Two Whigs and the Whirligig
WHEN ENEMIES CEASE FIGHTING—FRIENDSHIPS ARE IMPORTANT
By STEWART W. McCLELLAND, President, Lincoln Memorial University
Delivered before Lincoln Club of Jersey City, February 12, 1943
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 307-311.
THE Sunny South is anything but salubrious in the early days of February. There is a certain chill to the wind which makes the domestic animals seek each other's companionship for warmth and the householder put more wood on the fire and hitch his chair nearer the blaze roaring up the chimney. It would not seem to be a month in which a new soul would seek the ministrations of a none too friendly world, but some of the greatest men of our history have faced the future in a February blizzard. A little lad who announced his arrival at the beginning of the eighteen hundreds did not pick for his home one of the stately Colonial Mansions for which our beloved southland is famous, nor all his life did he find comfort nor ease. He was not even permitted to know for long the tender ministrations of a mother's hand, but was to share, with her own children, the care of a step-mother. His father, stern and austere, taught his son the dignity of labor. Love he never really seemed to know, except as he learned to love his fellow men, rich and poor, black and white. Nurtured by hardship, schooled by adversity, when he reached a man's estate he didn't forget the friends of his youth nor spurn the needs of the lowliest. One of his early law cases was the defense of a colored woman who was accused of poisoning the family for which she was cooking by the use of the common buckeye. When the case came to trial he got the supposed intended victims to swear that they had all noticed the bitterness of the coffee which the defendant had prepared and then freed the negro by proving that the taste of the buckeye is sweet. Had he not used a decoction of the same buckeye just recently in the attempt to alleviate a tooth-ache? Not only did he learn to walk with kings, nor lose the common touch, but there were giants in the land in those days and he walked and talked and took his place with the mightiest of them.
At the age of thirty-one he went to Congress from his state of Georgia and while he was serving his third term a tall gaunt man from the prairies of Illinois joined the Whig majority in Washington, and Alex Stephens and Abraham Lincoln were friends from that day.
They were more than fellow members of the same political party. Their boyhood experiences, their legal trainings type of mind, their love for a good story, their love for their fellow men, their love for the constitution drew them together with bonds that not even a fratricidal war could sever. One of the most touching incidents in all history is the scenein the cell at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, June the 1st, 1865. Alexander Hamilton Stephens, Vice-President of the late Confederate States of America is imprisoned there, awaiting what fate he knows not. President Andrew Johnson has decreed a fast day in memory of Abraham Lincoln. On that first day of June, this prisoner who loved his nation better than some who fought for it, notes in his journal, "Rose early. As it is fast day and mourning in memory of Mr. Lincoln, I had requested Mr. Geary, the corporal, to bring me from the sutler's nothing but a cup of hot coffee and rolls." During that simple meal can we not hear the great spirit of Lincoln whispering, "This hath he done in remembrance of me?"
One is tempted to tell the stories of these two men as they grew to influence and power. About the time Lincoln was running for his place in the Illinois State Legislature, Stephens is seeking a seat in the Legislative Halls of Georgia. Even their methods of campaigning were similar and, believe it or not, their opponents were much of the same stripe. Generations of Lincoln lover's have chuckled over his passage at arms with George Forquer, a lawyer who switched from the Whig to the Democratic party and was named Commissioner of the Land Office. Forquer had just built a new house and had put on it the first lightning rods ever seen in that part of the country. Lincoln was running for his second term in the legislature and had just spoken in Springfield. As soon as he left the platform, Forquer got up to make his speech and said, "The young man who has just spoken has been sailing too high and must be taken down," and he proceeded to so do. Lincoln stood patiently by, and when Forquer finished, Lincoln convulsed the crowd by saying: "Mr. Forquer commenced his speech by announcing that the young man would have to be taken down. It is for you, my fellow-citizens, to say whether I am up or down. The gentleman has alluded to my being a young man; but he forgets that I am older in years than I am in tricks and trades of politicians. I desire to live, and I desire place and distinction; but I would rather die now than, like the gentleman, live to see the day that I would change my politics for an office worth three thousand dollars a year, and then feel compelled to erect a lightning rod to protect a guilty conscience from an offended God."
Less well known is Stephens' answer to Judge Colquitt when they were both running for the same office. JudgeColquitt in his campaign against "Little Aleck" had vowed that when he got hold of the little upstart that he would swallow him whole. Stephens never weighed more than one hundred pounds in his life. Finally they met in joint debate, and of course Stephens reminded him of his threat, and put his adversary to rout with, "Judge Colquitt, if you should swallow me you would have more brains in your stomach than you ever had in your head."
