The Promise of American Life/Chapter IV

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SLAVERY AND AMERICAN NATIONALITY[edit]

Both the Whig and the Democratic parties betrayed the insufficiency of their ideas by their behavior towards the problem of slavery. Hitherto I have refrained from comment on the effect which the institution of slavery was coming to have upon American politics because the increasing importance of slavery, and of the resulting anti-slavery agitation, demand for the purpose of this book special consideration. Such a consideration must now be undertaken. The bitter personal and partisan controversies of the Whigs and the Democrats were terminated by the appearance of a radical and a perilous issue; and in the settlement of this question the principles of both of these parties, in the manner in which they had been applied, were of no vital assistance.

The issue was created by the legal existence in the United States of an essentially undemocratic institution. The United States was a democracy, and however much or little this phrase means, it certainly excludes any ownership of one man by another. Yet this was just what the Constitution sanctioned. Its makers had been confronted by the legal existence of slavery in nearly all of the constituent states; and a refusal to recognize the institution would have resulted in the failure of the whole scheme of Constitutional legislation. Consequently they did not seek to forbid negro servitude; and inasmuch as it seemed at that time to be on the road to extinction through the action of natural causes, the makers of the Constitution had a good excuse for refusing to sacrifice their whole project to the abolition of slavery, and in throwing thereby upon the future the burden of dealing with it in some more radical and consistent way. Later, however, it came to pass that slavery, instead of being gradually extinguished by economic causes, was fastened thereby more firmly than ever upon one section of the country. The whole agricultural, political, and social life of the South became dominated by the existence of negro slavery; and the problem of reconciling the expansion of such an institution with the logic of our national idea was bound to become critical. Our country was committed by every consideration of national honor and moral integrity to make its institutions thoroughly democratic, and it could not continue to permit the aggressive legal existence of human servitude without degenerating into a glaring example of political and moral hypocrisy.

The two leading political parties deliberately and persistently sought to evade the issue. The Western pioneers were so fascinated with the vision of millions of pale-faced democrats, leading free and prosperous lives as the reward for virtuously taking care of their own business, that the Constitutional existence of negro slavery did not in the least discommode them. Disunionism they detested and would fight to the end; but to waste valuable time in bothering about a perplexing and an apparently irremediable political problem was in their eyes the worst kind of economy. They were too optimistic and too superficial to anticipate any serious trouble in the Promised Land of America; and they were so habituated to inconsistent and irresponsible political thinking, that they attached no importance to the moral and intellectual turpitude implied by the existence of slavery in a democratic nation. The responsibility of the Whigs for evading the issue is more serious than that of the Democrats. Their leaders were the trained political thinkers of their generation. They were committed by the logic of their party platform to protect the integrity of American national life and to consolidate its organization. But the Whigs, almost as much as the Democrats, refused to take seriously the legal existence of slavery. They shirked the problem whenever they could and for as long as they could; and they looked upon the men who persisted in raising it aloft as perverse fomenters of discord and trouble. The truth is, of course, that both of the dominant parties were merely representing the prevailing attitude towards slavery of American public opinion. That attitude was characterized chiefly by moral and intellectual cowardice. Throughout the whole of the Middle Period the increasing importance of negro servitude was the ghost in the house of the American democracy. The good Americans of the day sought to exorcise the ghost by many amiable devices. Sometimes they would try to lock him up in a cupboard; sometimes they would offer him a soothing bribe; more often they would be content with shutting their eyes and pretending that he was not present. But in proportion as he was kindly treated he persisted in intruding, until finally they were obliged to face the alternative, either of giving him possession of the house or taking possession of it themselves.

Foreign commentators on American history have declared that a peaceable solution of the slavery question was not beyond the power of wise and patriotic statesmanship. This may or may not be true. No solution of the problem could have been at once final and peaceable, unless it provided for the ultimate extinction of slavery without any violation of the Constitutional rights of the Southern states; and it may well be that the Southern planters could never have been argued or persuaded into abolishing an institution which they eventually came to believe was a righteous method of dealing with an inferior race. Nobody can assert with any confidence that they could have been brought by candid, courageous, and just negotiation and discussion into a reasonable frame of mind; but what we do know and can assert is that during the three decades from 1820 to 1850, the national political leaders made absolutely no attempt to deal resolutely, courageously, or candidly with the question. On those occasions when it would come to the surface, they contented themselves and public opinion with meaningless compromises. It would have been well enough to frame compromises suited to the immediate occasion, provided the problem of ultimately extinguishing slavery without rending the Union had been kept persistently on the surface of political discussion: but the object of these compromises was not to cure the disease, but merely to allay its symptoms. They would not admit that slavery was a disease; and in the end this habit of systematic drifting and shirking on the part of moderate and sensible men threw the national responsibility upon Abolitionist extremists, in whose hands the issue took such a distorted emphasis that gradually a peaceable preservation of American national integrity became impossible.

The problem of slavery was admirably designed to bring out the confusion of ideas and the inconsistency resident in the traditional American political system. The groundwork of that system consisted, as we have seen, in the alliance between democracy, as formulated in the Jeffersonian creed, and American nationality, as embodied in the Constitutional Union; and the two dominant political parties of the Middle Period, the Whigs and the Jacksonian Democrats, both believed in the necessity of such an alliance. But negro slavery, just in so far as it became an issue, tended to make the alliance precarious. The national organization embodied in the Constitution authorized not only the existence of negro slavery, but its indefinite expansion. American democracy, on the other hand, as embodied in the Declaration of Independence and in the spirit and letter of the Jeffersonian creed, was hostile from certain points of view to the institution of negro slavery. Loyalty to the Constitution meant disloyalty to democracy, and an active interest in the triumph of democracy seemed to bring with it the condemnation of the Constitution. What, then, was a good American to do who was at once a convinced democrat and a loyal Unionist?

