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SOME INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE
of ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Vy^M. A. MOWRY, LL.D.
SOME INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
By WILLIAM A. MOWRY, LL.D.
The human family is ever fond of heroes. In all ages the dis-
tinguished personages have been reverenced and often worshipped
as demigods. The tendency is to throw a halo around those who in
former times were the leaders of men.
Our own country in the earlier days of its history offered un-
usual facilities for hero-worship. Many people think that the life
of Washington has been too much idealized to give us a correct view
of his character and achievements. In a true sense, doubtless, he
was "First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his country-
Then, among our people the tendency is to extol the merits
of Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, and many others ; among the rich
to favor Gerard, Astor and others of more recent day ; among states-
men, Webster, Clay, Calhoun ; among orators, Everett, Cough, Phil-
lips, Beecher, and the like ; among poets, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes
and Whittier, and I might greatly enlarge these lists.
It is the duty of the present age to honor, honestly and with good
judgment, the heroes and great men of the past, but the honor
oft'ered to their memories should be tempered with wisdom and
I fancy that in more recent times there has been less opportunity
for heroic deeds and superior achievements than in the earlier period
of our history. Greater intelligence generally pervades the masses
of the people, and far greater exploits are expected from everybody.
There seems to be less opportunity for rising far above the common
people than in former generations.
Moreover, so much light is now thrown upon all the doings of
public men that their misdeeds and failures become well known, as
well as their great and good achievements.
I have to speak to you this afternoon of "Some Incidents in the
Life of Abraham Lincoln," which may help you to form a just esti-
mate of his character and of what he accomplished. In the first
place I call your attention to the important fact that Lincoln was
what may be called purely a self-educated man, but notice that he
was "broadly educated." I will illustrate this by a single incident.
I well remember that in 1859 Mr. Lincoln lectured in various places
in New England. He spoke in Norwich, Conn., one evening and
the next day went by rail to New Haven. Rev. J. P. Gulliver, D.D.,
then a clergyman of Norwich, rode with him, and on the way a
conversation took place, substantially as follows : Mr. Gulliver said :
"Mr. Lincoln, I understand that you are a self-educated man and I
have frequently observed that such men generally fail in analytical
reasoning. They seem to lack the power of logical analysis. Now I
was struck last evening, with your unusual power of logical analysis
— of correct reasoning. How did you acquire it?"
"Ho! Mr. Gulliver," said Lincoln, "I'll tell you that. You
see, when I was but a kid, at any rate, when I was in my teens, I
was studying law in a law-shop and pretty soon the question came
up to my mind, 'When is a thing proved? What is proof?' Then I
was floored, 'What is proof? I don't know.' Then I asked my-
self, 'Lincoln, what business have you in a law-shop, if you can't
tell when a thing is proved ?' Well, I left the office and went home.
It was in the fall of the year. Soon after that an old book fell into
my hands and I looked into it and noticed it was full of printed
matter and lines, diagrams, triangles, etc., and as I read the print I
could not make head nor tail out of it. It was all choctaw to me.
Well, I turned back to the first page and read what it said and
studied the triangles, and I said : 'That is true. I see that.' Then I
read the next one, and, 'That's easy,' and so on. I understood it all.
That book was Playfair's Euclid, and that winter I went through
the book alone, plain and solid Geometry, and learned it all. I
mastered the Geometry. So, it happened that in the Spring one day,
I said to myself: 'Lincoln, do you know when a thing is proved?'
and I answered quick, 'Yes, sir, I do.' 'Well, then, you can go back
to the law-shop,' and back I went."
Mr. Gulliver published an account of this conversation in a
weekly paper and I read it, at the time it was published. I have
never forgotten the story of Lincoln and his Euclid.
That trip of Lincoln's to New York and New England including
his great speech in Cooper Institute made him President.
Nicolay and Hay in their great work on Lincoln give their
estimate of the effect of these addresses upon the minds of Eastern
people. They say: "In New England he met the same enthusiastic,
popular reception and left the same marked impression upon his
more critical and learned hearers. They found no little surprise in
the fact that a Western politician, springing from the class of un-
lettered frontiersmen, could not only mold plain, strong words into
fresh and attractive phraseology, but maintain a clear, sustained,
convincing argument, equal in force and style to the best examples
in their college text-books."
