Abraham Lincoln and the Perpetual Campaign

Richard Norton-Smith

Photo of Lincoln's pocket watch courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.Photo of Lincoln's pocket watch courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.I have declared before a thousand times, and now repeat that, in my opinion, neither the General Government, nor any other power outside of slave states, can constitutionally or rightfully interfere with slaves or slavery where it exists." --Letter to John L. Scripps (June 23, 1858)

"If A. can prove, however conclusively that he may, of right, enslave B. –why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally that he may enslave A? You say A. is white and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own. You do not mean color exactly? –You mean the whites are intellectually superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellectual superior to your own." --Fragment on Slavery (c. 1854)


Let me express my appreciation to Governor Edgar and to the Illinois Humanities Council for the opportunity to address this subject, in this place, and before this audience. As the final such lecture of the Edgar governorship, this evening may carry something of a bittersweet quality. Yet any such feelings should be far outweighed by the collective pride that the Council and its supporters can take in combating the historical illiteracy that amounts to a cultural amnesia. From one distinguished Illinoisan whose campaign days are, by his own choice, drawing near to their close, I turn to another for whom virtually every waking hour represented a campaign of sorts, an unceasing pursuit, not only of power and position, but also of coherence and self-fulfillment.

In addressing what I call Abraham Lincoln's perpetual campaign, and in return for your hospitality, the least I can do is keep in mind Lincoln's own description of a long-winded lawyer whose chief distinction it was to compress the fewest thoughts into the most words of anyone in Springfield. Only those of you who call this city home know whether, as the poet Vachel Lindsay assured us early in this century, Mr. Lincoln walks your streets at midnight. If he does, his restlessness may well have literary origins. For while he may or may not stalk the neighborhoods in which he received his political baptism, he most certainly haunts the imagination of Americans for whom the sixteenth president remains at once the most universally recognizable and yet mysterious of figures. The task that confronts any Lincoln student is both daunting and exhilarating. Rare indeed is the writer who enters the Lincoln force field without being changed in some lasting way. I am no exception to this rule. So at the outset let me deny the rumor that I grew my beard in response to your kind speaking invitation. Actually, a little girl in upstate New York wrote me a letter suggesting that I would look better with whiskers.

With his characteristic blend of shrewdness and spontaneity, Lincoln was not above deprecating his own physical appearance, especially if it allowed him to one-up the formidable Stephen A. Douglas. On one occasion after Judge Douglas had called him two-faced, Lincoln more than rose to the challenge.

"I leave it to the audience," he drawled. "If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?"

Small wonder that Douglas should complain of his perennial rival that every one of Lincoln's jokes "seems like a whack upon my back." Of course, humor can serve many purposes, on and off the campaign trail. For the politician it is both sword and shield, a weapon to turn on one's opponent, and a defense against those who might otherwise come too close or probe too deeply. Humor can also be employed to deflate pretense. Take the case of Lincoln's Springfield law partner, William Herndon. As effusive as his colleague was secretive, Herndon was given to rhetorical purple patches like his fulsome description of Niagara Falls delivered just a few days after Lincoln had chanced to see the great cataract with his own eyes.

Herndon in full flight could be something of a natural wonder himself, and he pulled out all the stops to convey the visual splendors of the foaming torrent, the roar of the rapids and the sublime majesty of a rainbow permanently suspended above the Niagara gorge. Exhausting his vocabulary of praise, the younger man at length asked what about the experience had made the deepest impression on Lincoln.

"The thing that struck me most forcibly when I saw the Falls," said Lincoln, "was, where in the world did all that water come from?" Nearly two centuries after his birth, during which he has inspired at last count over 5,000 books and countless articles, monographs, high-flown eloquence and eminently forgettable convention oratory, we still ask of this human Niagara, "Where did all that water come from?" As rich as Lincoln scholarship may be, it pales beside the man who generated it. For if he wasn't two faced, Abraham Lincoln did not necessarily wear the same face before every audience.

