Men of Our Times. Or, Leading Patriots of the Day
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Men of Our Times. Or, Leading Patriots of the Day
Harriet Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Men of Our Times / Leading Patriots of The Day


In these sketches of some of the leading public men of our times, the editor professes to give such particulars of their lives, and such only, as the public have a right to know.

Every such man has two lives, his public and his private one. The one becomes fairly the property of the public, in virtue of his having been connected with events in which every one has a share of interest; but the other belongs exclusively to himself, his family, and his intimate friends, and the public have no more right to discuss or pry into its details than they have into those of any other private individual.

The editor has aimed to avoid all privacies and personalities which might be indelicate in relation to family circles. She has indeed, in regard to all the characters, so far as possible, dwelt upon the early family and community influences by which they were formed, particularly upon the character and influence of mothers; but such inquiries relate for the most part to those long dead, and whose mortal history has become a thing of the past.

Whenever the means have been at hand, the family stock from which each man has been derived, has been minutely traced. The question of inherited traits is becoming yearly one of increasing interest, and most striking results come from a comparison of facts upon this subject. The fusion of different races is said to produce marked results on the characteristics of the human being. America has been a great smelting furnace in which tribes and nations have been melted together, and the result ought to be some new developments of human nature. It will always be both interesting and useful to know both the quality of the family stock, and the circumstances of the early training of men who have acted any remarkable part in life.

Our country has recently passed through a great crisis which has concentrated upon it for a time the attention of the civilized world. It has sustained a shock which the whole world, judging by past experience, said must inevitably shatter the republic to fragments, and yet, like a gallant ship in full sail, it has run down the terrible obstacle, and gone on triumphant, and is this day stronger for the collision.

This wonderful success is owing to the character of the people which a Christian Democracy breeds. Of this people we propose to give a specimen; to show how they were formed in early life, from the influences which are inherent in such a state.

We are proud and happy to know that these names on our list are after all but specimens. Probably every reader of this book will recall as many more whom he will deem equally worthy of public notice. There is scarcely one of them who would not say in reference to his position before the public, what Lincoln said: "I stand where I do because some man must stand there, but there are twenty others that might as well have been leaders as myself." On the whole, we are not ashamed to present to the world this list of men as a specimen of the graduates from the American school of Christian Democracy.

So far as we know, the American government is the only permanent republic which ever based itself upon the principles laid down by Jesus Christ, of the absolute equal brotherhood of man, and the rights of man on the simple ground of manhood. Notwithstanding the contrary practices of a section of the States united in the Union, and the concessions which they introduced into the constitution, nobody doubts that this was the leading idea of the men who founded our government. The declaration of American Independence crystalized a religious teaching within a political act. The constitution of the United States still further elaborates these principles, and so strong was the logic of ideas that the conflict of opinions implied in the incidental concessions to opposite ideas, produced in the government of the country a continual and irrepressible discord. For a while it seemed doubtful which idea would triumph, and whether the accidental parasite would not strangle and wither the great original tree. The late war was the outcome of the whole. The fierce fire into which our national character has been cast in the hour of trial, has burned out of it the last lingering stain of compromise with anything inconsistent with its primary object, "to ordain justice and perpetuate liberty."

These men have all been formed by the principles of that great Christian document, and that state of society and those social influences which grew out of it, and it is instructive to watch, in their early life, how a Christian republic trains her sons.

In looking through the list it will be seen that almost every one of these men sprang from a condition of hard-working poverty. The majority of them were self-educated men, who in early life were inured to industrious toil. The farm life of America has been the nursery of great men, and there is scarce a man mentioned in the book who has not hardened his muscles and strengthened his brain power by a hand to hand wrestle with the forces of nature in agricultural life. Frugality, strict temperance, self-reliance and indomitable industry have been the lessons of their early days.