The ordinary answer to this question was, of course, expressed in the behavior of public opinion during the Middle Period. The thing to do was to shut your eyes to the inconsistency, denounce anybody who insisted on it as unpatriotic, and then hold on tight to both horns of the dilemma. Men of high intelligence, who really loved their country, and believed in the democratic idea, persisted in this attitude, whose ablest and most distinguished representative was Daniel Webster. He is usually considered as the most eloquent and effective expositor of American nationalism who played an important part during the Middle Period; and unquestionably he came nearer to thinking nationally than did any American statesman of his generation. He defended the Union against the Nullifiers as decisively in one way as Jackson did in another. Jackson flourished his sword, while Webster taught American public opinion to consider the Union as the core and the crown of the American political system. His services in giving the Union a more impressive place in the American political imagination can scarcely be over-estimated. Had the other Whig leaders joined him in refusing to compromise with the Nullifiers and in strengthening by legislation the Federal government as an expression of an indestructible American national unity, a precedent might have been established which would have increased the difficulty of a subsequent secessionist outbreak. But Henry Clay believed in compromises (particularly when his own name was attached to them) as the very substance of a national American policy; and Webster was too much of a Presidential candidate to travel very far on a lonely path. Moreover, there was a fundamental weakness in Webster's own position, which was gradually revealed as the slavery crisis became acute. He could be bold and resolute, when defending a nationalistic interpretation of the Constitution against the Nullifiers or the Abolitionists; but when the slaveholders themselves became aggressive in policy and separatist in spirit, the courage of his convictions deserted him. If an indubitably Constitutional institution, such as slavery, could be used as an ax with which to hew at the trunk of the Constitutional tree, his whole theory of the American system was undermined, and he could speak only halting and dubious words. He was as much terrorized by the possible consequences of any candid and courageous dealing with the question as were the prosperous business men of the North; and his luminous intelligence shed no light upon a question, which evaded his Constitutional theories, terrified his will, and clouded the radiance of his patriotic visions.

The patriotic formula, of which Webster was the ablest and most eloquent expositor, was fairly torn to pieces by the claws of the problem of slavery. The formula triumphantly affirmed the inseparable relation between individual liberty and the preservation of the Federal Union; but obviously such a formula could have no validity from the point of view of a Southerner. The liberties which men most cherish are those which are guaranteed to them by law—among which one of the most important from the Southerner's point of view was the right to own negro bondsmen. As soon as it began to appear that the perpetuation of the Union threatened this right, they were not to be placated with any glowing proclamation about the inseparability of liberty in general from an indestructible union. From the standpoint of their own most cherished rights, they could put up a very strong argument on behalf of disunion; and they had as much of the spirit of the Constitution on their side as had their opponents. That instrument was intended not only to give legal form to the Union of the American commonwealths and the American people, but also to guarantee certain specified rights and liberties. If, on the one hand, negro slavery undermined the moral unity and consequently the political integrity of the American people, and if on the other, the South stubbornly insisted upon its legal right to property in negroes, the difficulty ran too deep to be solved by peaceable Constitutional means. The legal structure of American nationality became a house divided against itself, and either the national principle had to be sacrificed to the Constitution or the Constitution to the national principle.

The significance of the whole controversy does not become clear, until we modify Webster's formula about the inseparability of liberty and union, and affirm in its place the inseparability of American nationality and American democracy. The Union had come to mean something more to the Americans of the North than loyalty to the Constitution. It had come to mean devotion to a common national idea,—the idea of democracy; and while the wiser among them did not want to destroy the Constitution for the benefit of democracy, they insisted that the Constitution should be officially stigmatized as in this respect an inadequate expression of the national idea. American democracy and American nationality are inseparably related, precisely because democracy means very much more than liberty or liberties, whether natural or legal, and nationality very much more than an indestructible legal association. Webster's formula counseled an evasion of the problem of slavery. From his point of view it was plainly insoluble. But an affirmation of an inseparable relationship between American nationality and American democracy would just as manifestly have demanded its candid, courageous, and persistent agitation.

The slavery question, when it could no longer be avoided, gradually separated the American people into five different political parties or factions—the Abolitionists, the Southern Democrats, the Northern Democrats, the Constitutional Unionists, and the Republicans. Each of these factions selected one of the several alternative methods of solution or evasion, to which the problem of negro slavery could be reduced, and each deserves its special consideration.

Of the five alternatives, the least substantial was that of the Constitutional Unionists. These well-meaning gentlemen, composed for the most part of former Whigs, persisted in asserting that the Constitution was capable of solving every political problem generated under its protection; and this assertion, in the teeth of the fact that the Union had been torn asunder by means of a Constitutional controversy, had become merely an absurdity. Up to 1850 the position of such Constitutional Unionists as Webster and Clay could be plausibly defended; but after the failure of that final compromise, it was plain that a man of any intellectual substance must seek support for his special interpretation of the Constitution by means of a special interpretation of the national idea. That slavery was Constitutional nobody could deny, any more than they could deny the Constitutionality of anti-slavery agitation. The real question, to which the controversy had been reduced, had become, Is slavery consistent with the principle which constitutes the basis of American national integrity—the principle of democracy?

Each of the four other factions answered this question in a different way; and every one of these answers was derived from different aspects of the system of traditional American ideas. The Abolitionists believed that a democratic state, which ignored the natural rights proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence, was a piece of organized political hypocrisy,—worthy only of destruction. The Southerners believed that democracy meant above all the preservation of recognized Constitutional rights in property of all kinds, and freedom from interference in the management of their local affairs. The Northern Democrats insisted just as strenuously as the South on local self-government, and tried to erect it into the constituent principle of democracy; but they were loyal to the Union and would not admit either that slavery could be nationalized, or that secession had any legal justification. Finally the Republicans believed with the Abolitionists that slavery was wrong; while they believed with the Northern Democrats that the Union must be preserved; and it was their attempt to de-nationalize slavery as undemocratic and at the same time to affirm the indestructibility of the Union, which proved in the end to be salutary.

