Six Months at the White House/XVI
Wednesday, March 2d, I had an unusually long and interesting sitting from the President. I invited Mr. Samuel Sinclair, of New York, who was in Washington, to be present. The news had recently been received of the disaster under General Seymour in Florida. Many newspapers openly charged the President with having sent the expedition with primary reference to restoring the State in season to secure its vote at the forthcoming Baltimore Convention. Mr. Lincoln was deeply wounded by these charges. He referred to them during the sitting; and gave a simple and truthful statement of the affair, which was planned, if I remember rightly, by General Gillmore. A few days afterward, an editorial appeared in the New York "Tribune," which was known not to favor Mr. Lincoln's renomination, entirely exonerating him from all blame. I took the article to him in his study, and he expressed much gratification at its candor. It was perhaps, in connection with the newspaper attacks, that he told, during the sitting, this story. "A traveller on the frontier found himself out of his reckoning one night in a most inhospitable region. A terrific thunder-storm came up, to add to his trouble. He floundered along until his horse at length gave out. The lightning afforded him the only clew to his way, but the peals of thunder were frightful. One bolt, which seemed to crash the earth beneath him, brought him to his knees. By no means a praying man, his petition was short and to the point,--"O Lord, if it is all the same to you, give us a little more light and a little less noise!"
Presently the conversation turned upon Shakspeare, of who it is well known Mr. Lincoln was very fond. He once remarked, "It matters not to me whether Shakspeare be well or ill acted; with him the thought suffices." Edwin Booth was playing an engagement at this time at Grover's Theatre. He had been announced for the coming evening in his famous part of Hamlet. The President had never witnessed his representation of this character, and he proposed being present. The mention of this play, which I afterward learned had at all times a peculiar charm for Mr. Lincoln's mind, waked up a train of thought I was not prepared for. Said he,--and his words have often returned to me with a sad interest since his own assassination,--"There is one passage of the play of "Hamlet" which is very apt to be slurred over by the actor, or omitted altogether, which seems to me the choicest part of the play. It is the soliloquy of the king, after the murder. It always struck me as one of the finest touches of nature in the world."
Then, throwing himself into the very spirit of the scene, he took up the words:--
"O my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon 't,
A brother's murder!--Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will;
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood?
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens.
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence;
And what's in prayer but this twofold force--
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardoned, being down? Then I'll look up;
My fault is past. But O what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? Forgive me my foul murder?
That cannot be; since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder,--
My crown, my own ambition, and my queen.
In the corrupted currents of this world,
- May one be pardoned and retain the offence?
Offence's gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft 't is seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law; but 't is not so above.
There is no shuffling; there the action lies
In its true nature; and we ourselves compelled,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. What then? what rests?
Try what repentance can; what can it not?
Yet what can it when one cannot repent?
O bruised soul that, struggling to be free,
- O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
Art more engaged! Help, angels, make assay!
Bow, stubborn knees! And heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe;
All may be well!"
He repeated this entire passage from memory, with a feeling and appreciation unsurpassed by anything I ever witnessed upon the stage. Remaining in thought for a few moments, he continued:--
"The opening of the play of 'King Richard the Third' seems to me often entirely misapprehended. It is quite common for an actor to come upon the stage, and, in a sophomoric style, to begin with a flourish:--
"'Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York,
And all the clouds that lowered upon our house,
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried!'
Now," said he, "this is all wrong. Richard, you remember, had been, and was then, plotting the destruction of his brothers, to make room for himself. Outwardly, the most loyal to the newly crowned king, secretly he could scarcely contain his impatience at the obstacles still in the way of his own elevation. He appears upon the stage, just after the crowning of Edward, burning with repressed hate and jealousy. The prologue is the utterance of the most intense bitterness and satire."
Then, unconsciously assuming the character, Mr. Lincoln repeated, also from memory, Richard's soliloquy, rendering it with a degree of force and power that made it seem like a new creation to me. Though familiar with the passage from boyhood, I can truly say that never till that moment had I fully appreciated its spirit. I could not refrain from laying down my palette and brushes, and applauding heartily, upon his conclusion, saying, at the same time, half in earnest, that I was not sure but that he had made a mistake in the choice of a profession, considerably, as may be imagined, to his amusement. Mr. Sinclair has since repeatedly said to me that he never heard these choice passages of Shakspeare rendered with more effect by the most famous of modern actors.
Mr. Lincoln's memory was very remarkable. With the multitude of visitors whom he saw daily, I was often amazed at the readiness with which he recalled faces and events and even names. At one of the afternoon receptions, a stranger shook hands with him, and, as he did so, remarked, casually, that he was elected to Congress about the time Mr. Lincoln's term as representative expired. "Yes," said the President, "you are from ----," mentioning the State. "I remember reading of your election in a newspaper one morning on a steamboat going down to Mount Vernon." At another time a gentleman addressed him, saying, "I presume, Mr. President, that you have forgotten me?" "No," was the prompt reply, "your name is Flood. I saw you last, twelve years ago, at ----," naming the place and the occasion. "I am glad to see," he continued, "that the Flood flows on." Subsequent to his reelection a deputation of bankers from various sections were introduced one day by the Secretary of the Treasury. After a few moments' general conversation, Mr. Lincoln turned to one of them, and said: "Your district did not give me so strong a vote at the last election as it did in 1860." "I think, sir, that you mnst be mistaken," replied the banker. "I have the impression that your majority was considerably increased at the last election." "No," rejoined the President, "you fell off about six hundred votes." Then taking down from the bookcase the official canvass of 1860 and 1864, he referred to the vote of the district named, and proved to be quite right in his assertion.
During this interview,--related to me by one of the party, Mr. P----, of Chelsea, Mass., a member of the delegation referred to the severity of the tax laid by Congress upon the State Banks. "Now," said Mr. Lincoln, "that reminds me of a circumstance that took place in a neighborhood where I lived when I was a boy. In the spring of the year the farmers were very fond of the dish which they called greens, though the fashionable name for it nowadays is spinach, I believe. One day after dinner, a large family were taken very ill. The doctor was called in, who attributed it to the greens, of which all had freely partaken. Living in the family was a half-witted boy named Jake. On a subsequent occasion, when greens had been gathered for dinner, the head of the house said: 'Now, boys, before running any further risk in this thing, we will first try them on Jake. If he stands it, we are all right.' And just so, I suppose," said Mr. Lincoln, "Congress thought of the State Banks!"