An Appreciation of Lincoln, by John Hay

from Life of Lincoln

To these qualifications of high literary excellence, and easy practical mastery of affairs of transcendent importance, we must add as an explanation of his immediate and world-wide fame, his possession of certain moral qualities rarely combined in such high degree in one individual. His heart was so tender that he would dismount from his horse in a forest to replace in their nest young birds which had fallen by the roadside; he could not sleep at night if he knew that a soldier-boy was under sentence of death; he could not, even at the bidding of duty or policy, refuse the prayer of age or helplessness in distress. Children instinctively loved him; they never found his rugged features ugly; his sympathies were quick and seemingly unlimited. He was absolutely without prejudice of class or condition. Frederick Douglass [Footnote: Frederick Douglass: a noted orator and journalist. He was born (a slave) in 1817 and died in 1895.] says he was the only man of distinction he ever met who never reminded him, by word or manner, of his color; he was as just and generous to the rich and well-born as to the poor and humble—a thing rare among politicians. He was tolerant even of evil: though no man can ever have lived with a loftier scorn of meanness and selfishness, he yet recognized their existence and counted with them. He said one day, with a flash of cynical wisdom worthy of a La Rochefoucauld, [Footnote: La Rochefoucauld: Francois La Rochefoucauld was a French writer and moralist of the seventeenth century.] that honest statesmanship was the employment of individual meanness for the public good. He never asked perfection of any one; he did not even insist, for others, upon the high standards he set up for himself. At a time before the word was invented he was the first of opportunists. With the fire of a reformer and a martyr in his heart, he yet proceeded by the ways of cautious and practical statecraft. He always worked with things as they were, while never relinquishing the desire and effort to make them better. To a hope which saw the Delectable Mountains of absolute justice and peace in the future, to a faith that God in his own time would give to all men the things convenient to them, he added a charity which embraced in its deep bosom all the good and the bad, all the virtues and the infirmities of men, and a patience like that of nature, which in its vast and fruitful activity knows neither haste nor rest.


[Footnote: Do you know any facts of Lincoln's life that would support some of these statements? What has come to be the universally accepted estimate of Lincoln? What qualities of Lincoln seem most to impress the writer? Can you point to anything in Lincoln's addresses that proves the correctness of the popular judgment of him? Point out instances of contrast in this selection. Do you know anything about the "Lincoln Mythology" that has grown up since the war?]

Louise de la Ramee