Defeat of the Little Giant
Lincoln had worked very hard in Illinois. All this year he was making speeches; educating the people of the State; helping them to understand the big questions before them; making things clear in his own mind by putting them into the clear and simple words that would carry their importance to the minds of others.
A great meeting was held, summoned by the editors of the newspapers that were against the Kansas Bill; they invited prominent men from different parts of the country to come and address them.
Lincoln was among those who went, and his speech was by far the most important of all that were delivered there. He had not, indeed, intended to say anything; but he was roused by the weakness of those who did address the meeting. Springing to his feet, he poured out what was in his mind, and could not be kept back, in such burning and eloquent words that the reporters dropped their pencils and listened spellbound. The whole audience was carried away by excitement: it was one of the greatest speeches that Lincoln ever made, we are told by all who heard it, but there is no record of it. Lincoln himself spoke in a transport of enthusiasm: the words came, how he hardly knew; he could not afterwards write down what he had said. The reporters were so deeply moved that they only took down a sentence here and there. The speech was a warning to the growing Republican party: sentences were quoted and remembered.
The North was indeed beginning to awaken to the need of uniting against slavery; but it took four years before it fully awoke. And as long as the North was divided the South was irresistible. When the presidential election came, in 1856, the votes of the South carried the day.
Had a strong man, with definite and wise views, been elected, had Lincoln been elected, the war between North and South that came four years later might have been prevented. But Lincoln's fame had not yet travelled far beyond Illinois; he was not even nominated. Mr. Buchanan, the new President, called himself a Democrat: he believed in Douglas's policy of State rights; but he was a tool in the hands of the South. Weak and undecided, his stupid administration made war inevitable. He did not satisfy the South; and he showed the North how great a danger they were in, so that when the next election came they were ready to act.
The Republican party gradually grew strong. More and more Northern voters came to see that its policy, no extension of slavery, was the only right one. The pro-slavery party in Kansas continued to behave in the most violent way; civil war continued.
In Congress, Charles Sumner made a number of eloquent speeches on what he called the "crime against Kansas"; and in them he openly attacked slavery. One day, as he was sitting in the members' reading-room, a Southern member called Brookes came in. Although there were several other people in the room, Brookes fell upon Sumner, and with his heavy walking-stick, which was weighted with lead at the end, beat him within an inch of his life. For the next four years Sumner was an invalid, and unable to take part in politics. This incident caused great indignation in the North; their indignation was heightened by the attempt to force slavery on Kansas, till it grew in very many cases to a real hatred of slavery itself.
But there was still a large party in the North which did not disapprove of slavery. This party was led, of course, by Douglas. Douglas had been successful up till now, because he represented the ordinary man of the North, whose conscience was not yet awake, who did not see that slavery, in itself; was wrong. Lincoln had never really succeeded until now, because his conscience had always been awake, and the ordinary Northerner was not ready to follow him.
The whole question of slavery was brought under discussion in the next year—1857—by the famous case of a negro called Dred Scott. Dred Scott claimed his freedom before the United States courts, because his master, a doctor, had taken him to live in the free State of Illinois. The chief-justice—Taney—was an extreme pro-slavery man. He was not satisfied with deciding the case against Dred Scott; he went much further, and declared that since a negro is property and not a person in the legal sense, he could not bring a case before an American court. A negro, he declared, has no rights which a white man is bound to respect.
The South, of course, was delighted with this verdict. What it meant was this. When the Declaration of Independence declared that all men are equal, and possess right to life and liberty, what was intended was not all men, but all white men, since black men are not legally men.
To the North such reasoning was hateful. People like Mr. Seward of New York began to say, If slavery is part of the Constitution of America, there is a law that is higher than the Constitution—the moral law. Abraham Lincoln in a noble speech declared: "In some respects the black woman is certainly not my equal, but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands she is my equal, and the equal of all others." The point was, could a negro have rights? The Dred Scott decision declared "no," the South shouted "no." The Republican party said "yes." In this same year a free election at last took place in Kansas; and a huge majority decided that the State should not hold slaves.
All these events showed that troublous times were coming.
In the next year a set of speeches was made which showed people how things stood. In 1858 Lincoln stood against Douglas as candidate for the State of Illinois. Douglas was one of the most famous and popular men then living in America. He was far the cleverest man and the best speaker of his party; he stood for all those who, though they might not want to have slaves themselves, thought that slavery was not wrong; that black men were intended by a kind Providence to be useful to white men. If any State wanted slaves, let them have them—why not?
