On Abraham Lincoln

by G. K. Chesterton

[From "Come to Think of It" by G.K.Chesterton]

XXXIX. On Abraham Lincoln

IT is recognized that Lincoln emerged from the lower grades of law and politics through an atmosphere in which the lowest tricks were regarded as only tricks of the trade. That queer, shabby figure, the `rail-splitter', with his stove-pipe hat and clumsy cotton umbrella, did undoubtedly emerge among such tricksters as being by far the most truthful. But in the world where he began he could only have been called the least tricky. It is to his credit that he shed most of these habits with a natural shame, and for no other reason. But it is clear that, at some periods, it was not only his hat and umbrella that were shabby.

But there is another paradox about Abraham Lincoln, over and above those noticed by his recent realistic biographers, and one that has always seemed to me very noticeable. He really was a hero, but he seems exactly the wrong sort of hero for all his own hero-worshippers. We should be rather surprised if a very quiet and pacific colony of Quakers in a Pennsylvanian village had no other interest in life but the glorification of the great Napoleon, the exultant and detailed description of his battles, the lyrical salute of the cannonade of Austerlitz or the cavalry charges of Wagram. We should think it odd if a company of pagan epicureans, crowned with roses and flushed with wine, had no other thought in the world but a devotion to St. Simeon Stylites, for his austerity and asceticism in standing on a pillar in the desert. It would seem curious if the young Swinburne had been the only idol of the Nonconformist Conscience, or if the Prussian militarists had thought of nothing but the Christian Socialism of Tolstoy. And yet the sort of people who incessantly sing the praises of Abraham Lincoln have got hold of a man quite as incongruous to their own conception of a hero-- if ever they could turn from imagining the hero to considering the man. The sort of people who are called Puritans perpetually glorify a man who seems to have been in his youth a rather crude sort of atheist, and was famous all his life for telling dirty and profane stories. The sort of people who are generally Prohibitionists invariably invoke the name of a man who said that habitual drunkards compared favourably with most other people of his acquaintance; and who would himself, in moments of relaxation, tip up a barrel of whisky and drink the liquor through the bung-hole. The sort of people who are perpetually talking about punctuality and propriety, and the prompt performance of duty or seizure of opportunity, are always commending to us the example of a man who never turned up at his own wedding, and who made a most horrible mess of his own domestic affairs. Yes, he was a hero all right; but his hero-worshippers would not think so.

But perhaps the most curious part of the contradiction is this. Americans of his own Yankee and Puritan following are always talking about Success. Worse still, they are always talking about men who are Bound To Succeed. It seems possible that the men Bound To Succeed were those afterwards shortened into Bounders. Certainly the portraits and descriptions of such beings richly suggest the briefer description. But Lincoln was not a Bounder. Lincoln was most certainly not a man Bound To Succeed. For the greater part of his life he looked much more like a man Bound To Fail. Indeed, for that matter, a great many of his cold and uncomprehending colleagues, right up to the very end of the Civil War, thought he really was a man bound to fail. The truth is that he was a very clear and even beautiful example of the operation of the opposite principle--that God has chosen the failures of the world to confound the successes; and the true moral of his life is that of the poets and the saints. He was one of a very rare and very valuable race, whose representatives appear from time to time in history. He was one of the Failures who happen to succeed.

What I mean is this: that, if ninety-nine out of a hundred of the people who specially praise Lincoln to-day had met him at almost any time of his life till within a few years of his death, they would have avoided him as they avoid the drunkard, the lunatic, the impecunious poet, the habitual criminal, and the man who is always borrowing money. This, of course, is even more true of General Grant than of President Lincoln; and it is a queer irony that the great Puritan and commercial power of the North should have been saved entirely by two such men. But, though Lincoln was never an habitual drunkard like Grant, he had about him in all his early days the same savour of unsuccess. The philanthropists and social reformers who now worship his name would have regarded him as belonging to the type which they think `unemployable'; a scallywag, a drifter and dreamer, a man who would come to no good. His casualness, his coarseness, his habit of taking up this and that and not making it pay, his changes of trade and dwelling place--all these would have sufficed to make him seem from the first fated to failure. But, whatever his weaknesses or even his vices, they would not have been so fatal to his chances as his own supreme virtue. The one great virtue of Abraham Lincoln would have seemed alone sufficient to cut him off from all hope of success in modern civilization.