Of all the Lincoln stories, none seems to me so metaphorically revealing as the eerie encounter Lincoln had with himself on election night 1860. Worn out from the campaign and suspense of vote counting, the President-elect went home to rest. From his bed he saw a bureau with a swinging mirror, and in it his own reflection. "My face I noticed had two separate and distinct images," Lincoln would recall. "One of the faces a little paler. . . than the other, I got up and the thing melted away. My wife thought it was a sign that I was to be elected to another term, and that the paleness of one of the faces was an omen that I shouldn't see life through the last term."

The story foreshadows the terrible price exacted for Lincoln's political self-realization. More than that, it hints at Herndon's later description of his friend as "a man totally swallowed up in his ambitions." In truth, the man in the mirror was many men, the dual images reflective of one who combined opposites with astonishing ease. "What is conservatism?" candidate Lincoln had asked early in 1860. "Is it not adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried?" Yet just two years later, amid the smoke and steel of civil war, Lincoln sounded a radically different note when he told Congress, "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."

The man who declared "the fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor, or dishonor, to the latest generation," was as contradictory in his personality as in his politics. For Abraham Lincoln, life itself was a fiery trial, whose ultimate reward was the good opinion of his fellow citizens, and the chance to be honorably remembered to the latest generation. Law may have been his livelihood, but politics was his life. Needless to say, the idea of a scheming, politically consumed Lincoln hardly squares with Carl Sandburg's dreamy idealist who halts in the middle of the road to rescue a pig stuck in the mud, or the upright store clerk who walks miles to return a few cents to an inadvertently shortchanged customer. The critic Edmund Wilson declared in the 1930's that Sandburg was the worst thing to happen to Lincoln since John Wilkes Booth. I wouldn't go that far, but I would caution readers that the great prairie poet, a florid stylist and fierce egalitarian, wrote biography that often reads like autobiography.

Moreover, he had a clear agenda in crafting his mythic Lincoln as a sort of Paul Bunyan in a stovepipe hat. It was his intention, wrote Sandburg, "to take Lincoln away from the religious bigots and the professional politicians and restore him to the common people." Sandburg's Lincoln is summoned by destiny, not unlike his youthful hero George Washington, that other presidential icon with whom he reappears out of the historical mists each February to sell us appliances and used cars before quietly submitting to the dead hand of textbook history.

Ironically, Lincoln himself would be the first to recognize the value of Sandburg's literary mausoleum. As a boy he devoured Parson Weems' sugary biography of the nation's first president--cherry tree, dollar hurled across the Rappahannock and all--blissfully unaware that no man in America was less likely to throw money away than the tightfisted father of his country. Conceding that Washington could hardly be so faultless as portrayed, Lincoln demonstrated his own profound grasp of historical mythology when he argued, "It makes human nature better to believe that one human being was perfect, that human perfection is conceivable."

Yet on another occasion Lincoln rejected anything less than literal fact, saying "history is not history unless it is the truth." No small part of what I call Lincoln's perpetual campaign involved his dogged pursuit of the secular immortality bestowed upon Washington and the founding generation. As a young state legislator adapting their nationalistic creed to the frontier, Lincoln's ambitions were already in evidence. Having spearheaded a successful campaign to endow Illinois with publicly funded roads, canals and railways, Lincoln voiced the hope that future generations might venerate him as a prairie-bred Dewitt Clinton.

Of course, comparisons with the father of the Erie Canal would hardly fuel the cottage industry that even now leads thoughtful scholars such as Douglas Wilson and Michael Burlingame to mine seemingly inexhaustible veins of Lincoln lore. To them, and to long recognized Lincolnians like David Herbert Donald, and especially Stephen Oates, I am indebted for much of what follows. It is not enough for the historian to grub for facts; he must then imagine those facts into a credible imitation of a life as it is being lived, so that we can know a man on his own terms and in his own times ... So return for a moment to the second floor bedroom of the Lincoln house amidst the beery jubilation of Republican Springfield in November, 1860. We have already noted two faces in the mirror, ghostly images taunting Lincoln then and mesmerizing Lincoln students ever since.