Surely never was there a more distressing example of confusion of thought in relation to a "noble national theory." The traditional democratic system of ideas provoked fanatical activity on the part of the Abolitionists, as the defenders of "natural rights," a kindred fanaticism in the Southerners as the defenders of legal rights, and moral indifference and lethargy on the part of the Northern Democrat for the benefit of his own local interests. The behavior of all three factions was dictated by the worship of what was called liberty; and the word was as confidently and glibly used by Calhoun and Davis as it was by Garrison, Webster, and Douglas. The Western Democrat, and indeed the average American, thought of democratic liberty chiefly as individual freedom from legal discrimination and state interference in doing some kind of a business. The Abolitionist was even more exclusively preoccupied with the liberty which the Constitution denied to the negro. The Southerners thought only of the Constitutional rights, which the Abolitionists wished to abolish, and the Republicans to restrict. Each of the contending parties had some justification in dwelling exclusively upon the legal or natural rights, in which they were most interested, because the system of traditional American ideas provided no positive principle, in relation to which these conflicting liberties could be classified and valued. It is in the nature of liberties and rights, abstractly considered, to be insubordinate and to conflict both one with another and, perhaps, with the common weal. If the chief purpose of a democratic political system is merely the preservation of such rights, democracy becomes an invitation to local, factional, and individual ambitions and purposes. On the other hand, if these Constitutional and natural rights are considered a temporary philosophical or legal machinery, whereby a democratic society is to reach a higher moral and social consummation, and if the national organization is considered merely as an effective method of keeping the legal and moral machinery adjusted to the higher democratic purpose, then no individual or faction or section could claim the benefit of a democratic halo for its distracting purposes and ambitions. Instead of subordinating these conflicting rights and liberties to the national idea, and erecting the national organization into an effective instrument thereof, the national idea and organization was subordinated to individual local and factional ideas and interests. No one could or would recognize the constructive relation between the democratic purpose and the process of national organization and development. The men who would rend the national body in order to protect their property in negro slaves could pretend to be as good democrats as the men who would rend in order to give the negro his liberty. And if either of these hostile factions had obtained its way, the same disastrous result would have been accomplished. American national integrity would have been destroyed, and slavery on American soil, in a form necessarily hostile to democracy, would have been perpetuated.

SLAVERY AS A DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTION[edit]

I have already suggested that it was the irresponsibility and the evasions of the party politicians, which threw upon the Abolitionists the duty of fighting slavery as an undemocratic institution. They took up the cause of the negro in a spirit of religious self-consecration. The prevalence of irresolution and timidity in relation to slavery among the leaders of public opinion incited the Abolitionists to a high degree of courage and exclusive devotion; and unfortunately, also, the conciliating attitude of the official leaders encouraged on the part of the Abolitionists an outburst of fanaticism. In their devotion to their adopted cause they lost all sense of proportion, all balance of judgment, and all justice of perception; and their narrowness and want of balance is in itself a sufficient indication that they were possessed of a half, instead of a whole, truth.

The fact that the Abolitionists were disinterested and for a while persecuted men should not prevent the present generation from putting a just estimate on their work. While they redeemed the honor of their country by assuming a grave and hard national responsibility, they sought to meet that responsibility in a way that would have destroyed their country. The Abolitionists, no less than the Southerners, were tearing at the fabric of American nationality. They did it, no doubt, in the name of democracy; but of all perverted conceptions of democracy, one of the most perverted and dangerous is that which identifies it exclusively with a system of natural rights. Such a conception of democracy is in its effect inevitably revolutionary, and merely loosens the social and national bond. In the present instance they were betrayed into one of the worst possible sins against the national bond—into the sin of doing a gross personal injustice to a large group of their fellow-countrymen. Inasmuch as the Southerners were willfully violating a Divine law, they became in the eyes of the Abolitionists, not merely mis-guided, but wicked, men; and the Abolitionists did not scruple to speak of them as unclean beasts, who were fattening on the fruits of an iniquitous institution. But such an inference was palpably false. The Southern slave owners were not unclean beasts; and any theory which justified such an inference must be erroneous. They were, for the most part, estimable if somewhat quick-tempered and irascible gentlemen, who did much to mitigate the evils of negro servitude, and who were on the whole liked rather than disliked by their bondsmen. They were right, moreover, in believing that the negroes were a race possessed of moral and intellectual qualities inferior to those of the white men; and, however much they overworked their conviction of negro inferiority, they could clearly see that the Abolitionists were applying a narrow and perverted political theory to a complicated and delicate set of economic and social conditions. It is no wonder, consequently, that they did not submit tamely to the abuse of the Abolitionists; and that they in their turn lost their heads. Unfortunately, however, the consequence of their wrong-headedness was more disastrous than it was in the case of the Abolitionists, because they were powerful and domineering, as well as angry and unreasonable. They were in a position, if they so willed, to tear the Union to pieces, whereas the Abolitionists could only talk and behave as if any legal association with such sinners ought to be destroyed.

The Southern slaveholders, then, undoubtedly had a grievance. They were being abused by a faction of their fellow-countrymen, because they insisted on enjoying a strictly legal right; and it is no wonder that they began to think of the Abolitionists very much as the Abolitionists thought of them. Moreover, their anger was probably increased by the fact that the Abolitionists could make out some kind of a case against them. Property in slaves was contrary to the Declaration of Independence, and had been denounced in theory by the earlier American democrats. So long as a conception of democracy, which placed natural above legal rights was permitted to obtain, their property in slaves would be imperiled: and it was necessary, consequently, for the Southerners to advance a conception of democracy, which would stand as a fortress around their "peculiar" institution. During the earlier days of the Republic no such necessity had existed. The Southerners had merely endeavored to protect their negro property by insisting on an equal division of the domain out of which future states were to be carved, and upon the admission into the Union of a slave state to balance every new free commonwealth. But the attempt of the Abolitionists to identify the American national idea with a system of natural rights, coupled with the plain fact that the national domain contained more material for free than it did for slave states, provoked the Southerners into taking more aggressive ground. They began to identify the national idea exclusively with a system of legal rights; and it became from their point of view a violation of national good faith even to criticise any rights enjoyed under the Constitution. They advanced a conception of American democracy, which defied the Constitution in its most rigid interpretation,—which made Congress incompetent to meddle with any rights enjoyed under the Constitution, which converted any protest against such rights into national disloyalty, and which in the end converted secession into a species of higher Constitutional action.

