A BRAHAM LINCOLN was the President during this dark time in our nation's history,—the Civil War.
He was not a handsome man, not an educated man, not a society-mannered man; but a more honest, more loyal-hearted, more grand-souled man than Abraham Lincoln, never stood at the head of our government. He was as honest as George Washington, as sturdy as Andrew Jackson, as brave as the bravest General, and, in the end, as noble as the noblest martyr.
He had had a hard life as a boy. He had been brought up on a Kentucky farm, where he had learned to hoe and to plant, to drive oxen, to build log-houses, to split rails, to fell trees;—everything that a farmer boy away out in a new country would have to do, this boy had done. Indeed, when he was named for President by the Republican party, the opposing parties sneered at him, calling him a "vulgar rail-splitter," "an ignorant boor, unfit for the society of gentlemen."
Lincoln's First House in Illinois
But for all his hoeing and his rail-splitting, for all his poverty and his hard labor, for all his rough home and his common companions, Abraham Lincoln soon proved that he had a something in his head and in his heart that any gentleman might well have been proud to own—a something that a world of fine houses and fine clothes could not buy— something which, by and by, prompted him to set all the poor black men and women free.
Although Abraham Lincoln did live in the backwoods, and did not go to school, nevertheless, he was all this time in the best of society. Fortunately for him, his mother was a real lady in heart, and tried always to keep her boy from growing up a coarse, ignorant "rail-splitter," as his party opponents called him. She taught him always to keep his eyes open, and his thoughts awake to the beauties about him in nature. She taught him that it was a noble heart that could see God in the beautiful flowers, in the birds, in the fields, in the forests, and in the waters; that it was the artist's soul that loved to watch the beautiful sunset lights and the deepening shadows; she taught him to read the few books that she owned, and helped him to earn a few more; she encouraged his love for reading, and was careful that his reading was always of the best kind.
The result was, that when Abraham Lincoln came to be President, and had to write letters and make speeches, he always had the very best style of English at his command. When he said a thing, it was so simply and so correctly said, that every one knew just what he meant. And behind his words, too, there was always his big, honest, truthful heart. Is it any wonder, then, when, by and by, this good man died—shot down by an enemy of our Union— that all the country mourned for him, and felt for a time as if no one could be found to fill this good, great man's place.
Here is what a good woman says of him: "When Abraham Lincoln wrote a thing, you read what he meant. The meaning was not covered up under a heap of useless words. One thing was apparent in him from boyhood. This was his straightforward truthfulness and sincerity of purpose. No political experience ever twisted him; he ended life as he began it, an honest, sincere, trustworthy man. One of the great outcries against him by his opponents after he was elected was, 'He is an uncouth, rough backwoodsman. He is no gentleman.' It is true that he was very uncouth in face and figure; never handsome to look at, although the soul of the man sometimes shone through the plain features in a way that transfigured them, and his deep gray eyes were full of a great sadness, that seemed almost to prophesy his tragic fate. He had not the manners of a court, but he did deeds from the promptings of a simple, manly heart that a king might have been proud to own, and if he was not a true gentleman, God does not make many now-a-days."
When the Republicans chose Abraham Lincoln, the South was furious—not because they had chosen Lincoln, because they had chosen any one at all. "If a Republican President is elected," said these Southern States, "we will go out of the Union."
Now, it is said that the Southerners really were in hopes that a Republican President would be elected, so that they might have an excuse for leaving the Union. "We will go off by ourselves," said one of the Southern leaders, "and build up a government of our own; and we will have slavery for its very corner stone." They were very angry, these Southern slave-holders; for one reason, because they were now made by the United States Government to pay such high prices for slaves. One slave-dealer said, he wasn't going to pay a thousand dollars for a slave in Virginia, when he could go to Africa and buy better ones for fifty dollars a head! What do you think of a business that employed agents to catch colored men and women as you would catch animals, bring them into market, and sell them at a price, according to their size, or weight, or age, or strength for work!
We ought all to be glad that the United States Government at last came to its senses, and made all the States give up this wicked traffic.
Lincoln was in due time elected President, and the Southern States, as they had threatened, declared themselves no longer members of the Union. They made for themselves a new government, put Jefferson Davis at its head as President, and called themselves "The Confederate States of America."
These Southerners believed that, although the States had all at one time banded together under one government, still each State had a right to step out and set up a government of its own if it chose. This is what John C. Calhoun said in his speeches before Congress, and without doubt he believed what he said was true. This was the same old question of "State rights" of which you heard away back as far as when Washington was President. Don't you remember how jealous of each other the political parties were even in those early times? How afraid one party was that too much power would be given to the central government, that is, to the President and Congress? And how equally afraid the other party was that the power would be too much scattered around among the different States? And do you remember in Jackson's administration, that some of these same Southern States declared the central government "null and void," and said they had a right to leave the Union if they wanted to? They even went so far as to form a league, and would really have made trouble enough had not Jackson rushed down upon them before they had time to do any mischief.
Here was this same old question up again, in a new dress to be sure, but it was the same old question.
The Northern people had no idea how much this matter meant to the Southern people. Even when South Carolina really "seceded" from the Union—even then the Northerners thought it was only a threat.
But lest we should be too severe in our judgment on these Southerners, let us stop and see why it was they cared so little about that "Union," which, to a Northerner, is so dear. This is the reason: the Southerner had been brought up from his babyhood to love his State, his State flag, his State Government. To him, his State was everything. He had been brought up to say, "I am a Virginian!" or "I am a South Carolinian!" It was his State flag that he had seen raised on festal days; it was the State flag that waved over the public buildings, and over their forts. Everything to him was State! State! State! He loved his State, he was proud of her, and he was ready to die for her.
Now let us see how the Northerner had been brought up. He, I am inclined to think, hardly knew what his State flag was—he never heard anything about it, never saw it. It was always the "Stars and Stripes" that floated before him in these Northern States. "The Star Spangled Banner," "My Country, 'tis of Thee," "God Bless Our Union," were the songs he had always sung. He never said, "I am a New Yorker!" or "I am a Rhode Islander!" but always, "I am an American!" Everything to him was Union! Union! Union! He loved the Union, he was proud of her, he was ready to die for her. So you see, these two parties could not understand each other. The Northerner could not believe that the Southerner would do such an awful thing as to break up the sacred Union, and the Southerner, on the other side, could not see that there was anything awful at all in breaking up the Union, which to him was not sacred at all.