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Home > Social Studies > Holidays > Presidents Day > Abraham Lincoln > The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln > The Man Who Was President

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Freedom for the Slaves The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - The turning point of the War

Chapter X. The Man Who Was President

The way Mr. Lincoln signed this most important state paper was thoroughly in keeping with his nature. He hated all shams and show and pretense, and being absolutely without affectation of any kind, it would never have occurred to him to pose for effect while signing the Emancipation Proclamation or any other paper. He never thought of himself as a President to be set up before a multitude and admired, but always as a President charged with duties which he owed to every citizen. In fulfilling these he did not stand upon ceremony, but took the most direct way to the end he had in view.

It is not often that a President pleads a cause before Congress. Mr. Lincoln did not find it beneath his dignity at one time to go in person to the Capitol, and calling a number of the leading senators and representatives around him, explain to them, with the aid of a map, his reasons for believing that the final stand of the Confederates would be made in that part of the South where the seven States of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia come together; and strive in this way to interest them in the sad plight of the loyal people of Tennessee who were being persecuted by the Confederate government, but whose mountainous region might, with a little help, be made a citadel of Union strength in the very heart of this stronghold of rebellion.

In his private life he was entirely simple and unaffected. Yet he had a deep sense of what was due his office, and took part with becoming dignity in all official or public ceremonies. He received the diplomats sent to Washington from the courts of Europe with a formal and quiet reserve which made them realize at once that although this son of the people had been born in a log cabin, he was ruler of a great nation, and more than that, was a prince by right of his own fine instincts and good breeding.

He was ever gentle and courteous, but with a few quiet words he could silence a bore who had come meaning to talk to him for hours. For his friends he had always a ready smile and a quaintly turned phrase. His sense of humor was his salvation. Without it he must have died of the strain and anxiety of the Civil War. There was something almost pathetic in the way he would snatch a moment from his pressing duties and gravest cares to listen to a good story or indulge in a hearty laugh. Some people could not understand this. To one member of his cabinet, at least, it seemed strange and unfitting that he should read aloud to them a chapter from a humorous book by Artemus Ward before taking up the weighty matter of the Emancipation Proclamation. From their point of view it showed lack of feeling and frivolity of character, when, in truth, it was the very depth of his feeling, and the intensity of his distress at the suffering of the war, that led him to seek relief in laughter, to gather from the comedy of life strength to go on and meet its sternest tragedy.

He was a social man. He could not fully enjoy even a jest alone. He wanted somebody to share the pleasure with him. Often when care kept him awake late at night he would wander through the halls of the Executive Mansion, and coming to the room where his secretaries were still at work, would stop to read to them some poem, or a passage from Shakspere, or a bit from one of the humorous books in which he found relief. No one knew better than he what could be cured, and what must be patiently endured. To every difficulty that he could remove he gave cheerful and uncomplaining thought and labor. The burdens he could not shake off he bore with silent courage, lightening them whenever possible with the laughter that he once described as the "universal joyous evergreen of life."

It would be a mistake to suppose that he cared only for humorous reading. Occasionally he read a scientific book with great interest, but his duties left him little time for such indulgences. Few men knew the Bible more thoroughly than he did, and his speeches are full of scriptural quotations. The poem beginning "Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?" was one of his favorites, and Dr. Holmes's "Last Leaf" was another. Shakespere was his constant delight. A copy of Shakespere's works was even to be found in the busy Executive Office, from which most books were banished. The President not only liked to read the great poet's plays, but to see them acted; and when the gifted actor Hackett came to Washington, he was invited to the White House, where the two discussed the character of Falstaff, and the proper reading of many scenes and passages.

While he was President, Mr. Lincoln did not attempt to read the newspapers. His days were long, beginning early and ending late, but they were not long enough for that. One of his secretaries brought him a daily memorandum of the important news they contained. His mail was so enormous that he personally read only about one in every hundred of the letters sent him.

