A MAN WHO PUT FIRST THINGS FIRST
By THE VERY REVEREND ROBERT I. GANNON, S.J., President of Fordham University
At the Fifty-Sixth Annual Lincoln Day Dinner of The National Republican Clubin the Waldorf-Astoria, February 12, 1942
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 340-342.
NO matter what captious critics may say about your organization in general, no one can cast aspersions on the efficiency of your dinner committee. It is probably the only group of this kind in the city that makes a serious effort to train its chosen speakers after their appointment by sending them two bound volumes containing all the speeches delivered at your first forty dinners. Reading them over (diagonally, I must confess) I found them a warning and an inspiration. I was warned to look for nothing new, but to keep in mind if possible that the dinner is in honor of Abraham Lincoln. I was inspired by the fact that my illustrious predecessors were most successful when they quoted the Great Emancipator directly. Even though it was only to re-tell a funny story, it was extraordinary howthe glow of his words made the rest of the page seem commonplace.
Unfortunately, there were never enough quotations, for it used to happen in the old days that speakers had ulterior motives in coming to your celebration and usually lost no time in getting down to their mutton. Transitions offer no difficulty to a man with a purpose—so many of them followed a model of this sort: "When we consider the heroism, the self sacrifice and idealism of our martyred leader, we are brought at once to a consideration of a high protective tariff, free silver and the unspeakable iniquities of the Democratic Party!" One orator—a clergyman—a Bishop, in fact —was caught up in a kind of apotheosis. I can see him now, his face radiant over a white cravat, his eyes rolling devoutly toward the upper tier of boxes as he cried: "Gentlemen, we have nothing to fear. A Sherman in the Senate and Reed in the House. McKinley in Ohio and God over all!" What a board of strategy!
It should be added, however, that these quaint sallies into current history, even on the part of clergymen, were seldom dull. It was only when the Club was entertaining one of the long line of compromise candidates who have succeeded Mr. Lincoln that things sometimes got a little out of hand. What impresses us most today in looking back over these Presidential efforts of the past is the great stimulus that the radio has been to the ghost writers of the White House. Not that we can afford to be critical. The misfortune of our Chief Executives speaking at this dinner was that of any speaker who has to mingle his own rhythms with the scriptural prose of Lincoln; of any thinker who has to stand comparison with a completely honest and lucid mind; of any politician who has to measure up to a man who always put first things first. Their misfortune was that with the single exception of Theodore Roosevelt, they did not "belong to the ages." Like most of us here tonight, they were men of the hour, sometimes pathetically topical, all wrapped up in "little hot cold violent affected brand new habits of mind" that can look like the real thing sometimes for five or ten years, and all the while, looming behind them, stood one of the few great characters of history. He said himself one time: "I have talked with many great men and 1 do not see how they differ from others." What he meant, of course, was that he had talked with men who were considered great by their contemporaries. It is entirely possible that even with five years in Washington he never met a really great man, certain that he never met a man as great as himself. For there was no one around him who blended so perfectly the spirit of his time with eternal principles.
To say, therefore, that Lincoln was a real Mid-19th Century American detracts in no way from his greatness. In the same way, Dante was a 13th Century Florentine and Homer a primitive Greek. His stovepipe hat, his chin whiskers and his boots were just what we see in our own family albums. He never pressed his pants, but neither did any of the Generals with whom he had so many pictures taken. Inside, too, he was one of our grandfathers. There was even something of the back-woodsman about him right to the end. Much of his horse sense and many of his jokes were full of the 19th Century tobacco juice. We wonder, sometimes, what the powdered wigs at Mount Vernon would have thought of him and can imagine what consternation he would cause on Pennsylvania Avenue today. In fact, it is hard to picture him just as he was except in the horsehair trimmings of 1860—and yet he rose so triumphantly above his generation.
Small minds, then as now, could not tell means from ends. Politicians, then as now, were taking their cue from popular passions, their only principle being that leaders ofthe people must always follow them. Everyone in the Northern States knew that their need was greater than ever before and prayed for a man who would be equal to the crisis. But when Abraham Lincoln was given to them, the great ones of the world could not see higher than his bootstraps. To Samuel Bowles, of the Springfield Republican, Lincoln was "a simple susan"; to Governor Andrews, of Massachusetts, he was "a rowdy"; to Wendell Phillips, he was a "tortoise" and "a slave hound"—while from Brooklyn came the clerical wail of Henry Ward Beecher "Never was a time when men's prayers so fervently asked God for a leader. He has refused our petition. Not a spark of genius has Lincoln, not an element for leadership!"
As so often happens, it took the common people to sense true greatness. During one of his receptions, a man of no consequence, a typical American, approached him and said: "Mr. Lincoln, I have watched you closely ever since your inauguration. As one of your constituents I now say to you, do in the future as you damn please and I will support you." "Sit down, my friend," said the President, "I haven't seen half enough of you."—What was the secret? What did the people instinctively sense as they "watched him closely"? His singlemindedness. The invariable habit of putting first things first. They saw that he had one ultimate purpose in public life and that was the liberty of his country. Everything else was a means to that end, including his own political career. They had seen him time and again stand out against the passions of the electorate and do the unpopular thing. As a newcomer in the House of Representatives, he found that the people were being whipped up to a war against Mexico on a fake issue. Older and smarter men told him to lie low. His answer was the Spot Resolution. Shortly after, the A. P. A. wrapped up in the stars and stripes, set out to prove what good Americans its members were by burning churches and schools and stoning naturalized citizens in the street. We blush today to think how popular the movement was, but actually it spread like wildfire, so that for a while the clever way to win an election was to curry favor with these gallant sons of the Bill of Rights. So Lincoln, who needed the votes as much as anyone, openly declared that if they succeeded in their program, "he hoped that he might live in Russia, where he could take his despotism pure and simple without the base alloy of hypocrisy."
