The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

38. ii) Let us have faith that right makes might

John G. Nicolay provides a comprehensive biography of the celebrated Illinois lawyer, rail-splitter, and chicken-fight judge, which can only be done full justice by being read in full. I would then direct the curious to peruse your local library for a copy of Gore Vidal's Lincoln (presumably to be shortly reprinted if Mr Spielberg gets round to directing Liam Neeson in a cinematic adaptation), and to download the electronic text of Alexander K. McClure's Lincoln's Yarns and Stories: a complete collection of the funny and witty anecdotes that made Lincoln famous as America's greatest story teller.

As is standard practice in EB9's biographical essays, Nicolay's piece closes with a portrait of its subject, and is one of the more compelling examples of its kind. There might be more argument in Lincoln's case than Washington's as to whether events may have reached a more or less satisfactory conclusion in his absence, but even his sternest critics must concede that he was a man of unique ability, and who faced the challenges of his duty with unparalleled energy and dedication. At the very least, if cornball humour combined with a deep and brooding melancholy is your thing, then Lincoln, of all great men of history, is surely the most deserving of a place as a guest at one of those hypothetical dinner parties of the ages. I think I would probably seat him next to Richard Madely.

"President Lincoln was of unusual stature, 6 feet 4 inches, and of spare but muscular build ; he had been in youth remarkably strong and skilful in the athletic games of the frontier, where, however, his popularity and recognized impartially oftener made him an umpire than a champion. He had regular and prepossessing features, dark complexion, broad high forehead, prominent cheek bones, grey deep-set eyes, and bushy black-hair, turning to grey at the time of his death. Abstemious in his habits, he possessed great physical endurance. He was almost as tender-hearted as a woman. "I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom," he was able to say. His patience was inexhaustible. He had naturally a most cheerful and sunny temper, was highly social and sympathetic, loved pleasant conversation, wit, anecdote, and laughter. Beneath this, however, ran an undercurrent of sadness ; he was occasionally subject to hours of deep silence and introspection that approached a condition of trance. In manner he was simple, direct, void of the least affectation, and entirely free from awkwardness, oddity, or eccentricity. His mental qualities were—a quick analytic perception, strong logical power, a tenacious memory, a liberal estimate and tolerance of the opinions of others, ready intuition of human nature ; and perhaps his most valuable faculty was rare ability to divest himself of all feeling or passion in weighing motives of persons or problems of state. His speech and diction were plain, terse, forcible. Relating anecdotes with appreciative humour and fascinating dramatic skill, he used them freely and effectively in conversation and argument. He loved manliness, truth, and justice. He despised all trickery and selfish greed. In arguments at the bar he was so fair to his opponent that he frequently appeared to concede away his client’s case. He was ever ready to take blame on himself and bestow praise on others. "I claim not to have controlled events," he said, "but confess plainly that events have controlled me." The Declaration of Independence was his political chart and inspiration. He acknowledged a universal equality of human rights. "Certainly the negro is not our equal in colour," he said, "perhaps not in many other respects; still, in the right to put his mouth the bread that his own hands have earned, he is the equal of every other man white or black." He had unchanging faith in self-government. "The people," he said, "are the rightful masters of both congresses and courts, not to overthrow the constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert the constitution." Yielding and accommodating in non-essentials, he was inflexibly firm in a principle or position deliberately taken. "Let us have faith that right makes might," he said, "and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it." The emancipation proclamation once issued, he reiterated his purpose never to retract or modify it. "There have been men base enough," he said, "to propose to me to return to slavery our black warriors of Port Hudson and Olustee, and thus win the respect of the masters they fought. Should I do so, I should deserve to be damned in time and eternity. Come what will, I will keep my faith with friend and foe." Benevolence and forgiveness were the very basis of his character ; his world-wide humanity is aptly embodied in a phrase of his second inaugural : "With malice toward none, with charity for all." His nature was deeply religious, but the belonged to no denomination ; he had faith in the eternal justice and boundless mercy of Providence, and made the golden rule of Christ his practical creed. History must accord him a rare sagacity in guiding a great people through the perils of a mighty revolution, an admirable singleness of aim, a skilful discernment and courageous seizure of the golden moment to free his nation from the incubus of slavery, faithful adherence to law and conscientious moderation in the use of power, a shining personal example of honesty and purity, and finally the possession of that subtle and indefinable magnetism by which he subordinated and directed dangerously disturbed and perverted moral and political forces to the restoration of peace and constitutional authority to his country, and the gift of liberty to four millions of human beings. Architect of his own fortunes, rising with every opportunity, mastering every emergency, fulfilling every duty, he not only proved himself pre-eminently the man for the hour, but the signal benefactor of posterity. As statesman, ruler, and liberator civilization will hold his name in perpetual honour."

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