Calhoun's theory of Constitutional interpretation was ingeniously wrought and powerfully argued. From an exclusively legal standpoint, it was plausible, if not convincing; but it was opposed by something deeper than counter-theories of Constitutional law. It was opposed to the increasingly national outlook of a large majority of the American people. They would not submit to a conception of the American political system, designed exclusively to give legal protection to property in negroes, and resulting substantially in the nationalization of slavery. They insisted upon a conception of the Constitution, which made the national organization the expression of a democratic idea, more comprehensive and dignified than that of existing legal rights; and in so doing the Northerners undoubtedly had behind them, not merely the sound political idea, but also a fair share of the living American tradition. The Southerners had pushed the traditional worship of Constitutional rights to a point which subordinated the whole American legal system to the needs of one peculiar and incongruous institution, and such an innovation was bound to be revolutionary. But when the North proposed to put its nationalistic interpretation of the Constitution into effect, and to prevent the South by force from seceding, the South could claim for its resistance a larger share of the American tradition than could the North for its coercion. To insist that the Southern states remain in the Union was assuredly an attempt to govern a whole society without its consent; and the fact that the Southerners rather than the Northerners were technically violators of the law, did not prevent the former from going into battle profoundly possessed with the conviction that they were fighting for an essentially democratic cause.

The aggressive theories and policy of the Southerners made the moderate opponents of slavery realize that the beneficiaries of that institution would, unless checked, succeed eventually in nationalizing slavery by appropriating on its behalf the national domain. A body of public opinion was gradually formed, which looked in the direction merely of de-nationalizing slavery by restricting its expansion. This body of public opinion was finally organized into the Republican party; and this party has certain claims to be considered the first genuinely national party which has appeared in American politics. The character of being national has been denied to it, because it was, compared to the old Whig and Democratic parties, a sectional organization; but a party becomes national, not by the locus of its support, but by the national import of its idea and its policy. The Republican party was not entirely national, because it had originated partly in embittered sectional feeling, but it proclaimed a national idea and a national policy. It insisted on the responsibility of the national government in relation to the institution of slavery, and it insisted also that the Union should be preserved. But before the Republicanism could be recognized as national even in the North, it was obliged to meet and vanquish one more proposed treatment of the problem of slavery—founded on an inadequate conception of democracy. In this case, moreover, the inadequate conception of democracy was much more traditionally American than was an exclusive preoccupation either with natural or legal rights; and according to its chief advocate it would have the magical result of permitting the expansion of slavery, and of preserving the Constitutional Union, without doing any harm to democracy.

This was the theory of Popular Sovereignty, whose ablest exponent was Stephen Douglas. About 1850, he became the official leader of the Western Democracy. This section of the party no longer controlled the organization as it did in the days of Jackson; but it was still powerful and influential. It persisted in its loyalty to the Union coupled with its dislike of nationalizing organization; and it persisted, also, in its dislike of any interference with the individual so long as he was making lawful money. The legal right to own slaves was from their point of view a right like another; and not only could it not be taken away from the Southern states, but no individual should be deprived of it by the national government. When a state came to be organized, such a right might be denied by the state constitution; but the nation should do nothing to prejudice the decision. The inhabitants of the national domain should be allowed to own slaves or not to own them, just as they pleased, until the time came for the adoption of a state constitution; and any interference with this right violated democratic principles by an unjustifiable restriction upon individual and local action. Thus was another kind of liberty invoked in order to meet the new phase of the crisis; and if it had prevailed, the United States would have become a legal union without national cohesion, and a democracy which issued, not illogically, in human servitude.

Douglas was sincere in his belief that the principle of local or Popular Sovereignty supplied a strictly democratic solution of the slavery problem, and it was natural that he should seek to use this principle for the purpose of reaching a permanent settlement. When with the assistance of the South he effected the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, he honestly thought that he was replacing an arbitrary and unstable territorial division of the country into slave and free states, by a settlement which would be stable, because it was the logical product of the American democratic idea. The interpretation of democracy which dictated the proposed solution was sufficiently perverted; but it was nevertheless a faithful reflection of the traditional point of view of the Jacksonian Democratic party, and it deserves more respectful historical treatment than it sometimes receives. It was, after all, the first attempt which had been made to legislate in relation to slavery on the basis of a principle, and the application of any honest idea to the subject-matter of the controversy served to clear an atmosphere which for thirty years had been clouded by unprincipled compromises. The methods and the objects of the several different parties were made suddenly definite and unmistakable; and their representatives found it necessary for the first time to stand firmly upon their convictions instead of sacrificing them in order to maintain an appearance of peace. It soon became apparent that not even this erection of national irresponsibility into a principle would be sufficient to satisfy the South, because the interests of the South had come to demand the propagation of slavery as a Constitutional right, and if necessary in defiance of local public opinion. Unionists were consequently given to understand that the South was offering them a choice between a divided Union and the nationalization of slavery; and they naturally drew the conclusion that they must de-nationalize slavery in order to perpetuate the Union. The repeal, consequently, hastened the formation of the Republican party, whose object it was to prevent the expansion of slavery and to preserve the Union, without violating the Constitutional rights of the South. Such a policy could no longer prevail without a war. The Southerners had no faith in the fair intentions of their opponents. They worked themselves into the belief that The whole anti-slavery party was Abolitionist, and the whole anti-slavery agitation national disloyalty. But the issue had been so shaped that the war could be fought for the purpose of preserving American national integrity; and that was the only issue on which a righteous war could be fought.