Some facts about these specimen citizens are worthy of attention. More than one-half of them were born and received their early training in New England, and full one-third are direct lineal descendants of the Pilgrim fathers. All, so far as we know, are undoubted believers in the Christian religion – the greater proportion of them are men of peculiarly and strongly religious natures, who have been active and efficient in every peculiarly religious work. All have been agreed in one belief, that the teachings of Jesus Christ are to be carried out in political institutions, and that the form of society based on his teachings, is to be defended at any sacrifice and at all risks.

There is scarcely a political man upon this list whose early efforts were not menaced with loss and reproach and utter failure, if he advocated these principles in the conduct of political affairs. For these principles they have temporarily suffered buffetings, oppressions, losses, persecutions, and in one great instance, Death. All of them honored liberty when she was hard beset, insulted and traduced, and it is fit that a free people should honor them in the hour of her victory.

It will be found when the sum of all these biographies is added up that the qualities which have won this great physical and moral victory have not been so much exceptional gifts of genius or culture, as those more attainable ones which belong to man's moral nature.

Taken as a class, while there is a fair proportion both of genius and scholarship among them, yet the general result speaks more of average talent and education turned to excellent account, than of any striking eminence in any particular direction.

But we regard it as highest of all that they were men of good and honest hearts – men who have set their faces as a flint to know and do the RIGHT. All of them are men whose principles have been tried in the fire, men who have braved opposition and persecution and loss for the sake of what they believed to be true, and knew to be right, and for this even more than for their bravery in facing danger, and their patience and perseverance in overcoming difficulties, we have good hope in offering them as examples to the young men of America.

In respect to one of the names on the list, the editor's near relationship, while it gives her most authentic access to all sources of just information, may be held to require an apology. But the fashion of writing biographies of our leading men is becoming so popular that the only way in which a prominent man can protect himself from being put before the public by any hands who may think fit to assume the task, is to put into the hands of some friend such authentic particulars as may with propriety be recorded. Mr. Beecher has recently been much embarrassed by the solicitation of parties, who notwithstanding his remonstrances, announce an intention of writing his life. He has been informed by them that it was to be done whether he consented or not, and that his only choice was between furnishing these parties with material, or taking the risk of what they might discover in their unassisted researches.

In this dilemma, it is hoped that the sketch presented in this volume, as being undeniably authentic, may so satisfy the demand, that there may be no call for any other record.

    H. B. STOWE.

Hartford, January, 1868.



The Men of our Time – Lincoln Foremost – The War was the Working-Man's Revolution – Abraham Lincoln's Birth and Youth – The Books he read – The Thirty Thousand Dollars for Tender – The Old Stocking of Government Money – A Just Lawyer; Anecdotes – His First Candidacy and Speech – Goes to Legislature and Congress – The Seven Debates and Campaign against Douglas in 1858 – Webster's and Lincoln's Language Compared – The Cooper Institute Speech – The Nomination at Chicago – Moral and Physical Courage – The Backwoodsman President and the Diplomatists – Significance of his Presidential Career – Religious Feelings – His Kindness – "The Baby Did It" – The First Inaugural – The Second Inaugural, and other State Papers – The Conspiracy and Assassination – The Opinions of Foreign Nations on Mr. Lincoln.

Our times have been marked from all other times as the scene of an immense conflict which has not only shaken to its foundation our own country, but has been felt like the throes of an earthquake through all the nations of the earth.

Our own days have witnessed the closing of the great battle, but the preparations for that battle have been the slow work of years.

The "Men of Our Times," are the men who indirectly by their moral influence helped to bring on this great final crisis, and also those who, when it was brought on, and the battle was set in array, guided it wisely, and helped to bring it to its triumphant close.

In making our selection we find men of widely different spheres and characters. Pure philanthropists, who, ignoring all selfish and worldly politics, have labored against oppression and wrong; far-seeing statesmen, who could foresee the working of political causes from distant years; brave naval and military men, educated in the schools of our country; scientific men, who helped to perfect the material forces of war by their discoveries and ingenuity – all are united in one great crisis, and have had their share in one wonderful passage of the world's history.

