Six Months at the White House/XXXVII
In the year 1855 or '56, George B. Lincoln, Esq., of Brooklyn, was travelling through the West in connection with a large New York dry-goods establishment. He found himself one night in an insignificant town on the Illinois River, by the name of Naples. The only tavern of the place had evidently been constructed with reference to business on the smallest possible scale. Poor as the prospect seemed, Mr. Lincoln had no alternative but to put up at the place. The supper-room was also used as a lodging-room. After a tolerable supper and a comfortable hour before the fire, Mr. L. told his host that he thought he would "go to bed." "Bed!" echoed the landlord; "there is no bed for you in this house, unless you sleep with that man yonder. He has the only one we have to spare." "Well," returned Mr. Lincoln, "the gentleman has possession, and perhaps would not like a bedfellow." Upon this, a grizzly head appeared out of the pillows, and said, "What is your name?" "They call me Lincoln at home," was the reply. "Lincoln!" repeated the stranger; "any connection of our Illinois Abraham?" "No," replied Mr. L., "I fear not." "Well," said the old man, "I will let any man by the name of 'Lincoln' sleep with me, just for the sake of the name. You have heard of Abe?" he inquired. "Oh yes, very often," replied Mr. Lincoln. "No man could travel far in this State without hearing of him, and I would be very glad to claim connection, if I could do so honestly." "Well," said the old gentleman, "my name is Simmons. 'Abe' and I used to live and work together when we were young men. Many a job of wood-cutting and rail-splitting have I done up with him. Abe Lincoln," said he with emphasis, "was the likeliest boy in God's world. He would work all day as hard as any of us--and study by firelight in the log-house half the night; and in this way he made himself a thorough practical surveyor. Once, during those days, I was in the upper part of the State, and I met General Ewing, whom President Jackson had sent to the Northwest to make surveys. I told him about Abe Lincoln, what a student he was, and that I wanted he should give him a job. He looked over his memoranda, and, pulling out a paper, said: 'There is ---- county must be surveyed; if your friend can do the work properly, I shall be glad to have him undertake it--the compensation will be six hundred dollars!' Pleased as I could be, I hastened to Abe, after I got home, with an account of what I had secured for him. He was sitting before the fire in the log-cabin when I told him; and what do you think was his answer? When I finished, he looked up very quietly, and said, 'Mr. Simmons, I thank you very sincerely for your kindness, but I don't think I will undertake the job.' 'In the name of wonder,' said I, 'why? Six hundred dollars does not grow upon every bush out here in Illinois.' 'I know that,' said Abe, 'and I need the money bad enough, Simmons, as you know; but I never have been under obligation to a Democratic administration, and I never intend to be so long as I can get my living another way. General Ewing must find another man to do his work.'"
I related this story to the President one day, and asked him if it was true. "Pollard Simmons!" said he: "well do I remember him. It is correct about our working together; but the old man must have stretched the facts somewhat about the survey of the county. I think I should have been very glad of the job at that time, no matter what administration was in power." Notwithstanding this, however, I am inclined to believe Mr. Simmons was not far out of the way. His statement seems very characteristic of what Abraham Lincoln may be supposed to have been at twenty-three or twenty-five years of age.
Mr. G. B. Lincoln also told me of an amusing circumstance which took place at Springfield soon after Mr. Lincoln's nomination in 1860. A hatter in Brooklyn secretly obtained the size of the future President's head, and made for him a very elegant hat, which he sent by his townsman, Lincoln, to Springfield. About the time it was presented, various other testimonials of a similar character had come in from different sections. Mr. Lincoln took the hat, and after admiring its texture and workmanship, put it on his head and walked up to a looking-glass. Glancing from the reflection to Mrs. Lincoln, he said, with his peculiar twinkle of the eye, "Well, wife, there is one thing likely to come out of this scrape, any how. We are going to have some new clothes!"
One afternoon during the summer of 1862, the President accompanied several gentlemen to the Washington Navy-yard, to witness some experiments with a newly-invented gun. Subsequently the party went aboard of one of the steamers lying at the wharf. A discussion was going on as to the merits of the invention, in the midst of which Mr. Lincoln caught sight of some axes hanging up outside of the cabin. Leaving the group, he quietly went forward, and taking one down, returned with it, and said: "Gentlemen, you may talk about your 'Raphael repeaters' and 'eleven-inch Dahlgrens;' but here is an institution which I guess I understand better than either of you." With that he held the axe out at arm's length by the end of the handle, or "helve," as the wood-cutters call it--a feat not another person of the party could perform, though all made the attempt. In such acts as this, showing that he neither forgot nor was ashamed of his humble origin, the late President exhibited his true nobility of character. He was a perfect illustration of his favorite poet's words:--
"The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The man's the gold, for a' that!"