Thus the really decisive debates which preceded the Civil War were not those which took place in Congress over states-rights, but rather the discussion in Illinois between Lincoln and Douglas as to whether slavery was a local or a national issue. The Congressional debates were on both sides merely a matter of legal special pleading for the purpose of justifying a preconceived decision. What it was necessary for patriotic American citizens and particularly for Western Democrats to understand was, not whether the South possessed a dubious right of secession, because that dispute, in case it came to a head, could only be settled by war; but whether a democratic nation could on democratic principles continue to shirk the problem of slavery by shifting the responsibility for it to individuals and localities. As soon as Lincoln made it plain that a democratic nation could not make local and individual rights an excuse for national irresponsibility, then the Unionist party could count upon the support of the American conscience. The former followers of Douglas finally rallied to the man and to the party which stood for a nationalized rather than a merely localized democracy; and the triumph of the North in the war, not only put an end to the legal right of secession, but it began to emancipate the American national idea from an obscurantist individualism and provincialism. Our current interpretation of democracy still contains much dubious matter derived from the Jacksonian epoch; but no American statesmen can hereafter follow Douglas in making the democratic principle equivalent to utter national incoherence and irresponsibility.

Mr. Theodore Roosevelt in his addresses to the veterans of the Civil War has been heard to assert that the crisis teaches us a much-needed lesson as to the supreme value of moral energy. It would have been much pleasanter and cheaper to let the South secede, but the people of the North preferred to pay the cost of justifiable coercion in blood and treasure than to submit to the danger and humiliation of peaceable rebellion. Doubtless the foregoing is sometimes a wholesome lesson on which to insist, but it is by no means the only lesson suggested by the event. The Abolitionists had not shirked their duty as they understood it. They had given their property and their lives to the anti-slavery agitation. But they were as willing as the worst Copperheads to permit the secession of the South, because of the erroneous and limited character of their political ideas. While the crisis had undoubtedly been, in a large measure, brought about by moral lethargy, and it could only be properly faced by a great expenditure of moral energy, it had also been brought about quite as much by political unintelligence; and the salvation of the Union depended primarily and emphatically upon a better understanding on the part of Northern public opinion of the issues involved. Confused as was the counsel offered to them, and distracting as were their habits of political thought, the people of the North finally disentangled the essential question, and then supported loyally the man who, more than any other single political leader, had properly defined the issue.

That man was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's peculiar service to his countrymen before the war was that of seeing straighter and thinking harder than did his contemporaries. No doubt he must needs have courage, also, for in the beginning he acted against the advice of his Republican associates. But in 1858 there were plenty of men who had the courage, whereas there were very few who had Lincoln's disciplined intelligence and his just and penetrating insight. Lincoln's vision placed every aspect of the situation in its proper relations; and he was as fully competent to detect the logical weakness of his opponent's position as he was to explain his own lucidly, candidly, and persuasively. It so happened that the body of public opinion which he particularly addressed was that very part of the American democracy most likely to be deluded into allowing the Southern leaders to have their will, yet whose adhesion to the national cause was necessary to the preservation of the Union. It was into this mass of public opinion, after the announcement of his senatorial candidacy, that he hammered a new and a hard truth. He was the first responsible politician to draw the logical inference from the policy of the Republican party. The Constitution was inadequate to cure the ills it generated. By its authorization of slavery it established an institution whose legality did not prevent it from being anti-national. That institution must either be gradually reduced to insignificance, or else it must transform and take possession of the American national idea. The Union had become a house divided against itself; and this deep-lying division could not be bridged merely by loyal Constitutionalism or by an anti-national interpretation of democracy. The legal Union was being threatened precisely because American national integrity was being gutted by an undemocratic institution. The house must either fall or else cease to be divided. Thus for the first time it was clearly proclaimed by a responsible politician that American nationality was a living principle rather than a legal bond; and Lincoln's service to his country in making the Western Democracy understand that living Americans were responsible for their national integrity can scarcely be over-valued. The ground was cut from under the traditional point of view of the pioneer—which had been to feel patriotic and national, but to plan and to agitate only for the fulfillment of local and individual ends.

The virtue of Lincoln's attitude may seem to be as much a matter of character as of intelligence; and such, indeed, is undoubtedly the case. My point is, not that Lincoln's greatness was more a matter of intellect than of will, but that he rendered to his country a peculiar service, because his luminous and disciplined intelligence and his national outlook enabled him to give each aspect of a complicated and confused situation its proper relative emphasis. At a later date, when he had become President and was obliged to take decisive action in order to prevent the House from utterly collapsing, he showed an inflexibility of purpose no less remarkable than his previous intellectual insight. For as long as he had not made up his mind, he hesitated firmly and patiently; but when he had made up his mind, he was not to be confused or turned aside. Indeed, during the weeks of perplexity which preceded the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Lincoln sometimes seems to be the one wise and resolute man among a group of leaders who were either resolute and foolish or wise (after a fashion) and irresolute. The amount of bad advice which was offered to the American people at this moment is appalling, and is to be explained only by the bad moral and intellectual habits fastened upon our country during forty years of national turpitude. But Lincoln never for an instant allowed his course to be diverted. If the Union was attacked, he was prepared actively to defend it. If it was let alone, he was prepared to do what little he could towards the de-nationalization of slavery. But he refused absolutely to throw away the fruits of Republican victory by renewing the policy of futile and unprincipled compromises. Back of all his opinions there was an ultimate stability of purpose which was the result both of sound mental discipline and of a firm will. His was a mind, unlike that of Clay, Seward, or even Webster, which had never been cheapened by its own exercise. During his mature years he rarely, if ever, proclaimed an idea which he had not mastered, and he never abandoned a truth which he had once thoroughly achieved.

