"Our tears are the lenses through which we see God and his works."
– Finley Peter Dunne (1907)
"With the statesmen of to-day, Lincoln counts more than any of their predecessors. The President has set him up as the one star he thinks he follows – I say thinks, because he cannot be followed by any one less than he."
– Norman Hapgood (1906)
In a Puck cartoon from 1904, Theodore Roosevelt worries over some papers on his desk as a globe of the world floats in the background. A king, soldiers, and peasants in scenes from his international exploits surround the globe, and peering over the president's shoulder is the silhouette of Abraham Lincoln. A statue or a ghost corporeal? Not clear. But according to the caption: "President Roosevelt, in dealing with matters of grave importance, was often guided by the thought of what Lincoln would do under the circumstances" (Shaw 135). As one of his biographers observed, Roosevelt "was a true disciple of Lincoln" (Lewis 338). Still, while Roosevelt would often ask himself "What would Lincoln do?", the problems he confronted were much different from those that Lincoln faced. Instead, as the Reverend Calvin D. Wilson observed in 1905, "it is the Lincoln spirit he aspires to have" (14).
But what was the spirit to which the pinnacle of the early twentieth century Progressive Era aspired? In other words, what was – as we might say today – the "symbiotic meme" (Furman 108-109) that still inserted itself into the American DNA many decades after Lincoln's death, and how and why did it continue to grow and multiply with each generation? That is a question of history that resonates today, given the politics and economic straits of the past decade and more, given that the year 2009 marked the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, given that an untold number of new books about Lincoln fill the bookstores, and given that America elected a president from Illinois for whom the media's many found parallels only added fuel to the national conversation about Lincoln.
A thorough treatment of that very large question would explore the elaboration of the Lincoln myth as it appeared in books, magazines, newspapers, the lecture circuit, and the visual arts. For now, however, this essay will narrow the field as it examines two widely popular Lincoln biographies published in the last decade of the nineteenth century written by two future muckraking journalists who also became pillars and voices of the Progressive movement – Norman Hapgood and Ida Tarbell. A close reading of these two very different kinds of biographies distills some notions of that "spirit" that Roosevelt sought. And it was that early articulation of what one anonymous columnist for American Magazine – in all probability the humorist and writer Finley Peter Dunne – described as the "inside goodness and greatness of the man" ("In the Interpreter's Chair" 448) at the core of the Progressive principles that helped give life and sustain the movement that confronted and sought to remedy the era's many societal inequities. Indeed, Herbert David Croly, an intellectual leader of the movement, once declared that the "life of no other American has revealed with anything like the same completeness the peculiar moral promise of genuine democracy" (89).
Certainly, with his assassination, Lincoln was mourned by the nation. But in the succeeding years, the general disenchantment with Lincoln over his war policies and the thousands who died during the bloody conflict diminished his reputation. In addition, the rapid industrialization of America along with the racial problems that emancipation caused became the concerns of a generation, and Lincoln's reputation was shuttled off to the sidelines of history. For example, Congress did not approve the construction of the Lincoln Memorial until 1911, and it was not dedicated until 1922, what one contemporary writer calls "the height of the era in which the Great Emancipator came to be venerated in American life" (Bunch 155).
Still, Lincoln's reputation had been resurrected before and after the turn of the century with a flood of publications about the president. The anonymous columnist for American Magazine noted he had found hundreds of references to Lincoln in newspapers and magazines that showed "men groping for the truth about him" and that Lincoln's "apotheosis is without comparison in history" ("In the Interpreter's Chair" 448). To wit, a 1920 Lincoln bibliography included more than 250 works in print (Barton). That Lincoln and his worldview could be seen as applicable to the living world decades after his death is well represented by one book consisting wholly of quotations the authors believed were relevant to the issues of the day – and in which the American people could "seek counsel" as "our Great Republic seems to be rapidly entering upon new and untried ways of profound moment to us and our posterity" (Lincoln 3). The selected quotes were enough to fill 250 pages under such areas of concern in 1900 as economics, capital, and labor; elections and suffrage; liberty and equality; war; foreign policy; the Constitution, the law, and the courts; as well as the duties and powers of the president.
