- Historic Sites
A. Lincoln, Writer
September/October 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 6
“The sum of pro-slavery theology seems to be this: ‘Slavery is not universally right, nor yet universally wrong; it is better for some people to be slaves, and, in such cases, it is the Will of God that there be such.’”
“Certainly there is no contending against the will of God, but still there is some difficulty in ascertaining, and applying it, to particular cases. For instance we will suppose the Rev. Dr. Ross has a slave named Sambo, and the question is: ‘Is it the will of God that Sambo shall remain a slave or be set free?’ The Almighty gives no audible answer to the question, and his revelation—the Bible—gives none—or, at most, none but such as admits of a squabble as to its meaning. No one thinks of asking Sambo’s opinion on it. So, at last, it comes to this, that Dr. Ross, is to decide the question. And while he considers it, he sits in the shade, with gloves on his hands and subsists on the bread that Sambo is earning in the burning sun. If he decides that God wills Sambo to continue a slave, he thereby retains his own comfortable position, but if he decides that God wills Sambo to be free, he thereby has to walk out of the shade, throw off his gloves, and delve for his own bread. Will Dr. Ross be actuated by that perfect impartiality which has ever been considered most favorable to correct decisions?”
There is precious little of a personal nature in these pages. Lincoln was in truth the “shut-mouthed,” unconfiding man Herndon said he was, and most of his writing is sober and formal; little of the humor and vivid barnyard-and-backwoods imagery that enlived his conversation ever made it to the page. But here and there, even during the grim war years, his writings reveal the human being behind the mask of Father Abraham. “The lady—bearer of this—says she has two sons who want to work,” he scrawled to an aide in 1861. “Set them at it, if possible. Wanting to work is so rare a merit that it should be encouraged.”
There is little of the personal in these pages. Lincoln was in truth the “shut-mouthed,” unconfiding man Herndon said he was.
Lincoln’s legendary patience turns out to have had its limits. “It seems to me,” he wrote on April 28, 1863, “Mr. [Francis L.] Capen knows nothing about the weather in advance. He told me three days ago that it would not rain again till the 30th. of April or 1st of May. It is raining now & has been for ten hours. I can not spare any more time to Mr. Capen.”
The President’s frustration at George McClellan’s too gingerly ways and his forebearance at Joseph Hooker’s boastful ones are familiar to anyone who has followed the Union’s grim fortunes in the first years of the Civil War, but here he deals sternly with the “slows” that afflicted a lesser Union commander, Nathaniel P. Banks, in the autumn of 1862:
“Early last week you left me in high hope with your assurance that you would be off [to command the Department of the Gulf, with orders to open up the Mississippi] … at the end of that week, or early in this. It is now the end of this, and I have just been overwhelmed and confounded with the sight of a requisition made by you, which I am assured, can not be filled, and got off within an hour short of two months! I inclose you a copy of the requisition, in some hope that it is not genuine—that you have never seen it.
“My dear General, this expanding and piling up of impedimenta, has been, so far, almost our ruin, and will be our final ruin if it is not abandoned. If you had the articles of this requisition upon the wharf, with the necessary animals to make them of any use, and forage for the animals, you could not get vessels together in two weeks to carry the whole, to say nothing of your twenty thousand men, and having the vessels, you could not put the cargoes aboard in two weeks more. And, after all, where you are going, you have no use for them. … You must be off before Congress meets. You would be better off any where, and especially where you are going, for not having a thousand wagons, doing nothing but hauling forage to feed the animals that draw them, and taking at least two thousand men to care for the wagons and animals, who otherwise might be two thousand good soldiers. Now dear General, do not think this an ill-natured letter—it is the very reverse. The simple publication of this requisition would ruin you. Very truly your friend, A. Lincoln.”
Fehrenbacher’s collection ends with a short note, written on one of the last two days of the President’s life: “No pass is necessary now to authorize any one to go to & return from Petersburg & Richmond. People go & return just as they did before the war.” As these rich and absorbing new volumes again make clear, it was not merely the great armies Lincoln commanded but the words he mobilized that brought about that happy result.