and their hardening effect on many, that his exertions in saving a drunken man from death in the snow are related with apparent surprise. Some tales of his helping a pig stuck in a bog or a dog on an ice floe and the like seem to indicate a curious and lasting trait. These things seem not to have been done spontaneously, but on mature reflection after he had passed unheeding by. He grew to be a man of prompt action in circumstances of certain kinds; but generally his impulse was slow and not very sure. Taste and the minor sensibilities were a little deficient in him. As a lady once candidly explained to him, he was not ready with little gracious acts. But rare occasions, such as can arouse a passionate sense of justice, would kindle his slow, kind nature with a sudden fire.
The total amount of his schooling, at the several brief periods for which there happened to have been a school accessible and facility to get to it, was afterwards computed by himself at something under twelve months. With this slight help distributed over the years from his eighth to his fifteenth birthday he taught himself to read, write, and do sums. The stories of the effort and painful shifts, by which great men accomplish this initial labour almost unhelped, have in all cases the same pathos, and have a certain sameness in detail. Having learnt to read he had the following books within his reach: the Bible, "Aesop's Fables," "Robinson Crusoe," the "Pilgrim's Progress," a "History of the United States," and Weems' "Life of Washington." Later on the fancy took him to learn the laws of his State, and he obtained the "Laws of Indiana." These books he did read, and read again, and pondered, not with any dreamy or purely intellectual interest, but like one who desires the weapon of learning for practical ends, and desires also to have patterns of what life should be. As already said, his service as a labourer could be considerable, and when something stirred his ambition to do a task quickly his energy could be prodigious. But "bone idle is what I called him," was the verdict long after of one, perhaps too critical, employer. "I found him," he said, "cocked up on a haystack with a book. 'What are you reading?' I said. 'I'm not reading, I'm studying,' says he. 'What are you studying?' says I. 'Law,' says he, as proud as Cicero. 'Great God Almighty!' said I." The boy's correction, "studying" for "reading," was impertinent, but probably sound. To be equally sound, we must reckon among his educational facilities the abundant stories which came his way in a community which, however unlettered, was certainly not dull-spirited; the occasional newspaper; the rare lectures or political meetings; the much more frequent religious meetings, with preachers who taught a grim doctrine, but who preached with vigour and sometimes with the deepest sincerity; the hymns often of great emotional power over a simple congregation—Cowper's "There is a fountain filled with blood," is one recorded favourite among them; the songs, far other than hymns, which Dennis Hanks and his other mates would pick up or compose; and the practice in rhetoric and the art of exposition, which he unblushingly afforded himself before audiences of fellow labourers who welcomed the jest and the excuse for stopping work. The achievement of the self-taught man remains wonderful, but, if he surmounts his difficulties at all, some of his limitations may turn to sheer advantage. There is some advantage merely in being driven to make the most of few books; great advantage in having one's choice restricted by circumstances to good books; great advantage too in the consciousness of untrained faculty which leaves a man capable in mature life of deliberately undertaking mental discipline.
Along with the legends and authentic records of his self-training, signs of an ambition which showed itself early and which was from the first a clean and a high ambition, there are also other legends showing Lincoln as a naughty boy among naughty boys. The selection here made from these lacks refinement, and the reader must note that this was literally a big, naughty boy, not a man who had grown stiff in coarseness and ill-nature. First it must be recalled that Abraham bore a grudge against the Grigsbys, an honourable grudge in its origin and perhaps the only grudge he ever bore. There had arisen from this a combat, of which the details might displease the fastidious, but which was noble in so far that Abraham rescued a weaker combatant who was over-matched. But there ensued something more displeasing, a series of lampoons by Abraham, in prose and a kind of verse. These were gross and silly enough, though probably to the taste of the public which he then addressed, but it is the sequel that matters. In a work called "The First Chronicles of Reuben," it is related how Reuben and Josiah, the sons of Reuben Grigsby the elder, took to themselves wives on the same day. By local custom the bridal feast took place and the two young couples began their married careers under the roof of the bridegrooms' father. Moreover, it was the custom that, at a certain stage in the celebrations, the brides should be escorted to their chambers by hired attendants who shortly after conducted the bridegrooms thither. On this occasion some sense of mischief afoot disturbed the heart of Mrs. Reuben Grigsby the elder, and, hastening upstairs, just after the attendants had returned, she cried out in a loud voice and to the great consternation of all concerned, "Why, Reuben, you're in bed with the wrong wife!" The historian who, to the manifest annoyance of Lincoln's other biographers, has preserved this and much other priceless information, infers that Abraham, who was not invited to the feast, had plotted this domestic catastrophe and won over the attendants to his evil purpose. This is not a certain inference, nor is it absolutely beyond doubt that the event recorded in "The First Chronicles of Reuben" ever happened at all. What is certain is that these Chronicles themselves, composed in what purports to be the style of Scripture, were circulated for the joint edification of the proud race of Grigsby and of their envious neighbours in the handwriting of Abraham Lincoln, then between seventeen and eighteen. Not without reason does an earlier manuscript of the same author conclude, after several correct exercises in compound subtraction, with the distich:—
"Abraham Lincoln, his hand and pen, He will be good, but God knows when."
