Six Months at the White House/XX
On the way to the sculptor's studio a conversation occurred of much significance, in view of the terrible tragedy so soon to paralyze every loyal heart in the nation. A late number of the New York "Tribune" had contained an account from a correspondent within the Rebel lines, of an elaborate conspiracy, matured in Richmond, to abduct, or assassinate--if the first was not found practicable--the person of the President. A secret organization, composed, it was stated, of five hundred or a thousand men, had solemnly sworn to accomplish the deed. Mr. Lincoln had not seen or heard of this account, and at his request, I gave him the details. Upon the conclusion, he smiled incredulously, and said; "Well, even if true, I do not see what the Rebels would gain by killing or getting possession of me. I am but a single individual, and it would not help their cause or make the least difference in the progress of the war. Everything would go right on just the same. Soon after I was nominated at Chicago, I began to receive letters threatening my life. The first one or two made me a little uncomfortable, but I came at length to look for a regular instalment of this kind of correspondence in every week's mail, and up to inauguration day I was in constant receipt of such letters. It is no uncommon thing to receive them now; but they have ceased to give me any apprehension." I expressed some surprise at this, but he replied in his peculiar way, "Oh, there is nothing like getting used to things!"
In connection with this, Mr. Noah Brooks,--who was to have been Mr. Nicolay's successor as private secretary to the President,--and Colonel Charles G. Halpine, of New York, have referred to personal conversations of exceeding interest, which I transcribe.
In an article contributed to "Harper's Magazine," soon after the assassination, Mr. Brooks says:--
"The simple habits of Mr. Lincoln were so well known that it is a subject for surprise that watchful and malignant treason did not sooner take that precious life which he seemed to hold so lightly. He had an almost morbid dislike for an escort, or guide, and daily exposed himself to the deadly aim of an assassin. One summer morning, passing by the White House at an early hour, I saw the President standing at the gateway, looking anxiously down the street; and, in reply to a salutation, he said, 'Good morning, good morning! I am looking for a newsboy; when you get to that corner, I wish you would start one up this way.' In reply to the remonstrances of friends, who were afraid of his constant exposure to danger, he had but one answer: 'If they kill me, the next man will be just as bad for them; and in a country like this, where our habits are simple, and must be, assassination is always possible, and will come, if they are determined upon it.'"
A cavalry guard was once placed at the gates of the White House for a while, and he said, privately, that "he worried until he got rid of it." While the President's family were at their summer-house, near Washington, he rode into town of a morning, or out at night, attended by a mounted escort; but if he returned to town for a while after dark, he rode in unguarded, and often alone, in his open carriage. On more than one occasion the writer has gone through the streets of Washington at a late hour of the night with the President, without escort, or even the company of a servant, walking all of the way, going and returning.
Considering the many open and secret threats to take his life, it is not surprising that Mr. Lincoln had many thoughts about his coming to a sudden and violent end. He once said that he felt the force of the expression, "To take one's life in his hand;" but that he would not like to face death suddenly. He said that he thought himself a great coward physically, and was sure that he would make a poor soldier, for, unless there was something inspiriting in the excitement of a battle, he was sure that he would drop his gun and run, at the first symptom of danger. That was said sportively, and he added, "Moral cowardice is something which I think I never had."
Colonel Halpine, while serving as a member of General Halleck's staff, had frequently to wait upon the President, both during official hours and at other times. On one of these occasions, Mr. Lincoln concluded some interesting remarks with these words: "It would never do for a President to have guards with drawn sabres at his door, as if he fancied he were, or were trying to be, or were assuming to be, an emperor."
"This expression," writes Colonel Halpine, "called my attention afresh to what I had remarked to myself almost every time I entered the White House, and to which I had very frequently called the attention both of Major Hay and General Halleck--the utterly unprotected condition of the President's person, and the fact that any assassin or maniac, seeking his life, could enter his presence without the interference of a single armed man to hold him back. The entrance-doors, and all doors on the official side of the building, were open at all hours of the day, and very late into the evening; and I have many times entered the mansion, and walked up to the rooms of the two private secretaries, as late as nine or ten o'clock at night, without seeing or being challenged by a single soul. There were, indeed, two attendants,--one for the outer door, and the other for the door of the official chambers; but these--thinking, I suppose, that none would call after office hours save persons who were personally acquainted, or had the right of official entry--were, not unfrequently, somewhat remiss in their duties.
"To this fact I now ventured to call the President's attention, saying that to me--perhaps from my European education--it appeared a deliberate courting of danger, even if the country were in a state of the profoundest peace, for the person at the head of the nation to remain so unprotected.
"'There are two dangers,' I wound up by saying; 'the danger of deliberate political assassination, and the mere brute violence of insanity.'
"Mr. Lincoln heard me through with a smile, his hands locked across his knees, his body rocking back and forth,--the common indication that he was amused.
"'Now, as to political assassination,' he said, 'do you think the Richmond people would like to have Hannibal Hamlin here any better than myself? In that one alternative, I have an insurance on my life worth half the prairie land of Illinois. And beside,'--this more gravely,--'if there were such a plot, and they wanted to get at me, no vigilance could keep them out. We are so mixed up in our affairs, that--no matter what the system established--a conspiracy to assassinate, if such there were, could easily obtain a pass to see me for any one or more of its instruments.
"'To betray fear of this, by placing guards or so forth, would only be to put the idea into their heads, and perhaps lead to the very result it was intended to prevent. As to the crazy folks, Major, why I must only take my chances,--the worst crazy people at present, I fear, being some of my own too zealous adherents. That there may be such dangers as you and many others have suggested to me, is quite possible; but I guess it wouldn't improve things any to publish that we were afraid of them in advance.'
"Upon another occasion I remember his coming over one evening after dinner, to General Halleck's private quarters, to protest--half jocularly, half in earnest--against a small detachment of cavalry which had been detailed without his request, and partly against his will, by the lamented General Wadsworth, as a guard for his carriage in going to and returning from the Soldiers' Home. The burden of his complaint was that he and Mrs. Lincoln 'couldn't hear themselves talk,' for the clatter of their sabres and spurs; and that, as many of them appeared new hands and very awkward, he was more afraid of being shot by the accidental discharge of one of their carbines or revolvers, than of any attempt upon his life or for his capture by the roving squads of Jeb Stuart's cavalry; then hovering all round the exterior works of the city."