LINCOLN AS MORE THAN AN AMERICAN[edit]

Lincoln's services to his country have been rewarded with such abundant appreciation that it may seem superfluous to insist upon them once again; but I believe that from the point of view of this book an even higher value may be placed, if not upon his patriotic service, at least upon his personal worth. The Union might well have been saved and slavery extinguished without his assistance; but the life of no other American has revealed with anything like the same completeness the peculiar moral promise of genuine democracy. He shows us by the full but unconscious integrity of his example the kind of human excellence which a political and social democracy may and should fashion; and its most grateful and hopeful aspect is, not merely that there is something partially American about the manner of his excellence, but that it can be fairly compared with the classic types of consummate personal distinction.

To all appearance nobody could have been more than Abraham Lincoln a man of his own time and place. Until 1858 his outer life ran much in the same groove as that of hundreds of other Western politicians and lawyers. Beginning as a poor and ignorant boy, even less provided with props and stepping-stones than were his associates, he had worked his way to a position of ordinary professional and political distinction. He was not, like Douglas, a brilliant success. He was not, like Grant, an apparently hopeless failure. He had achieved as much and as little as hundreds of others had achieved. He was respected by his neighbors as an honest man and as a competent lawyer. They credited him with ability, but not to any extraordinary extent. No one would have pointed him out as a remarkable and distinguished man. He had shown himself to be desirous of recognition and influence; but ambition had not been the compelling motive in his life. In most respects his ideas, interests, and standards were precisely the same as those of his associates. He accepted with them the fabric of traditional American political thought and the ordinary standards of contemporary political morality. He had none of the moral strenuousness of the reformer, none of the exclusiveness of a man, whose purposes and ideas were consciously perched higher than those of his neighbors. Probably the majority of his more successful associates classed him as a good and able man who was somewhat lacking in ambition and had too much of a disposition to loaf. He was most at home, not in his own house, but in the corner grocery store, where he could sit with his feet on the stove swapping stories with his friends; and if an English traveler of 1850 had happened in on the group, he would most assuredly have discovered another instance of the distressing vulgarity to which the absence of an hereditary aristocracy and an established church condemned the American democracy. Thus no man could apparently have been more the average product of his day and generation. Nevertheless, at bottom, Abraham Lincoln differed as essentially from the ordinary Western American of the Middle Period as St. Francis of Assisi differed from the ordinary Benedictine monk of the thirteenth century.

The average Western American of Lincoln's generation was fundamentally a man who subordinated his intelligence to certain dominant practical interests and purposes. He was far from being a stupid or slow-witted man. On the contrary, his wits had been sharpened by the traffic of American politics and business, and his mind was shrewd, flexible, and alert. But he was wholly incapable either of disinterested or of concentrated intellectual exertion. His energies were bent in the conquest of certain stubborn external forces, and he used his intelligence almost exclusively to this end. The struggles, the hardships, and the necessary self-denial of pioneer life constituted an admirable training of the will. It developed a body of men with great resolution of purpose and with great ingenuity and fertility in adapting their insufficient means to the realization of their important business affairs. But their almost exclusive preoccupation with practical tasks and their failure to grant their intelligence any room for independent exercise bent them into exceedingly warped and one-sided human beings.

Lincoln, on the contrary, much as he was a man of his own time and people, was precisely an example of high and disinterested intellectual culture. During all the formative years in which his life did not superficially differ from that of his associates, he was in point of fact using every chance which the material of Western life afforded to discipline and inform his mind. These materials were not very abundant; and in the use which he proceeded to make of them Lincoln had no assistance, either from a sound tradition or from a better educated master. On the contrary, as the history of the times shows, there was every temptation for a man with a strong intellectual bent to be betrayed into mere extravagance and aberration. But with the sound instinct of a well-balanced intelligence Lincoln seized upon the three available books, the earnest study of which might best help to develop harmoniously a strong and many-sided intelligence. He seized, that is, upon the Bible, Shakespeare, and Euclid. To his contemporaries the Bible was for the most part a fountain of fanatic revivalism, and Shakespeare, if anything, a mine of quotations. But in the case of Lincoln, Shakespeare and the Bible served, not merely to awaken his taste and fashion his style, but also to liberate his literary and moral imagination. At the same time he was training his powers of thought by an assiduous study of algebra and geometry. The absorbing hours he spent over his Euclid were apparently of no use to him in his profession; but Lincoln was in his way an intellectual gymnast and enjoyed the exertion for its own sake. Such a use of his leisure must have seemed a sheer waste of time to his more practical friends, and they might well have accounted for his comparative lack of success by his indulgence in such secret and useless pastimes. Neither would this criticism have been beside the mark, for if Lincoln's great energy and powers of work had been devoted exclusively to practical ends, he might well have become in the early days a more prominent lawyer and politician than he actually was. But he preferred the satisfaction of his own intellectual and social instincts, and so qualified himself for achievements beyond the power of a Douglas.

In addition, however, to these private gymnastics Lincoln shared with his neighbors a public and popular source of intellectual and human insight. The Western pioneers, for all their exclusive devotion to practical purposes, wasted a good deal of time on apparently useless social intercourse. In the Middle Western towns of that day there was, as we have seen, an extraordinary amount of good-fellowship, which was quite the most wholesome and humanizing thing which entered into the lines of these hard-working and hard-featured men. The whole male countryside was in its way a club; and when the presence of women did not make them awkward and sentimental, the men let themselves loose in an amount of rough pleasantry and free conversation, which added the one genial and liberating touch to their lives. This club life of his own people Lincoln enjoyed and shared much more than did his average neighbor. He passed the greater part of what he would have called his leisure time in swapping with his friends stories, in which the genial and humorous side of Western life was embodied. Doubtless his domestic unhappiness had much to do with his vagrancy; but his native instinct for the wholesome and illuminating aspect of the life around him brought him more frequently than any other cause to the club of loafers in the general store. And whatever the promiscuous conversation and the racy yarns meant to his associates, they meant vastly more to Lincoln. His hours of social vagrancy really completed the process of his intellectual training. It relieved his culture from the taint of bookishness. It gave substance to his humor. It humanized his wisdom and enabled him to express it in a familiar and dramatic form. It placed at his disposal, that is, the great classic vehicle of popular expression, which is the parable and the spoken word.

