Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Abraham Lincoln

If one reads the life of Abraham Lincoln they are thoroughly convinced that the possibilities of our country are indeed very great. He was born in Hardin county, Kentucky, on the 14th day of February, 1809, of very poor parents, who lived in a log cabin.

Scarcely a boy in the country will read these lines but has tenfold the opportunity to succeed in the world as had Abraham Lincoln. When he was still a little boy his parents moved to Indiana, which was then a wilderness. Here, in a log cabin, he learned to read under the tuition of his mother and afterward received nearly a year’s schooling at another log cabin a mile away,—nearly a year’s schooling and all the schooling he ever received from a tutor!

But he loved books, he craved knowledge and eagerly did he study the few books which fell in his way. He kept a scrap-book into which he copied the striking passages and this practice enabled him to gain an education. Here he grew up, becoming famous for his great strength and agility; he was six foot four inches in his stockings and was noted as the most skillful wrestler in the country. When he was about twenty years old the Lincoln family moved to Illinois, settling ten miles from Decatur, where they cleared about fifteen acres and built a log cabin. Here is where Lincoln gained his great reputation as a rail-splitter. He had kept up his original system of reading and sketching, and from this period in his life he became a marked man—he was noted for his information. It makes little difference whether knowledge is gained in college or by the side of a pile of rails, as Lincoln was wont to study after his day’s work was done.

In 1830 he took a trip on a flat-boat to New Orleans. It was on this trip that he first saw slaves chained together and whipped. Ever after, he detested the institution of slavery. Upon his return he received a challenge from a famous wrestler; he accepted and threw his antagonist. About this time he became a clerk in a country store, where his honesty and square dealing made him a universal favorite, and earned for him the sobriquet of ‘Honest Abe.’ He next entered the Black Hawk war, and was chosen captain of his company. Jefferson Davis also served as an officer in this war. In the fall of 1832 he was a candidate for the legislature, but was defeated. He then opened a store with a partner named Berry. Lincoln was made postmaster, but Berry proved a drunkard and spendthrift, bringing the concern to bankruptcy, and soon after died, to fill a drunkard’s grave, leaving Lincoln to pay all the debts. But during all this time Lincoln had been improving his spare moments learning surveying, and for the next few years he earned good wages surveying.

He now decided to become a lawyer, and devoted his attention, so far as possible, to the accumulation of a thorough knowledge. At one period during his studies he walked, every Saturday, to Springfield, some eight miles away, to borrow and return books pertaining to his studies. These books he studied nights, and early in the morning, out of working hours. In 1834 he was once more a candidate for the legislature, and was triumphantly elected, being re-elected in 1836, 1838, and 1840. In 1837, when he had arrived at the age of twenty-eight, he was admitted to the bar, where he soon became noted as a very successful pleader before a jury. He was a Whig of the Henry Clay school, a splendid lawyer, and a ready speaker at public gatherings.

In 1836 he first met Stephen A. Douglas who was destined to be his adversary in the political arena for the next twenty years. Stephen A. Douglas was, or soon became the leader of the Democracy in Illinois and Lincoln spoke for the Whigs as against Douglas. In 1847 Lincoln was sent to Congress, being chosen over the renowned Peter Cartwright, who was the Democratic candidate. In Congress he vigorously opposed President Polk and the Mexican war, and proposed a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, provided the inhabitants would vote for it. In 1855 he withdrew from the contest for the United States Senatorship in favor of Mr. Trumbull, whom he knew would draw away many Democratic votes and to Lincoln was due Trumbull’s election. During the canvass he met Stephen A. Douglas in debate at Springfield, where he exploded the theory of ‘Squatter Sovereignty’ in one sentence, namely: “I admit that the emigrant to Kansas and Nebraska is competent to govern himself, but I deny his right to govern any other person without that person’s consent.”

In 1858 he had his great contest for the United States Senatorship with Douglas. At that time Judge Douglas was renowned throughout the nation as one of the ablest, if not the ablest of American speakers. Horace Greeley well said, “The man who stumps a State with Stephen A. Douglas and meets him day after day before the people has got to be no fool.” The tremendous political excitement growing out of the ‘Kansas-Nebraska Act,’ and the agitation of the slavery question, in its relation to the vast territory of Kansas and Nebraska, convulsed the nation. The interest was greatly heightened from the fact that these two great gladiators, Stephen A. Douglas, the great mouth-piece of the Democratic party and champion of ‘Squatter Sovereignty,’ and Abraham Lincoln, a prominent lawyer, but otherwise comparatively unknown, the opponent of that popular measure and the coming champion of the anti-slavery party.