Those issues and more were at the heart of the Progressive Era. In many ways, the movement stands as a national response to the post-bellum rise of industrialism in America that swept "away the individualistic system" (Whitlock 134) and the Jeffersonian hope for an agrarian paradise, which was shunted off to the side as Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and others of their ilk made their fortunes. From the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the new century, the U.S. settled down from a devastating war and dealt with economic recessions; an inundation of tens of thousands of immigrants to feed the growing industrial machine; the shortening of time through progress in communications, transportation, and technology; a growing urban community; and the explosive growth of an economy grounded in an industrial order whose deleterious effects on the life of people sparked cries for reform and fed the growth of such capitalistic counterweights as socialism and anarchism. As one historian noted in writing about the muckrakers of the era, "These changes posed profound challenges to values, institutions, and modes of governance that had taken form in a rural, agrarian society" (Fitzpatrick 4). Indeed, impetus for what one writer called "our seething national life" (Carleton 471) was the reaction to the behavior of Gilded Age corporations that, New York Mayor William Gaynor charged, had "neither a soul to be saved nor a body to be damned" ("Gaynor's Newspaper" 10).
A more scholarly view of the era came from the pen of Edward Alsworth Ross, a renowned sociologist and one of the primary reform writers of the early twentieth century.
Those who are business men and nothing more slip easily into the fallacy of rating well-being by dollar income. What this type of man most longs for is not welfare, but prosperity. The wealth he habitually considers is bankable wealth. Values that are not pecuniary values strike him as moonshine. His ideal condition is high wages, big salaries and fat dividends; and any movement or policy that stands in the way of maximizing these "hurts business" and is anathema. (Ross 84)
At the heart of the Progressive movement reaction to that individualistic stance was its rejection of measuring goodness by success in business, achievements, and fame. Rather, the new metric was one of merit involving contributions to better society. In 1907, Everybody's magazine offered a symposium on just that subject titled "What Is a Good Man" in which the editors asked how much effort a man must devote to his community to be called a good man (850-860). Behind that communitarian worldview, according to one modern historian, was Abraham Lincoln, who had come to be seen as "the highest embodiment of the ideal, a self-made man of the most humane instincts who suffered for his people and lived to set men free" (Greene 13). Indeed, as one British observer of the American scene noted in 1918, "Lincoln made politics a moral issue" (Low 20).
During the election of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt complained in a letter to Sir Henry Lucy, an English journalist and humorist, that "[i]t was very bitter for me to see the Republican Party, when I had put it back on the Abraham Lincoln basis, in three years turn over to a combination of big financiers and unscrupulous political bosses" (Bishop 348). Roosevelt maintained that rich men who found success on Wall Street were "not loyal to the cause of human rights, human justice, human liberty," which meant, he said, that the Progressives were fighting the same battle Abraham Lincoln fought in the campaign of 1860 (199). Roosevelt explained, "We are fighting for industrial and political freedom, for social and industrial justice, to be achieved through the genuine rule of the people. Abraham Lincoln and his supporters fought for the emancipation of a single race; we are fighting for the political and industrial emancipation of the entire citizenship of the United States" (261-262).
The following year, in his introduction to The Progressive Movement: Its Principles and Its Programme, Roosevelt argued that the Progressive Era's purposes and principles were "those of Abraham Lincoln and of the Republicans of his day. All we have done has been to apply these principles in actual fact to the living problems of today" (Duncan-Clark xiii). However, there would have been no need for the Progressive movement if the Republican Party had remained true to the principles of Lincoln, he wrote. Instead, Republican leaders "deliberately wrecked the party in the interests of political and commercial privilege." The Democratic Party was no better, with the Jeffersonian principles "for the uplifting of the people" ruined by its legacy of states' rights, pro-slavery, and the promotion of "an uncontrolled and unlimited individualism" (Duncan-Clark xv).