Who is the blurry apparition in the looking glass? The double likeness suggests a man of many moods, finely balanced between extremes. The mirror reflects a calculating fatalist, a melancholy comic, a longsuffering husband and negligent spouse. What else does it show us? The Great Emancipator of legend, or the racist caricature drawn by some academics in our own time? The teller of vulgar stories, or the author of imperishable prose? The champion of popular self-determination, or the incipient dictator trumpeting human rights while suspending individual liberties? Is the man in the mirror the most assertive chief executive in American history, or the essentially passive figure captured in Professor Donald's bestselling biography published in 1995?

"I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me," Donald quotes Lincoln as telling an irate Kentuckian angry at the President for reneging on his pledge not to make war on slavery. What an artful dodge! "Don't blame me - blame events." That Lincoln could shed his skin without losing his soul should hardly come as a surprise. For this master politician had long since perfected the art of self-concealment. In some ways he is hiding still. In the popular mind, for example, he is forever enshrined as the unlettered genius who came out of the wilderness to vindicate self-government in a world where kings and despots still held sway.

The reality is more complicated. Lincoln spent a lifetime, not so much celebrating his origins as escaping them. It wasn't the $8 a month flatboatman to whom his political philosophy paid tribute, but a system of government that offered him and other common laborers the chance to be uncommon, to work their way to respectable self-sufficiency and a smattering of culture. In retrospect it seems clear that Carl Sandburg enjoyed Lincoln's youthful privation far more than did the subject of his biography. There was no romance to be woven from his childhood, Lincoln told his 1860 campaign biographer John L. Scripps. In an oft-quoted disclaimer, the candidate insisted that his early years in Kentucky and Indiana amounted to nothing more than "the short and simple annals of the poor."

One soon learns that with the sphinx-like Lincoln, however, few things are short and nothing is simple. In that same autobiographical fragment the Republican nominee belittled his father's meager educational attainments and all but ignored his mother. Lincoln had been conspicuously absent from Thomas Lincoln's funeral in 1851, at the start of a decade during which he rose to the pinnacle of the Illinois legal profession, with a $5,000 annual income that was triple the governor's salary. But if his bank balance was healthy, on the subject of his rustic upbringing Lincoln had long since drained his emotional account.

His burning need for recognition was hammered on the forge of adversity. Lincoln's earliest memories revolved around dreary farm labor from which Weems' idealized portrait of George Washington crossing the Delaware had offered an enterprising and imaginative boy momentary respite. Young Lincoln confided to a country schoolteacher his intention to be a public man. The Pilgrim's Progress and Aesop's Fables, supplemented by the crabbed erudition of Coke and Blackstone, the poetry of Robert Burns and the mental gymnastics of rural debating societies, all fed the dreams of an aspiring lawyer and politician. Together they set the stage for Lincoln's tireless effort to prove himself - and to improve himself - while simultaneously vindicating the ideas of social mobility and individual dignity contained in the Declaration of Independence.

For Lincoln, Shakespeare offered much more than entertainment. Along with the King James Bible, the Bard helped him master the language with a spare eloquence that has never been equaled. He displayed a special fondness for Shakespearean tragedies, none more so than Richard II, with its lugubrious invitation to sit upon the ground and tell the sad story of the death of kings. Over the years Lincoln scholars have spilled barrels of ink hoping to trace his persistent melancholy to its source. His depression stemmed from the death of his mother when he was but nine years old, it has been argued, its shattering impact reinforced by the loss of a much loved sister a few years later, and the cruel fate visited upon Ann Rutledge in 1835. Other theories attribute his emotional fragility to acute embarrassment over his ungainly appearance and social ineptitude, or to neglect in childhood even chronic constipation for which Lincoln liberally dosed himself with Blue Mass pills purchased from a Springfield druggist.

More recently it has been suggested that Lincoln's family was genetically predisposed to depression. Apparently his father had been known to walk Kentucky fields loudly talking to himself of God's providence - much as his famous son would be observed on the Illinois legal circuit babbling what one lawyer and bunkmate called "the wildest and most incoherent nonsense." Lincoln seemed as preoccupied with insanity as with death. In his late thirties a visit to the haunts of his Indiana youth inspired a poem about a boyhood friend who had lost his mind. "A human form with reason fled, while wretched life remains," wrote Lincoln in harrowing recollection.