Not to be too solemn about a tale which has here been told for the whimsical fancy of its unseemliness and because it is probably the worst that there is to tell, we may here look forward and face the well-known fact that the unseemliness in talk of rough, rustic boys flavoured the great President's conversation through life. It is well to be plain about this. Lincoln was quite without any elegant and sentimental dissoluteness, such as can be attractively portrayed. His life was austere and seems to have been so from the start. He had that shy reverence for womanhood which is sometimes acquired as easily in rough as in polished surroundings and often quite as steadily maintained. The testimony of his early companions, along with some fragments of the boy's feeble but sincere attempts at verse, shows that he acquired it young. But a large part of the stories and pithy sayings for which he was famous wherever he went, but of which when their setting is lost it is impossible to recover the enjoyment, were undeniably coarse, and naturally enough this fact was jarring to some of those in America who most revered him. It should not really be hard, in any comprehensive view of his character and the circumstances in which it unfolded itself, to trace in this bent of his humour something not discordant with the widening sympathy and deepening tenderness of his nature. The words of his political associate in Illinois, Mr. Leonard Swett, afterwards Attorney-General of the United States, may suffice. He writes: "Almost any man, who will tell a very vulgar story, has, in a degree, a vulgar mind. But it was not so with him; with all his purity of character and exalted morality and sensibility, which no man can doubt, when hunting for wit he had no ability to discriminate between the vulgar and refined substances from which he extracted it. It was the wit he was after, the pure jewel, and he would pick it up out of the mud or dirt just as readily as from a parlour table." In any case his best remembered utterances of this order, when least fit for print, were both wise and incomparably witty, and in any case they did not prevent grave gentlemen, who marvelled at them rather uncomfortably, from receiving the deep impression of what they called his pure-mindedness.
One last recollection of Lincoln's boyhood has appealed, beyond any other, to some of his friends as prophetic of things to come. Mention has already been made of his two long trips down the Mississippi. With the novel responsibilities which they threw on him, and the novel sights and company which he met all the way to the strange, distant city of New Orleans, they must have been great experiences. Only two incidents of them are recorded. In the first voyage he and his mates had been disturbed at night by a band of negro marauders and had had a sharp fight in repelling them, but in the second voyage he met with the negro in a way that to him was more memorable. He and the young fellows with him saw, among the sights of New Orleans, negroes chained, maltreated, whipped and scourged; they came in their rambles upon a slave auction where a fine mulatto girl was being pinched and prodded and trotted up and down the room like a horse to show how she moved, that "bidders might satisfy themselves," as the auctioneer said, of the soundness of the article to be sold. John Johnston and John Hanks and Abraham Lincoln saw these sights with the unsophisticated eyes of honest country lads from a free State. In their home circle it seems that slavery was always spoken of with horror. One of them had a tenacious memory and a tenacious will. "Lincoln saw it," John Hanks said long after, and other men's recollections of Lincoln's talk confirmed him—"Lincoln saw it; his heart bled; said nothing much, was silent. I can say, knowing it, that it was on this trip that he formed his opinion of slavery. It ran its iron into him then and there, May, 1831. I have heard him say so often." Perhaps in other talks old John Hanks dramatised his early remembrances a little; he related how at the slave auction Lincoln said, "By God, boys, let's get away from this. If ever I get a chance to hit that thing, I'll hit it hard."
The youth, who probably did not express his indignation in these prophetic words, was in fact chosen to deal "that thing" a blow from which it seems unlikely to recover as a permitted institution among civilised men, and it is certain that from this early time the thought of slavery never ceased to be hateful to him. Yet it is not in the light of a crusader against this special evil that we are to regard him. When he came back from this voyage to his new home in Illinois he was simply a youth ambitious of an honourable part in the life of the young country of which he was proud. We may regard, and he himself regarded, the liberation of the slaves, which will always be associated with his name, as a part of a larger work, the restoration of his country to its earliest and noblest tradition, which alone gave permanence or worth to its existence as a nation.
THE GROWTH OF THE AMERICAN NATION
1. The Formation of a National Government.
It is of course impossible to understand the life of a politician in another country without study of its conditions and its past. In the case of America this study is especially necessary, not only because the many points of comparison between that country and our own are apt to conceal profound differences of customs and institutions, but because the broader difference between a new country and an old is in many respects more important than we conceive. But in the case of Lincoln there is peculiar reason for carrying such a study far back. He himself appealed unceasingly to a tradition of the past. In tracing the causes which up to his time had tended to conjoin the United States more closely and the cause which more recently had begun to threaten them with disruption, we shall be examining the elements of the problem with which it was his work in life to deal.
The "Thirteen United States of America" which in 1776 declared their independence of Great Britain were so many distinct Colonies distributed unevenly along 1,300 miles of the Atlantic coast. These thirteen Colonies can easily be identified on the map when it is explained that Maine in the extreme north was then an unsettled forest tract claimed by the Colony of Massachusetts, that Florida in the extreme south belonged to Spain, and that Vermont, which soon after asserted its separate existence, was a part of the State of New York. Almost every one of these Colonies had its marked peculiarities and its points of antagonism as against its nearest neighbours; but they fell into three groups. We may broadly contrast the five southernmost, which included those which were the richest and of which in many ways the leading State was Virginia, with the four (or later six) northernmost States known collectively as New England. Both groups had at first been colonised by the same class, the smaller landed gentry of England with a sprinkling of well-to-do traders, though the South received later a larger number of poor and shiftless immigrants than the North, and the North attracted a larger number of artisans. The physical conditions of the South led to the growth of large farms, or "plantations" as they were called, and of a class of large proprietors; negro slaves thrived there and were useful in the cultivation of tobacco, indigo, rice, and later of cotton. The North continued to be a country of small farms, but its people turned also to fishery and to commerce, and the sea carrying trade became early its predominant interest, yielding place later on to manufacturing industries. The South was attached in the main, though by no means altogether, to the Church of England; New England owed its origin to successive immigrations of Puritans often belonging to the Congregational or Independent body; with the honourable exception of Rhode Island these communities showed none of the liberal and tolerant Spirit which the Independents of the old country often developed; they manifested, however, the frequent virtues as well as the occasional defects of the Puritan character. The middle group of Colonies were of more mixed origin; New York and New Jersey had been Dutch possessions, Delaware was partly Swedish, Pennsylvania had begun as a Quaker settlement but included many different elements; in physical and economic conditions they resembled on the whole New England, but they lacked, some of them conspicuously, the Puritan discipline, and had a certain cosmopolitan character. Though there were sharp antagonisms among the northern settlements, and the southern settlements were kept distinct by the great distances between them, the tendency of events was to soften these minor differences. But it greatly intensified one broad distinction which marked off the southern group from the middle and the northern groups equally.