Given those facts, the Republicans' use of Lincoln's name to buttress their party was cause for chagrin because the invocation had become "hollow." As one contemporary historian asserted, "Instead of turning Lincoln's legacy toward lifting the oppressions of a ruthless industrial order from the backs of the common people, the party submitted to the power and greed of bankers, manufacturers, and railroadmen" (Peterson 156). More than one observer voiced this complaint about both the Republican and Democratic parties. For example, the columnist for The American Magazine argued that when someone declared
"unalterable devotion to the principles of Lincoln," I want to kick him. What right has any man to copyright this name for his own selfish purposes? It is as if he used my mother's name to advertise a patent medicine. It is taking a name in vain that holds in solution all brotherly love, tenderness, good-will, patience and sorrow. A Republican party of tariff and trusts, subsidies and corporation jobs calling itself the party of Lincoln! A mob of angry, cruel, vituperative, oppressive Democrats calling itself the party of Lincoln! Impious! ("In the Interpreter's Chair" 445)
Still, the columnist was happy to know that Lincoln's spirit still lived, for "while the spirit of Lincoln may not direct the practices it does mold the ideals of American life. In due time it may come about that the ideals will have their way and that our public men will try not to seem like Lincoln or look like Lincoln but to be like Lincoln" (448).
Thus, the Progressive political movement partly grew out of both a Lincoln-inspired aspiration and a frustration with the two leading parties and the politics of the age. In the following two documents, we can hear as good a distillation as any of a complex movement made up of many competing philosophies (Croly 143), but with its foundation in the principles of Lincoln.
The first came on February 21, 1912, when four days before announcing he would accept the Republican nomination if the party offered it to him, Roosevelt told the Ohio Constitutional Convention in his "A Charter of Democracy" speech:
I believe in pure democracy. With Lincoln, I hold that this country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it.
We Progressives believe that the people have the right, the power, and the duty to protect themselves and their own welfare; that human rights are supreme over all other rights; that wealth should be the servant, not the master, of the people.
We believe that unless representative government does absolutely represent the people it is not representative government at all.
We test the worth of all men and all measures by asking how they contribute to the welfare of the men, women and children of whom this Nation is composed.
We are engaged in one of the great battles of the age-long contest waged against privilege on behalf of the common welfare.
We hold it a prime duty of the people to free our government from the control of money in politics.
For this purpose we advocate, not as ends in themselves, but as weapons in the hands of the people, all governmental devices which will make the representatives of the people more easily and certainly responsive to the people's will. (47)
A year later, Samuel John Duncan-Clark, the author of The Progressive Movement: Its Principles and Its Programme, summarized the movement's agenda in three parts. As for politics, the movement reiterated the theme of the nation's founding documents that the government belonged to the people who had the final say on laws and actions affecting them. From the social standpoint, the movement rested on a communitarian foundation that insisted "human rights are superior to property rights" and that politics was service. Finally, from the standpoint of economics, the basic notion asserted there was enough wealth in America – as well as the means to distribute it – to supply the needs and comforts of every man, woman, and child while also returning a reasonable reward to capital: "A rational system of production and distribution, that recognizes the principle of social obligation, will make possible the elimination of all occasion for want and poverty on the part of those willing to engage in honest toil of brain and brawn" (14-16).
This latter view reflected the Progressive Era's devotion to disinterested "scientific investigation and the use of experts" (Rice 60). In a further manifestation of the effectiveness of what many have described as the "middle way" (Quarles 82; Nichols 15), that view also revealed the movement's adherence to a Lincoln-style centrist tropism away from the radical left or right that was hinged to pragmatism. Roosevelt described this in a letter in 1913 as "the sane and tempered radicalism which seem to me to make for true progress" in the fight with "silly reactionaries and the inert, fatuous creatures who will not think seriously" and control the "lunatic fringe among the reformers" (Bishop 177). Five years later in a letter to the renowned editor William Allen White, he wrote that he wanted to make the Republican Party "the party of sane, constructive radicalism, just as it was under Lincoln" (Roosevelt 442).