His time was principally taken up with interviews with people on matters of importance, with cabinet meetings, conferences with his generals, and other affairs requiring his close and immediate attention. If he had leisure he would take a drive in the late afternoon, or perhaps steal away into the grounds south of the Executive Mansion to test some new kind of gun, if its inventor had been fortunate enough to bring it to his notice. He was very quick to understand mechanical contrivances, and would often suggest improvements that had not occurred to the inventor himself.

For many years it has been the fashion to call Mr. Lincoln homely. He was very tall, and very thin. His eyes were deep-sunken, his skin of a sallow pallor, his hair coarse, black, and unruly. Yet he was neither ungraceful, nor awkward, nor ugly. His large features fitted his large frame, and his large hands and feet were but right on a body that measured six feet four inches. His was a sad and thoughtful face, and from boyhood he had carried a load of care. It was small wonder that when alone, or absorbed in thought, the face should take on deep lines, the eyes appear as if seeing something beyond the vision of other men, and the shoulders stoop, as though they too were bearing a weight. But in a moment all would be changed. The deep eyes could flash, or twinkle merrily with humor, or look out from under overhanging brows as they did upon the Five Points children in kindliest gentleness. In public speaking, his tall body rose to its full height, his head was thrown back, his face seemed transfigured with the fire and earnestuess of his thought, and his voice took on a high clear tenor tone that carried his words and ideas far out over the listening crowds. At such moments, when answering Douglas in the heat of their joint-debate, or later, during the years of war, when he pronounced with noble gravity the words of his famous addresses, not one in the throngs that heard him could say with truth that he was other than a handsome man.

It has been the fashion, too, to say that he was slovenly, and careless in his dress. This also is a mistake. His clothes could not fit smoothly on his gaunt and bony frame. He was no tailor's figure of a man; but from the first he clothed himself as well as his means allowed, and in the fashion of the time and place. In reading the grotesque stories of his boyhood, of the tall stripling whose trousers left exposed a length of shin, it must be remembered not only how poor he was, but that he lived on the frontier, where other boys, less poor, were scarcely better clad. In Vandalia, the blue jeans he wore was the dress of his companions as well, and later, from Springfield days on, clear through his presidency, his costume was the usual suit of black broadcloth, carefully made, and scrupulously neat. He cared nothing for style. It did not matter to him whether the man with whom he talked wore a coat of the latest cut, or owned no coat at all. It was the man inside the coat that interested him.

In the same way he cared little for the pleasures of the table. He ate most sparingly. He was thankful that food was good and wholesome and enough for daily needs, but he could no more enter into the mood of the epicure for whose palate it is a matter of importance whether he eats roast goose or golden pheasant, than he could have counted the grains of sand under the sea.

In the summers, while he was President, he spent the nights at a cottage at the Soldiers' Home, a short distance north of Washington, riding or driving out through the gathering dusk, and returning to the White House after a frugal breakfast in the early morning. Ten o'clock was the hour at which he was supposed to begin receiving visitors, but it was often necessary to see them unpleasantly early. Occasionally they forced their way to his bedroom before he had quite finished dressing. Throngs of people daily filled his office, the ante-rooms, and even the corridors of the public part of the Executive Mansion. He saw them all, those he had summoned on important business, men of high official position who came to demand as their right offices and favors that he had no right to give; others who wished to offer tiresome if well-meant advice; and the hundreds, both men and women, who pressed forward to ask all sorts of help. His friends besought him to save himself the weariness of seeing the people at these public receptions, but he refused. "They do not want much, and they get very little," he answered. "Each one considers his business of great importance, and I must gratify them. I know how I would feel if I were in their place." And at noon on all days except Tuesday and Friday, when the time was occupied by meetings of the cabinet, the doors were thrown open, and all who wished might enter. That remark of his, "I know how I would feel if I were in their place," explained it all. His early experience of life had drilled him well for these ordeals. He had read deeply in the book of human nature, and could see the hidden signs of falsehood and deceit and trickery from which the faces of some of his visitors were not free; but he knew, too, the hard, practical side of life, the hunger, cold, storms, sickness and misfortune that the average man must meet in his struggle with the world. More than all, he knew and sympathized with that hope deferred which makes the heart sick.