The question at issue was immense—permanent, not transient—universal, not local, and the debate attracted profound attention on the part of the people, whether Democratic or Free Soil, from the Kennebec to the Rio Grande. Mr. Douglas held that the vote of the majority of the people of a territory should decide this as well as all other questions concerning their domestic or internal affairs. Mr. Lincoln, on the contrary, urged the necessity of an organic enactment, excluding slavery in any form—this last to be the condition of its admission into the Union as a State. The public mind was divided and the utterances and movements of every public man were closely scanned. Finally, after the true western style, a joint discussion, face to face, between Lincoln and Douglas, as the two representative leaders, was proposed and agreed upon. It was arranged that they should have seven great debates, one each at Ottawa, Freeport, Charleston, Jonesboro, Galesburg, Quincy, and Alton.

Processions and cavalcades, bands of music and cannon-firing made every day a day of excitement. But the excitement was greatly intensified from the fact that the oratorical contests were between two such skilled debaters, before mixed audiences of friends and foes, to rejoice over every keen thrust at the adversary, and again to be cast down by each failure to ‘give back as good,’ or to parry the thrust so aimed.

In personal appearance, voice, gesture and general platform style, nothing could exceed the dissimilarity of these two speakers. Mr. Douglas possessed a frame or build particularly attractive; a natural presence which would have gained for him access to the highest circles, however courtly, in any land; a thickset, finely built, courageous man, with an air as natural to him as breath, of self-confidence that did not a little to inspire his supporters with hope. That he was every inch a man no friend or foe ever questioned. Ready, forceful, animated, keen, playful, by turns, and thoroughly artificial; he was one of the most admirable platform speakers that ever appeared before an American audience, his personal geniality, too, being so abounding that, excepting in a political sense, no antagonism existed between him and his opponent.

Look at Lincoln. In personal appearance, what a contrast to his renowned opponent. Six feet and four inches high, long, lean and wiry in motion; he had a good deal of the elasticity and awkwardness which indicated the rough training of his early life; his face genial looking, with good humor lurking in every corner of its innumerable angles. Judge Douglas once said, “I regard Lincoln as a kind, amiable and intelligent gentleman, a good citizen and an honorable opponent.” As a speaker he was ready, precise, fluent and his manner before a popular assembly was just as he pleased to make it; being either superlatively ludicrous or very impressive. He employed but little gesticulation but when he desired to make a point produced a shrug of the shoulders, an elevation of the eyebrows, a depression of his mouth and a general malformation of countenance so comically awkward that it scarcely ever failed to ‘bring down the house.’ His enunciation was slow and distinct, and his voice though sharp and piercing at times had a tendency to dwindle into a shrill and unpleasant tone. In this matter of voice and commanding attitude, the odds were decidedly in favor of Judge Douglas.

Arrangements having been consummated, the first debate took place at Ottawa, in Lasalle county, and a strong Republican district. The crowd in attendance was a large one, and about equally divided—the enthusiasm of the Democracy having brought more than a due proportion of their numbers to hear and see their favorite leader. The thrilling tones of Douglas, his manly defiance against the principles he believed to be wrong assured his friends, if any assurance were wanting, that he was the same unconquered and unconquerable Democrat that he had proved to be for the previous twenty-five years.

Douglas opened the discussion and spoke one hour; Lincoln followed, the time assigned him being an hour and a half, though he yielded a portion of it. It was not until the second meeting, however, that the speakers grappled with those profound public questions that had thus brought them together, and in which the nation was intensely interested. The debates were a wonderful exhibition of power and eloquence.

In the first debate Mr. Douglas arraigned his opponent for the expression in a former speech of a “House divided against itself,” etc.,—referring to the slavery and anti-slavery sections of the country; and Mr. Lincoln defended those ideas as set forth in the speech referred to. As Mr. Lincoln’s position in relation to one or two points growing out of the former speech referred to, had attracted great attention throughout the country, he availed himself of the opportunity of this preliminary meeting to reply to what he regarded as common misconceptions. “Anything,” he said, “that argues me into the idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse. I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it now exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon a footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a matter of necessity that there must be a difference I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuits of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects—certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral and intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread without the leave of any one else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”

