Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Remembering Lincoln: 'With all this rough exterior, he had a character of singular goodness, beauty and force.'

Andrew Johnson
President Andrew Johnson proclaimed June 1, 1865, “a day of humiliation and mourning” for Abraham Lincoln. He bade Americans to “assemble in their respective places of worship, there to unite in solemn service to Almighty God in memory of the good man who has been removed, so that all shall be occupied at the same time in contemplation of his virtues and in sorrow for his sudden and violent end.”

All across the North, citizens complied with this proclamation. They gathered in statehouses, city halls and churches to hear politicians, pastors, priests and rabbis deliver long, florid eulogies for the martyred president.

In Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city, the eulogist was U.S. Sen. Daniel Clark, who had been a lawyer in the city and had known Lincoln. He was almost exactly Lincoln's age, having been born in Stratham, N.H., on Oct. 24, 1809. A loyal Republican, Clark had opposed the extension of slavery into the territories before the war. During Senate debates late in the war, he had described abolition as a just and natural war objective.

With the New Hampshire Legislature now poised to take up the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, Clark used his eulogy for Lincoln to make a political point.

Sen. Daniel Clark
He argued that the slave power had been trying to kill Lincoln from the beginning of his presidency. He did not claim that Confederate leaders had hired John Wilkes Booth for the job, only that the South’s actions had incited him. “Twice, certainly, it had sought his life before – at Baltimore and at the second inauguration – for he had been slavery’s sturdiest foe.”

Clark described what he saw as a serious plot to kill the president as he came through Baltimore on the way to Washington for his first inauguration in 1861. The reference to the second inauguration is a bit mysterious, but one possibility is that Clark’s fellow New Hampshireman, Benjamin Brown French, had told him about an encounter with Booth at the Capitol on inauguration day, March 4, 1865.

French, Lincoln’s commissioner of public buildings, was responsible for security at the inauguration. In a letter six weeks after the assassination, he wrote that he and one of his police officers had stopped a man he now realized was Booth. You can read about my discovery of this letter here and read the letter here.

In his eulogy, Clark said that political assassination had until now been a European phenomenon.  The southern passion for slavery, he said, had brought it to American shores. His argument for abolishing slavery ran like this: “Will men hang the drapery of mourning about their doors and in their windows for the President slain, and still plead for or excuse an institution which sought his life from the day of his first election to the day of his death, which is finally accomplished?”

Clark also talked about the Lincoln he had known, although he began by saying: “Many of you have seen him, and need no description.” This was a reference to Lincoln’s speech at Smyth Hall in Manchester on March 1, 1860, three days after Cooper Union. Frederick Smyth, a banker, former mayor and owner of the city block that included the hall, introduced Lincoln that night as “the next president of the United States.”

The Manchester Daily American reported that one of Lincoln's best points that night was his response to this question: “What will satisfy the demands of the South upon the subject of Slavery?”

“We must not only let them alone, but we must convince them that we do let them alone,” Lincoln said. “This is no easy task. In all our speeches, resolutions and platforms, we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but it has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

“These natural and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join with them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly. We must place ourselves avowedly with them.”

Clark had seen Lincoln often in Washington. His description of him reinforced the idea of a man whose almost comical ugliness belied his big mind and even bigger heart. “His figure was large, his limbs large, and, as someone said of Chief Justice John Marshall’s, hung loosely as if strung on wires,” Clark said. “His muscles were small, joints angular, features large and marked, motions ungraceful, posture unseemly, and his carriage and general appearance undignified.

“But with all this rough exterior, he had a character of singular goodness, beauty and force. . . . He was mirthful as a child, gentle as a woman, resolute as a man, sagacious as a statesman, grave as a judge and merciful as an angel in Heaven. . . . There was an apparent complexity of character, and yet such was its wondrous simplicity, or rather transparency, that one could not be with him a single half hour and not feel that he was a man upon whom the utmost reliance could be placed – who said what he thought and meant what he said.”

Edwin M. Stanton
Clark recalled a fretful visit with Lincoln on July 2, 1862. Public anxiety consumed Washington. Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s great army was retreating across the Virginia Peninsula, and rumors filled the air. The last of the Seven Days battles, at Malvern Hill, had been fought the previous day, but in the capital reliable news of the fate of the army was nowhere to be heard.

Clark went directly to the war department, where he found Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Lincoln looked dejected, but initially neither man would tell Clark what he knew. It was Lincoln who finally recognized he was dealing with a reliable colleague and relented. For an hour he told Clark about “the fearful disaster” on the Peninsula.

When they met much later, Lincoln took him aside and said of this encounter: “You are the man to whom I came nearer to telling a lie than to any other man in my life. The truth is, affairs were so bad I did not at first dare to tell you.”

By he time gave his eulogy, the tide of history had probably turned toward abolition with such force that the 13th Amendment would have been ratified even without Lincoln’s martyrdom. But speeches like Clark's, given all across the North on this national day of mourning, no doubt discouraged dissenting voices.

Frederick Smyth
Smyth, Lincoln’s introducer in 1860, was New Hampshire’s governor-elect when Clark spoke in 1865. A week later, in his inaugural address, he took up Clark’s call for ratification of the 13th Amendment. Then he went a step further.

“I shall feel that the great purpose of this war is not attained, the great lesson of this punishment not learned until free schools, free churches and a free ballot are established wherever the federal authority extends,” Smyth said. “Let us take courage and make the brutal assassination of our most noble President – that most wicked fruit of a barbarous system – a synonym for universal suffrage, under such safeguards as wise legislation may provide.”

The Legislature ratified the 13th Amendment on July 1, its first day in session, a month to the day after Clark’s eulogy and three weeks after Smyth’s inauguration.

Clark resigned from the Senate a year later after losing a re-election bid and came home to New Hampshire, where President Johnson appointed him to a federal judgeship. He served as the U.S. district judge in New Hampshire until his death in 1891 at the age of 81.

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