Not a few men and women came, sad-faced and broken-hearted, to plead for soldier sons or husbands in prison, or under sentence of death by court-martial. An inmate of the White House has recorded the eagerness with which the President caught at any fact that would justify him in saving the life of a condemned soldier. He was only merciless when meanness or cruelty were clearly proved. Cases of cowardice he disliked especially to punish with death. "It would frighten the poor devils too terribly to shoot them," he said. On the papers in the case of one soldier who had deserted and then enlisted again, he wrote: "Let him fight, instead of shooting him."

He used to call these cases of desertion his "leg cases," and sometimes when considering them, would tell the story of the Irish soldier, upbraided by his captain, who replied: "Captain, I have a heart in me breast as brave as Julius Caesar, but when I go into battle, Sor, these cowardly legs of mine will run away with me."

As the war went on, Mr. Lincoln objected more and more to approving sentences of death by court-martial, and either pardoned them outright, or delayed the execution "until further orders," which orders were never given by the great-hearted, merciful man. Secretary Stanton and certain generals complained bitterly that if the President went on pardoning soldiers he would ruin the discipline of the Army ; but Secretary Stanton had a warm heart, and it is doubtful if he ever willingly enforced the justice that he criticized the President for tempering with so much mercy.

Yet Mr. Lincoln could be sternly just when necessary. A law declaring the slave trade to be piracy had stood on the statute books of the United States for half a century. Lincoln's administration was the first to convict a man under it, and Lincoln himself decreed that the well-deserved sentence be carried out.

Mr. Lincoln sympathized keenly with the hardships and trials of the soldier boys, and found time, amid all his labors and cares, to visit the hospitals in and around Washington where they lay ill. His afternoon drive was usually to some camp in the neighborhood of the city; and when he visited one at a greater distance, the cheers that greeted him as he rode along the line with the commanding general showed what a warm place he held in their hearts.

He did not forget the unfortunate on these visits. A story is told of his interview with William Scott, a boy from a Vermont farm, who, after marching forty-eight hours without sleep, volunteered to stand guard for a sick comrade. Weariness overcame him, and he was found asleep at his post, within gunshot of the enemy. He was tried, and sentenced to be shot. Mr. Lincoln heard of the case, and went himself to the tent where young Scott was kept under guard. He talked to him kindly, asking about his home, his schoolmates, and particularly about his mother. The lad took her picture from his pocket, and showed it to him without speaking. Mr. Lincoln was much affected. As he rose to leave he laid his hand on the prisoner s shoulder. "My boy," he said, "you are not going to be shot to-morrow. I believe you when you tell me that you could not keep awake. I am going to trust you, and send you back to your regiment. Now, I want to know what you intend to pay for all this?" The lad, overcome with gratitude, could hardly say a word, but crowding down his emotions, managed to answer that he did not know. He and his people were poor, they would do what they could. There was his pay, and a little in the savings bank. They could borrow something by a mortgage on the farm. Perhaps his comrades would help. If Mr. Lincoln would wait until pay day possibly they might get together five or six hundred dollars. Would that be enough? The kindly President shook his head. "My bill is a great deal more than that," he said. "It is a very large one. Your friends cannot pay it, nor your family, nor your farm. There is only one man in the world who can pay it, and his name is William Scott. If from this day he does his duty so that when he comes to die he can truly say "I have kept the promise I gave the President. I have done my duty as a soldier,' then the debt will be paid." Young Scott went back to his regiment, and the debt was fully paid a few months later, for he fell in battle.

Mr. Lincoln's own son became a soldier after leaving college. The letter his father wrote to General Grant in his behalf shows how careful he was that neither his official position nor his desire to give his boy the experience he wanted, should work the least injustice to others:

Executive Mansion,

Washington, January 19th, 1865.