Skilled Orator and Debater.
Born, as Mr. Lincoln was, in extreme poverty and debarred
from all the advantages of school education, he conquered great
obstacles, rose rapidly in spite of all the drawbacks, and became a
remarkably skillful orator and debater.
A well known incident illustrates this.
One of the most important arguments in the extremely vigorous
and brilliant discussions between Lincoln and Douglas was at Free-
The story has been told after this fashion: Lincoln prepared
some questions for Douglas to answer. Among them was this : "Can
the people of a United States Territory, in any lawful way, against
the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from
its limits, prior to the formation of a State Constitution?"
At his headquarters Lincoln submitted this question to his
friends before the debate came off. They strongly implored him not
to ask that question, Lincoln persisted in his determination to force
Douglas to answer it. "Finally his friends in a chorus cried out:
Tf you do, you can never be Senator,' 'Gentlemen,' replied Lincoln,
T am after larger game ; if Douglas answers it he can never be
President, and the battle of 1860 is worth a hundred of this.' "
A Great Statesman
Lincoln was a great statesman. Early in the war occurred the
Trent affair, when Seward, Secretary of State, prepared a very deli-
cate despatch to Great Britain, which of course was submitted to the
President. Lincoln found one or two places where by changing a
few words a belligerent sentence could be toned down to a mild and
friendly meaning. It has been generally — if not universally — un-
derstood that this simple, statesmanlike act of the great President
saved us from a war with England, which doubtless would have
established the Confederacy of the South.
Many years ago I met Governor Curtin, the war-governor of
Pennsylvania, in Washington. It was in the office of Col. Dawson,
the United States Commissioner of Education. He told me several,
memorable incidents, relating to Mr. Lincoln.
I must be pardoned if I relate one that did not deal with Lincoln,
but had special reference to himself, although in a way connected
with the White House. Governor Curtin said : "On one occasion I
ran over to the White House to see Lincoln for a moment, on busi-
ness, and in the waiting room I observed a woman dressed in black
I approached her and asked if I could be of any assistance to
her. She replied that she wanted to see the President, but she could
not gain admittance to him. I asked her what the case might be,
and was told that she was from Pennsylvania, that her son was in
the army, that a telegram told her that he was shot in battle and that
he probably would not live. She had hastened down to the army in
season to see her boy alive, but he had died and was buried, that
on her return she had reached Washington when her money was
exhausted and she could go no further. She was without friends in
the city and she did not know what to do. As a last resort she
had tried to see the President, but could get no further — could not
secure access to him.
The Governor told her that he w^as the man she needed to see.
He was the Governor of Pennsylvania and inquired how much she
needed to relieve her present embarrassment and carry her to her
home. Having handed her what money she required, he called a
hack and telling the driver to take her to her hotel, he paid him
liberally, and sent them off.
Then the Governor went upstairs, transacted what business he
had with the President and started on foot down Pennsylvania
Just after passing Willard's, he observed that hack drawn up to
the sidewalk and the driver — who now showed that he was a drunken
Irishman — standing at the hack door and telling the woman to "Git
out. You've rode fur 'nough." She was insisting that he must
carry her to her hotel. She had heard the Governor tell him so.
"No, you must git out. You've rode fur 'nough." Governor Curtin
pulled the man away from the door and began to upbraid him. The
Irishman showed fight, and, in telling it Curtin said: "I really
thought I should have to fight that drunken Irishman right
there on the sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue, when, on looking
down street I saw a solitary Pennsylvania Bucktail coming up the
Avenue with his musket on his shoulder. I stepped up to him and
told him the case, and, putting a $5.00 bill in his hand, I said to
him, 'Now lick him.' He pitched in and at first the Irishman was too
much for him, but finally he got the best of the drunken driver, and
on cuffing him soundly on each side of his head, the fellow begged
and promised to do anything he wanted. He was let up and put on
the box, and the Bucktail beside him, when I told him to see that
she was landed safely at her hotel and if the driver did not behave
himself to prick him with his bayonet."
