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Lincoln’s private thoughts on fate, failure, slavery, and belief

In 1856, Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer and erstwhile politician whose first and only term in the House of Representatives was then seven years in the past, penned a note on a small piece of paper. In it, he compared himself to Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, whom he would later face in a celebrated series of debates. Struggling with a keen sense of failure, deeply wounded by his defeat the year before in a bid for the state’s other Senate seat, Lincoln confessed his feelings in a note that he never expected anyone to see. It read:

Twenty-two years ago Judge Douglas and I first became acquainted. We were both young then; he a trifle younger than I. Even then, we were both ambitious; I, perhaps, quite as much so as he. With me, the race of ambition has been a failure — a flat failure; with him it has been one of splendid success.

Such private thoughts of a public person amount to a Holy Grail for scholars. As the author of a biography and two other books on Lincoln, I have always wished that he had kept a journal. Perhaps he did — perhaps it is out there, waiting to be excavated from some dusty archive. In the meantime, there is something else, an approximation that I have taken to calling Lincoln’s Diary: an assortment of reflections and ruminations he wrote on little slips of paper, sometimes on the backs of envelopes, throughout his entire adult life. He saved these notes in the drawers of his desk, among his other papers, and even in his top hat.

Illustration by Matthew Richardson

After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, his secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, found and saved many of these notes. Lincoln did not title, date, or sign his ruminations, yet there was never a question about the author: the slain president’s distinctive handwriting made for easy identification.

Nicolay and Hay dutifully included these jottings in their twelve-volume Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln (1894). They described them as “fragments,” a term retained by Roy P. Basler and his fellow editors for The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (1953). For the most part, they have been overlooked by scholars and general readers alike. Why? Perhaps it is their scattershot configuration: like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, they are spread across massive, multivolume collections of Lincoln’s writings, as the respective editors attempt to place them by date.

Yet they are invaluable. Willie Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner in Springfield, once described his colleague as the “most shut-mouthed man” who ever lived. In these notes, Lincoln opens his mouth to express not only his ideas but also his feelings and fears, in ways he never did in public. He uses them as a means to debate with himself about the moral, political, social, and religious issues swirling around him. Seeing them in their totality — as opposed to the isolated treatment they have received from scholars in the past — offers a fresh perspective on Lincoln, just when we thought there was nothing new to say about this titanic figure, who has already been the subject of as many as sixteen thousand books.

In 1850, during his temporary exile from politics, Lincoln was practicing law throughout Illinois’s Eighth Judicial Circuit, which then encompassed an area more than twice the size of Connecticut. Sometime during that year, he made a series of notes for a lecture about the legal profession. There is no record of Lincoln ever delivering such a lecture. Yet the notes reveal his thinking about the law, as well as his reflexive modesty and grasp of human nature:

I am not an accomplished lawyer. I find quite as much material for a lecture in those points where I have failed, as in those wherein I have been moderately successful. . . .

Extemporaneous speaking should be practiced and cultivated. It is the lawyer’s avenue to the public. However able and faithful he may be in other respects, people are slow to bring him business if he cannot make a speech. . . .

Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often the real loser — in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a surprising opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.

The first sentence is remarkable. By this time, Lincoln was in fact a renowned lawyer: he seems to have tried more cases over the following decade than any other attorney on the circuit, and his clientele included the Illinois Central Railroad. Imagine a modern-day leader in any field beginning a lecture with such self-deprecation.

Given the importance of oratory in Lincoln’s rise as a lawyer and politician, the stress on “extemporaneous speaking” makes sense — and points ahead to his role as the most eloquent of American presidents. So does his vision of the lawyer as peacemaker. Like their contemporary counterparts, people in frontier states were prepared to “go to law” over the least aggravation. Lincoln might well have encouraged such knee-jerk litigation: Was it not the very source of a lawyer’s business? Instead he pointed out that the winner was hardly distinguishable from the loser. And then, as if anticipating a question from his imagined audience of law students, he offered some vocational reassurance: “There will still be business enough.”