Nevertheless, before independence was thought of there were common characteristics distinguishing Americans from English people. They are the better worth an attempt to note them because, as a historian of America wrote some years ago, "the typical American of 1900 is on the whole more like his ancestor of 1775 than is the typical Englishman." In all the Colonies alike the conditions of life encouraged personal independence. In all alike they also encouraged a special kind of ability which may be called practical rather than thorough—that of a workman who must be competent at many tasks and has neither opportunity nor inducement to become perfect at one; that of the scientific man irresistibly drawn to inventions which shall make life less hard; that of the scholar or philosopher who must supply the new community's need of lawyers and politicians.
On the other hand, many of the colonists' forefathers had come to their new home with distinct aspirations for a better ordering of human life than the old world allowed, and it has frequently been noticed that Americans from the first have been more prone than their kinsmen in England to pay homage to large ideal conceptions. This is a disposition not entirely favourable to painstaking and sure-footed reform. The idealist American is perhaps too ready to pay himself with fine words, which the subtler and shyer Englishman avoids and rather too readily sets down as insincere in others. Moreover, this tendency is quite consistent with the peculiar conservatism characteristic of America. New conditions in which tradition gave no guidance called forth great inventive powers and bred a certain pride in novelty. An American economist has written in a sanguine humour, "The process of transplanting removes many of the shackles of custom and tradition which retard the progress of older countries. In a new country things cannot be done in the old way, and therefore they are probably done in the best way." But a new country is always apt to cling with tenacity to those old things for which it still has use; and a remote and undeveloped country does not fully share the continual commerce in ideas which brings about change (and, in the main, advance) in the old world. The conservatism which these causes tend to produce has in any case been marked in America. Thus, as readers of Lowell are aware, in spite of the ceaseless efflorescence of the modern slang of America, the language of America is in many respects that of an older England than ours, and the like has all along been true of important literature, and still more of oratory, in America. Moreover, as the sentences which have just been quoted may suggest, the maxim that has once hit the occasion, or the new practice or expedient once necessitated by the conditions of the moment, has been readily hallowed as expressing the wisdom of the ages. An Englishman will quote Burke as he would quote Demosthenes or Plato, but Americans have been apt to quote their elder statesmen as they would quote the Bible. In like manner political practices of accidental origin—for instance, that a representative should be an inhabitant of the place he represents—acquire in America something like the force of constitutional law.
In this connection we must recall the period at which the earliest settlers came from England, and the political heritage which they consequently brought with them. This heritage included a certain aptitude for local government, which was fostered in the south by the rise of a class of large landowners and in the north by the Congregational Church system. It included also a great tenacity of the subject's rights as against the State—the spirit of Hampden refusing payment of ship-money—and a disposition to look on the law and the Courts as the bulwarks of such rights against Government. But it did not include—and this explains the real meaning of the War of Independence—any sort of feeling of allegiance to a Parliament which represented Great Britain only, and which had gained its position even in Great Britain since the fathers of Virginia and Massachusetts left home. Nor did it include—and this was of great importance in its influence on the form of the Constitution—any real understanding of or any aptitude for the English Parliamentary Government, under which the leaders of the legislative body and the advisers of the Crown in its executive functions are the same men, and under which the elected persons, presumed for the moment to represent the people, are allowed for that moment an almost unfettered supremacy.
Thus there was much that made it easy for the Colonies to combine in the single act of repudiating British sovereignty, yet the characteristics which may be ascribed to them in common were not such as inclined them or fitted them to build up a great new unity.
The Colonies, however, backed up by the British Government with the vigour which Chatham imparted to it, had acted together against a common danger from the French. When the States, as we must now call them, acted together against the British Government they did so in name as "United States," and they shortly proceeded to draw up "Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union." But it was union of a feeble kind. The separate government of each State, in its internal affairs, was easy to provide for; representative institutions always existed, and no more change was needed than to substitute elected officers for the Governors and Councillors formerly appointed by the Crown. For the Union a Congress was provided which was to represent all the States in dealings with the outside world, but it was a Government with no effective powers except such as each separate State might independently choose to lend it. It might wage war with England, but it could not effectually control or regularly pay the military service of its own citizens; it might make a treaty of peace with England, but it could not enforce on its citizens distasteful obligations of that treaty. Such an ill-devised machine would have worked well enough for a time, if the Union Government could have attached to itself popular sentiments of honour and loyalty. But the sentiments were not there; and it worked badly.
When once we were reconciled to a defeat which proved good for us, it became a tradition among English writers to venerate the American Revolution. Later English historians have revolted from this indiscriminate veneration. They insist on another side of the facts: on the hopelessness of the American cause but for the commanding genius of Washington and his moral authority, and for the command which France and Spain obtained of the seas; on the petty quarrelsomeness with which the rights of the Colonists were urged, and the meanly skilful agitation which forced on the final rupture; on the lack of sustained patriotic effort during the war; on the base cruelty and dishonesty with which the loyal minority were persecuted and the private rights guaranteed by the peace ignored. It does not concern us to ascertain the precise justice in this displeasing picture; no man now regrets the main result of the Revolution, and we know that a new country is a new country, and that there was much in the circumstances of the war to encourage indiscipline and ferocity. But the fact that there is cause for such an indictment bears in two ways upon our present subject.