For this great man had one secret vice far more unpopular among his followers than the habit of drinking. He had the habit of thinking. We might almost call it the habit of secret thinking, a dark consolation like that of secret drinking; for during his early days he must have practised it unappreciated, and it has been said that he worked out the propositions of Euclid as a relief after having been nagged by his wife. This habit of thinking was not the thoughtless thing commonly called free-thinking, though he may have picked up a little of that in his less enlightened days. It was real thinking, which means knowing exactly where to draw the line-- a logic which is often mistaken for compromise.

The great glory of Lincoln is that, almost alone among politicians, he really knew what he thought about politics. He really thought slavery was bad, but he really thought the disruption of America was worse. It is perfectly possible for an intelligent person to disagree with him on either or both of these points. But he was an intelligent person when he stated them in that way, and put them in that order. In short, he had a native love of Truth; and, like every man with such a love, he had a natural hatred of mere Tendency. He had no use for progress, for evolution, for going with the stream, for letting the spirit of the age lead him onward. He knew exactly what he thought, not only about the perfection, but the proportion of truth; not only about the direction, but the distance. He was not always right; but he always tried to be reasonable, and that in exactly the sense which his special admirers have never understood from that day to this. He tried to be reasonable. It is not surprising that his life was a martyrdom, and that he died murdered.

XL. On Myself on Abraham Lincoln

AN American critic, apparently of the Baptist persuasion, has uttered a furious denunciation of me for my celebrated slander on Abraham Lincoln. And this is odd, as the poet said; because I was under the strong impression that I had written a eulogy on Abraham Lincoln. It so happens that I have a particular enthusiasm for Lincoln; and I endeavoured to state the real reasons for admiring him, and the real things in which he was admirable. But apparently all the things that I think admirable the Baptist critic thinks abominable, and vice versa. So deep are the moral divisions in this happy age of the union of all creeds and nations.

I will start with one simple and yet curious example. I said that Lincoln had the sort of mind that does not really bother about Progress or the spirit of the age. Whether or no this be a fact, I need hardly say that it was meant as a compliment. I meant that he thought for himself and had independent and indestructible convictions, unaltered by fashion and cant. But the American critic actually regards my remark as a mortal insult to his ideal Lincoln. He declares passionately that Lincoln was affected by Progress. He affirms, trembling with indignation, that Lincoln was controlled by the spirit of the age. Most extraordinary of all, he actually quotes in favour of Lincoln something that Lincoln said against himself: when he modestly observed that `he had not controlled events, but been controlled by them'. It is perfectly possible that Lincoln said this, in a humorous sod of humility and self-disparagement; but I do not see why, because he disparaged himself, his almost idolatrous adorer is bound to disparage him. Certainly I do not see why the critic should disparage him in so damaging a style as this. I am pretty sure that Lincoln would not have been controlled by events, or even by the spirit of the age, where ideas were concerned. I do not believe he would have admitted that Slavery was right, if the South had won the War and the slaves States had prospered ten times more than the free.