Did Abraham Lincoln fear the loss of his own sanity? According to Stephen Oates, it was precisely such dread that explains his refusal to indulge in alcohol or surrender to passion. Americans, he told a Springfield audience in 1842, must place their reliance on "reason, cold, calculating, impassioned reason." The quest for self-control became a integral part of his perpetual campaign. But for the politician some things are beyond control. Not even the most rigid self-discipline can assure the outcome of an election, or move voters to see moral imperatives obscured by self-interest, greed, or prejudice. There is no single explanation for Lincoln's moody silences or abrupt emotional withdrawals. But the most credible of causes, it seems to me, is simply this: the yawning gulf between his aspirations and his expectations. He could master himself, but not the electorate. Both idealist and pragmatist, Lincoln had chosen the one profession that guaranteed fame and misery in equal measure.

To Billy Herndon he once confessed that his mother was the illegitimate offspring of an unnamed Virginia aristocrat. Then he swore his law partner to secrecy. The vow died with Lincoln. As a result, next to Sandburg, it is Herndon's Lincoln - henpecked, greedy for office, suicidally depressed, and no friend to organized religion - who still dominates the scholarly horizon more than a century after Herndon's grab bag of personal observation, second-hand gossip, and historical hearsay first appeared to challenge the saintly image of a martyred president.

Herndon's Lincoln is both tender and ruthless, furtive and transparent. He is a severely logical attorney, who rarely travels the legal circuit without a well thumbed copy of Euclid to ponder before a midnight fire. But he is also a superstitious child of the frontier, relating premonitions of a terrible fate awaiting him. Truth be told, Herndon's Lincoln fears death less than obscurity. To Joshua Speed, probably the closest thing to an intimate friend he ever had, the aspiring politician said in 1841 that he would be perfectly willing to die then and there. "But I have an inexpressible desire to live," he added, at least "till I can be assured that the world is a little better for my having lived in it." Another close associate, Ward Hill Lamon, heard Lincoln confide White House aspirations almost as soon as the two men met. "He never rested in the race he had determined to run," Lamon wrote long afterward. "He was ever ready to be honored; he struggled incessantly for place."

Launching his first campaign for the legislature at the age of 23, Lincoln embarked upon a cycle familiar to every politician who relies on the electorate for his self-esteem as well as his livelihood. Democracy is a fickle employer, and those who look to the ballot box for justification mistake transient popularity for a king's cure. So why run such a risk? For Lincoln, whose enormous drive was matched by a brooding pessimism, victory at the polls promised current reputation and future remembrance. Just as Winston Churchill relied on incessant labor and a combative personality to ward off what he called his "black dog," so the painfully self-conscious Lincoln sought immersion in a cause or campaign larger than himself.

It cannot be said that the young candidate, a leathery skinned giant with a floating left eye and size 14 feet, cut a prepossessing figure on the campaign trail. "He wore a mixed jeans coat," recalled one voter, "clawhammer style, short in the sleeves, and bobtail - in fact, it was so short in the back that he could not sit on it - flax and tow linen pantaloons and a straw hat." Enhancing the comical effect were several Lincoln anecdotes shrewdly unfurled to disarm hostile members of the audience. A master of political symbolism, Lincoln reached out to working class voters suspicious of his conservative economic policies. He once addressed a Springfield crowd estimated at 15,000 while standing in a farm wagon. On another occasion he burnished his mass appeal by saluting the honest laborer who digs coal at about seventy cents a day "while the president digs abstractions at about seventy dollars a day."

Yet no amount of well-timed wit or strategic cleverness could banish the petty slights and banal treacheries of the political arena. "Now if you should hear anyone say that Lincoln doesn't want to go to Congress," he confided to a friend in 1843, "I wish you ... would tell him you have reason to believe he is mistaken. The truth is, I would like to go very much." When the prize went instead to a Whig rival, Lincoln made little effort to hide his bitterness. Three years later he was again climbing the greasy pole. His Democratic opponent was Peter Cartwright, an itinerant Methodist preacher who looked out from a makeshift pulpit one morning to discover his adversary in attendance at an emotionally charged camp meeting.