The previous two sections briefly set forth some notion of the spirit of Lincoln, how it was applicable to the living world, and how it dovetailed with both the Progressive Era and the movement's leading light – Theodore Roosevelt. In the balance of this essay, I want to summarize the Progressive principles that can be absorbed from two popular Lincoln biographies of the late nineteenth century by two renowned Progressive journalists: (1) Norman Hapgood's Abraham Lincoln, The Man of the People, which the New York state librarians selected as one of the Top 50 best books of 1899 ("Best Books of 1899" BR13), and The New York Times called "the true Lincoln, unvarnished and undecorated" (Hinckley BR895); and (2) Ida Tarbell's multi-volume biography, which was published first in S.S. McClure's McClure's Magazine as a series beginning in December 1895 and continuing through the following March – covering Lincoln's life until 1858. This series was collected and published in 1896 as The Early Life of Abraham Lincoln. A second magazine series – completed in 1899 – followed the president until his death. The following year the Life of Abraham Lincoln was published. These books are examples of two very different ways of approaching a historical writing project.
In her approach to her project, Tarbell followed McClure's theory of magazine journalism. For one, he would give his writers the time to thoroughly work through their research material until they became experts on the topic. And second, he made a point of paying his "writers for their study rather than for the amount of copy they turned out" (McClure, "My Autobiography" 139). McClure had first thought of Tarbell as an editor who would synthesize a series of articles written by people who had known Lincoln. But McClure had seconds thoughts and decided that given his previous experience with Tarbell, she was "the one to write our 'Life of Lincoln' with as much fresh material as she could get" (My Autobiography 221). Thus, McClure told Tarbell he believed that even in the late nineteenth century there still had to be a lot of unpublished material about Lincoln and people who knew and recalled Lincoln who were still available to be interviewed (All in the Day's Work 161). Indeed, more than one reviewer noted that the great value of Tarbell's work existed in the many new facts and documents that she uncovered during her exhaustive investigations (E.G.J. 192; "Lincoln" BR12). As part of that effort, she began her work in 1894, writing thousands of letters and traveling thousands of miles around the country uncovering and collecting material. She interviewed people who knew Lincoln, dug through published records, documents still residing in courthouses, county histories, newspapers, and letters (Tarbell, All in the Day's Work 161). Thus Tarbell, who admitted she knew nothing of history before she began, conducted what can only be called an exemplar of reporting in which the investigator is allowed the time and support to dig into every known resource to put together a synoptic mosaic approaching truth.
Unlike Tarbell, however, Hapgood did no original research, but instead relied on previous biographies and material collected by others to stitch together his story. Hapgood's goal, a reviewer noted, was "to draw for us a portrait in the realistic style which shall make us feel its verisimilitude in all the phases of Lincoln's wonderful history" ("Reviews of Books" 778) Indeed, Hapgood once wrote that he believed "that no life in American history is more surely worth intimate acquaintance" ("The Inner Life" 82). While today we can read Tarbell's work as an example of exhaustive, but at times pedestrian, reportage that could have been written yesterday, Hapgood's biography often has an antiquated air in its often overwrought, but poetic, hyperbole. Indeed, we could say that Tarbell is much more the reportorial lecturer while Hapgood is the florid sermonizer.
Hapgood is best known as the editor of Collier's. But previous to that, he had worked in newspapers and gained some notoriety as the author of several books, including Literary Statesmen, The Stage in America, Industry and Progress, and biographies of Daniel Webster, George Washington, and, of course, Abraham Lincoln. Hapgood edited Collier's from 1902 until 1912, and during that time the magazine became one of the elite muckraking publications. During that stint, one critic observed in 1911, Hapgood wielded "more influence than any other journalist in America" ("Studies from Life" 18). During his tenure, the magazine's crusades targeted the patent medicine industry's abuse of advertising, government malfeasance, the income tax, direct election of senators, railroad rate regulation, child labor laws, settlement houses, slum clearance, women's suffrage, and even the newspaper industry.