Foremost on the roll of "men of our time," it is but right and fitting that we place the honored and venerated name of the man who was called by God's providence to be the leader of the nation in our late great struggle, and to seal with his blood the proclamation of universal liberty in this country – the name of


The revolution through which the American nation has been passing was not a mere local convulsion. It was a war for a principle which concerns all mankind. It was the war for the rights of the working class of society as against the usurpation of privileged aristocracies. You can make nothing else of it. That is the reason why, like a shaft of light in the judgment day, it has gone through all nations, dividing the multitudes to the right and the left. For us and our cause, all the common working classes of Europe – all that toil and sweat, and are oppressed. Against us, all privileged classes, nobles, princes, bankers and great manufacturers, all who live at ease. A silent instinct, piercing to the dividing of soul and spirit, joints and marrow, has gone through the earth, and sent every soul with instinctive certainty where it belongs. The poor laborers of Birmingham and Manchester, the poor silk weavers of Lyons, to whom our conflict has been present starvation and lingering death, have stood bravely for us. No sophistries could blind or deceive them; they knew that our cause was their cause, and they suffered their part heroically, as if fighting by our side, because they knew that our victory was to be their victory. On the other side, all aristocrats and holders of exclusive privileges have felt the instinct of opposition, and the sympathy with a struggling aristocracy, for they, too, felt that our victory would be their doom.

This great contest has visibly been held in the hands of Almighty God, and is a fulfillment of the solemn prophecies with which the Bible is sown thick as stars, that He would spare the soul of the needy, and judge the cause of the poor. It was He who chose the instrument for this work, and He chose him with a visible reference to the rights and interests of the great majority of mankind, for which he stood.

Abraham Lincoln was in the strictest sense a man of the working classes. All his advantages and abilities were those of a man of the working classes, all his disadvantages and disabilities those of the working classes, and his position at the head of one of the most powerful nations of the earth was a sign to all who live by labor, that their day is coming. Lincoln was born to the inheritance of hard work, as truly as the poorest laborer's son that digs in our fields. He was born in Kentucky, in 1809. At seven years of age he was set to work, axe in hand, to clear up a farm in a Western forest. Until he was seventeen his life was that of a simple farm laborer, with only such intervals of schooling as farm laborers get. Probably the school instruction of his whole life would not amount to more than six months. At nineteen he made a trip to New Orleans as a hired hand on a flat-boat, and on his return he split the timber for a log cabin and built it, and enclosed ten acres of land with a rail fence of his own handiwork. The next year he hired himself for twelve dollars a month to build a flat-boat and take her to New Orleans, and any one who knows what the life of a Mississippi boatman was in those days, must know that it involved every kind of labor. In 1832, in the Black Hawk Indian war, the hardy boatman volunteered to fight for his country, and was unanimously elected a captain, and served with honor for a season in frontier military life. He was very popular with his soldiers for two reasons; the first was his great physical strength; the second, that he could tell more and better stories than any other man in the army. Odd constituents for a commander's character; but like everything else in Lincoln's life, the fact shows how wonderfully he represented, and therefore suited, the people. Some time after the war, the surveyor of Sangamon county, being driven with work, came to him to take the survey of a tract off from his hands. True, he had never studied surveying, but what of that? He accepted the job, procured a chain and a treatise on surveying, and did the work. Do we not see in this a parallel of the wider wilderness which in later years he was to undertake to survey and fit for human habitation, without chart or surveyor's chain?

After this, while serving as a postmaster, he began his law studies. He took the postmastership for the sake of reading all the papers that came into the town, at the same time borrowing the law books he was too poor to buy, and studying by the light of his evening fire. He soon acquired a name in the country about as a man of resources and shrewdness. He was one that people looked to for counsel in exigencies, and to whom they were ready to depute almost any enterprise which needed skill and energy, or patience and justice. "He was in great request," says one of his biographers, "by thick-headed people, because of his clearness and skill in narration." It might well have been added, because also of his kindness, patience and perfect justness of nature in listening, apprehending and stating.