The gift of anecdote and repartee served both of them well in the hustings, and made them welcome in the hotels and taverns of their districts. Strange how these two men who were both troubled with melancholia all their lives should be remembered by their gift of story telling. Lincoln's whole emotional release came from laughter, while Stephens had a confidant in his younger brother, Linton, to whom Stephens was nearly a father. In his letters to Linton, Alex would tell of the events of his every day life so that his letters are almost a diary in themselves. So have been saved for us stories and reminiscences of the great and near great that lighten up their lives and make them human.
In Laman's dictionary of Congress all we learn of General Clinch is this, "Clinch, Duncan L.—Was a General in the United States Army, and from 1843 to 1845 a Representative from Georgia. He was brave soldier and noble-hearted man. Died at Macon, Georgia, October 28, 1849." Such a recital would not keep us from forgetting the General over night. Here is Stephens' biography of the same General: "Sometime ago, upon a call of the House, the General was not present at first, but came in (having been sent for) just as he heard his name called by the Clerk; and all vexed and mad and puffing and blowing, answered to his name at the top of his voice 'No!' I said to him 'General, say HERE; it is a call for the House;' to which he replied, 'Oh, d—n it, I don't care, I'm against all they do here anyhow!' " No we wont forget the General.
But the true test of our sense of humor does not come from our ability to laugh at others but; in our being able to look at ourselves and laugh. So Stephens writes his brother Linton about his friend Will Campbell who was asked by an old man to point out Mr. Stephens to him. Campbell obliged. The old man took one look and said, "My gosh!" Which reminded Mr. Stephens of the farmer who came up after one of his political addresses and said, "Mr. Stephens, if I had been sot in the road to shoot the first smart man I seed, I'd a passed you up shore!"
Abraham Lincoln had no reputation for pulchritude and was accustomed to tell how a lady stopped him on the street once and said, "Mr. Lincoln, I vow you are the homeliest man I ever saw." Rather ruefully Mr. Lincoln said, "Madam, I can't help it, I am just as the Lord made me." "I know," protested the lady, "But you might at least stay home!"
Both Lincoln and Stephens would be remembered for their humor if for nothing else, but their sense of humor was merely the funny side of their sense of proportion which gave to them their rare common sense.
Meeting in Congress as they did in 1847, they both listened to President Polk's message to Congress which contained an apology for the Mexican War, Polk had made the unfortunate charge that the Mexican's had started the war by invading our own territory and shedding "the blood of our citizens on our own soil." Lincoln pounced on this statement and offered to the House resolutions requesting the President to locate the spot where this historic event took place. These famous "Spot Resolutions" as they came to be known were destined to bother Lincoln in his future campaigns more than they did President Polk. The newspapermen made a great deal of them at the time and even
the song writers took their hand in the matter and set the "Spot" to music:
Mr. Speaker, Spot! Spot! Spot!
Mr. Speaker, Where's the Spot?
Is it in Spain or is it not?
Mr. Speaker, Spot! Spot! Spot!
The Whigs had always charged that President Polk had instigated the war with Mexico without the consent of Congress and Stephens had spoken often and boldly in defense of the Whig position. Later he was to point out that even in a war for liberty and justice, the people are always in grave danger of losing the very thing for which they are fighting, an idea which should give us food for thought in this year of 1943. But in 1846 this good democrat who was to become one of the greatest of all Democrats cried out, "I hope never to see the day when the Executive of this country shall be considered identical with the country itself in its foreign relations, or when any man, for scanning his acts, however severely when justly, shall on that account be charged with opposition to his country. Such is the case only where allegiance is due to a crown, where the people's rulers are their masters; but, thank God, in this country we can yet hold our rulers to account. How long we shall be permitted to do so I know not; but whenever we cease to do it we shall become unfit to be free."
It was an empassioned out-burst such as this in a speech which Stephens made on the Texas question on February 2, 1848, which impelled Lincoln to write to Herndon, his old law partner; "Dear William: I just take my pen to say that Mr. Stephens, of Georgia, a little, slim, pale-faced, consumptive man, with a voice like Logan's, has just concluded the very best speech of an hour's length I ever heard. My old withered dry eyes are full of tears yet." The weeper with the withered eyes was a doddering, old gentleman of thirty-nine. The speaker was thirty-six!
