Here and there – Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln is not just admired. He is revered. He was decent, shrewd and sensible. He had immense moral and intellectual courage. Out of the humblest origins, he schooled himself on the King James Bible and Shakespeare, and then the law, and he carved out in marble his written understanding of his nation. He was a consummate politician while remaining a decent human being – something we sadly find it hard to comprehend now. He may be the only known exception to the rule that all power corrupts. He held the United States together by the force of his being. It would be neither silly nor blasphemous to see in his life and death a replay of the redemption story. Lincoln gave his life to redeem his people from the original sin of slavery.
Historical novels are not my scene. I prefer one or the other, and not an ersatz combination of both. An exception is Lincoln by Gore Vidal. I have just read it for the third time. I was first referred to it thirty years ago by a friend in politics. He said that this book precisely captures the factional strife of party politics. He was surely dead right. Some of the plots and conspiracies would make Le Carré jealous and make Yes Minister look tame. Vidal precisely pictures not just Lincoln, but each member of his cabinet – none of whom thought he was up to the job when he started, and most of whom would plot against him. It required political genius of the highest order for Lincoln to survive the incompetence if not cowardice of his generals, and the disloyalty or corruption of his cabinet.
The book starts with Lincoln travelling secretly to Washington for what would be his first inauguration. At the same time, the novel starts to track those would be involved in his assassination. The issue of the war remains apparently open until near the end.
Here is a scene about halfway through the book. It is before the battle of Gettysburg, and the emergence of the two generals that would bring Lincoln home, Grant and Sherman. (Sherman said that he looked after Grant when he was drunk, and that Grant looked after him when he was mad.) Lincoln goes to the front. He passes what he is a told is a facility for southern boys who have been wounded. Over the protests of security, Lincoln insists on going in to see these young men. Any one of them would have been proud to have killed Lincoln in cold blood. The sight and stench, even the sounds, inside the tent would have been unbearable to anyone reading this note. Remember that Lincoln’s portrait was on the greenback.
When the colonel started to call the men to attention, the President stopped him with a gesture. Then Lincoln walked the length of the room, very slowly, looking to left and right, with his dreamy smile. At the end of the room, he turned and faced the wounded men; then, slowly, he removed his hat. All eyes that could see now saw him, and recognised him.
When Lincoln spoke, the famous trumpet-voice was muted; even intimate. ‘I am Abraham Lincoln.’ There was a long collective sigh of wonder and of tension and of…..? Washburne [a Congressman and friend] had never heard a sound quite like it. ‘I know that you have fought gallantly for what you believe in, and for that I honour you, and for your wounds so honourably gained. I feel no anger in my heart toward you; and trust you feel none for me. That is why I am here. That is why I am willing to take the hand, in friendship, of any man among you.’
The same long sigh, like a rising wind, began, and still no one spoke. Then a man on crutches approached the President and, in perfect silence, shook his hand. Others came forward, one by one; and each took Lincoln’s hand; and to each he murmured something that the man alone could hear.
At the end, as Lincoln made his way between the beds, stopping to talk to those who could not move, half of the men were in tears, as was Washburne himself.
In the last bed by the door, a young officer turned his back on the President, who touched his shoulder and murmured, ‘My son, we shall all be the same at the end.’ Then the President was gone.
Now, that passage might stand for the dilemma of the historical novel. How do we know this happened? Is it true of Lincoln? Having read the replies of Vidal to his critics, I am confident of the answer to each question. The book was scrupulously sourced, and vetted by one of Lincoln’s best biographers, and this incident is consistent with all we know of Lincoln.
It’s also consistent with our experience. We know that some people – some heroes – are of such obviously strong character, and such proven fine history, that their mere physical presence can have an effect on total strangers that is as unreal as it is uplifting. I have seen this with my own eyes with people touched by merely being in the presence of Muhammad Ali, in a mysterious way that they thought might change their lives. I have heard about from those who were in the presence of Nelson Mandela. Some people, a very tiny few, have this magical power. Some of them, like Joan of Arc and Martin Luther King, would pay the ultimate price for challenging the status quo.
So, in a way, did Lincoln. His story is one of the great epics of mankind, and in my view it is wonderfully unfolded in this book by Gore Vidal.
Curiously, the attractive power of innocence was explored by Herman Melville in his novella called Billy Budd. The hero embodies innocence. Claggart, the villain, embodies evil. The book is another redemption story. Melville began his story by describing how sailors when they went ashore gathered around one who was the ‘Handsome Sailor’. ‘With no perceptible trace of the vainglorious about him, rather with the off-hand unaffectedness of natural regality, he seemed to accept the spontaneous homage of his shipmates.’ That is a reasonable description of Lincoln and his government – when they got to know him.
Here is my note on Lincoln from another publication (Men of Genius).
The problem of slavery was resolved by force of arms and the effect of what might be seen as a failed revolution was stated in terms that still today can produce a tremble in the bottom lip of people who have never even set foot in America.
Abraham Lincoln did not come from the middle class or higher. He was born in the backblocks in a log cabin in Kentucky. He learned his law lying on his back with his feet up a tree. This largely self-taught lawyer practised in Illinois and rode on horseback on circuit when he slept fully clothed head to toe with opposing counsel.
He had one supreme advantage over most of us. He was better educated. He was brought up on the King James Bible and Shakespeare, and his young mind was unsullied by tripe or trivia. Lincoln may well be the most consummate politician who has ever lived, and he may also be one of the very few in all history who was not corrupted by power. He had, of course, no time for political theory. It was by the force of his character that the union that we know as the United States of America was held together and then defined afresh. Without Abraham Lincoln, our world in the West would be very different. He is the supreme political genius in the history of the world.
To go a little out of order, Lincoln in his second inaugural address left no doubt that the Union was redeeming itself in the course of the Civil War. He said that at the start of the war, one eighth of the population were coloured slaves. He went on with some very direct statements about religion:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and prayed to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in bringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully.
Lincoln then went on to say that the ‘scourge of war’ would ‘continue until all of the wealth piled up by the bondsmen’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with a lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword …’ The nation that started with the Puritans was therefore redeeming itself from the sin of slavery with its own blood. Lincoln concluded that inaugural address with the famous passage that begins: ‘With malice toward none ….’
Less than four months before his re-inauguration, Abraham Lincoln had stated his vision for his nation at the dedication of a cemetery at the site of a three-day battle, one of the bloodiest of a very bloody war, the battle of Gettysburg. People who have seen the TV documentary, The Civil War, may recall that the late Shelby Foote said that after Lincoln had read his address ‘in his thin piping voice,’ he was worried about it. He said that it did not ‘scour’. For good reason, that address is now chiselled into the Lincoln Memorial at Washington, D.C., and it is an essential part of the fabric not just of the American nation, but of western civilization.
Lincoln had a well-oiled logical machine in his mind. He would as a matter of course build the premises of his argument into the structure of his prose. There is just one thing to note about that process here. He starts by referring to ‘a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’. We know that statement was false when it was first made. Lincoln goes on immediately to say that the Civil War is to test ‘whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure’. The Civil War was therefore being fought to make good the original declaration of equality. It is the same redemptive vision, almost a biblical redemptive vision. The great republic would redeem its original sin with its own blood.
Here then is how the great Abraham Lincoln defined his vision of the free republic of the United States:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we may say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us –that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.