Mr. Lincoln was now about twenty-three. His life thus far may perhaps be considered as his education; at any rate, it is the part of his life which answers to the school years, college course, and professional studies of a regularly educated lawyer at the East. It included, of actual "schooling," only the six months total already mentioned. Even then it was his mother who had taught him to read and write. Of the use of books of any kind, this backwoods graduate had little enough. His course of reading was a very thorough illustration of the ancient rule to "read not many but much." He read seven books over and over. Of three of them, the Bible, Shakspeare and Æsop's Fables, he could repeat large portions by heart. The other four were the Pilgrim's Progress, the Life of Washington, the Life of Franklin, and the Life of Henry Clay. It is a curious fact that neither then nor afterwards did he ever read a novel. He began Ivanhoe once, but was not interested enough to finish it. He was one of those men who have the peculiar faculty of viewing this whole world of men and things as a side spectator, and the interest of the drama of life thus silently seen at first hand, was to him infinitely more interesting than any second hand imitation. "My life is story enough," once said a person of this peculiar temperament, "what should I want to read stories for?" The interest he felt in human beings was infinitely stronger with him than the interest in artistic representation.

One of his biographers says that he "seldom bought a new book, and seldom read one," and he adds, with a good deal of truth, that "his education was almost entirely a newspaper one," and that he "was one of the most thorough newspaper readers in America."

But that which was much more the real essence of his self-education, was the never-ceasing and strenuous course of laborious thought and reasoning that he kept up, upon the meaning, the connection, the tendency, the right and wrong, the helps or remedies, of all the past facts he read of, or of the present facts that he experienced in life. And this education he not only began early and pursued effectively, but he never ceased it. All his life he maintained that course of steady labor after practical knowledge and practical wisdom. Whenever he could read a good book he did, and his practice for a long time was, after having finished it, to write out an analysis of it; a very fatiguing but very improving process. One of his companions while a young "hired man," described him in after years, as "the likeliest boy in God's world. He would work all day as hard as any of us, and study by fire-light in the log house half the night, and in this way he made himself a thorough practical surveyor." Another man described him as he saw him while working for a living, in 1830, or thereabouts, "lying on a trundle-bed, with one leg stretched out rocking the cradle containing the child of his hostess, while he himself was absorbed in the study of English grammar."

The world has many losses that mankind are not conscious of. The burning of the Alexandrian library was an irreparable loss, but a greater loss is in the silence of great and peculiar minds. Had there been any record of what Lincoln thought and said while he thus hewed his way through the pedantic mazes of book learning, we might have some of the newest, the strangest, the most original contributions to the philosophy of grammar and human language in general that ever have been given. They would have savored very much of Beethoven's answer when the critics asked him why he would use consecutive octaves in music. "Because they sounded well," said the scornful old autocrat; and Lincoln's quiet perseverance in a style of using the English language peculiarly his own had something of the same pertinacity. He seemed equally amused by the critical rules of rhetoric, and as benevolently and paternally indulgent to the mass of eager scholars who thought them important, as he was to the turbulent baby whom he rocked with one leg while he pursued his grammatical studies. But after his own quaint, silent fashion, he kept up his inquiries into the world of book learning with remarkable perseverance, and his friend and biographer, Mr. Arnold, says, became "thoroughly at home in all the liberal studies and scientific questions of the day." This is rather strongly put, and we fancy that Lincoln would have smiled shrewdly over it, but the specifications which Mr. Arnold adds are undoubtedly true. Mr. Lincoln "had mastered English, and made some progress in Latin, and knew the Bible more thoroughly than many who have spent their lives in its perusal."