In the first place, there has been a tendency both in England and in America to look at this history upside down. The epoch of the Revolution and the Constitution has been regarded as a heroic age—wherein lived the elder Brutus, Mucius Scaevola, Claelia and the rest—to be followed by almost continuous disappointment, disillusionment and decline. A more pleasing and more bracing view is nearer to the historic truth. The faults of a later time were largely survivals, and the later history is largely that of growth though in the face of terrific obstacles and many influences that favoured decay. The nobility of the Revolution in the eighteenth century may be rated higher or lower, but in the Civil War, in which the elder brothers of so many men now living bore their part, the people of the North and of the South alike displayed far more heroic qualities.
In the second place, the War of Independence and of the Revolution lacked some of the characteristics of other national uprisings. It was not a revolt against grievous oppression or against a wholly foreign domination, but against a political system which the people mildly resented and which only statesmen felt to be pernicious and found to be past cure. The cause appealed to far-seeing political aspiration and appealed also to turbulent and ambitious spirits and to whatever was present of a merely revolutionary temper, but the ordinary law-abiding man who minded his own business was not greatly moved one way or the other in his heart.
The subsequent movement which, in a few years after independence was secured, gave the United States a national and a working Constitution was altogether the work of a few, to which popular movement contributed nothing. Of popular aspiration for unity there was none. Statesmen knew that the new nation or group of nations lay helpless between pressing dangers from abroad and its own financial difficulties. They saw clearly that they must create a Government of the Union which could exercise directly upon the individual American citizen an authority like that of the Government of his own State. They did this, but with a reluctant and half-convinced public opinion behind them.
The makers of the Constitution earned in a manner the full praise that has ever since been bestowed on them. But they did not, as it has often been suggested they did, create a sort of archetype and pattern for all Governments that may hereafter partake of a federal character. Nor has the curious machine which they devised—with its balanced opposition between two legislative chambers, between the whole Legislature and the independent executive power of the President, between the governing power of the moment and the permanent expression of the people's will embodied in certain almost unalterable laws—worked conspicuously better than other political constitutions. The American Constitution owes its peculiarities partly to the form which the State Governments had naturally taken, and partly to sheer misunderstanding of the British Constitution, but much more to the want at the time of any strong sense of national unity and to the existence of a good deal of dislike to all government whatsoever. The sufficient merit of its founders was that of patient and skilful diplomatists, who, undeterred by difficulties, found out the most satisfactory settlement that had a chance of being accepted by the States.
So the Colonies, which in 1776 had declared their independence of Great Britain under the name of the United States of America, entered in 1789 into the possession of machinery of government under which their unity and independence could be maintained.
It will be well at once to describe those features of the Constitution which it will be necessary for us later to bear in mind. It is generally known that the President of the United States is an elected officer—elected by what operates, though intended to act otherwise, as a popular vote. During the four years of his office he might roughly be said to combine the functions of the King in this country and those of a Prime Minister whose cabinet is in due subjection to him. But that description needs one very important qualification. He wields, with certain slight restrictions, the whole executive power of government, but neither he nor any of his ministers can, like the ministers of our King, sit or speak in the Legislature, nor can he, like our King, dissolve that Legislature. He has indeed a veto on Acts of Congress, which can only be overridden by a large majority in both Houses. But the executive and the legislative powers in America were purposely so constituted as to be independent of each other to a degree which is unknown in this country.
It is perhaps not very commonly understood that President and Congress alike are as strictly fettered in their action by the Constitution as a limited liability company is by its Memorandum of Association. This Constitution, which defines both the form of government and certain liberties of the subject, is not unalterable, but it can be altered only by a process which requires both the consent of a great majority in Congress or alternatively of a great majority of the legislatures of the distinct States composing the Union, and also ratification of amendments by three-fourths of the several States. Thus we shall have to notice later that a "Constitutional Amendment" abolishing slavery became a terror of the future to many people in the slave States, but remained all the time an impossibility in the view of most people in the free States.
We have, above all things, to dismiss from our minds any idea that the Legislature of a State is subordinate to the Congress of the United States, or that a State Governor is an officer under the President. The Constitution of the Union was the product of a half-developed sense of nationality. Under it the State authority (in the American sense of "State") and the Union or Federal authority go on side by side working in separate spheres, each subject to Constitutional restrictions, but each in its own sphere supreme. Thus the State authority is powerless to make peace or war or to impose customs duties, for those are Federal matters. But the Union authority is equally powerless, wherever a State authority has been constituted, to punish ordinary crime, to promote education, or to regulate factories. In particular, by the Constitution as it stood till after the Civil War, the Union authority was able to prohibit the importation of slaves from abroad after the end of 1807, but had no power to abolish slavery itself in any of the States.
Further, Congress had to be constituted in such a manner as to be agreeable to the smaller States which did not wish to enter into a Union in which their influence would be swamped by their more populous neighbours. Their interest was secured by providing that in the Senate each State should have two members and no more, while in the House of Representatives the people of the whole Union are represented according to population. Thus legislation through Congress requires the concurrence of two forces which may easily be opposed, that of the majority of American citizens and that of the majority of the several States. Of the two chambers, the Senate, whose members are elected for six years, and to secure continuity do not all retire at the same time, became as time went on, though not at first, attractive to statesmen of position, and acquired therefore additional influence.