The telling of this story seemed to arouse Curtin's memory as
he sat tipped back in his chair against the wall. He then told story
after story of Lincoln. Finally, there came a lull, as he sat there
with his eyes closed. Soon he brought his chair forward, opened his
eyes, made an emphatic gesture, and with earnestness and force
snapped out this statement: "Lincoln! Lincoln! Lmcoln was the
cunningest man I ever saw." I interposed with: "Cunning? You
"No ! I mean cunning." Then followed the story of what hap-
pened when Lee "came over the mountain wall," prior to the Battle
of Gettysburg. Governor Curtin, in substance, said : "I hastened to
Washington to confer with the President. Mr. Lincoln said: 'Gov-
ernor, call out the Pennsylvania militia at once.' I replied : 'But I
can't, Mr. President. The Legislature only can call them out.'
'Well, then, call the Legislature together.' 'There is not time.'
'Then take the responsibility yourself and summon the militia. They
will obey the Governor's call.' 'Yes, but Mr. President — they must
be paid. Who will pay them?' Then the President said: 'I will
stand behind you, Governor. I will recommend in my message to
Congress to reimburse you.' 'Will you do that?'
" 'Yes, I will, and Congress will certainly do it.' 'Then,' I re-
plied, "I will call them out,' and I did.
"Well, when the battle was over and Lee had recrossed the
Potomac, I went to Philadelphia and called together the Bank
Presidents. I told them the circumstances and said that the militia
must be paid and all the other expenses the Commonwealth of
Pennsylvania had incurred on account of the Gettysburg campaign.
T asked them to loan me the money, $700,000 strong, on my own per-
sonal notes, the only surety in the case being the promise of Presi-
"The notes were discounted, with my personal signature and no
"The first Monday in December came around ; the President's
message went to Congress and it said not one word concerning the
payment of this Pennsylvania debt. Naturally, I took an early train
for Washington and at once called at the White House. I found the
President very cordial, cheerful and agreeable, but he said nothing
about his promise. I broached the subject myself and said to him
that he had not kept his pledge to me. He asked, 'What pledge?'
I told him. He dropped his head and said : 'Why, no, I didn't. Gov-
ernor. The fact was, when I talked the matter over with Mr.
Seward, he told me that would never do.' 'Would never do? What
do you mean?' 'Why, Governor, if I should recommend in my
message the payment of that bill, other states would put in their
claims to be reimbursed for this and that until by and by some
member of Congress would go to the tailor and order a suit of
clothes and tell the tailor to send the bill to me. Do you suppose
that I should pay it?' 'No, Mr. President, I don't think you would,
unless you had promised to.'
Lincoln dropped his head, looked down upon the table,
thought a few seconds and then deliberately rose, came around that
long table — it was in the cabinet room and I was sitting in one of
those chairs with long arms — sat down on the arm of my chair,
threw his long legs over mine, put his left arm around my neck,
and looking directly into my eyes, while playing with a buttonhole in
my coat, said : 'Governor, I want you to let up on me on that
promise. As President of the United States, I ask you to let up on
me. Will you?' 'Why, of course, I suppose I shall have to, if you
ask it in that way, Mr. President.' 'Thank you. Governor, thank
you,' said Lincoln and went around the table and resumed his seat.
He said no more on that subject, but was perfectly at ease as though
the whole matter had entirely dropped from his mind.
"I soon left the White House and went directly over to the
Capitol. I immediately called on that 'Great Commoner' from Penn-
sylvania, Thad. Stevens. I told him what had happened at the
White House. He was greatly excited. 'He asked you to let up on
him? And you did so? (an expletive). He had no business to
make such a request and (another expletive) you had no business
to do it. Let's go and see him.'
"We immediately went over to the White House. We met the
President and Stevens at once said: 'Mr. President, the Governor
says that you asked him to let up on you about that Pennsylvania
militia business. Did you?'
" 'Yes, Mr. Stevens, I did.'
(Another Stevens' expletive.) " 'You'd no business to ask him
to do any such thing and he'd no business to do it.' (Shaking his
fist at the President.)
•"Hold on, Mr. Stevens,' said Lincoln. 'Not so fast. Keep cool.