Of course, it was just because he shared so completely the amusements and the occupations of his neighbors that his private personal culture had no embarrassing effects. Neither he nor his neighbors were in the least aware that he had been placed thereby in a different intellectual class. No doubt this loneliness and sadness of his personal life may be partly explained by a dumb sense of difference from his fellows; and no doubt this very loneliness and sadness intensified the mental preoccupation which was both the sign and the result of his personal culture. But his unconsciousness of his own distinction, as well as his regular participation in political and professional practice, kept his will as firm and vigorous as if he were really no more than a man of action. His natural steadiness of purpose had been toughened in the beginning by the hardships and struggles which he shared with his neighbors; and his self-imposed intellectual discipline in no way impaired the stability of his character, because his personal culture never alienated him from his neighbors and threw him into a consciously critical frame of mind. The time which he spent in intellectual diversion may have diminished to some extent his practical efficiency previous to the gathering crisis. It certainly made him less inclined to the aggressive self-assertion which a successful political career demanded. But when the crisis came, when the minds of Northern patriots were stirred by the ugly alternative offered to them by the South, and when Lincoln was by the course of events restored to active participation in politics, he soon showed that he had reached the highest of all objects of personal culture. While still remaining one of a body of men who, all unconsciously, impoverished their minds in order to increase the momentum of their practical energy, he none the less achieved for himself a mutually helpful relation between a firm will and a luminous intelligence. The training of his mind, the awakening of his imagination, the formation of his taste and style, the humorous dramatizing of his experience,—all this discipline had failed to pervert his character, narrow his sympathies, or undermine his purposes. His intelligence served to enlighten his will, and his will, to establish the mature decisions of his intelligence. Late in life the two faculties became in their exercise almost indistinguishable. His judgments, in so far as they were decisive, were charged with momentum, and his actions were instinct with sympathy and understanding.

Just because his actions were instinct with sympathy and understanding, Lincoln was certainly the most humane statesman who ever guided a nation through a great crisis. He always regarded other men and acted towards them, not merely as the embodiment of an erroneous or harmful idea, but as human beings, capable of better things; and consequently all of his thoughts and actions looked in the direction of a higher level of human association. It is this characteristic which makes him a better and, be it hoped, a more prophetic democrat than any other national American leader. His peculiar distinction does not consist in the fact that he was a "Man of the People" who passed from the condition of splitting rails to the condition of being President. No doubt he was in this respect as good a democrat as you please, and no doubt it was desirable that he should be this kind of a democrat. But many other Americans could be named who were also men of the people, and who passed from the most insignificant to the most honored positions in American life. Lincoln's peculiar and permanent distinction as a democrat will depend rather upon the fact that his thoughts and his actions looked towards the realization of the highest and most edifying democratic ideal. Whatever his theories were, he showed by his general outlook and behavior that democracy meant to him more than anything else the spirit and principle of brotherhood. He was the foremost to deny liberty to the South, and he had his sensible doubts about the equality between the negro and the white man; but he actually treated everybody—the Southern rebel, the negro slave, the Northern deserter, the personal enemy—in a just and kindly spirit. Neither was this kindliness merely an instance of ordinary American amiability and good nature. It was the result, not of superficial feeling which could be easily ruffled, but of his personal, moral, and intellectual discipline. He had made for himself a second nature, compact of insight and loving-kindness.

It must be remembered, also, that this higher humanity resided in a man who was the human instrument partly responsible for an awful amount of slaughter and human anguish. He was not only the commander-in-chief of a great army which fought a long and bloody war, but he was the statesman who had insisted that, if necessary, the war should be fought. His mental attitude was dictated by a mixture of practical common sense with genuine human insight, and it is just this mixture which makes him so rare a man and, be it hoped, so prophetic a democrat. He could at one and the same moment order his countrymen to be killed for seeking to destroy the American nation and forgive them for their error. His kindliness and his brotherly feeling did not lead him, after the manner of Jefferson, to shirk the necessity and duty of national defense. Neither did it lead him, after the manner of William Lloyd Garrison, to advocate non-resistance, while at the same time arousing in his fellow-countrymen a spirit of fratricidal warfare. In the midst of that hideous civil contest which was provoked, perhaps unnecessarily, by hatred, irresponsibility, passion, and disloyalty, and which has been the fruitful cause of national disloyalty down to the present day, Lincoln did not for a moment cherish a bitter or unjust feeling against the national enemies. The Southerners, filled as they were with a passionate democratic devotion to their own interests and liberties, abused Lincoln until they really came to believe that he was a military tyrant, yet he never failed to treat them in a fair and forgiving spirit. When he was assassinated, it was the South, as well as the American nation, which had lost its best friend, because he alone among the Republican leaders had the wisdom to see that the divided House could only be restored by justice and kindness; and if there are any defects in its restoration to-day, they are chiefly due to the baleful spirit of injustice and hatred which the Republicans took over from the Abolitionists.

His superiority to his political associates in constructive statesmanship is measured by his superiority in personal character. There are many men who are able to forgive the enemies of their country, but there are few who can forgive their personal enemies. I need not rehearse the well-known instances of Lincoln's magnanimity. He not only cherished no resentment against men who had intentionally and even maliciously injured him, but he seems at times to have gone out of his way to do them a service. This is, perhaps, his greatest distinction. Lincoln's magnanimity is the final proof of the completeness of his self-discipline. The quality of being magnanimous is both the consummate virtue and the one which is least natural. It was certainly far from being natural among Lincoln's own people. Americans of his time were generally of the opinion that it was dishonorable to overlook a personal injury. They considered it weak and unmanly not to quarrel with another man a little harder than he quarreled with you. The pioneer was good-natured and kindly; but he was aggressive, quick-tempered, unreasonable, and utterly devoid of personal discipline. A slight or an insult to his personality became in his eyes a moral wrong which must be cherished and avenged, and which relieved him of any obligation to be just or kind to his enemy. Many conspicuous illustrations of this quarrelsome spirit are to be found in the political life of the Middle Period, which, indeed, cannot be understood without constantly falling back upon the influence of lively personal resentments. Every prominent politician cordially disliked or hated a certain number of his political adversaries and associates; and his public actions were often dictated by a purpose either to injure these men or to get ahead of them. After the retirement of Jackson these enmities and resentments came to have a smaller influence; but a man's right and duty to quarrel with anybody who, in his opinion, had done him an injury was unchallenged, and was generally considered to be the necessary accompaniment of American democratic virility.