But what book learning he obtained would never have made him a lawyer, not to say President. The education which gave him his success in life was his self-training in the ability to understand and to state facts and principles about men and things.

In 1836 our backwoodsman, flat-boat hand, captain, surveyor, obtained a license to practice law, and as might be expected, rose rapidly. One anecdote will show the esteem in which he was held in his neighborhood. A client came to him in a case relating to a certain land claim, and Lincoln said to him, "Your first step must be to take thirty thousand dollars and go and make a legal tender; it of course will be refused, but it is a necessary step." "But," said the man, "I haven't the thirty thousand dollars to make it with." "O, that's it; just step over to the bank with me, and I'll get it." So into the bank they went, and Lincoln says to the cashier, "We just want to take thirty thousand dollars to make a legal tender with; I'll bring it back in an hour or two." The cashier handed across the money to "Honest Abe," and without a scratch of the pen in acknowledgment, he strode his way with the money, all in the most sacred simplicity, made the tender, and brought it back with as much nonchalance as if he had been borrowing a silver spoon of his grandmother.

It was after he had been practicing law some time, that another incident took place, showing him as curiously scrupulous about small sums as he was trusty and trusted about large ones. When he left New Salem and went to Springfield, he was still so poor that he even found it difficult to procure the necessaries of life. For some years he struggled forward, when one day there came a post-office agent, who in pursuance of the routine business of the department, presented to the almost penniless and still struggling ex-postmaster a regulation draft for the balance due to the Washington office, in all $17.60. Dr. Henry, a friend of Mr. Lincoln's, happening to fall in with the agent, went along with him, intending to offer to lend the money, as it was about certain that he could have no such sum as that at his command. When the draft was presented, Lincoln asked the officer to be seated, sat down himself a few moments, looking puzzled; then asked to be excused for a little, stepped out to his boarding house and returned. He brought with him an old stocking, untied it, and poured out on the table a quantity of small silver coin and "red cents." These they counted; they amounted to $17.60, the precise amount called for by the draft. More than that – it was the very money called for by the draft, for at leaving his postmastership, the punctilious officer had tied up the balance on hand, and kept it by him, awaiting the legal call for it. At paying it over, he remarked that he never used, even temporarily, any money that was not his. This money, he added, he felt belonged to the government, and he had no right to exchange or use it for any purposes of his own.

His honesty, shrewdness, energy and keen practical insight into men and things soon made him the most influential man in his state, both as lawyer and politician. Of this influence, and most especially of its depending upon his wonderfully direct plain common sense, and the absolute honesty and utter justness of his mind, there are many anecdotes. In politics and in law alike, both the strength of his conscientiousness and the kind of yearning after a rounded wholeness of view which was an intellectual instinct with him, forced him habitually to consider all sides of any question. "For fifteen years before his election to the Presidency," says one writer, in striking illustration of this habit in politics, "he subscribed regularly to The Richmond Enquirer and The Charleston Mercury. He grew slowly, as public opinion grew; and as an anti-slavery man, was a gradual convert." Thus it resulted that "while Rhett and Wise, with slavery in full feather, wrote every day the inviolateness of secession and the divinity of bondage, these two Illinois lawyers, (Lincoln and his partner, Herndon,) in their little square office, read every vaunting cruel word, paid to read it, and educated themselves out of their mutual indignations."

In like manner he was fair and impartial in legal investigations. "The jury" says one account, "always got from him a fair statement of any case in hand, and years later it was remarked by the Chief Justice of Illinois that when Lincoln spoke, he argued both sides of the case so well that a speech in response was always superfluous."