Sensing a literally heaven-sent opportunity to embarrass Lincoln whose unorthodox views had branded him in some quarters as little better than an infidel, Cartwright invited all within the sound of his voice who hoped to taste the delights of heaven to stand. A healthy portion of the crowd rose to its feet, but not Lincoln. The evangelist next called upon all those who wished to avoid the eternal hellfire of damnation to rise, an appeal which, not surprisingly, elicited virtual unanimity. Still Lincoln held back. Seizing the moment, the Reverend Cartwright observed that while many in the room had signified their desire to go to heaven, and practically all had conveyed their dread of hell, only Mr. Lincoln had failed to respond to either request.

"May I inquire of you, Mr. Lincoln, where are you going?"

Slowly Lincoln rose to his full height, until he towered over the rest of the assembly. "Brother Cartwright asks me directly where I am going," he said. "I desire to reply with equal directness: I am going to Congress." And so he did, though not without first admitting to his old friend Joshua Speed that winning the election in November, 1846 "has not pleased me as much as I expected." It was a complaint made familiar through repetition. A decade earlier, as a freshman member of the Illinois legislature, his depressed state had moved one colleague to ask bluntly what was wrong with his friend. Lincoln's reply conveyed the dilemma of a man walking an emotional treadmill, for whom a life in politics expressed both the will to succeed and the disillusionment with success as measured by roll calls, patronage jobs, and artificially generated controversy.

"All the rest of you have something to look forward to," said a dejected Lincoln, "and all are glad to get home, and will have something to do when you get there. But it isn't so with me. I am going home ... without a thing in the world." His spirits did not rise even if his political standing did. As Whig floor leader in the Illinois house, Lincoln called himself "the most miserable man living." Promotion to the national legislative offered only fleeting rewards. While in Congress he opposed the Mexican War as an unjust conflict waged for slaveholders by a compliant Polk Administration, and earned vilification for his antiwar efforts. Denied re-election in 1848, Lincoln joined the ranks of unemployed lawmakers who lobbied the new Whig president, Zachary Taylor, for the spoils of victory. Logical as ever, Lincoln prepared a list of eleven perfectly sound reasons why Taylor should appoint him Commissioner of the General Land Office, a sinecure paying $3,000 a year. Taylor was unpersuaded. As a consolation prize Lincoln was offered the territorial governorship of Oregon, which he turned down, a politically adroit move he blamed on a wife whose desire for rank dwarfed even his own.

His willingness to feed at the public trough gave poignancy to Lincoln's later dealings with the hoard of place-seekers who infested his White House. Transforming misery through humor, in 1863 he declared himself well pleased to have contracted a mild form of typhoid fever since, as he expressed it, "now at last I have something I can give everyone."

But all that was in the unfathomed future. And in the meanwhile, there was posterity to ruin an ambitious man's sleep. "It isn't a pleasant thing to think that when we die that is the last of us," a youthful Lincoln had remarked to a friend during his New Salem days. Had he died in 1849, or even five years later, Following his first unsuccessful campaign for the United States Senate, Lincoln would be little noted nor long remembered today. Whatever else they held in store, events would spare him that fate. Instead, they would bury Lincoln the man in a shroud of democratic mythmaking and self-sacrificing nobility.

It would be more accurate to say of the middle-aged Lincoln that the thing he was most willing to sacrifice was private life. Certainly his intense struggle with Stephen A. Douglas contained elements of jealousy as well as high-minded principle. While Lincoln might enjoy a laugh at Douglas' expense, for most of his career he was unable to defeat him at the polls. This gave rise to feelings of envy and personal resentment, even worthlessness. In a private memorandum composed in 1856, two years before the epic contest in which both candidates rehearsed arguments that would recur in the next presidential campaign, Lincoln couldn't help but contrast the glittering achievements of his Democratic rival with his own, far more modest reputation.