The next point that I should like to have cleared up is this. The critic is very much horrified at my suggesting that Lincoln was any more tolerant or liberal than the critic himself on the subject of strong drink. He owns that Lincoln once lifted a whisky barrel and took what he (the critic) delicately calls `a sip'. Unless I am much mistaken in Abe, he had rather too good a sense of humour to take a sip. But that is a trivial matter, and I will leave on one side all charges of intemperance against Abe; all the more readily because I never brought any. The case is very different touching charges of intemperance against Grant. And it is here that 1 wish to under stand clearly on what basis I am expected to argue. For the Baptist critic repeatedly reviles mc for daring to suggest such things about so historic a hero as the great Northern conqueror of the South. Am I to understand that the critic contradicts flatly all the accepted evidence that Grant, that great soldier, certainly did drink whisky rather well than wisely? Or am I to understand that, even if he did, historians are to hide it for ever, because he was a General and a President, and the country has gone Prohibitionist? I never said anything else against Grant except that he thank rather freely; because I willingly admit that there is not much else to be said. Nor do I consider it a very horrible charge against him. Nor did Abraham Lincoln. Does the critic deny the words of Lincoln himself, who went so far as to say that habitual drunkards compare well with other people in many or most important respects? If the critic is shocked at my words, he must be much more shocked at Lincoln's. I shudder to think what he would say of some remarks of my friend Mr. Christopher Hollis, in a paragraph beginning `The fascinating question of when General Grant was drunk and when sober', and proceeding to say that he was probably sober at Appomattox, but almost certainly drunk at Shiloh; that he afterwards, on reaching the Presidency, took some sort of teetotal pledge; and concluding with the words, `It is enough to add that he was a very good General and a very bad President.'

Such playfulness, however, is not for the Baptist critic, nor for me when I am criticizing him. I do not think drunkenness a commendable quality; but I do not think it the one specially and supremely damnable one. And that is where we come to the real difference between this American critic and myself. And that difference becomes clearer when we reach the third of his complaints against me. I stated my strong impression, from what I have read of the life of Lincoln, that he was emphatically not the type of the mere self-made man who sticks to one trade and succeeds; that there was a great deal in him of the erratic genius who either succeeds as a genius or fails at everything; that there was in him not a little of the unworldly weaknesses of the artist or the loafer, as shown in many such strange incidents as his absence from his own wedding. I do not claim to be an expert on the details of his biography, but some of these facts are universally known; some I found in a recent and responsible American Life of Lincoln; and the critic had better fight it out with the American biographer rather than with me.

But the point of the thing is this: that I thought it was a compliment to consider Lincoln unworldly; but the critic, in his heart, really thinks it a compliment to consider him worldly. That is where there is a real difference between his moral philosophy and mine. If the words `worldly' and `unworldly' do not convey the same meaning to him as to me, or if they seem far-fetched in relation to what I said, I will willingly substitute the words `success' and `failure'. When I say that Lincoln was a man who easily might have been a failure, very nearly was a failure, and in some ways actually remains a failure, I mean it as in the case of poets or martyrs. But the critic cannot bear to think that his hero was not a success, and bound to be a success, and satisfied with being a success; as in the case of magnates and millionaires. He cannot bear to think that his hero was not a Go-getter, a Booster, a Best-Seller, a Bright Salesman, and a Man Born to Succeed. I can only say that it is not my impression of Lincoln that he was like that.

The important thing to realize here, much more important than his essay or mine, is that we really are becoming divided in moral ideals. I am sure that my critic is quite sincere in his hero-worship; just as I am quite sincere in mine. What is to me extraordinary beyond words is the implied system of tests which he applies to a hero. He wishes to show that Lincoln was more heroic than I had represented him; and the following seem to be the essential qualities that go to constitute a truly heroic figure. First, he must be a teetotaller; or, as I should say, he must be a Moslem rather than a Christian on the moral problem of wine. Second, he must take very seriously the business of getting on in this world, prospering in his profession and obtaining the solid rewards this world has to give. Third, he must worship Progress or the Spirit of the Age; which can only mean (so far as I can make any sense of it) that he must allow his own conscience and conviction to be twisted into any shapes that the pressure of the present state of polities and society may tend to produce. I do not think any of these things especially admirable; I do not think any of them even reason ably arguable; and I do not think any of them any more characteristic of Lincoln than of Lee or Bayard or Joan of Arc, or any hero or heroine in history.


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Last modified: 6th January 2010
Martin Ward, Software Technology Research Lab, De Montfort University, Leicester.
Email: martin@gkc.org.uk