On Lincoln's Birthday
Lincoln borne aloft by angels in an 1865 lithograph by D.T. Wiest. *
It's worth recalling the president now generally acknowledged to have been the greatest in American history was derided by many in the smart set of his day as a backwoods idiot, a usurper, a warmonger and an ape.
Partisan newspapers abused the President as "a slangwhanging stump speaker," a "half-witted usurper," a "mole-eyed" monster with "soul ... of leather,""the present turtle at the head of the government." Men of his own party openly charged that he was "unfit," a "political coward," a "dictator,""timid and ignorant,""shattered, dazed, utterly foolish." Grolier Online
"His mind works in the right directions but seldom works clearly and cleanly. His bread is of unbolted flour, and much straw, too, mixes in the bran, and sometimes gravel stones." Henry Ward Beecher on Abraham Lincoln
"The President is nothing more than a well-meaning baboon…I went to the White House directly after tea where I found “the original Gorilla” about as intelligent as ever. What a specimen to be at the head of our affairs now!" General George McClellan on Abraham Lincoln
"Filthy Story-Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Monster, Ignoramus Abe, Old Scoundrel, Perjurer, Robber, Swindler, Tyrant, Field-Butcher, Land Pirate." Harper’s Weekly on Abraham Lincoln
"Mr. Lincoln evidently knows nothing of…the higher elements of human nature…His soul seems made of leather, and incapable of any grand or noble emotion. Compared with the mass of men, he is a line of flat prose in a beautiful and spirited lyric. He lowers, he never elevates you…When he hits upon a policy, substantially good in itself, he contrives to belittle it, besmear it in some way to render it mean, contemptible and useless. Even wisdom from him seems but folly." The New York Post
"…We did not conceive it possible that even Mr. Lincoln would produce a paper so slipshod, so loose-joined, so puerile, not alone in literary construction, but in its ideas, its sentiments, its grasp. He has outdone himself. He has literally come out of the little end of his own horn. By the side of it, mediocrity is superb." The Chicago Times on the Gettysburg Address (Via Betsy Newmark)
"Our country owes all its troubles to him, and God simply made me an instrument of his punishment." John Wilkes Booth on Abraham Lincoln
This extraordinary interest in the details of Lincoln's life seems the more astonishing in light of his low contemporary standing. His associates were sure there were greater figures in their era; usually they had at least one such person in mind--and close at home at that. Lincoln they thought a simple Susan, a baboon, an aimless punster, a smutty joker. He left the highway of principle to pursue the devious paths of expediency. A "huckster in politics," sneered Wendell Phillips, "a first-rate second-rate man." A Springfield neighbor called him "The craftiest and most dishonest politician that ever disgraced an office in America." "If I wanted to paint a despot, a man perfectly regardless of every constitutional right of the people," cried Saulsbury of Delaware in the Senate, "I would paint the hideous form of Abraham Lincoln...."
Not even assassination at once translated Lincoln into sainthood. "The decease of Mr. Lincoln is a great national bereavement," conceded Representative J. M. Ashley of Ohio, "but I am not so sure it is so much of a national loss." Within eight hours of his murder Republican Congressmen in secret caucus agreed that "his death is a godsend to our cause." Andrew Johnson, they believed, would carry through the proposed social revolution in the South which the conciliatory Lincoln had blocked. Now, crowed Ben Wade, "there will be no trouble running the government."
But politicians of all parties were apparently startled by the extent of the national grief over Lincoln, and, politician-like, they decided to capitalize upon it. Democrats were, of course, under a handicap, but a surprising number of them now discovered that they had really heartily endorsed the Lincoln program. That vicious Copperhead sheet the Chicago *Times* discerned "indications of the last few days of [Lincoln's] life that he might command [Democratic] support on the close of the war," and Clement L. Vallandigham reported that even the peace men had begun "to turn toward Lincoln for deliverance." David Donald, "Getting Right With Lincoln," The Atlantic Monthly, 1956
Lincoln is caricatured as "The Great American 'What Is It?' Chased by Copperheads" in this anti-Lincoln cartoon, which is included in a remarkable online gallery of historic prints from Harper's Weekly.
Another fine online repository of historic images is Picture History, which offers this Lincoln archive.
E. L. Core prints an eloquently-worded correspondence between President Lincoln and a Quaker friend.
For commentary on Lincoln, an excellent place to start is The Atlantic Monthly, a great magazine of Lincoln's day, still outstanding today. (Full search results on Lincoln at the Atlantic here)
The song most widely associated with President Lincoln and his cause made its debut in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly 141 years ago this month, in February 1862.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic
By Julia Ward Howe
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on."
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
President Lincoln and son Tad.