"With me," he wrote bitterly, "the race of ambition has been a failure - a flat failure. With him it has been one of splendid success." Neither courtroom eminence, newfound prosperity, nor a growing family were sufficient to quench his thirst for distinction. On the contrary: the Quaker brown Lincoln residence at the corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets may well be considered the original House Divided. Billy Herndon exaggerated the shrewish qualities of Mary Lincoln, with whom he enjoyed - if that is the word - a relationship of unconcealed mutual antipathy. Yet there are too many contemporary accounts that have Mary striking her husband with a stick of wood, hurling hot coffee in his face, or driving him to take refuge on an extra long couch in the offices of Lincoln and Herndon to be dismissed as mere neighborhood gossip.

This is not to say that Lincoln was an easy man to live with. When he wasn't away on the legal circuit for weeks at a time, he could be found lying on the floor in a newspaper induced trance, or answering the door in his shirt sleeves, or absentmindedly pulling a wagon down the street, heedless of the screaming child who had fallen out. At first blush, the Lincolns appeared as ill-matched as sandpaper and silk. On closer examination, their admittedly turbulent marriage confirms the old adage that opposites attract. Like a pair of high-spirited horses yoked in harness, they had to pull together if the coach of state was not to be upset. Mary's quicksilver temper should not obscure the genuine love she felt for her husband, nor the pride she took in his accomplishments. Indeed, just as it has been said that without Nancy Reagan there would have been no President Reagan, so it can be argued that at a time when few others saw him as a man of destiny, Mary sustained Lincoln's belief in himself and in his mission.

"There are no accidents in my philosophy," Lincoln explained to a friend. "The past is the cause of the present, and the present will be the cause of the future. All these are links in the endless chain stretching from finite to the infinite." Occasionally even the infinite required a little strategic planning to disgorge its secrets. Lincoln's 1858 loss to Douglas left him temporarily dispirited, but the fires of ambition were far from banked. By now an old hand at covering his tracks, Lincoln publicly downgraded his chances for the White House. To various associates he expressed hopes for another shot at the Senate or an appointment as Attorney General in a Republican administration. He portrayed himself as strictly a favorite son candidate around whom fractious Illinois Republicans might coalesce, even as he raised his profile by making speeches in six Midwestern states.

In February, 1860 he journeyed to New York to deliver the rousing Cooper Union address that would introduce the dark horse from Illinois to skeptical eastern audiences. Before leaving Springfield, Lincoln invited Joseph Medill and Charles Ray of the Chicago Tribune to examine his proposed text. As would-be kingmakers, the newspapermen urged numerous changes to the manuscript, then sat back to bask in the glow of their celebrated pupil. In the event, Lincoln took New York by storm, without incorporating a single "improvement" suggested by his Chicago brain trust.

"Old Abe must have lost out of the car window all our previous notes," said Ray.

Medill knew better, telling his partner, "This must have been one of his waggish jokes."

A grassroots campaign needed an appropriately populist symbol. Honest Abe the Railsplitter sounded much better than Calculating Abe the Railroad Lawyer. With this in mind, at the state convention of his party held in Decatur in the spring of 1860, Lincoln supporters unveiled an inspired bit of political theater. By careful prearrangement the candidate's cousin, John Hanks, came forward carrying a pair of two weathered fence rails allegedly split by his illustrious kinsman. Modestly Lincoln said that he could not positively identify the rails as being his handiwork, finally relenting long enough to acknowledge the possibility. To dispel any lingering doubts, Lincoln brightly added, "I have split a great many better looking ones."

Not since 1840, when William Henry Harrison's Whig supporters had transformed their Virginia - born grandee into a popular hero enamored of log cabins and hard cider, had the Dick Morrises of their day engineered a more potent conversion. Democrats, none too happy to have their thunder stolen, lampooned Lincoln as the Prince of Rails. The Chicago Herald a leading Democratic organ, declared with mock solemnity that at the age of 18 the Republican candidate had routinely split 76,000 rails a day.

