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“A Most Abandoned Hypocrite”
A newly discovered document almost certainly written by the young Abraham Lincoln shows him dismantling a shifty political rival with ruthless wit and logic
February/March 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 1
Even in the rough-and-tumble world of frontier politics, this letter constitutes a scathing personal attack on Peter Cartwright. In the words of Caleb Carman, “it used the old man very Ruff,” and the prime question that confronts us is whether or not it should be considered the work of Abraham Lincoln. Samuel Hill, in signing his name to it, not only paid the price of being the recipient of Cartwright’s wrath and a public “Skinning” but also had to pay to have the letter published in the first place. On the back page of the issue carrying the letter appeared this notice: “On the first side of to-days paper will be found a cammunication [ sic ], signed Samuel Hill , addressed to the Rev. P. Cartwright. It is inserted by request and paid for as an advertisement. We place such like articles under contribution, in order to prevent a too frequent recurrence.” By acknowledging that the letter had been paid for, the editor was making clear that this kind of personal attack was exceptional and not to be encouraged.
Although paying to have the letter published could suggest Hill’s authorship, it also lends color, if not weight, to Caleb Carman’s contention that the piece, written by Lincoln, had been rejected by Simeon Francis, the editor of the Sangamo Journal , where Cartwright’s “Moral Waste” had appeared. Certainly the lateness of the letter’s appearance, nearly two months after its composition, supports Carman’s story that it had been submitted, turned down, and re-submitted elsewhere.
But Hill’s undoubted determination to have the letter published is a consideration that in the question of authorship could cut both ways. His signing his own name might simply reflect the fact that such a printed riposte was the only form of personal reprisal he had available. No other example of Hill’s literary abilities, if any, is known, but he did have a reputation for having others do battle with opponents who were too much for him. He could be sure he would get a “Skinning” from Cartwright when the letter appeared, but as one who had to suffer Cartwright’s abuse anyhow, he had very little to lose. In the absence of evidence that Hill was either capable of the satire in the Chronicle or given credit for it by others, the case for Hill’s authorship comes down to his signature on the letter.
The arguments for Lincoln’s authorship, on the other hand, are manifold. First, there is the positive testimony of two witnesses—Caleb Carman and John McNamar—that Lincoln wrote such a letter. Both appear responsible in the other testimony they gave Herndon, both had known Lincoln and New Salem very well, and neither had any known reason to deceive. The coinciding dates of their letters might indicates collusion, but the differing details in their stories suggest otherwise.
Why, if Lincoln wrote the letter, would he not have signed his own name? In fact, whether or not Hill published the letter just to get back at Cartwright, it would have been unprecedented for Lincoln to have put his own name on a piece written for political effect. Though he is reputed to have written prodigiously for Francis’s Sangamo Journal , nothing of this kind has been found over his own name. Nor is this at all surprising. Anonymous and pseudonymous pieces were the norm for political disputation in those days, and exceptions were relatively rare. Signing one’s own name, particularly to an abusive piece like the one in question, invited the imputation of a personal rather than political motive. Because Peter Cartwright was a minister of the Gospel, Hill could be fairly certain that he would be repaid with no worse than verbal abuse, but many of Hill’s and Lincoln’s contemporaries in public life would have felt called upon by such a letter to issue a challenge. For ridicule a good deal less venomous, James Shields did just that eight years later, because he believed Abraham Lincoln was the author of the pseudonymous “Lost Township” letters.
If Hill is not known to have been a satirist, the opposite is true of Lincoln. He was writing satirical pieces at the expense of his Indiana neighbors as a teen-ager, and such was his success that Herndon found people there who recalled and could recite fragments from some of them thirty-five years later. His reported speeches in the legislature show an unmistakable talent for one-upmanship, and on the stump his powers of ridicule could be devastating. Robert Bray shows in a forthcoming essay that Lincoln’s literary gifts endowed him with “the power to hurt,” a power that he invoked frequently in the early years of his political career.
The text of the letter itself presents further evidence at least consistent with Lincoln’s authorship. Its personal vindictiveness, which Lincoln’s partisan neighbors found so effective, is likely to prove somewhat distasteful to modern readers and is certainly out of character with the generous and forbearing man who led the nation through the Civil War. But this letter comes from a much earlier time and exhibits an earlier and much rougher version of the man. While the work is hardly a masterpiece, as bareknuckled frontier satire it deserves to be judged successful. It clearly lacks the suppleness and natural quality of Lincoln’s best performances in this vein, such as his masterful send-up of Lewis Cass on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1848, but it nonetheless displays wit and lands some very solid blows.