(As narrated by a teacher of a school in a criminal neighbourhood of New York)
‘Our Sunday School in the Five Points was assembled one Sabbath morning, when I noticed a tall, remarkable looking man enter the room, and take a seat among us. He listened with fixed attention to our exercises, and his countenance often expressed such genuine interest that I approached him and suggested that he might be willing to say something to the children. He accepted the invitation with evident pleasure, and, coming forward, began a simple address, which at once fascinated every little hearer, and hushed the room into silence. His language was strikingly beautiful, and his tones musical with intensest feeling. The little faces around him would droop in sad conviction as he uttered sentences of warning, and would brighten into sunshine as he spoke cheerful words of promise. Once or twice he attempted to close his remarks but the imperative shouts of ‘go on, oh!
go on,’ would compel him to resume. As I looked at the gaunt and sinewy frame of the stranger, and marked his powerful head and determined features now touched into softness by the impressions of the moment, I felt an irrepressible curiosity to learn something more about him, and when he was quietly leaving the room, I begged to know his name. He replied, ‘It is Abraham Lincoln, from Illinois.’’
The story is told of an army colonel who rode out to the Soldiers’ Home, hopeful of securing Lincoln’s aid in recovering the body of his wife, who had died in a steamboat accident. His brief period of relaxation interrupted, Lincoln listened to the colonel’s tale but offered no help. “Am I to have no rest? Is there no hour or spot when or where I may escape this constant call? Why do you follow me out here with such business as this?” The dis-heartened colonel returned to his hotel in Washington. The following morning, Lincoln appeared at his door, “I was a brute last night,” Lincoln said, offering to help the colonel in anyway possible.
In the White House, once Secretary of State, Seward, found Lincoln polishing his boots. ‘We do not blacken our boots,’ chided Seward. To which Lincoln replied in good humour, ‘Indeed, then whose boots do you blacken, Mr. Secretary?’
At another time, Seward, was shocked when he heard that Lincoln had stepped aside for a coloured woman at a muddy crossing. Lincoln confirmed that it was true and remarked smil-ingly, ‘Well, I don’t remember it, but I always make it a rule - if people don’t turn out for me, I will for them. If I didn’t, there would be a collision.’
Once, fellow republicans demanded the removal of Supreme Court Chief Justice of New Mexico, Kirby Benedict, on charges of drunkenness. Lincoln responded, ‘Well, gentlemen, I know Benedict… He may imbibe to excess, but Benedict drunk knows more law than all the people on the bench in New Mexico sober. I shall not disturb him.’
* * *
In 1846, when he was a candidate for Congress against a Methodist minister, the Rev. Peter Cartwright, his opponent openly accused him of being an unbeliever, and Lincoln never denied it. A story is told of Mr. Cartwright’s holding a revival meeting while the campaign was in progress, during which Lincoln stepped into one of his meetings. When Cartwright asked the audience, “Will all who want to go to heaven stand up?” all arose except Lincoln. When he asked, “Now, will all who want to go to hell stand up?” Lincoln still remained in his seat. Mr. Cartwright then said, “All have stood up for one place or the other except Mr. Lincoln, and we would like to know where he expects to go.” Lincoln arose and quietly said, “I am going to Congress,” and there he went.
* * *
Mr. Seward said: “Gentlemen, I will tell you one thing, Mr. Lincoln never tells a joke for the joke’s sake, they are like the parables of old-lessons of wisdom. When he first came to Washington he was inundated with office-seekers. One day he was particularly afflicted; about twenty place-hunters from all parts of the Union had taken possession of his room with bales of credentials and self-recommendations ten miles long. The President said:
“’Gentlemen, I must tell you a little story I read one day when I was minding a mudscow in one of the bayous near the Yazoo.
“’Once there was a certain king,’ he said, ‘who kept an astrologer to forewarn him of coming events and especially to tell him whether it was going to rain when he wanted to go on hunting expeditions. One day he had started off for the forest with his train of ladies and lords for a grand hunt, when the cavalcade met a farmer, riding a donkey, on the road. “Good morning, Farmer,” said the king. “Good morning, King,” said the farmer. “Where are you folks going?” “Hunting,” said the king. “Lord, you’ll get wet,” said the farmer. The king trusted his astrologer, of course, and went to the forest, but by midday there came on a terrific storm that drenched and buffeted the whole party. When the king returned to his palace he had the astrologer decapitated and sent for the farmer to take his place. “Law’s sake,” says the farmer when he arrived, “it ain’t me that knows when it’s goin’ to rain, it’s my donkey. When it’s goin’ to be fair weather that donkey always carries his ears forward so.” “Make the donkey the court astrologer!” shouted the king. It was done. But the king always declared that that appointment was the greatest mistake he ever made in his life.’
“Lincoln stopped there. ‘Why did he say it was a mistake?’ we asked him. ‘Didn’t the donkey do his duty?’ ‘Yes,’ said the President, ‘but after that time every donkey in the country assembled in front of the palace and wanted an office.’”
(Henry C. White, Lincoln’s friend and fellow lawyer on the Illinois circuit has written in his book, ‘Life With Lincoln On The Circuit’:)
“I recollect that in the Fall of 1854, Mr. Lincoln, with other lawyers from abroad, drove over from Urbana the county seat to West Urbana (now Champaign) to see the embryo town and while there stopped at my law office… Lincoln took down a well-worn copy of Byron, which no boy’s library at that time
was without and readily turning to the third canto of “Childe Harold” read aloud…:
“He who ascends to mountain tops shall find
Those loftiest peaks most wrapt in clouds and snow; He who surpasses or subdues mankind,
Must look down on the hate of those below. Though high ABOVE the sun of glory glow, And far BENEATH the earth and ocean spread, Round him are icy rocks and loudly blow Contending tempests on his naked head,
And thus reward the toils which to those summits lead.
“This poetry was very familiar to him. Evidently he looked specifically for and found it with no hesitation and read it with a fluency that indicated that he had read it often times before. I think I am justified in saying that he read it sadly and earnestly if not indeed reverently. I have, often times since, thought from this slight circumstance that he had a premonition that he was destined to ascend to the mountaintops of human achievement. “But coming events cast their shadows before the career of this servitor of destiny so definitely as to deeply impress their object. One of them is thus often narrated: “A friend, once inquiring the cause of a deep depression under which he seemed to be suffering: ‘I have seen this evening again,’ he replied, ‘what I once saw before, on the evening of my nomination, at Chicago. As I stood before a mirror, there were two images of myself -- a bright one in front, and one that was very pallid, standing behind. It completely unnerved me; the bright one, I know, is my past, the pale one, my coming life. And feeling that there is no armor against destiny,’ he added, ‘I do not think I shall live to see the end of my term. I try to shake off the vision, but it still keeps haunting me.’"1
Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's cabin