Meanwhile, Tarbell had been a freelance writer while living in Paris and studying the role of women in the French Revolution. She later became part of the stable of McClure's writers when McClure persuaded her to work on a biography of Napoleon in New York. Of note, McClure's was to become one of the primary exemplars of the era's Progressive muckraking periodicals – right up there with Hapgood's Collier's. As Richard Hofstadter observed, McClure's Magazine was "completely representative of the average thought and sensibility of the muckraking movement" (202). To that point, Tarbell recalled in her autobiography that McClure believed the most important aspect of American life since the Civil War was "the influence of the life and character of Abraham Lincoln" (All in the Day's Work 161). Later, Tarbell noted that the four years she spent researching and writing about Lincoln bolstered her "flagging sense" that she "had a country, that its problems were [her] problems." This notion, she wrote, had been with her during the years when she worked on The Chautauquan (All in the Day's Work 179), which had a reform-minded "social sense" that, like McClure's, followed the workings of industrialized America and sympathized with the struggles of the labor movement (Mott 216).
On the first page of his work, Hapgood introduces many of the elements of Lincoln he elaborates on later in anecdotes from his life:
He sprang from the great base of the national life, with few traditions, no knowledge of other lands and times, confronting a wilderness and its pioneers, longing for light, but having to work for every ray. Thrown intellectually naked into the world, his education had to be directly from the nature of the men and women who passed before him, so that when he came to his great trial, he had to pilot a people whose peculiarities he intimately knew. The fathers of the Revolution were cultivated Englishmen confronting Englishmen. Lincoln's whole nature grew in our soil, and when he was asked to rule a distracted country, native strength, honesty, and shrewdness had as their foundation an intimacy with the kinds of human nature which formed the conflicting masses. (Abraham Lincoln 1)
This passage is the template for the story to follow; analysis reveals several themes that are elaborated on later and echoed throughout Tarbell's work. For one, Lincoln, of Western pioneer stock, was bereft of the facilities needed for a man seeking an education to succeed in the world. Thus, he was forced to fend for himself. Hapgood reveals this point in many ways – including stories about Lincoln making the best of the education system as it existed, his journal writings, and his efforts to gain knowledge from his fellow citizens from whom he learned life lessons applicable to dealing with both the social and political worlds. Indeed, one reviewer noted that the "completeness with which he understood the common people is shown to be the basis of his power as a leader in a crisis where ordinary principles were useless" ("Untitled" 107). The latter can be seen most forcefully in Hapgood's steady reference to Lincoln's use of humor and jokes as educative metaphors.
However, the one autodidactic element given most prominence is Lincoln's incremental accumulation of his treasured law books as a trope for his slow and persistent accretion of knowledge. Specifically, rather than studying law in school where he would reference those books, he read each case-by-case and statute-by-statute, and from those close readings distilled his own understanding of the law and how it worked. One passage from the biography well illustrates this point:
He stuck to Blackstone and got hold of Chitty and other law books. He was no observer of times or places. One day an old man, who had given him some of his irregular jobs, saw him on the woodpile, barefoot, in his flax or tow-linen pantaloons, several inches short, probably one suspender, no vest or coat, calico shirt, coarse tan-color brogans, blue yarn socks, and straw hat without a band, his big, rough, gentle face perusing a book.
"What are you reading?" asked the old man.
"I'm not reading, I'm studying," replied Lincoln.
"Great God Almighty!"
And the old man passed on.
This ungainly young man, with his careless business habits and lounging ways, who slept on the store counter when the tavern was full, was getting on in real preparation for life. He could soon draw deeds, contracts, and mortgages for his neighbors. He frequently got before a justice of the peace, but charged little and often nothing. (Abraham Lincoln 38-39)
Equally, Tarbell goes into great lengths to show us that Lincoln created himself to be one of the leading lawyers in Illinois. Here, again, appears the self-creation theme of educating and improving the self despite the inequalities of circumstance. When the electorate began to take notice of him, the answer to "who are you" was "a pioneer home, little schooling, few books, hard labor at all the many trades of the frontiersman, a profession mastered o' nights by the light of a friendly cooper's fire, an early entry into politics and law – and then twenty-five years of incessant poverty and struggle" (qtd. in The Early Life 127). This tale of self-creation would later appeal to voters when Lincoln ran for national office, and Tarbell – as Hapgood did – took journalistic pains to reveal this fact as a truth of Lincoln's existence, which is best exemplified by Lincoln's avaricious and close reading of whatever came his way – especially the law books he devoured to make himself a lawyer. This point is well represented by this early passage in Tarbell’s work:
In spite of the crudeness of these early opportunities for learning; in spite of the fact that he had no wise direction, that he was brought up by a father with no settled purpose, and that he lived in a pioneer community, where a young man's life at best is but a series of makeshifts, Lincoln soon developed a determination to make something out of himself, and a desire to know, which led him to neglect no opportunity to learn. (The Early Life 80)
Though the notion of the self-made man was much to be admired, there is an almost individualistic strain in this self-taught, man-alone against the world that Progressives decades later would reject as one of the Darwinian founding forces of the Gilded Age. However, Hapgood shows us Lincoln's education, both from a necessarily haphazard and eclectic collection of books and "from the nature of the men and women" (Abraham Lincoln 1) he met in his travels.