Lieutenant-General Grant:

Please read and answer this letter as though I was not President, but only a friend. My son, now in his twenty-second year, having graduated at Harvard, wishes to see something of the war before it ends. I do not wish to put him in the ranks, nor yet to give him a commission, to which those who have already served long are better entitled, and better qualified to hold. Could he, without embarrassment to you, or detriment to the service, go into your military family with some nominal rank, I and not the public furnishing the necessary means? If no, say so without the least hesitation, because I am as anxious and as deeply interested that you shall not be encumbered as you can be yourself.

Yours truly,

A. Lincoln.

His interest did not cease with the life of a young soldier. Among his most beautiful letters are those he wrote to sorrowing parents who had lost their sons in battle; and when his personal friend, young Ellsworth, one of the first and most gallant to fall, was killed at Alexandria, the President directed that his body be brought to the White House, where his funeral was held in the great East Room.

Though a member of no church, Mr. Lincoln was most sincerely religious and devout. Not only was his daily life filled with acts of forbearance and charity; every great state paper that he wrote breathes his faith and reliance on a just and merciful God. He rarely talked, even with intimate friends, about matters of belief, but it is to be doubted whether any among the many people who came to give him advice and sometimes to pray with him, had a better right to be called a Christian. He always received such visitors courteously, with a reverence for their good intention, no matter how strangely it sometimes manifested itself. A little address that he made to some Quakers who came to see him in September, 1862, shows both his courtesy to them personally, and his humble attitude toward God.

"I am glad of this interview, and glad to know that I have your sympathy and prayers. We are indeed going through a great trial, a fiery trial. In the very responsible position in which I happen to be placed, being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father as I am, and as we all are, to work out His great purposes, I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to His will, and that it might be so I have sought His aid; but if, after endeavoring to do my best in the light which he affords me, I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise. If I had had my way, this war would never have been commenced. If I had been allowed my way, this war would have been ended before this; but we find it still continues, and we must believe that He permits it for some wise purpose of His own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe that He who made the world still governs it."

Children held a warm place in the President's affections. He was not only a devoted father; his heart went out to all little folk. He had been kind to babies in his boyish days, when, book in hand, and the desire for study upon him, he would sit with one foot on the rocker of a rude frontier cradle, not too selfishly busy to keep its small occupant lulled and content, while its mother went about her household tasks. After he became President many a sad-eyed woman carrying a child in her arms went to see him, and the baby always had its share in gaining her a speedy hearing, and if possible a favorable answer to her petition.

When children came to him at the White House of their own accord, as they sometimes did, the favors they asked were not refused because of their youth. One day a small boy, watching his chance, slipped into the Executive Office between a governor and a senator, when the door was opened to admit them. They were as much astonished at seeing him there as the President was, and could not explain his presence; but he spoke for himself. He had come, he said, from a little country town, hoping to get a place as page in the House of Representatives. The President began to tell him that he must go to Captain Goodnow, the doorkeeper of the House, for he himself had nothing to do with such appointments. Even this did not discourage the little fellow. Very earnestly he pulled his papers of recommendation out of his pocket, and Mr. Lincoln, unable to resist his wistful face, read them, and sent him away happy with a hurried line written on the back of them, saying: "If Captain Goodnow can give this good little boy a place, he will oblige A. Lincoln."

It was a child who persuaded Mr. Lincoln to wear a beard. Up to the time he was nominated for President he had always been smooth-shaven. A little girl living in Chautauqua County, New York, who greatly admired him, made up her mind that he would look better if he wore whiskers, and with youthful directness wrote and told him so. He answered her by return mail:

Springfield, ILL., Oct. 19, 1860.

Miss Grace Bedelt,

My dear little Miss: Your very agreeable letter of the fifteenth is received. I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughter. I have three sons, one seventeen, one nine, and one seven years of age. They, with their mother, constitute my whole family. As to the whiskers, never having worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I were to begin now?