Lastly, the Union was and is still the possessor of Territories not included in any State, and in the Territories, whatever subordinate self-government they might be allowed, the Federal authority has always been supreme and uncontrolled in all matters. But as these Territories have become more settled and more populated, portions of them have steadily from the first been organised as States and admitted to the Union. It is for Congress to settle the time of their admission and to make any conditions in regard to their Constitutions as States. But when once admitted as States they have thenceforward the full rights of the original States. Within all the Territories, while they remained under its jurisdiction it lay with Congress to determine whether slavery should be lawful or not, and, when any portion of them was ripe for admission to the Union as a State, Congress could insist that the new State's Constitution should or should not prohibit slavery. When the Constitution of the Union was being settled, slavery was the subject of most careful compromise; but in any union formed between slave States and free, a bitter root of controversy must have remained, and the opening through which controversy actually returned was provided by the Territories.
On all other matters the makers of the Constitution had in the highest temper of statesmanship found a way round seemingly insuperable difficulties. The whole attitude of "the fathers" towards slavery is a question of some consequence to a biographer of Lincoln, and we shall return to it in a little while.
2. Territorial Expansion.
A machine of government had been created, and we are shortly to consider how it was got to work. But the large dominion to be governed had to be settled, and its area was about to undergo an enormous expansion. It will be convenient at this point to mark the stages of this development.
The thirteen Colonies had, when they first revolted, definite western boundaries, the westernmost of them reaching back from the sea-board to a frontier in the Alleghany Mountains. But at the close of the war Great Britain ceded to the United States the whole of the inland country up to the Mississippi River. Virginia had in the meantime effectively colonised Kentucky to the west of her, and for a time this was treated as within her borders. In a similar way Tennessee had been settled from North and South Carolina and was treated as part of the former. Virginia had also established claims by conquest north of the Ohio River in what was called the North-West Territory, but these claims and all similar claims of particular States in unsettled or half-settled territory were shortly before or shortly after the adoption of the Constitution ceded to the Union Government. But the dominions of that Government soon received a vast accession. In 1803, by a brave exercise of the Constitutional powers which he was otherwise disposed to restrict jealously, President Jefferson bought from Napoleon I. the great expanse of country west of the Mississippi called Louisiana. This region in the extreme south was no wider than the present State of Louisiana, but further north it widened out so as to take in the whole watershed of the Missouri and its tributaries, including in the extreme north nearly all the present State of Montana. In 1819 Florida was purchased from Spain, and that country at the same time abandoned its claims to a strip of coastland which now forms the sea-board of Alabama and Mississippi.
Such was the extent of the United States when Lincoln began his political life. In the movement of population by which this domain was being settled up, different streams may be roughly distinguished. First, there was from 1780 onwards a constant movement of the poorer class and of younger sons of rich men from the great State of Virginia and to some extent from the Carolinas into Kentucky and Tennessee, whence they often shifted further north into Indiana and Illinois, or sometimes further west into Missouri. It was mainly a movement of single families or groups of families of adventurous pioneers, very sturdy, and very turbulent. Then there came the expansion of the great plantation interest in the further South, carrying with it as it spread, not occasional slaves as in Kentucky and Tennessee, but the whole plantation system. This movement went not only directly westward, but still more by the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi, into the State of Louisiana, where a considerable French population had settled, the State of Mississippi, and later into Missouri. Later still came the westward movement from the Northern States. The energies of the people in these States had at first been to great extent absorbed by sea-going pursuits and the subjugation of their own rugged soil, so that they reached western regions like Illinois rather later than did the settlers from States further south. Ultimately, as their manufactures grew, immigration from Europe began its steady flow to these States, and the great westward stream, which continuing in our days has filled up the rich lands of the far North-West, grew in volume. But want of natural timber and other causes hindered the development of the fertile prairie soil in the regions beyond the upper Mississippi, till the period of railway development, which began about 1840, was far advanced. Illinois was Far West in 1830, Iowa and Minnesota continued to be so in 1860. The Northerners, when they began to move westward, came in comparatively large numbers, bringing comparatively ordered habits and the full machinery of outward civilisation with them. Thus a great social change followed upon their arrival in the regions to which only scattered pioneers such as the Lincolns had previously penetrated. In Illinois, with which so much of our story is bound up, the rapidity of that change may be estimated from the fact that the population of that State multiplied sevenfold between the time when Lincoln settled there and the day when he left it as President.
The concluding stages by which the dominions of the United States came to be as we know them were: the annexation by agreement in 1846 of the Republic of Texas, which had separated itself from Mexico and which claimed besides the great State of Texas a considerable territory reaching north-west to the upper portions of the Arkansas River; the apportionment to the Union by a delimitation treaty with Great Britain in 1846 of the Oregon Territory, including roughly the State of that name and the rest of the basin of the Columbia River up to the present frontier—British Columbia being at the same time apportioned to Great Britain; the conquest from Mexico in 1848 of California and a vast mountainous tract at the back of it; the purchase from Mexico of a small frontier strip in 1853; and the acquisition at several later times of various outlying dependencies which will in no way concern us.
3. The Growth of the Practice and Traditions of the Union Government.
We must turn back to the internal growth of the new united nation. When the Constitution had been formed and the question of its acceptance by the States had been at last settled, and when Washington had been inaugurated as the first President under it, a wholly new conflict arose between two parties, led by two Ministers in the President's Cabinet, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Both were potent and remarkable men, Hamilton in all senses a great man. These two men, for all their antagonism, did services to their country, without which the vigorous growth of the new nation would not have been possible.
