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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
When, for example, he writes, “why, this is not only hard riding, but it is riding clear off the track, stumps, logs, and blackjack brush, notwithstanding,” he scores twice: by effectively employing a surefire device, exaggeration, and by exuberantly following his metaphor into what was, for his frontier audience, physically familiar territory. Or, when he offers his legal opinion: “If asking for methodist teachers were a crime of the magnitude of homicide, none of Cartwright’s gentlemen of the bar, could be found able, intelligent and learned enough to save his neck from the halter,” he deftly sketches in a few words a comic scene that his audience can readily visualize: a hapless Uncle Peter arraigned before the bar of justice.
The most conspicuously Lincolnian aspect of the letter is surely its logical method. Perhaps the quality most remarked in his mental makeup by those who knew him, apart from his melancholy, was the logical cast of Lincoln’s mind. Clearly the underlying strategy of the letter is to show that Cartwright is guilty of precisely the thing he finds so offensive in others. Making a great show of castigating those who slander the Western country as inhabited by “a perfect band of ignorant, lawless, Goths or Vandals ” in one letter, Cartwright is caught referring to “these regions of moral desolation” in another. The great appeal of this tactic lies in making one’s opponent serve as his own accuser and presenting the argument in such a way that the opponent’s own words pronounce judgment upon himself. Lincoln practiced this technique to perfection in the debates with Douglas in 1858, but it had long been a deadly part of his arsenal, and the Cartwright piece is readily conceivable as an early example of his art.
The single passage in the letter most indicative of Lincoln’s authorship is perhaps this: “Poor ghost of ambition! He must have two sets of opinions, one for his religious, and one for his political friends; and to plat them together smoothly, presents a task to which his feverish brain is incompetent.” The ingenious imagery of platting is as unusual as it is effective, but its occurrence here is perhaps not so surprising if composed by one who had spent much time learning how to survey land and reconcile the stubbornly disparate plats of neighboring landholders.
In sum, the attack on Peter Cartwright’in the Beardstown Chronicle in November 1834, though signed and paid for by Samuel Hill, is far more likely to have come from the pen of the young Abraham Lincoln. Hill had the motive and opportunity, but there is no indication that he had the requisite ability. Lincoln had all three, plus experience, and he was acknowledged as the author by two of his New Salem friends.
The possibility that Lincoln was hired by Hill to write the letter would accord with what we know about Hill but would run counter to everything we know about Lincoln. A more plausible scenario is that Lincoln, seeing that Cartwright had tripped himself up in “Moral Waste. No. 1,” wrote the letter for the Sangamo Journal under a pseudonym but was turned down because it was too directly personal. Unwilling to publish it as his own, he may then have permitted or arranged for Samuel Hill, who was anxious to repay Cartwright’s insults anyway, to have it published over his own name in a paper that belonged to a man who would prove Lincoln’s friend and political ally, Francis Arenz. Arenz presumably agreed to publish it if a real name was affixed and it could be treated as a paid advertisement.
The letter is interesting enough as an example of frontier political satire and invective but doubly interesting as an early example of the rhetorical skills of Abraham Lincoln. Though lacking in smoothness and polish, and probably written as much to punish as to amuse and instruct, the latter has sufficient energy and Lincolnian verve to count as revealing apprentice work from the hand of a man who would eventually become a literary master.