The implication here is twofold. One, his close reading of those cases and statutes revealed to him the trace elements of justice embedded in the law, thus recombinantly reinforcing his own native sense of justice. Second, in learning from society, Lincoln absorbed the very otherness of those he learned from, thus buttressing his understanding of and compassion for his fellow men, including his enemies. For example, Hapgood notes, in discussions about reconstruction, "He very genuinely believed that the way to establish the new order of things without bitterness was to treat the vanquished rebel as if he were a beloved and trustworthy brother who had just been convinced in an argument" (Abraham Lincoln 342) – a stance Lincoln held to despite the very real chance he would not be re-nominated.
Equally, Tarbell explores this autodidactic theme of Lincoln's ability, while living in a land largely barren of formal educational possibilities, to learn from contact with other people. Tarbell shows us that while a ferryman and boatman, Lincoln worked on a river that acted as both a transportation and communication corridor. This job afforded a constant stream of opportunities for him to tap into the knowledge of life far outside his ken – both through conversation and travel. Every time he boarded a steamboat or raft "and saw its mysteries and talked with its crew, every time he rowed out with passengers to a passing steamer, who can doubt that he came away with new ideas and fresh energy? The trips to New Orleans were, to a thoughtful boy, an education of no mean value" (The Early Life 79).
Even away from the river, Tarbell tells us, he maintained a "sympathetic comprehension of the duties and joys and sorrows and interests of the people" with whom he socialized and from whom he learned. As in Hapgood's work, Tarbell emphasizes the fact that Lincoln's sense of justice manifested itself in compassion drawn from this comprehension. "He possessed," she recounts, "in an extraordinary degree the power of entering into the interests of others, a power found only in reflective, unselfish natures endowed with a humorous sense of human foibles, and with great tenderness of heart" (The Early Life 192). This compassion for the other was also a quality he took into the war, and unlike many leaders, "he never came to regard the army as a mere machine, never forgot the individual men who made it up" (149).
Along these same lines, Tarbell's work explores the buttressing of his sense of justice in his early experiences with slavery – a theme given short shrift in Hapgood's biography. Again, this is a kind of learning – not book learning – through encounters with society. His first inkling of slavery came as a child in Kentucky. His parents were members of an abolitionist group, and they believed slavery was so evil that they left Kentucky for a free State. Thus, Tarbell argues, Lincoln's "first notion of the institution was that it was something to flee from, a thing so dreadful that it was one's duty to go to pain and hardship to escape it" (The Early Life 14). Tarbell also recounts a later experience – and a story every student is taught at some point – when Lincoln visited New Orleans and witnessed "the revolting sight of men and women sold like animals." Tarbell quotes William Herndon, his law partner and biographer, who recalled that "[a]gainst this inhumanity his sense of right and justice rebelled, and his mind and conscience were awakened to a realization of what he had often heard and read" (The Early Life 112). Hapgood, however, insists that the latter anecdote is apocryphal, calling it "hopelessly exaggerated" (Abraham Lincoln 25).
Still, both biographies reveal it was this in-depth education drawn from the world around him that informed the principles that were the communitarian ground from which Lincoln dealt with others – especially in times of conflict – that manifested itself in the search for the very Progressive notion of justice. At one point, Hapgood, quoting Senator James G. Blaine, emphasized that Lincoln "did not seek to say merely the thing that was for the day's debate, but the thing which would stand the test of time and square itself with eternal justice" (Abraham Lincoln 149).