The figure of Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury (ranked by Talleyrand with Fox and Napoleon as one of the three great men he had known), must fascinate any English student of the period. If his name is not celebrated in the same way in the country which he so eminently served, it is perhaps because in his ideas, as in his origin, he was not strictly American. As a boy, half Scotch, half French Huguenot, from the English West Indian island of Nevis, he had been at school in New York when his speeches had some real effect in attaching that city to the cause of Independence. He had served brilliantly in the war, on Washington's staff and with his regiment. He had chivalrously defended, as an advocate and in other ways, the Englishmen and loyalists against whose cause he fought. He had induced the great central State of New York to accept the Constitution, when the strongest local party would have rejected it and made the Union impossible. As Washington's Secretary of the Treasury he organised the machinery of government, helped his chief to preserve a strong, upright and cautious foreign policy at the critical point of the young Republic's infancy, and performed perhaps the greatest and most difficult service of all in setting the disordered finances of the country upon a sound footing. In early middle age he ended a life, not flawless but admirable and lovable, in a duel, murderously forced upon him by one Aaron Burr. This man, who was an elegant profligate, with many graces but no public principle, was a claimant to the Presidency in opposition to Hamilton's greatest opponent, Jefferson; Hamilton knowingly incurred a feud which must at the best have been dangerous to him, by unhesitatingly throwing his weight upon the side of Jefferson, his own ungenerous rival. The details of his policy do not concern us, but the United States could hardly have endured for many years without the passionate sense of the need of government and the genius for actual administration with which Hamilton set the new nation on its way. Nevertheless—so do gifts differ—the general spirit which has on the whole informed the American nation and held it together was neither respected nor understood by him. His party, called the Federalists, because they claimed to stand for a strong and an efficient Federal Government, did not survive him long. It is of interest to us here only because, with its early disappearance, there ceased for ever to be in America any party whatsoever which in any sense represented aristocratic principles or leanings.
The fate of Jefferson's party (at first called Republican but by no means to be confused with the Republican party which will concern us later) was far different, for the Democratic party, represented by the President of the United States at this moment, claims to descend from it in unbroken apostolic succession. But we need not pause to trace the connecting thread between them, real as it is, for parties are not to be regarded as individuals. Indeed the personality of Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State in Washington's Cabinet, impressed itself, during his life and long after, upon all America more than that of any other man. Democrats to-day have described Lincoln, who by no means belonged to their party, as Jefferson's spiritual heir; and Lincoln would have welcomed the description.
No biographer has achieved an understanding presentment of Jefferson's curious character, which as presented by unfriendly critics is an unpleasing combination of contrasting elements. A tall and active fellow, a good horseman and a good shot, living through seven years of civil war, which he had himself heralded in, without the inclination to strike a blow; a scholar, musician, and mathematician, without delicacy, elevation, or precision of thought or language; a man of intense ambition, without either administrative capacity or the courage to assert himself in counsel or in debate; a dealer in philanthropic sentiment, privately malignant and vindictive. This is not as a whole a credible portrait; it cannot stand for the man as his friends knew him; but there is evidence for each feature of it, and it remains impossible for a foreigner to think of Jefferson and not compare him to his disadvantage with the antagonist whom he eclipsed. By pertinacious industry, however, working chiefly through private correspondence, he constructed a great party, dominated a nation, and dominated it mainly for good. For the rapid and complete triumph of Jefferson's party over its opponents signifies a very definite and lasting conversion of the main stream of American public opinion to what may be called the sane element in the principles of the French Revolution. At the time when he set himself to counterwork Hamilton, American statesmanship was likely to be directed only to making Government strong and to ensuring the stability of the business world; for reaction against the bloody absurdities that had happened in France was strong in America, and in English thought, which still had influence in America, it was all-powerful. Against this he asserted an intense belief in the value of freedom, in the equal claim of men of all conditions to the consideration of government, and in the supreme importance to government of the consenting mind of the governed. And he made this sense so definitely a part of the national stock of ideas that, while the older-established principles of strong and sound government were not lost to sight, they were consciously rated as subordinate to the principles of liberty.
It must not be supposed that the ascendency thus early acquired by what may be called liberal opinions in America was a matter merely of setting some fine phrases in circulation, or of adopting, as was early done in most States, a wide franchise and other external marks of democracy. We may dwell a little longer on the unusual but curiously popular figure of Jefferson, for it illustrates the spirit with which the commonwealth became imbued under his leadership. He has sometimes been presented as a man of flabby character whose historical part was that of intermediary between impracticable French "philosophes" and the ruffians and swindlers that Martin Chuzzlewit encountered, who were all "children of liberty," and whose "boastful answer to the Despot and the Tyrant was that their bright home was in the Settin' Sun." He was nothing of the kind. His judgment was probably unsound on the questions of foreign policy on which as Secretary of State he differed from Washington, and he leaned, no doubt, to a jealous and too narrow insistence upon the limits set by the Constitution to the Government's power. But he and his party were emphatically right in the resistance which they offered to certain needless measures of coercion. As President, though he was not a great President, he suffered the sensible course of administration originated by his opponent to continue undisturbed, and America owed to one bold and far-seeing act of his the greatest of the steps by which her territory was enlarged. It is, however, in the field of domestic policy, which rested with the States and with which a President has often little to do, that the results of his principles must be sought. Jefferson was a man who had worked unwearyingly in Virginia at sound, and what we should now call conservative, reforms, establishing religious toleration, reforming a preposterous land law, seeking to provide education for the poor, striving unsuccessfully for a sensible scheme of gradual emancipation of the slaves. In like manner his disciples after him, in their several States, devoted themselves to the kind of work in removing manifest abuses and providing for manifest new social needs in which English reformers like Romilly and Bentham, and the leaders of the first reformed Parliament, were to be successful somewhat later. The Americans who so exasperated Dickens vainly supposed themselves to be far ahead of England in much that we now consider essential to a well-ordered nation. But there could have been no answer to Americans of Jefferson's generation if they had made the same claim.
