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Abraham Lincoln, Volume I by John T. Morse

Then it expanded to the population of the entire North


The

preeminently striking feature in Lincoln's nature--not a trait of character, but a characteristic of the man--which is noteworthy in these early days, and grew more so to the very latest, was the extraordinary degree to which he always appeared to be in close and sympathetic touch with the people, that is to say, the people in the mass wherein he was imbedded, the social body amid which he dwelt, which pressed upon him on all sides, which for him formed "the public." First this group or body was only the population of the frontier settlement; then it widened to include the State of Illinois; then it expanded to the population of the entire North; and such had come to be the popular appreciation of this remarkably developed quality that, at the time of his death, his admirers even dared to believe that it would be able to make itself one with all the heterogeneous, discordant, antagonistic elements which then composed the very disunited United States. It is by reason of this quality that it has seemed necessary to depict so far as possible that peculiar, transitory phase of society which surrounded his early days. This quality in him caused him to be exceptionally susceptible to the peculiar influences of the people among whom his lot was cast. This quality for a while prevented his differentiating himself from them, prevented his accepting standards and purposes unlike theirs either in speech or action, prevented his rising rapidly to a higher moral plane than theirs. This quality
kept him essentially one of them, until his "people" and his "public" expanded beyond them. It has been the fashion of his admirers to manifest an extreme distaste for a truthful presentation of his earlier days. Some writers have passed very lightly over them; others, stating plain facts with a formal accuracy, have used their skill to give to the picture an untruthful miscoloring; two or three, instinct with the spirit of Zola, have made their sketch with plain unsparing realism in color as well as in lines, and so have brought upon themselves abuse, and perhaps have deserved much of it, by reason of a lack of skill in doing an unwelcome thing, or rather by reason of overdoing it. The feeling which has led to suppression or to a falsely romantic description seems to me unreasonable and wrong. The very quality which made Lincoln, as a young man, not much superior to his coarse surroundings was precisely the same quality which, ripening and expanding rapidly and grandly with maturing years and a greater circle of humanity, made him what he was in later life. It is through this quality that we get continuity in him; without it, we cannot evade the insoluble problem of two men,--two lives,--one following the other with no visible link of connection between them; without it we have physically one creature, morally and mentally two beings. If we reject this trait, we throw away the only key which unlocks the problem of the most singular life, taken from end to end, which has ever been witnessed among men, a life which many have been content to regard as an unsolved enigma. But if we admit and really perceive and feel the full force of this trait, developed in him in a degree probably unequaled in the annals of men, then, besides the enlightenment which it brings, we have the great satisfaction of eliminating much of the disagreeableness attendant upon his youthful days. Even the commonness and painful coarseness of his foolish written expressions become actually an exponent of his chief and crowning quality, his receptiveness and his expression of humanity,--that is to say, of all the humanity he then knew. At first he expressed what he could discern with the limited, inexperienced vision of the ignorant son of a wretched vagrant pioneer; later he gave expression to the humanity of a people engaged in a purpose physically and morally as vast and as grand as any enterprise which the world has seen. Thus, with perfect fairness, without wrenching or misrepresentation or sophistry, the ugliness of his youth ceases to be his own and becomes only the presentation of a curious social condition. In his youth he expressed a low condition, in later life a noble one; at each period he expressed correctly what he found. His day and generation uttered itself through him. With such thoughts, and from this point of view, it is possible to contemplate Lincoln's early days, amid all their degraded surroundings and influences and unmarked by apparent antagonism or obvious superiority on his part, without serious dismay.


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