Indeed, the overarching theme of both biographies is that Lincoln saw politics as a moral issue and that justice – which manifests itself in equality and the often conflicting tenets of human rights and property rights – is capable of squaring the circle. I noted earlier the difference in the writing styles of each author, and on this subject we can see it most clearly. That is, in a close reading throughout the books, we cannot miss Hapgood's intended meaning because, while he tends to be more poetic, he is also more to the point. Meanwhile, Tarbell's similar message can get lost in the very expanse of her exhaustive fact-based reporting.
The latter half of Hapgood's introductory paragraph deals obliquely with this ideal of the middle way through the metaphor of the pilot who must steer the boat between hazardous shoals on both sides of the river. However, the native traits of "strength, honesty, and shrewdness" – made manifest in an anecdote about Lincoln's cleverness in saving a stranded river boat (Hapgood, Abraham Lincoln 24-25) – were drawn from a life-taught "intimacy" with how humans reacted and how they could be brought together during conflict.
For one, we have already seen how humor and jokes gathered from his life experience could work as educative metaphors. But in the case of conflict, Hapgood shows us, they also worked as a palliative to relieve the tension of a moment, as a didactic tool to engineer compromise, and as an expression of Lincoln's strength and unswerving confidence – fortified by his ethic of justice. And it was compromise toward progress that required what Roosevelt would later describe as "constructive radicalism" that avoided the extremes in a search for justice for both sides of a conflict. The uncommon courage and confidence it took to adhere to this generosity of spirit, both Hapgood and Tarbell showed us, was tested repeatedly during the war and was fodder for much complaint and criticism from friends and foes alike.
Unlike Tarbell, nowhere in Hapgood's memoirs does he mention the research and writing that went into his Lincoln biography. But we still can mine something about the temperament of the author and why he would admire and promote the magnanimity that flowed from Lincoln’s tempered radicalism. At one point in his memoirs, Hapgood discusses an event during his time at Harvard that dovetails well with the emphasis he later places on the middle way in his Lincoln biography – a term he describes in the biography as "elasticity" (Changing Years 418). Hapgood recalled that he was one of a group of students and professors who created a short-lived Laodicean Club, which was "based on the idea that Paul was too hard on the church that was in Laodicea, when he attacked it for being neither hot nor cold, and that there was much to say for the balanced attitude of that seldom-praised institution" (418). This club was a response to what Hapgood described as an "oversupply of strenuousness" and a "lack of philosophic doubt" (45), occurrences of which were part and parcel of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The best examples of such manifested themselves in the reactionary industry's use of violence against labor and the radical extreme of the era's labor movement, which was known to throw a bomb or two. The American middle class, no matter how sympathetic to labor's struggles, was alienated by the foreign agitators and their rejection of capitalism for anarchism and their resort to violence – an un-American path to settling disputes and achieving progress and success.
Much as we can see an early expression of a justice-prone manifestation of this admiration for tempered radicalism early in Hapgood's life, we can find this, too, in a telling event early in Lincoln's life that Hapgood called “the first striking illustration of his power to say the right thing on great moral issues” (Abraham Lincoln 58-59). I have isolated this particular anecdote because it is a set-piece early in the biography that – in its very ambivalence – sets the foundation for the man who was seemingly neutral on a crisis of the moment, but on closer inspection we see he is riding the middle way but aligned with justice and the “popular will of which he was the leader and the servant” (419).
In 1837, Lincoln was one of only two legislators to oppose a resolution of the Illinois General Assembly that disapproved of abolition societies and asserted that the right of property in slaves is sacred to the slave-holding states by the Federal Constitution, and that they cannot be deprived of that right without their consent. In a resolution of protest signed by Lincoln and one other lawmaker named Dan Stone, we can hear what essentially amounts to an equivocation grounded in morality and the tension between justice and established law – in this case the Constitution. While Lincoln and Stone held that "slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy," they also acknowledged that Congress had no power under the Constitution to meddle in the slavery question in any state. And contrary to the resolution, but still adhering to the precepts of the Constitution and acknowledging the power of the popular will, Lincoln and Stone insisted that Congress did have the right to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, but only if the residents of the district requested it to do so (Hapgood, Abraham Lincoln 58-59).