It is with this fact in mind that we should approach the famous words of Jefferson which echoed so long with triumphant or reproachful sound in the ears of Americans and to which long after Lincoln was to make a memorable appeal. The propaganda which he carried on when the Constitution had been adopted was on behalf of a principle which he had enunciated as a younger man when he drafted the Declaration of Independence. That document is mainly a rehearsal of the colonists' grievances, and is as strictly lawyerlike and about as fair or unfair as the arguments of a Parliamentarian under Charles I. But the argumentation is prefaced with these sounding words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident:—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. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." Few propositions outside the Bible have offered so easy a mark to the shafts of unintelligently clever criticism.
Jefferson, when he said that "all men are created equal," and the Tory Dr. Johnson, when he spoke of "the natural equality of man," used a curious eighteenth century phrase, of which a Greek scholar can see the origin; but it did not mean anything absurd, nor, on the other hand, did it convey a mere platitude. 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 positions of the murderer and the murdered man. Such a law was indeed firmly rooted in England before Jefferson talked of equality, but it amazed the rest of Europe when the House of Lords hanged a peer for the murder of his servant. There are indefinitely many further ways in which men who are utterly unequal had best be treated as creatures equally entitled to the consideration of government and of their neighbours. It is safer to carry this principle too far than not to carry it far enough. If Jefferson had expressed this and his cognate principle of liberty with scientific precision, or with the full personal sincerity with which a greater man like Lincoln expressed it, he would have said little from which any Englishman to-day would dissent. None the less he would have enunciated a doctrine which most Governments then existing set at naught or proscribed, and for which Hamilton and the prosperous champions of independence who supported him had no use.
The Declaration of Independence was not a very candid State paper, and the popularity Jefferson afterwards created for its sentiments was not wholly free from humbug. Many men were more ready to think themselves the equals of Washington or Hamilton in the respects in which they were not so, than to think a negro their own equal in the respects in which he was. The boundless space and untrammelled conditions of the new world made liberty and equality in some directions highly attainable ideals, so much so that they seemed to demand little effort or discipline. The patriotic orators under whom Lincoln sat in his youth would ascribe to the political wisdom of their great democracy what was really the result of geography. They would regard the extent of forest and prairie as creditable to themselves, just as some few Englishmen have regarded our location upon an island.
This does not, however, do away with the value of that tradition of the new world which in its purest and sincerest form became part and parcel of Lincoln's mind. Jefferson was a great American patriot. In his case insistence on the rights of the several States sprang from no half-hearted desire for a great American nation; he regarded these provincial organisations as machinery by which government and the people could be brought nearer together; and he contributed that which was most needed for the evolution of a vigorous national life. He 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 administrator or constructive statesman to create a Union which should thereafter seem worth preserving.
4. The Missouri Compromise.
No sober critic, applying to the American statesmen of the first generation the standards which he would apply to their English contemporaries, can blame them in the least because they framed their Constitution as best they could and were not deterred by the scruples which they felt about slavery from effecting a Union between States which, on all other grounds except their latent difference upon slavery, seemed meant to be one. But many of these men had set their hands in the Declaration of Independence to the most unqualified claim of liberty and equality for all men and proceeded, in the Constitution, to give nineteen years' grace to "that most detestable sum of all villainies," as Wesley called it, the African slave trade, and to impose on the States which thought slavery wrong the dirty work of restoring escaped slaves to captivity. "Why," Dr. Johnson had asked, "do the loudest yelps for liberty come from the drivers of slaves?" We are forced to recognise, upon any study of the facts, that they could not really have made the Union otherwise than as they did; yet a doubt presents itself as to the general soundness and sincerity of their boasted notions of liberty. Now, later on we shall have to understand the policy as to slavery on behalf of which Lincoln stepped forward as a leader. In his own constantly reiterated words it was a return to the position of "the fathers," and, though he was not a professional historian, it concerns us to know that there was sincerity at least in his intensely historical view of politics. We have, then, to see first how "the fathers"—that is, the most considerable men among those who won Independence and made the Constitution—set out with a very honest view on the subject of slavery, but with a too comfortable hope of its approaching end, which one or two lived to see frustrated; secondly, how the men who succeeded them were led to abandon such hopes and content themselves with a compromise as to slavery which they trusted would at least keep the American nation in being.
Among those who signed the Declaration of Independence there were presumably some of Dr. Johnson's "yelpers." It mattered more that there were sturdy people who had no idea of giving up slavery and probably did not relish having to join in protestations about equality. Men like Jefferson ought to have known well that their associates in South Carolina and Georgia in particular did not share their aspirations—the people of Georgia indeed were recent and ardent converts to the slave system. But these sincere and insincere believers in slavery were the exceptions; their views did not then seem to prevail even in the greatest of the slave States, Virginia. Broadly speaking, the American opinion on this matter in 1775 or in 1789 had gone as far ahead of English opinion, as English opinion had in turn gone ahead of American, when, in 1833, the year after the first Reform Bill, the English people put its hand into its pocket and bought out its own slave owners in the West Indies. The British Government had forced several of the American Colonies to permit slavery against their will, and only in 1769 it had vetoed, in the interest of British trade, a Colonial enactment for suppressing the slave trade. This was sincerely felt as a part, though a minor part, of the grievance against the mother country. So far did such views prevail on the surface that a Convention of all the Colonies in 1774 unanimously voted that "the abolition of domestic slavery is the greatest object of desire in those Colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state. But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves in law, it is necessary to exclude all further importation from Africa." It was therefore very commonly assumed when, after an interval of war which suspended such reforms, Independence was achieved, that slavery was a doomed institution.