As Lincoln said, "Douglas is so put up by nature, that a lash upon his back would hurt him, but a lash upon anybody else's back does not hurt him."
Those who did not know Lincoln thought it absurd that he, an unknown man from the country, should dare to stand against Douglas, the "Little Giant." But Lincoln was not afraid; he did not think of himself; he wanted people to hear what he had to say. He arranged with Douglas that they should hold a number of meetings together in Illinois. They arranged it in this way. At half the meetings Douglas spoke first for an hour; then Lincoln replied, speaking for an hour and a half, and Douglas answered him in half-an-hour's speech. At the other half, Lincoln began and Douglas followed, Lincoln ending.
You can imagine one of these meetings. A large hall, roughly built for the most part, the seats often made of planks laid on top of unhewn logs, packed with two or three thousand people, intensely eager to hear and learn. Some of them were already followers of Douglas, the most popular man in America: all of them had heard of the "Little Giant," the cleverest speaker in the States. Immense cheering as Douglas rose to his feet. A small man with a big head: a handsome face with quickly moving, keen, dark eyes; faultlessly dressed. A well-bred gentleman, secure of himself—a lawyer with all his art at the end of his tongue: able to persuade any one that black was white, to wrap up anything in so many charming words that only the cleverest could see when one statement did not follow from another, when an argument was not a proof: quick to see and stab the weak points in any one else. A voice rich and mellow, various and well trained, pleased all who heard it.
For an hour he spoke, amid complete silence, only broken by outbursts of applause.. When he ended, there were deafening cheers—then a pause, and "Lincoln," "Lincoln," from all parts of the hall.
Lincoln seemed an awkward countryman beside the senator. His tall body seemed too big for the platform, and his ill-fitting black clothes hung loosely upon it, as if they had been made for some one else. When he began to speak his voice was harsh and shrill. His huge hands, the hands of a labourer, with the big knuckles and red, ugly wrists, got knotted together as if nothing could unfix them. Soon, however, he became absorbed in what he was saying; he ceased to be nervous; everything seemed to change. As he forgot himself, his body seemed to expand and straighten itself, so that every one else looked small and mean beside him; his voice became deep and clear, reaching to the farthest end of the hall, and his face, that had appeared ugly, was lit up with an inner light that made it more than beautiful. The deep grey eyes seemed to each man in the hall to be looking at him and piercing his soul. The language was so simple that the most ignorant man in the hall could follow it and understand. Everything was clear. There was no hiding under fine words; nothing was left out, nothing unnecessary was said. No one could doubt what Lincoln meant; and he was not going to let any one doubt what Douglas meant.
The greatest debate of all was that at the meeting at Freeport. At Freeport Lincoln asked Douglas a question, against the advice of all his friends. He asked whether, if a State wanted not to have slavery, it could so decide? Lincoln knew that if Douglas said "No. A state which had slavery must keep it," the people of Illinois would not vote for him, and he would lose this election. If he said "yes" he would be elected, and not Lincoln. Lincoln knew this; he knew that if Douglas said "yes," he was safe, and he would say "yes."
"Where do you come in, then?" his friends asked him. "Why do you ask him this? If you do, Douglas is sure to get in. You are ruining your own chances."
"I do not come in anywhere," said Lincoln; "but that does not matter. What does matter is this. If Douglas says 'yes,' as he will, he will get into the Senate now; but two years after this he will stand for election as President. If he says 'yes' now, the South will vote against him then, and he will not be elected. He must not be elected. No one who believes in spreading slavery must be elected. It does not matter about me."
Lincoln was quite right. He saw further than any one else. Douglas said "yes," and he was elected for Illinois. But the Democratic party in the South, whose support had made him strong, began distrust him. "Douglas," said Lincoln, " is followed by a crowd of blind men; I want to make some of these blind men see."
Lincoln was defeated, but he did not think of himself. His speeches against Douglas were printed and read all over America. He was invited to speak in Ohio; and in the next year, in the beginning of 1860, a society in New York asked him to come and give them an address on politics.
A huge audience, in which were all the best known and most brilliant men of the day, gathered to hear him; an audience very much unlike any that he had addressed before. They were all anxious to see what he was like—this backwoodsman and farm labourer, who had met the great Stephen Arnold Douglas and proved a match for him in argument; whose speeches had been printed to express the views of a whole party.