I do not want to delve in counter-factual history here. But arguably, out of this anecdote and the theme of justice throughout both biographies, one of the ironies of Lincoln's death at the hand of a son of the South was the South's treatment during reconstruction by a generosity of spirit. Hapgood notes near the end of his biography that Lincoln "made the best of necessity and henceforth tried everything – compensation, kind words, amnesty – to remove bitterness in the South. Had he lived four years longer, it is probable that his skillful hand would have done much to make his Christian charity effective in the rebel states; and, as always, he would have learned with every step" (402).
I have said nothing here of the momentous speeches Lincoln gave and have given little nod to his reaction to the trying events of his life that make up the body of every Lincoln biography, including Hapgood's and Tarbell's works. Space limits going on about them, and besides they are only the attributes of the man's character and talents. Something lies deeper. What I have tried to do here is to tease out from these two works the ideal forms of this "great soul" (Tarbell, The Early Life 87) that appealed to reformers in the early twentieth century and that inserted themselves into the conversation about reforming the social inequities of the Gilded Age. Indeed, the reformers decades later who read his story felt what Tarbell described as "a sudden reverence for a mind and heart developed to these noble proportions in so unfriendly a habitat. They turned instinctively to one so familiar with strife for help in solving the desperate problem with which the nation had grappled" (127). Solid evidence for this comes from Tarbell herself. In her autobiography, she recounted that while working on her Lincoln biography, she began to think about both the past and the present – about why the country had followed the path into the raw industrialized world after the Civil War: "Was there not enough of suffering and of nobility in that calamity to quiet the greed and ambitions of men, to soften their hates, to arouse in them the will to follow Lincoln's last counsels – 'With malice toward none; with charity for all'?" Was it then, she asked, the war itself as a means of addressing wrongs that had erased the charitable nature of men extant during times of peace, creating an era of corruption and a "thirst to punish and humiliate and exploit the conquered?" Here, if we think about the past informing the present, we can infer that she is talking not just about the North versus the South after the war, but also the Social Darwinian notion – via Herbert Spencer – of victory held by the Gilded Age's tycoons and their cohorts as they exploited what Tarbell called a "more subtle form of slavery, more dangerous because less obvious" (All in the Day's Work 179-180).
Finally, it is clear that these two biographies were about more than just the life of Lincoln. For one, they offered Progressive Era writers and reformers a vocabulary of reform that helped charge them with a moral fervor and carry them through their careers into the early twentieth century. Look no farther than Tarbell, who recounted that as she worked on the biography and watched "out of the corner of the eye" the events going on in America, which were being informed by her research into the past, her long cherished hope of finishing the biography and then returning to France as a writer slowly dimmed. Instead, Tarbell's work on Lincoln's life set her on a path to becoming one of America's most renowned muckraking reporters and one of the foremost voices of the Progressive Era (All in the Day's Work 179-180). And, two, at their core these works were circumspect and polite propaganda promoting the principles of the Progressive Era – most especially the notion of justice leading to what Emerson called Lincoln's "extreme moderation" (91-92) in which he followed the middle way, but always aligned with justice. To make this point clearer, recall both biographies' explication of what Tarbell called Lincoln's learned "power of entering into the interests of others" (149). This ability, the philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich tells us, is justice made manifest in that justice is the "acknowledgement of the other person as a person" (Tillich 80).
If we then accept the fact that democracy is the struggle it is because it arises out of the differences in our diversity – recall Hapgood's description of "conflicting masses" (Abraham Lincoln 1) – we can see how Hapgood's and Tarbell's biographies – coming when they did – made Lincoln the fixed star to guide early twentieth-century Progressives toward justice as well as progress and away from the shoals of what Roosevelt called "silly reactionaries" and the "lunatic fringe" (Bishop 177).
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