Touching the question of respect or weight of opinion due to deliverance of the United States Supreme Court—an element which entered largely into this national contest, Mr. Lincoln said: “This man—Douglas—sticks to a decision which forbids the people of a territory from excluding slavery, and he does so, not because he says it is right in itself—he does not give any opinion on that, but because it has been decided by the Court, and being decided by the Court, he is, and you are bound to take it in your political action as law; not that he judges at all of its merits, but because a decision of the Court is to him a ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ He places it on that ground alone, and you will bear in mind that thus committing himself unreservedly to this decision, commits him to the next one just as firmly as to this. He did not commit himself on account of the merit or demerit of the decision, but is a ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ The next decision, as much as this, will be a ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ There is nothing that can divert or turn him away from this decision. It is nothing that I point out to him that his great prototype, General Jackson, did not believe in the binding force of decisions—it is nothing to him that Jefferson did not so believe. I have said that I have often heard him approve of Jackson’s course in disregarding the decision of the Supreme Court, pronouncing a national bank unconstitutional. He says: I did not hear him say so; he denies the accuracy of my recollection. I say he ought to know better than I, but I will make no question about this thing, though it still seems to me I heard him say it twenty times. I will tell him, though, that he now claims to stand on the Cincinnati platform which affirms that Congress cannot charter a national bank, in the teeth of that old standing decision that Congress can charter a bank. And I remind him of another piece of history on the question of respect for judicial decisions, and it is a piece of Illinois history belonging to a time when the large party to which Judge Douglas belonged were displeased with a decision of the Supreme Court of Illinois, because they had decided that a Governor could not remove a Secretary of State. I know that Judge Douglas will not deny that he was then in favor of oversloughing that decision by the mode of adding five new judges, so as to vote down the four old ones. Not only so, but it ended in the judge’s sitting down on that very bench, as one of the five new judges so as to break down the four old ones.” In this strain Mr. Lincoln occupied most of his time. But the debate was a very equal thing, and the contest did not prove a ‘walk over’ either way.

At the meeting in Ottawa Mr. Lincoln propounded certain questions to which Judge Douglas promptly answered. Judge Douglas spoke in something of the following strain: “He desires to know if the people of Kansas shall form a constitution by means entirely proper and unobjectionable, and ask admission into the Union as a State before they have the requisite population for a member of Congress, whether I will vote for that admission? Well, now, I regret exceedingly that he did not answer that interrogatory himself before he put it to me, in order that we might understand and not be left to infer on which side he is. Mr. Trumbull during the last session of Congress voted from the beginning to the end against the admission of Oregon, although a free State, because she had not the requisite population. As Mr. Trumbull is in the field fighting for Mr. Lincoln, I would like to have Mr. Lincoln answer his own question and tell me whether he is fighting Trumbull on that issue or not. But I will answer his question. In reference to Kansas it is my opinion that as she has population enough to constitute a slave State, she has people enough for a free State. I will not make Kansas an exceptional case to the other States of the Union. I made that proposition in the Senate in 1856, and I renewed it during the last session in a bill providing that no territory of the United States should form a constitution and apply for admission until it had the requisite population. On another occasion I proposed that neither Kansas nor any other territory should be admitted until it had the requisite population. Congress did not adopt any of my propositions containing this general rule, but did make an exception of Kansas. I will stand by that exception. Either Kansas must come in as a free State, with whatever population she may have, or the rule must be applied to all the other territories alike.”

Mr. Douglas next proceeded to answer another question proposed by Mr. Lincoln, namely: Whether the people of a territory can, in any lawful way, against the wishes of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State constitution. Said Judge Douglas: “I answer emphatically, as Mr. Lincoln has heard me answer a hundred times from every stump in Illinois, that in my opinion the people of a territory can, by lawful means, exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State constitution. Mr. Lincoln knew that I had answered that question over and over again. He heard me argue the Nebraska Bill on that principle all over the State in 1854, in 1855 and in 1856, and he has no excuse for pretending to be in doubt as to my position. It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question, whether slavery may or may not go into a territory under the constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour unless it is supported by local police regulations. Those police regulations can only be established by the local legislature, and if the people are opposed to slavery they will elect representatives to that body who will, by unfriendly legislation, effectually prevent the introduction of it into their midst. If, on the contrary, they are for it their legislation will favor its extension. Hence, no matter what the decision of the Supreme Court may be on that abstract question, still the right of the people to make a slave territory or free territory is perfect and complete under the Nebraska Bill.”

It was with great vigor and adroitness that the two great combatants went over the ground at the remaining five places of debate, all of which were attended and listened to by immense concourses. On both sides the speeches were able, eloquent, exhaustive. It was admitted by Lincoln’s friends that on several occasions he was partly foiled, or at least badly bothered, while on the other hand the admirers of Douglas allowed that in more than one instance he was flatly and fairly floored by Lincoln. It was altogether about an equal match in respect to ability, logic, and eloquence. Both of them were self-made men; both of them were able lawyers and politicians; both sprang from obscurity to distinction; both belonged to the common people; and both were strong and popular with the masses.

Though defeated by an unfair apportionment of the legislative districts for the senatorship, yet Lincoln so ably fought the great Douglas with such wonderful power as to surprise the nation. Heretofore but little known out of his native State; this debate made him one of the two most conspicuous men in the nation, and the excitement was intensified from the fact that both from that hour were the chosen opponents for the coming presidential contest.

At the ensuing presidential contest Lincoln was elected to the presidency, and the gory front of secession was raised. Forgetting past differences, Douglas magnanimously stood shoulder to shoulder with Lincoln in behalf of the Union. It was the olive branch of genuine patriotism. But while proudly holding aloft the banner of his nation in the nation councils, and while yet the blood of his countrymen had not blended together and drenched the land, the great senator was suddenly snatched from among the living in the hour of the country’s greatest need; while the brave Lincoln was allowed to see the end—the cause triumphant, when he was also called from death unto life.