This is merely a business proposition. Mr. Stevens, you are chair-
man of the Committee on Ways and Means in the House, are you
not?' 'Well, what if I am. What has that to do with your keeping
your promises?' 'Softly, Mr. Stevens, softly, it has this to do with
it. You bring in a bill from your committee and I will leg it for you.
You see, it wouldn't do for me, as President, to recommend the pay-
ment of this bill, on account of its influence on other states. But
a bill from your committee will receive attention, we will all express
ourselves favorable to it, it will pass both houses, I'll sign it, and no
precedent will be established.' Ah! Wasn't he cunning! The old
fox! He foresaw the difficulty in keeping his promise, and he had
thought out this scheme to avoid the rock. Long headed, I say.
That's statesmanship!" And the aged Governor settled back in his
chair, closed his eyes, and resumed his reflections. There is no end
to the stories told of him, illustrating his farseeing statesmanship.
But I must hasten. The final trait of Mr. Lincoln's character,
of which I wish to speak, was
He was a whole-souled man, a broad-minded man, with large, un-
limited fellow-feeling, great benevolence, noble philanthropy.
In the city of York, Pennsylvania, some years ago, I met that
noted editor and lecturer. Col Alexander McClure, a close friend
of Lincoln. He related many thrilling incidents of the Civil War
and of Lincoln. Among them the following: The President sent for
him one day to come to the White House on important public busi-
ness. As always, he responded at once. The interview occurred in
the evening — Thursday evening. The business being over, the
Colonel arose to withdraw. "Don't go," said the President, 'T want
you to stay. Stay here awhile with me." Later, the Colonel pro-
posed again to leave, but Lincoln induced him to remain. Finally, he
felt that he must go. "No, no," said Lincoln. "Don't go yet." "But,
Mr. President," said McClure, "it is time you were asleep and getting
needed rest for tomorrow's duties." "Sleep! Sleep!" Said the
President, "I can't sleep tonight. Don't you know what night it is?
This is Thursday. Tomorrow is Friday — hangman's day! Tomor-
row many of those poor soldiers will be shot. I can't sleep tonight."
Ah, my friends! Think of that! It is for various reasons that the
old adage has gained universal acceptance — "Uneasy lies the head
that wears the crown." But where will you find a case like that.
"I cannot sleep tonight. Tomorrow is hangman's day."
Here is another instance. Among other stories that Governor
Curtin told me that day in Washington was the following: Just
after the unfortunate Battle of Fredericksburg, Curtin had been
down to the battlefield, and on his return reached Washington at
midnight. As he landed from the steamboat at the foot of Seventh
Street, a messenger saluted him and said that the President wanted
to see him at once at the White House. Taking a carriage, a few
minutes brought him to the President's house. He was told that
Mr. Lincoln had retired for the night. He sent in his card and
the word came back that the President was in bed, but wanted to
see him in his bedroom. Lincoln's salutation was something after
this style : Having greeted the Governor, he said : "Well, Governor,
you have been down to the battlefield." "Battlefield! Slaughter
pen! It was a terrible slaughter, Mr. President." Then Curtin
added, "I was sorry in a moment that I had said that, for he groaned,
wrung his hands and showed great agony of spirit. He sat up on
the edge of the bed and moaned and groaned in anguish. He walked
the floor, wringing his hands and uttering exclamations of grief,
and I remember of his saying over and over again : 'What has God
put me in this place for.' I tried to comfort him, and by and by, I
got him into bed again. But I didn't dare to leave him. After a
time I succeeded in getting him so pacified that he told this story :
'Governor, I'll tell you just how I feel.
" 'There was a farmer in Illinois who had a fine apple orchard.
One young tree was bearing its first fruit, and he was anxious to
sample it. Well, he had two boys, young chaps, up to all sorts of
mischief and tricks. So, one day these little imps were in the
orchard, sampling the fruit for themselves. The farmer had a large,
savage, wild boar, imported, and this boar was in the orchard also.
Seeing the boys, the boar went for them. The older one succeeded
in climbing a large tree and was safe. But the boar was too quick
for the little shaver and was chasing him around one of the large
trees. The boar would snap at the running boy and the boy would
grab the boar's tail thus trying to keep away from his head. By
and by he yelled to his brother, 'Bill, Bill, come down, come down!'