Your very sincere well-wisher,

A. Lincoln.

Evidently on second thoughts he decided to follow her advice. On his way to Washington his train stopped at the town where she lived. He asked if she were in the crowd gathered at the station to meet him. Of course she was, and willing hands forced a way for her through the mass of people. When she reached the car Mr. Lincoln stepped from the train, kissed her, and showed her that he had taken her advice.

The Secretary who wrote about the President's desire to save the lives of condemned soldiers tells us that "during the first year of the administration the house was made lively by the games and pranks of Mr. Lincoln's two younger children, William and Thomas. Robert the eldest was away at Harvard, only coming home for short vacations. The two little boys, aged eight and ten, with their western independence and enterprise, kept the house in an uproar. They drove their tutor wild with their good-natured disobedience. They organized a minstrel show in the attic; they made acquaintance with the office-seekers and became the hot champions of the distressed. William was, with all his boyish frolic, a child of great promise, capable of close application and study. He had a fancy for drawing up railway time-tables, and would conduct an imaginary train from Chicago to New York with perfect precision. He wrote childish verses, which sometimes attained the unmerited honors of print. But this bright, gentle and studious child sickened and died in February, 1862. His father was profoundly moved by his death, though he gave no outward sign of his trouble, but kept about his work, the same as ever. His bereaved heart seemed afterwards to pour out its fulness on his youngest child. 'Tad' was a merry, warm-blooded, kindly little boy, perfectly lawless, and full of odd fancies and inventions, the 'chartered libertine' of the Executive Mansion." He ran constantly in and out of his father's office, interrupting his gravest labors. Mr. Lincoln was never too busy to hear him, or to answer his bright, rapid, imperfect speech, for he was not able to speak plainly until he was nearly grown. "He would perch upon his father's knee, and sometimes even on his shoulder, while the most weighty conferences were going on. Sometimes, escaping from the domestic authorities, he would take refuge in that sanctuary for the whole evening, dropping to sleep at last on the floor, when the President would pick him up, and carry him tenderly to bed."

The letters and even the telegrams Mr. Lincoln sent his wife had always a message for or about Tad. One of them shows that his pets, like their young master, were allowed great liberty. It was written when the family was living at the Soldiers' Home, and Mrs. Lincoln and Tad had gone away for a visit. "Tell dear Tad," he wrote, "that poor Nanny Goat is lost, and Mrs. Cuthbert and I are in distress about it. The day you left, Nanny was found resting herself and chewing her little cud on the middle of Tad's bed; but now she's gone! The gardener kept complaining that she destroyed the flowers, till it was concluded to bring her down to the White House. This was done, and the second day she had disappeared and has not been heard of since. This is the last we know of poor Nanny."

Tad was evidently consoled by, not one, but a whole family of new goats, for about a year later Mr. Lincoln ended a business telegram to his wife in New York with the words: "Tell Tad the goats and Father are very well." Then, as the weight of care rolled back upon this greathearted, patient man, he added, with humorous weariness, "especially the goats."

Mr. Lincoln was so forgetful of self as to be absolutely without personal fear. He not only paid no attention to the threats which were constantly made against his life, but when, on July 11, 1864, the Confederate General Early appeared suddenly and unexpectedly before the city with a force of 17,000 men, and Washington was for two days actually in danger of assault and capture, his unconcern gave his friends great uneasiness. On the tenth he rode out, as was his custom, to spend the night at the Soldiers' Home, but Secretary Stanton, learning that Early was advancing, sent after him, to compel his return. Twice afterward, intent upon watching the fighting which took place near Fort Stevens, north of the city, he exposed his tall form to the gaze and bullets of the enemy, utterly heedless of his own peril; and it was not until an officer had fallen mortally wounded within a few feet of him, that he could be persuaded to seek a place of greater safety.

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Freedom for the Slaves The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - The turning point of the War

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The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln


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The Champion of Freedom

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Lincoln and the War

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