A debate has raged in recent years about Lincoln’s true thoughts regarding slavery. Some have claimed that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a shrewd political and military move but that he evinced no real feeling for the slaves themselves. His Diary, however, allows us to peer behind the proclamations and speeches and hear the private man wrestle with slavery and its impact on its victims.

One early fragment leaps off the page. While serving in Congress in 1848, Lincoln wrote a note about his concerns over the war with Mexico. He worried that the desire of Southern leaders to acquire territory would “enlarge and aggravate the distracting question of slavery.” It is startling, then, to read the thirty-nine-year-old Lincoln declare, “Should I come into the presidency before these questions shall be settled, I should act in relation to them in accordance with the views here expressed.”

The traditional view is that Lincoln did not begin to think about himself as a candidate for president until at least a decade later. And during those years, he never made such categorical statements about the expansion of slavery in public. In private, however, his views kept evolving — spurred by events like the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Steered through the Senate by Lincoln’s old rival Stephen Douglas, the bill essentially allowed the inhabitants of US territories to make their own decisions about the spread of slavery. Lincoln jotted down his emotional response to the bill: “We were thunderstruck and stunned; and we reeled and fell in utter confusion.” Yet he continued the conversation with himself, working through the sham logic of the “peculiar institution” like the lawyer he was by training. In 1854, he wrote:

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 a slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.

You do not mean color exactly? — You mean whites are intellectually the 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 intellect superior to your own.

But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.

Lincoln’s second law partner, Stephen T. Logan, encouraged him to see each case from the point of view of his opponent — not just intellectually but emotionally. And indeed, this fragment sounds like Lincoln pacing the floor of a courtroom, trying on opponents’ arguments before taking them apart. One by one, he articulates defenses of slavery — based on color, intellect, and self-interest — and then turns each on itself. Attuned as always to irony, and echoing his earlier assertion about winners and losers, he points out that the master might easily become the slave.

These views were, again, private. Four years later, Lincoln showed his hand in seven debates with Stephen Douglas, which won him not just celebrity status in Illinois but national attention. Lincoln’s antislavery rhetoric encouraged Douglas to charge his opponent with being a “Black Republican” — forty-four times in the first two debates alone! Meanwhile, his running conversation with himself on the topic continued apace. In the fall of 1858 he wrote,

Suppose it is true, that the negro is inferior to the white, in the gifts of nature; is it not the exact reverse justice that the white should, for that reason, take from the negro, any part of the little which has been given him? “Give to him that is needy” is the christian rule of charity; but “Take from him that is needy” is the rule of slavery.

The sum of pro-slavery theology seems to be this: “Slavery is not universally right, nor yet universally wrong; it is better for some people to be slaves; and, in such cases, it is the Will of God that they be such.”

The impetus for these reflections was Slavery Ordained of God, a new book by Frederick Ross, a Presbyterian minister from Alabama. Ross wrote his book in response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published five years earlier, and his defense of slavery as a benevolent institution became a bestseller.

These fragments tell us that Lincoln read widely on both sides of the issue. Where Ross argued that slavery was intended by God, Lincoln responded, “Certainly there is no contending against the Will of God; but still there is some difficulty in ascertaining, and applying it, to particular cases.” And again, like a lawyer, Lincoln framed the argument in terms of a hypothetical legal battle. Suppose that Ross has a slave named Sambo. Lincoln asks, “Is it the Will of God that Sambo shall remain a slave, or be set free?” Lincoln next summons the Almighty as a witness, to no avail: “The Almighty gives no audible answer to the question, and his revelation — the Bible — gives none — or, at most, none but such as admits of a squabble, as to its meaning.” He adds, with quiet acerbity, “No one thinks of asking Sambo’s opinion on it.”

Lincoln then avows that one possibility would be for Ross to decide. He can keep Sambo in servitude, or he can free him, which would oblige the former master to “walk out of the shade, throw off his gloves, and delve for his own bread.” Lincoln wonders with some delicacy whether the Presbyterian minister would be directed in his decision by “perfect impartiality.” He then erupts in a sardonic conclusion of his own, whose embellishment of triple exclamation points is an index of his anger:

But, slavery is good for some people!!! As a good thing, slavery is strikingly peculiar, in this, that it is the only good thing which no man ever seeks the good of, for himself.