The image-making didn't end there. Campaign biographer Scripps, not content to have his hero repay a farmer for a damaged book with three days hard labor, described a youthful Lincoln whose intellectual curiosity had led him to Plutarch's Lives. This charming tale had but one deficiency - it had been made up out of whole cloth by a writer who just assumed, as he put it in a post-election letter to the victorious candidate, that Lincoln was familiar with the erudite volume. "If you have not," wrote Scripps embarrassedly, "you must read it at once to make my statement good."

Scripps received no formal reply, but the Library of Congress did, in the form of a White House request to borrow Plutarch's Lives. If a supporter exaggerated his virtues, then Lincoln would do his best not to make a liar out of him. In other ways, the man who took the oath of office before the West Front of the Capitol in March, 1861 was scarcely recognizable to his political cronies back home. Standing at last atop the summit of American politics, a divided soul confronting a disintegrating nation, Lincoln had a transcendent cause to ennoble his gamesmanship. Even before his election, his yearning for advancement had been elevated, if not altogether purified, through a growing involvement with the antislavery movement. Logic told him that it was hypocritical for a nation that professed its love of liberty to keep millions of human beings in chains. Another kind of logic - the compelling logic of the battlefield - would bring him around to the view that a war over states rights must ultimately be fought for human rights.

Still, enough calculation and raw desire for power remained to enable Lincoln to run rings around his Democratic opponent in the 1864 election, the plodding martinet George B. McClellan. Even now he sought validation as well as votes. Yet as much as he changed America, America had changed him even more. The war had fused the disparate elements of Lincoln's personality and outlook into a character of astonishing force and subtlety. Honoring his pledge to do nothing in malice, for the most part he was able to laugh off the harsh attacks directed his way by less magnanimous men in his own party. When radical Republicans in Congress publicly assailed his reconstruction policies, the president said he was reminded of a no doubt mythical old acquaintance, "who, having a son of a scientific turn, brought him a microscope. The boy went around, experimenting with his glass upon everything ... One day, at the dinner table, his father took up a piece of cheese.

'Don't eat that father,' said the boy, 'it is full of wrigglers.'

'My son,' replied the old gentleman, taking a huge bite, 'let' em wriggle; I can stand it if they can.'"

To say that Lincoln grew in office is to underestimate his true achievement. Long before his fateful visit to Ford's Theater, his life had become a parable of sacrifice, not success. In his growing spirituality, Lincoln did not, like some modern-day politicians, presume to know God's agenda. Still less did he arrogate to himself the role of national theologian. "It's been my experience," he once mused aloud, "that folks who have no vices have generally few virtues." Nevertheless, his death on Good Friday struck powerful chords among his contemporaries. Even now, 133 years after his funeral train made its mournful trek across the Illinois prairie, he remains as vital a part of America's future as he is a venerated relic of our past.

Like all of you, I am deeply mindful of the history that has been made in this city and in this house. Nearly half a century has passed since another Illinois governor, Adlai Stevenson, electrified his countrymen by declaring that it was more important to tell the truth than to win an election. In accepting his party's 1952 presidential nomination, Governor Stevenson eloquently assessed the twentieth century, "the bloodiest, most turbulent of the Christian era," at its mid-point. Today, as we approach the end of that century scarred by war and stained by oppression, the world looks to America for a new birth of freedom - the very prescription made by Lincoln on the field at Gettysburg.

If the Railsplittler retains an undiminished power to move, inspire, and occasionally shame us, perhaps it is because in his perpetual campaign we can see reflected back many of our own ambitions, uncertainties, and drives. Out of his fiery trial emerged the soldier of freedom for whom preserving the Union supplied both a unity of purpose and a ticket to that secular immortality he had first glimpsed as a boy spellbound by Weems' life of Washington. Thus the man in the mirror ensured that he would be remembered and revered as the leader who marshaled the English language and his own matchless talent for manipulating men and events to keep the United States united. Few campaigns have been so richly rewarded.

About this contributor
Richard Norton-Smith is currently the director of the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Library and has written several books. His most recent book, The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick, was the recipient of the prestigious Goldsmith Prize awarded by Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Smith delivered this paper during the 1998 Governor's Lecture in the Humanities in Springfield, Illinois. The IHC wishes to thank him for permission to publish it here.