Mr. Lincoln's fellow lawyers used to say that he was in professional matters, "perversely honest." He could not take hold heartily on the wrong side. He never engaged in it, knowingly; if a man desired to retain him whose cause was bad, he declined, and told the applicant not to go to law. A lady once came to him to have him prosecute a claim to some land, and gave him the papers in the case for examination, together with a retainer in the shape of a check for two hundred dollars. Next day she came to see what her prospects were, when Mr. Lincoln told her that he had examined the documents very carefully, that she "had not a peg to hang her claim on," and that he could not conscientiously advise her to bring an action. Having heard this judgment, the lady thanked him, took her papers, and was about to depart. "Wait a moment," said Mr. Lincoln, "here is the check you gave me." "But," said she, "Mr. Lincoln, I think you have earned that." "No, no," he answered, insisting on her receiving it, "that would not be right. I can't take pay for doing my duty."

He was quite as prompt and just in accepting unprofitable duty as in declining its profitable opposite. During all the early part of his legal practice in Springfield, it was considered an unpopular and politically dangerous business for a lawyer to defend any fugitive slave on trial for surrender to the South, and even the brave Col. Baker, in those days also practicing there, on one occasion directly refused to defend such a case, saying that as a political man he could not afford it. But the luckless applicant, having consulted with an abolitionist friend, went next to Lincoln, and got him. "He's not afraid of an unpopular case," said the friend; "when I go for a lawyer to defend an arrested fugitive slave, other lawyers will refuse me; but if Mr. Lincoln is at home, he will always take up my case."

On a few occasions after having even entered into the trial of a case, Mr. Lincoln would find that, as sometimes happens, he had been deceived by his own client, and that he really had not the right on his side. When this was the case, he could as it were be seen to wilt at once, and whatever further he might do in the case was only mechanical. In such a case, having an associate, and having refused to argue it, the associate argued the case and won it, and then offered to divide with Mr. Lincoln the fee of $900; but Lincoln would not take a cent. Once in defending a man sued for delivering lambs instead of sheep, the testimony clearly showed that such delivery had been made. Instead of trying to confuse the witnesses or becloud the evidence, Mr. Lincoln ascertained how many such lambs had been delivered, and quietly told the jury that they must give a verdict against his client. He simply cautioned them to be just in fixing the damages. When he had recovered a verdict against a railroad company, and a certain offset against his client was to be deducted, he interrupted the final decision just in time to have the offset made larger by a certain amount which he had just found out ought to be added to it. His careful and primitive scrupulousness was just as marked in dealing with any associates in a case. When he received a joint fee his invariable custom was to divide it properly, and tie up in a separate parcel each associate's part of the very money received, duly labelled and directed.

In 1841 Mr. Lincoln argued before the Supreme Court of Illinois, the case of Nance, a negro girl, who had been sold within the state. A note had been given in payment for her, and the suit was brought to recover upon this note. Mr. Lincoln, defending, proved that Nance was free, and that thus nothing had been sold; so that the note was void. The Court below had sustained the note, but the Supreme Court, in accordance with Mr. Lincoln's argument, reversed this judgment. The decision made Nance free, and put a stop to sales of human beings in Illinois.

Another remarkable case in which he was engaged, was, the defence of young Armstrong from a charge of murder. This Armstrong was the son of a man who had befriended and employed Mr. Lincoln in youth, and the present charge was, that he had killed a certain person who had unquestionably died from injuries received in a camp-meeting riot where young Armstrong was present. The father was dead, and the mother aged and poor; a chain of apparently perfectly conclusive circumstantial evidence had been forged, which had convinced the community of Armstrong's guilt; indeed, had he not been safely secured in a strong jail he would have been lynched. Neither the youth nor his old mother had any money. The people and the newspapers were furious against the prisoner; and his fate appeared absolutely certain even to himself, when Mr. Lincoln, hearing of the matter in some way, volunteered for the defence, and was gladly accepted. When the trial came on, the evidence for the prosecution was given, and constituted what appeared to the audience a perfectly conclusive proof of guilt. Lincoln cross-examined very lightly, only correcting up and ascertaining a few places and dates; and his own witnesses were only to show comparatively good previous character for the prisoner.
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