Lincoln elected, though he was, and admitted to have received his election fairly and triumphantly, was yet of necessity compelled to enter Washington, like a thief in the night, to assume his place at the head of the nation. Lincoln met the crisis calmly but firmly. He had watched the coming storm and he asked, as he bade adieu to his friends and fellow-citizens, their earnest prayers to Almighty God that he might have wisdom and help to see the right path and pursue it. Those prayers were answered. He guided the ship of State safely through the most angry storm that ever demanded a brave and good pilot. We can only gaze in awe on the memory of this man. He seemingly knew in a moment, when placed in a trying position that would have baffled an inferior mind, just what to do for the best interest of the nation.

Mr. Lincoln had unsurpassed fitness for the task he had to execute. Without anything like brilliancy of genius, without breadth of learning or literary accomplishments, he had that perfect balance of thoroughly sound faculties which gave him the reputation of an almost infallible judgment. This, combined with great calmness of temper, inflexible firmness of will, supreme moral purpose, and intense patriotism made up just that character which fitted him, as the same qualities fitted Washington, for the salvation of his country in a period of stupendous responsibility and eminent peril.

Although far advanced on the question of slavery, personally, he was exceedingly careful about pushing measures upon a country he knew was hardly prepared as yet to receive such sweeping legislation. An acquaintance once said: ‘It is hard to believe that very nearly one-half of the Republican party were opposed to the issue of the proclamation of emancipation.’ Thus Lincoln avoided all extremes, and this quality alone made him eminently fit to govern. Yet, when necessary, he was stern and unrelenting. When the British minister desired to submit instructions from his government, stating that that government intended to sustain a neutral relation, he refused to receive it officially. When France demanded recognition by the United States of the government of Maximilian, in Mexico, he steadily refused. He was firm as a rock; he would ride post haste twenty miles to pardon a deserter, but under no consideration could he be induced to suspend hostilities against a people who were trying to destroy the Union. All sorts of political machinery was invented to manufacture public opinion and sentiment against him, but he was triumphantly re-elected in 1864.

The morning of Lincoln’s second inauguration was very stormy, but the sky cleared just before noon, and the sun shone brightly as he appeared before an immense audience in front of the capitol, and took the oath and delivered an address, alike striking for its forcible expressions and conciliatory spirit. He spoke something as follows:

“On the occasion corresponding to this, four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. * * * Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish; and the war came. * * * Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any man should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayer of both could not be answered. That of neither has been fully. * * * With malice toward none, with charity for all, with the firmness in the right, as God gives us light to see the right, let us finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphans, to all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

He hated slavery from the beginning, but was not an abolitionist until it was constitutional to be so. At the head of the nation, when precedents were useless, he was governed by justice only. He was singularly fortunate in the selection of his cabinet officers, and the reason was he never allowed prejudice to prevent his placing a rival in high office.

Yes, Mr. Lincoln is probably the most remarkable example on the pages of history, showing the possibilities of our country. From the poverty in which he was born, through the rowdyism of a frontier town, the rudeness of frontier society, the discouragement of early bankruptcy, and the fluctuations of popular politics, he rose to the championship of Union and freedom when the two seemed utterly an impossibility; never lost his faith when both seemed hopeless, and was suddenly snatched from earth when both were secured. He was the least pretentious of men, and when, with the speed of electricity, it flashed over the Union that the great Lincoln—shot by an assassin—was no more, the excitement was tremendous. The very heart of the republic throbbed with pain and lamentation. Then the immortal President was borne to his last resting-place in Springfield, Illinois. All along the journey to the grave, over one thousand miles, a continual wail went up from friends innumerable, and they would not be comforted. Never was there a grander, yet more solemn funeral accorded to any, ancient or modern. He was a statesman without a statesman’s craftiness, politician without a politician’s meanness, a great man without a great man’s vices, a philanthropist without a philanthropist’s dreams, a christian without pretensions, a ruler without the pride of place or power, an ambitious man without selfishness, and a successful man without vanity. Humble man of the backwoods, boatman, axman, hired laborer, clerk, surveyor, captain, legislator, lawyer, debater, orator, politician, statesman. President, savior of the republic, emancipator of a race, true christian, true man.

Gaze on such a character; does it not thrill your very soul and cause your very heart to bleed that such a man should be shot by a dastardly assassin? Yet on the 14th of April, 1865, J. Wilkes Booth entered the private box of the President, and creeping stealthily from behind, as become the dark deed which he contemplated, deliberately shot Abraham Lincoln through the head, and the country lost the pilot in the hours when she needed him so much.