As I have intimated above, Andrew Jackson was the most conspicuous example of this quarrelsome spirit, and for this reason he is wholly inferior to Lincoln as a type of democratic manhood. Jackson had many admirable qualities, and on the whole he served his country well. He also was a "Man of the People" who understood and represented the mass of his fellow-countrymen, and who played the part, according to his lights, of a courageous and independent political leader. He also loved and defended the Union. But with all his excellence he should never be held up as a model to American youth. The world was divided into his personal friends and followers and his personal enemies, and he was as eager to do the latter an injury as he was to do the former a service. His quarrels were not petty, because Jackson was, on the whole, a big rather than a little man, but they were fierce and they were for the most part irreconcilable. They bulk so large in his life that they cannot be overlooked. They stamp him a type of the vindictive man without personal discipline, just as Lincoln's behavior towards Stanton, Chase, and others stamps him a type of the man who has achieved magnanimity. He is the kind of national hero the admiring imitation of whom can do nothing but good.

Lincoln had abandoned the illusion of his own peculiar personal importance. He had become profoundly and sincerely humble, and his humility was as far as possible from being either a conventional pose or a matter of nervous self-distrust. It did not impair the firmness of his will. It did not betray him into shirking responsibilities. Although only a country lawyer without executive experience, he did not flinch from assuming the leadership of a great nation in one of the gravest crises of its national history, from becoming commander-in-chief of an army of a million men, and from spending $3,000,000,000 in the prosecution of a war. His humility, that is, was precisely an example of moral vitality and insight rather than of moral awkwardness and enfeeblement. It was the fruit of reflection on his own personal experience—the supreme instance of his ability to attain moral truth both in discipline and in idea; and in its aspect of a moral truth it obtained a more explicit expression than did some other of his finer personal attributes. His practice of cherishing and repeating the plaintive little verses which inquire monotonously whether the spirit of mortal has any right to be proud indicates the depth and the highly conscious character of this fundamental moral conviction. He is not only humble himself, but he feels and declares that men have no right to be anything but humble; and he thereby enters into possession of the most fruitful and the most universal of all religious ideas.

Lincoln's humility, no less than his liberal intelligence and his magnanimous disposition, is more democratic than it is American; but in this, as in so many other cases, his personal moral dignity and his peculiar moral insight did not separate him from his associates. Like them, he wanted professional success, public office, and the ordinary rewards of American life; and like them, he bears no trace of political or moral purism. But, unlike them, he was not the intellectual and moral victim of his own purposes and ambitions; and unlike them, his life is a tribute to the sincerity and depth of his moral insight. He could never have become a national leader by the ordinary road of insistent and clamorous self-assertion. Had he not been restored to public life by the crisis, he would have remained in all probability a comparatively obscure and a wholly under-valued man. But the political ferment of 1856 and the threat of ruin overhanging the American Union pushed him again on to the political highway; and once there, his years of intellectual discipline enabled him to play a leading and a decisive part. His personality obtained momentum, direction, and increasing dignity from its identification with great issues and events. He became the individual instrument whereby an essential and salutary national purpose was fulfilled; and the instrument was admirably effective, precisely because it had been silently and unconsciously tempered and formed for high achievement. Issue as he was of a society in which the cheap tool, whether mechanical or personal, was the immediately successful tool, he had none the less labored long in the making of a consummate individual instrument.

Some of my readers may protest that I have over-emphasized the difference between Lincoln and his contemporary fellow-countrymen. In order to exalt the leader have I not too much disparaged the followers? Well, a comparison of this kind always involves the risk of unfairness; but if there is much truth in the foregoing estimate of Lincoln, the lessons of the comparison are worth its inevitable risk. The ordinary interpretation of Lincoln as a consummate democrat and a "Man of the People" has implied that he was, like Jackson, simply a bigger and a better version of the plain American citizen; and it is just this interpretation which I have sought to deny and to expose. In many respects he was, of course, very much like his neighbors and associates. He accepted everything wholesome and useful in their life and behavior. He shared their good-fellowship, their strength of will, their excellent faith, and above all their innocence; and he could never have served his country so well, or reached as high a level of personal dignity, in case he had not been good-natured and strong and innocent. But, as all commentators have noted, he was not only good-natured, strong and innocent; he had made himself intellectually candid, concentrated, and disinterested, and morally humane, magnanimous, and humble. All these qualities, which were the very flower of his personal life, were not possessed either by the average or the exceptional American of his day; and not only were they not possessed, but they were either wholly ignored or consciously under-valued. Yet these very qualities of high intelligence, humanity, magnanimity and humility are precisely the qualities which Americans, in order to become better democrats, should add to their strength, their homogeneity, and their innocence; while at the same time they are just the qualities which Americans are prevented by their individualistic practice and tradition from attaining or properly valuing. Their deepest convictions make the average unintelligent man the representative democrat, and the aggressive successful individual, the admirable national type; and in conformity with these convictions their uppermost ideas in respect to Lincoln are that he was a "Man of the People" and an example of strong will. He was both of these things, but his great distinction is that he was also something vastly more and better. He cannot be fully understood and properly valued as a national hero without an implicit criticism of those traditional convictions. Such a criticism he himself did not and could not make. In case he had made it, he could never have achieved his great political task and his great personal triumph. But other times bring other needs. It is as desirable to-day that the criticism should be made explicit as it was that Lincoln himself in his day should preserve the innocence and integrity of a unique unconscious example.