His appearance was strange and impressive. When he stood up his height was astonishing, because his legs were very long, and when sitting he did not appear tall. His face, thin and marked by deep lines, was very sad. A mass of black hair was pushed back from his high forehead: his eyebrows were black too, and stood out in his pale face: his dark-grey eyes were set deep in his head. The mouth could smile, but now it was stern and sad. The face was unlike other faces: when he spoke it was beautiful, for he felt everything he said. Abraham Lincoln was a common man: he had had no advantages of birth, of training: he had known extreme poverty: for years he had struggled without success in mean and small occupations: he had no knowledge but what he had taught himself. But no one who heard him speak could think him common.
Speaking now to an audience in which were the cleverest people in New York, people who had read everything and seen everything and been everywhere, who had had every opportunity that he had not, he impressed them as much as he had impressed the people of Illinois. He was one of the greatest orators that ever lived. His words went straight to the people to whom they were spoken. What he said was as straightforward and as certain as a sum in arithmetic, as easy to follow: and behind it all you felt that the man believed every word of what he said, and spoke because he must. The truth was in him.
Lincoln's address in New York convinced the Republican party that here was the man they wanted.
In 1860 there came the presidential election, always the most important event in American politics; this year more important than ever before.
For the last half-century almost the Democratic party had been in power. They had been strong because they were united: they united the people of the South and those people in the North who thought that it was waste of time to discuss slavery, since slavery was part of the Constitution. Their policy on slavery had been to leave it alone. As long as they did this there was nothing to create another party in the North strong enough to oppose them. But when Douglas, in order to make his own position strong in the South, made slavery practical politics by bringing in a bill to allow Kansas to have slaves; and when the judges in the Dred Scott case roused sympathy with the negroes by declaring that slaves were not men but property, then the question united the divided North into a strong Republican party in which all were agreed. There was to be no slavery north of Mason and Dixon's line. The attempt to force slavery on Kansas split the Democratic party. One section was led by Douglas, who had gone as far as he could: he was not ready to force Kansas to have slaves, if she did not want them, because people from Missouri wanted her to have them. He saw that to force slavery on the North in this way would mean division and war, and therefore he refused to go any further. By this refusal Douglas lost his supporters in the South. They joined the section led by Jefferson Davis—the Southern candidate for the presidentship.
Jefferson Davis was the true leader of the South. Douglas as well as Lincoln had begun life as the child of a poor pioneer: each had risen by his own abilities and by constant hard work. Jefferson Davis was a true aristocrat. He was the son of rich and educated parents. All his life he had been waited on by slaves and surrounded by every comfort. While Lincoln was ploughing or hewing wood, while Douglas was working hard at the bar, Davis went first to the university at Kentucky and then to the military academy at West Point, from which he passed to the army. He served as a lieutenant at the time of the Black Hawk war, and it is very likely that he came across Lincoln, who was serving as a volunteer. After serving seven years in the army he married and settled clown as a cotton planter in Mississippi. His estates were worked by slaves, of course. To him the negro was an animal, quite different from the white man, meant by nature to be under him and to serve him. Black men, unlike white, did not exist for themselves, with the equal right to live possessed by a man, an insect, or a tree, but had been created solely to be useful to white men.
No two men could be more unlike than Lincoln and Davis. The groundwork of Davis' nature was an intense pride. A friend described him as "as ambitious as Lucifer and as cold as a lizard." He was cold in manner and seldom laughed. Lincoln was entirely humble-minded, full of passionate longing to help the weak. To Lincoln what was common was therefore precious. Jefferson Davis said the minority, and not the majority, ought to rule. And their looks were as unlike as their minds. Jefferson Davis, with his beautiful proud face, as cold and as handsome as a statue, expressed the utter contempt and scorn of the aristocrat for everything and every one beneath him.
When the Democratic party met at Charleston to nominate their candidate for the presidentship, they were hopelessly divided. Douglas's Freeport speech had set the South against him. For the last four years there had been a growing section which said that, as long as the South was fastened to the North, slavery was not safe. Now seven states, led by South Carolina, left the Democratic meeting and nominated Davis as their candidate.
The Republican party met at Chicago. There was only one man strong, reasonable, and sane enough for every section of the party to accept. This was Abraham Lincoln. At the time of his nomination, Lincoln was playing barnball with his children in the field behind his house. When told that he had been chosen, he said, "You must be able to find some better man than me." But he was ready to take up the difficult task. He knew that he could serve his country, and he was not afraid. He had a clear ideal before him—to preserve America as one united whole. He saw that war might come. As he had said, five years before, America could not endure for ever half slave and half free—it must be all free: and the South would not let slavery go without war.
The election came in November. The result was that Lincoln was elected President. For four years the destiny of his country was in his hands.