Those among the "fathers" whose names are best known in England, Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Hamilton, were all opponents of slavery. These include the first four Presidents, and the leaders of very different schools of thought. Some of them, Washington and Jefferson at least, had a few slaves of their own. Washington's attitude to his slaves is illustrated by a letter which he wrote to secure the return of a black attendant of Mrs. Washington's who had run away (a thing which he had boasted could never occur in his household); the runaway was to be brought back if she could be persuaded to return; her master's legal power to compel her was not to be used. She was in fact free, but had foolishly left a good place; and there is no reason to suppose that it was otherwise with Jefferson's slaves. Jefferson's theory was vehemently against slavery. In old age he gave up hope in the matter and was more solicitous for union than for liberty, but this was after the disappointment of many efforts. In these efforts he had no illusory notion of equality; he wrote in 1791, when he had been defeated in the attempt to carry a measure of gradual emancipation in Virginia: "Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that Nature has given to our black brothers talents equal to those of the other colours of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing mainly to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America. I can add with truth, that nobody wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body and mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecility of their present existence and other circumstances, which cannot be neglected, will permit."
When he felt at last that freedom was not making way, his letters, by which his influence was chiefly exercised, abounded in passionate regrets. "I tremble for my country," he wrote, "when I think of the negro and remember that God is just." But if he is judged not by his sentiments, or even by his efforts, but by what he accomplished, this rhetorical champion of freedom did accomplish one great act, the first link as it proved in the chain of events by which slavery was ultimately abolished. In 1784 the North-West Territory, as it was called, was ceded by Virginia to the old Congress of the days before the Union. Jefferson then endeavoured to pass an Ordinance by which slavery should be excluded from all territory that might ever belong to Congress. In this indeed he failed, for in part of the territory likely to be acquired slavery was already established, but the result was a famous Ordinance of 1787, by which slavery was for ever excluded from the soil of the North-West Territory itself, and thus, when they came into being, the States of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin found themselves congenitally incapable of becoming slave States.
The further achievements of that generation in this matter were considerable. It must of course be understood that the holding of slaves and the slave trade from Africa were regarded as two distinct questions. The new Congress abolished the slave trade on the first day on which the Constitution allowed it to do so, that is, on January 1, 1808. The mother country abolished it just about the same time. But already all but three of the States had for themselves abolished the slave trade in their own borders. As to slavery itself, seven of the original thirteen States and Vermont, the first of the added States, had abolished that before 1805. These indeed were Northern States, where slavery was not of importance, but in Virginia there was, or had been till lately, a growing opinion that slavery was not economical, and, with the ignorance common in one part of a country of the true conditions in another part, it was natural to look upon emancipation as a policy which would spread of itself. At any rate it is certain fact that the chief among the men who had made the Constitution had at that time so regarded it, and continued to do so. Under this belief and in the presence of many pressing subjects of interest the early movement for emancipation in America died down with its work half finished.
But before this happy belief expired an economic event had happened which riveted slavery upon the South. In 1793 Eli Whitney, a Yale student upon a holiday in the South, invented the first machine for cleaning cotton of its seeds. The export of cotton jumped from 192,000 lbs. in 1791 to 6,000,000 lbs. in 1795. Slave labour had been found, or was believed, to be especially economical in cotton growing. Slavery therefore rapidly became the mainstay of wealth and of the social system in South Carolina and throughout the far South; and in a little while the baser sort of planters in Virginia discovered that breeding slaves to sell down South was a very profitable form of stock-raising.
We may pass to the year 1820, when an enactment was passed by Congress which for thirty-four years thereafter might be regarded as hardly less fundamental than the Constitution itself. Up till then nine new States had been added to the original thirteen. It was repugnant to principles still strong in the North that these States should be admitted to the Union with State Constitutions which permitted slavery. On the other hand, it was for two reasons important to the chief slave States, that they should be. They would otherwise be closed to Southern planters who wished to migrate to unexhausted soil carrying with them the methods of industry and the ways of life which they understood. Furthermore, the North was bound to have before long a great preponderance of population, and if this were not neutralised by keeping the number of States on one side and the other equal there would be a future political danger to slavery. Up to a certain point the North could with good conscience yield to the South in this matter, for the soil of four of the new slave States had been ceded to the Union by old slave States and slave-holders had settled freely upon it; and in a fifth, Louisiana, slavery had been safeguarded by the express stipulations of the treaty with France, which applied to that portion, though no other, of the territory then ceded. Naturally, then, it had happened, though without any definite agreement, that for years past slave States and free States had been admitted to the Union in pairs. Now arose the question of a further portion of the old French territory, the present State of Missouri. A few slave-holders with their slaves had in fact settled there, but no distinct claims on behalf of slavery could be alleged. The Northern Senators and members of Congress demanded therefore that the Constitution of Missouri should provide for the gradual extinction of slavery there. Naturally there arose a controversy which sounded to the aged Jefferson like "a fire-bell in the night" and revealed for the first time to all America a deep rift in the Union. The Representatives of the South eventually carried their main point with the votes of several Northern men, known to history as the "Dough-faces," who all lost their seats at the next election. Missouri was admitted as a slave State, Maine about the same time as a free State; and it was enacted that thereafter in the remainder of the territory that had been bought from France slavery should be unlawful north of latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes, while by tacit agreement permitted south of it.