'What for?' says Bill. 'To help me let this boar go,' replied Jim.'
Now, Governor, I am like Jim, I wish someone would help me let
this boar go."
Many incidents might be told, and have been told, illustrating
this characteristic of Abraham Lincoln. Sometimes I fancy more
stories are told of this kind than to show any other trait of this noble
My friends, do not even these few incidents from the life of
Abraham Lincoln sufficiently establish his character as the most re-
markable man that this country has ever produced.
He was born February 12, 1809, just 104 years ago. He died
a martyr by the hand of an assassin, April 25, 1865, at the early age
of 56 years — 48 years ago. But he had lived long enough to make
a record on the scroll of time, which the world will continue to
praise for ages to come.
I venture to close these remarks by reading what I consider
the finest, truest, most brilliant, condensed eulogy of Lincoln ever
pronounced by mortal man. I refer to the words spoken by the
great Spanish statesman, Castelar, in a speech in the Spanish Cortes
many years ago.
Castelar's Tribute to Lincoln.
"The Puritans are the patriarchs of Hberty; they opened a new
world on the earth ; they blazed a new path for the human conscience ;
they created a new society. Yet, when England tried to subdue them
and they conquered, the republic triumphed and Slavery remained.
Washington could only emancipate his slaves. Franklin said that the
Virginians could not invoke the name of God, retaining Slavery. Jay
said that all the prayers America sent up to Heaven for the preserva-
tion of liberty while slavery continued, were mere blasphemies.
Mason mourned over the payment his descendants must make for
this great crime of their fathers. Jefferson traced the line where the
black wave of Slavery should be stayed.
"Nevertheless, Slavery increased continually. I beg that you
will pause a moment to consider the man who cleansed this terrible
stain which obscured the stars of the American banner. I beg that
you will pause a moment, for his immortal name has been invoked
for the perpetuation of Slavery. Ah ! the past century has not, the
century to come will not have, a figure so grand, because as evil
disappears, so disappears heroism also.
"I have often contemplated and described his life. Born in a
cabin of Kentucky, of parents who could hardly read ; born a new
Moses in the solitude of the desert, where are forged all great and
obstinate thoughts, monotonous like the desert, and, like the desert,
sublime ; growing up among those primeval forests, which, with
their fragrance, send a cloud of incense, and with their murmurs, a
cloud of prayers to heaven ; a boatman at eight years in the impetuous
current of the Ohio, and at seventeen, in the vast and tranquil waters
of the Mississippi; later, a woodman, with axe and arm felling the
immemorial trees, to open a way to unexplored regions for his tribe
of wandering workers ; reading no other book than the Bible, the
book of great sorrows and great hopes, dictated often by prophets
to the sound of fetters they dragged through Nineveh and Babylon ;
a child of Nature, in a word, by one of those miracles only compre-
hensible among free peoples, he fought for the country, and was
raised by his fellow-citizens to the Congress at Washington, and by
the nation to the Presidency of the Republic ; and when the evil
grew more virulent, when those States were dissolved, when the
slaveholders uttered their war cry and the slaves their groans of de-
spair — the woodcutter, the boatman, the son of the great West, the
descendant of Quakers, humblest of the humble before his con-
science, greatest of the great before history, ascends the Capitol,
the greatest moral height of our time, and strong and serene with his
conscience and his thought ; before him a veteran army, hostile
Europe behind him, England favoring the South, France encourag-
ing reaction in Mexico, in his hands the riven country; he arms two
millions of men, gathers a half million of horses, sends his artillery
1200 miles in a week from the banks of the Potomac to the shores
of Tennessee; fights more than six hundred battles; renews before
Richmond the deeds of Alexander, of Caesar; and, after having eman-
cipated 3,000,000 slaves, that nothing might be wanting, he dies in
the very moment of victory — like Christ, like Socrates, like all re-
deemers, at the foot of his work. His work! Sublime achievement!
over which humanity shall eternally shed its tears, and God his bene-
dictions 1 * * *"
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