Nonsense! Wolves devouring lambs, not because it is good for their own greedy maws, but because it [is] good for the lambs!!!

These reflections all predate Lincoln’s presidency. Yet he continued his jottings later, producing one of his most illuminating fragments once he was in office. The lined piece of paper was discovered in the bottom drawer of Lincoln’s desk by John Hay after the president’s assassination. It was neither dated nor titled; Hay gave it the name “Meditation on the Divine Will.” Only nine sentences long, the fragment found Lincoln wrestling with the question of God’s role in the Civil War:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true — that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.

Lincoln has often been portrayed as an irreligious person. Historians have tipped their hat to his use of theological language in his second inaugural address while assuring us that quoting the Bible was standard fare in the nineteenth century. Yet this private reflection was no mere dabbling in religious rhetoric — it was a deadly serious and sophisticated reflection on divine agency and human instrumentality in time of war. It was also anything but abstract. By 1862, Lincoln had frequently heard the claim “God is on our side” from delegations of ministers and politicians. He was aware that Jefferson Davis heard the same thing. But the lawyer and logician in him knew that both propositions could not be true.

Perhaps, instead, the Almighty’s goal was “something different from the purpose of either party.” Amid the religious chauvinism all around him, Lincoln offered a balancing act between God’s intent and human will. The commander in chief also recorded his private assessment about the course of the war: “I am almost ready to say this is probably true — that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.” This intriguing sentence can be read in two ways. Is the stress on divine will, or on the adverbial hedging of “almost” and “probably”? Lincoln, in his reckoning with spiritual matters, was comfortable with ambiguity in ways many religious people of his day (and ours) were not.

Over the course of many years, Lincoln ranged widely in his Diary. He reflected on the wonders of nature (prompted by a visit to Niagara Falls), on the birth of the Republican Party, on the role of government, on the struggles over sectionalism, and on the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857. Yet he constantly reverted to the fundamental topics of slavery and freedom. One of his most famous fragments was given away eleven years after his death. In 1876, Mary Lincoln, grateful to her friends Myra and James Bradwell for helping her to gain release from an insane asylum, presented them with her husband’s handwritten definition of democracy:

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

As usual, the slip of paper is not dated. Some editors have placed it in August 1858, just as the Lincoln-Douglas debates were getting started. But like many such fragments, it seems to foreshadow the thinking that Lincoln would eventually expose to the public. It is difficult, for example, to pinpoint the date of the “Meditation on the Divine Will”: Roy P. Basler suggests it may have been written in August 1862, after the painful Union defeat in the Second Battle of Bull Run. Regardless of the precise date, however, I believe the fragment is the intellectual scaffolding of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which he delivered on March 4, 1865. The same argument is there, with a new degree of emotive concreteness — “every drop of blood drawn with the lash” — to intensify his earlier, more abstract approach.

By 1863, after two hard years as president, Lincoln found himself subjected to volleys of criticism from every side. In the spring of that year, rallies in Northern cities protested his handling of the arrest and trial of Clement Vallandigham, the Ohio Democrat and Copperhead leader who opposed the Civil War. In May, after a stormy meeting in Albany, New York, Lincoln was sent the “Albany Resolves,” which denounced his violation of free speech and exhorted him to “maintain the rights of the States and the liberties of the citizen.”

Shortly after Lincoln crafted his reply, he was visited at the White House by James F. Wilson, a congressman from Iowa. Observing Lincoln writing at his desk, Wilson expressed his admiration that the president could simply sit down and write another of his eloquent public letters.

Lincoln demurred. “I had it nearly all in there,” he said, pointing to an open desk drawer. “It was in disconnected thoughts, which I had jotted down from time to time on separate scraps of paper.” This was how he worked, the president explained. It was on such scraps of paper, accumulating over the years into a diaristic density, that Lincoln saved and assembled what he described to the visitor as his “best thoughts on the subject.”

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February 2018

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