There is historic significance in his very appearance. His huge, loose-knit figure, six feet four inches high, lean, muscular, ungainly, the evidence of his great physical strength, was a fit symbol of those hard workers, the children of the soil, from whom he sprang. His face was rugged like his figure, the complexion swarthy, cheek bones high, and bushy black hair crowning a great forehead beneath which the eyes were deep-set, gray, and dreaming. A sort of shambling powerfulness formed the main suggestion of face and figure, softened strangely by the mysterious expression of the eyes, and by the singular delicacy of the skin. The motions of this awkward giant lacked grace; the top hat and black frock coat, sometimes rusty, which had served him on the western circuit continued to serve him when he was virtually the dictator of his country. It was in such dress that he visited the army, where he towered above his generals.
Even in a book of restricted scope, such as this, one must insist upon the distinction between the private and public Lincoln, for there is as yet no accepted conception of him. What comes nearest to an accepted conception is contained probably in the version of the late Charles Francis Adams. He tells us how his father, the elder Charles Francis Adams, ambassador to London, found Lincoln in 1861 an offensive personality, and he insists that Lincoln under strain passed through a transformation which made the Lincoln of 1864 a different man from the Lincoln of 1861. Perhaps; but without being frivolous, one is tempted to quote certain old-fashioned American papers that used to label their news items "important if true."
What then, was the public Lincoln? What explains his vast success? As a force in American history, what does he count for? Perhaps the most significant detail in an answer to these questions is the fact that he had never held conspicuous public office until at the age of fifty-two he became President. Psychologically his place is in that small group of great geniuses whose whole significant period lies in what we commonly think of as the decline of life. There are several such in history: Rome had Caesar; America had both Lincoln and Lee. By contrasting these instances with those of the other type, the egoistic geniuses such as Alexander or Napoleon, we become aware of some dim but profound dividing line separating the two groups. The theory that genius, at bottom, is pure energy seems to fit Napoleon; but does it fit these other minds who appear to meet life with a certain indifference, with a carelessness of their own fate, a willingness to leave much to chance? That irresistible passion for authority which Napoleon had is lacking in these others. Their basal inspiration seems to resemble the impulse of the artist to express, rather than the impulse of the man of action to possess. Had it not been for secession, Lee would probably have ended his days as an exemplary superintendent of West Point. And what of Lincoln? He dabbled in politics, early and without success; he left politics for the law, and to the law he gave during many years his chief devotion. But the fortuitous break-up of parties, with the revival of the slavery issue, touched some hidden spring; the able provincial lawyer felt again the political impulse; he became a famous maker of political phrases; and on this literary basis he became the leader of a party.
Too little attention has been paid to this progression of Lincoln through literature into politics. The ease with which he drifted from one to the other is also still to be evaluated. Did it show a certain slackness, a certain aimlessness, at the bottom of his nature? Had it, in a way, some sort of analogy--to compare homespun with things Olympian--to the vein of frivolity in the great Caesar? One is tempted to think so. Surely, here was one of those natures which need circumstance to compel them to greatness and which are not foredoomed, Napoleon-like, to seize greatness. Without encroaching upon the biographical task, one may borrow from biography this insistent echo: the anecdotes of Lincoln sound over and over the note of easy-going good nature; but there is to be found in many of the Lincoln anecdotes an overtone of melancholy which lingers after one's impression of his good nature. Quite naturally, in such a biographical atmosphere, we find ourselves thinking of him at first as a little too good-humored, a little too easy-going, a little prone to fall into reverie. We are not surprised when we find his favorite poem beginning "Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud."
This enigmatical man became President in his fifty-second year. We have already seen that his next period, the winter of 1860-61, has its biographical problems. The impression which he made on the country as President-elect was distinctly unfavorable. Good humor, or opportunism, or what you will, brought together in Lincoln's Cabinet at least three men more conspicuous in the ordinary sense than he was himself. We forget, today, how insignificant he must have seemed in a Cabinet that embraced Seward, Cameron, and Chase--all large national figures. What would not history give for a page of self-revelation showing us how he felt in the early days of that company! Was he troubled? Did he doubt his ability to hold his own? Was he fatalistic? Was his sad smile his refuge? Did he merely put things by, ignoring tomorrow until tomorrow should arrive?
However we may guess at the answers to such questions, one thing now becomes certain. His quality of good humor began to be his salvation. It is doubtful if any President except Washington had to manage so difficult a Cabinet. Washington had seen no solution to the problem but to let Jefferson go. Lincoln found his Cabinet often on the verge of a split, with two powerful factions struggling to control it and neither ever gaining full control. Though there were numerous withdrawals, no resigning secretary really split Lincoln's Cabinet. By what turns and twists and skillful maneuvers Lincoln prevented such a division and kept such inveterate enemies as Chase and Seward steadily at their jobs--Chase during three years, Seward to the end--will partly appear in the following pages; but the whole delicate achievement cannot be properly appreciated except in detailed biography.
All criticism of Lincoln turns eventually on one question: Was he an opportunist? Not only his enemies in his own time but many politicians of a later day were eager to prove that he was the latter--indeed, seeking to shelter their own opportunism behind the majesty of his example. A modern instance will perhaps make vivid this long standing debate upon Lincoln and his motives.
Merely for historic illumination and without becoming invidious, we may recall the instance of President Wilson and the resignation of his Secretary of War in 1916 because Congress would not meet the issue of preparedness. The President accepted the resignation without forcing the issue, and Congress went on fiddling while Rome burned. Now, was the President an opportunist, merely waiting to see what course events would take, or was he a political strategist, astutely biding his time? Similar in character is this old debate upon Lincoln, which is perhaps best focussed in the removal of Secretary Blair which we shall have to note in connection with the election of 1864.