Later still when he began to emerge as a Presidential possibility, the smart boys urged him to stay on the fence so as not to arouse the South. He replied with his famous speech on the house divided against itself. And so it was to the end. Had he lived another twenty-four hours, he would have made another unpopular speech. For on the 15th of April, 1865, he was to have held a reception for the new British Minister, Sir Frederic Bruce. The shooting took place on the night of the 14th and early the next morning he was dead. Everyone knew, most of all Lincoln, what England had done to embarrass the Federal Government during the Civil War. Everyone knew that the Confederate navy had been built in British shipyards, that the blockade runners of the South which kept the Confederacy alive could have done so only with the cooperation of the British West Indies. Everyone had read Gladstone's speech as Chancellor of the Exchequer, exulting in the House of Commons because Jeff Davis "had created a new nation." Everyone knew that though the millhands of Lancashire and a few great men like John Bright, Richard Cobden and the Prince Consort were our friends, the old school ties were all against us—and resentment in America was still very deep. Lincoln's own feelings were doubtless the feelings of the people, but the gratification of his feelingswas never the purpose of his life. That purpose was the liberty of his country, and it was common sense that that liberty would be further assured by the friendship of Great Britain, which at that time had reached her apogee. This, then, was the heart of the drafted speech intended for the British Minister and found among Lincoln's papers after his death—
"Each nation is charged with the development of the progress and liberty of a considerable portion of the human race. Each in its sphere, is subject to difficulties and trials not participated in by the other. The interest of civilization and humanity require that the two should be friends. I have always known and accepted it as a fact—that the Queen of England is a sincere and honest well-wisher of the United States. I have been equally frank and explicit in the opinion that the friendship of the United States toward Great Britain is enjoined by all the considerations of interest and of sentiment affecting the character of both."
A similar situation is bound to appear after the present war. Some one will have to rise above the passions of the rest of us. Some one will have to see that the accidental alignment of nations in any single conflict cannot forever affect their friendships or their enmities. There is a bigger plan for the peoples of the world than any little group of statesmen can create and there are fundamental differences of principles involved which all the dossiers of diplomacy cannot obscure. Whoever is to unravel our tangled skein after victory has been won must be able in his public and his private life to compare every movement, every step, with one main purpose, as Lincoln did. With Lincoln it was the liberty of his country. If he could have had liberty without union, he would have let union go. If he could have had liberty without Emancipation, he would have let emancipation go; if he could have had liberty without war, he would have been the happiest man alive. But liberty he had to have.
Such was his single purpose. Where did he get the strength to see it through? If you want to find out by indirection, read one of poor Bob Ingersoll's Lincoln speeches and determine for yourselves why it rings like a tin can. You will see at once that it is because the eloquent atheist, the spellbinder who dethroned Almighty God forever about fifty years ago, wanted to avoid the central fact of Lincoln's character. It embarrassed him that a man who was neither a clerical hypocrite nor an ignorant farmer could say, for example, at Lancaster, Pa. "You all may recollect that in taking up the sword thus forced into our hands, this Government appealed to the prayers of the pious and the good, and declared that it placed its whole dependence upon the favor of God. I now humbly and reverently in your presence reiterate the acknowledgment of that dependence, not doubting that if it shall please the Divine Being who determines the destinies of nations, that this shall remain aunited people, they will, humbly seeking the Divine guidance, make their prolonged national existence a source of new benefits to themselves and their successors, and to all classes and conditions of mankind."
Or again, in speaking to the old school Presbyterians of Baltimore:—"I was early brought to a lively reflection that nothing in my power, or others, to rely upon would succeed without direct assistance from the Almighty. I have often wished that I was a more devout man than I am. Nevertheless, amid the greatest difficulties of my administration, when I could not see any other resort, I would place my whole reliance in God, knowing that He would 1 decide for the right."
Imagine the discomfort of Ingersoll and the other Materialistic Atheists, the philosophical Nazis who have thought the world into its present state of civilization as they read of Lincoln locked in his room during the battle of Gettysburg, down on his knees, his great head in his hands, praying like a child. "I told God that I had done all that I could and that now the result was in His hands; that if this country was to be saved, it was because He so willed it! The burden rolled off my shoulders. My intense anxiety was relieved and in its place came a great trustfulness!" Poor old Ingersoll! To make a Lincoln Day address, logic should have driven him to say "He was a great man, but the source of all his strength was superstition!"
Once more we stand at the crossroads. Like Lincoln and his followers, we are fighting for a cosmic concept, personal freedom with all its many implications the world over. In 1860 the democratic experiment that America had so triumphantly launched in the War of Independence was hanging in the balance. If our way of living perished in America, it would perish everywhere. And what was this way of living? In its simplest terms it was a recognition of the dignity of man as a person. Personality, not "sociality," was the foundation of our Republic, and a person differs from a wolf in the pack in this alone, that he can think and choose—activities that rise above the power of matter. Thus, our way of life is bound up with a recognition of the spiritual soul and the first expression of American liberty begins with the reverent acknowledgment of God as its source.
What the country needed in 1860, it must have today. Leaders with a single purpose, and a great reserve of spiritual strength people who know that they are fighting in a just cause, and who in a new, clear vision born of suffering will abandon the smart Alec gods of the last 50 years and recognize that their Creator, their souls and their liberties are inseparably bound together. All this they can read in their bible; they can read it more scientifically expressed in St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Robert Bellarmine—but if they can read the lines of a human face, they can read it all in the face of Abraham Lincoln.