It was inevitable, when they were thrown together, that these men of such like experience, training and thought should become friends and work for a common cause. It was characteristic of Lincoln that he should attack the Mexican War even when he knew that his Congressional District was overwhelmingly in favor of it. This attitude naturally threw the only Whig Congressman from Illinois into the companionship of his fellow Whigs of other states and with Stephens, Toombs and a half dozen others we see them forming an organization which they called the "Young Indians" whose avowed purpose was to elect to the presidency the popular hero of the Mexican War, Zachary Taylor. Turning their backs on that grand old man of their party, Henry Clay, these practical politicians proposed General Taylor's name at the Philadelphia Convention and were rewarded for their efforts by his election as the twelfth President of the United States.
Lincoln did not run for reelection and retired to his law practice. Stephens remained in Washington until the close of the thirty-fifth Congress in 1859. During all these years there seems to have been little contact between the Georgian and his Illinois friend though Stephens does deny that he had been in Illinois during the Lincoln and Douglas campaign for the purpose of helping Douglas. When Stephens left Washington the shadows of Secession were already darkening the Union. Though opposed to it he felt it must come. As the ship which was taking him back to his beloved Georgia passed down the Potomac, Little Aleck, wrapped in his usual "great-coat" stood on deck watching that fascinating city, which belongs to the whole United States, slowly disappear in the distance. A friend interrupted his thoughts by asking him if he was thinking of the time when he would be returning to his accustomed placein the halls of Congress. We wonder what prophetic insight made him reply, "No, I never expect to see Washington again unless I am brought here as a prisoner of war." The next time he did see Washington was in October 1865, a paroled prisoner from Fort Warren!
It was the repeal of the Missouri Compromise which brought Lincoln out of retirement from the political field and it was the election of Lincoln which brought Stephens again into the limelight. Eight days after the election of Lincoln, the Georgia Legislature invited Stephens to address its members. Excitement knew no bounds. The firebrands were for declaring the State out of the Union at once. The conservative element invited one whose loyalty to the doctrine of the State Sovereignty was unquestioned and whose loyalty to the Union was a household word. Never did Stephens rise to greater heights! "I wish to address myself to your good sense, and your good judgment, and after hearing, you disagree, let us agree to disagree, and part as we met friends. ******* The first question which presents itself is, shall the people of the South secede from the Union in consequence of the election of Mr. Lincoln to the Presidency of the United States? My countrymen, I tell you frankly, candidly, and earnestly, that I do not think that they ought. In my judgment, the election of no man, constitutionally chosen to that high office, is sufficient cause for any State to separate from the Union.******* To make a point of resistance to the Government, to withdraw from it because a man has been constitutionally elected, puts us in the wrong. We are pledged to maintain the Union." Such a plea for Union did not go unnoticed in the North. Abraham Lincoln read it in Illinois and wrote to Stephens asking for a copy of it. It was not the first time that Lincoln and Stephens had corresponded concerning the matter of Secession. In January, 1860, they had had some correspondence on the subject and Lincoln noted that his letter to Stephens was the longest he had ever written or dictated. Naturally such a question is not quickly exhausted. So Stephens' speech started another correspondence between these two old time Whigs. Events have whirled them on opposite sides now though idealistically they are not far apart. Rather wistfully Lincoln closes his correspondence with, "You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted—That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us." In the trying days to come this speech was frequently quoted in the North and used as Union propaganda. It did not make such an impression in the South.
While the legislators of Georgia and their invited guests were silent and respectful during its delivery, secession was uppermost in their minds. Robert Toombs, who had interrupted the speech once or twice by questions and observations was asked why he had not answered Stephens. His reply was, "I always behave myself at a funeral."
When the Secession Convention met in January, 1861, Stephens again pled for moderation and voted against his state leaving the Union, as did his brother Linton. But their voices were scarcely heard in the tumult and enthusiasm for formation of a new Confederacy. Good State's rights man that he was he went with his state and became the Vice-President of the Confederate States of America because he felt that he could best serve the new "Union" in that way.
The four years of the Confederacy was a period of great disappointment and disillusionment for Alex Stephens. Conscription, the suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus, the constant infringement on the rights of the states by the Confederate Government made him spend more and more time at home in Liberty Hall rather than at the seat of government in Richmond. Protesting, but loyal to the Confederacy he and many others carried their ideas of Statesrights to the place where the Confederate government was breaking down nearly as much from opposition within as from the attacks of the North from without.
Near the close of the struggle between the North and the South, Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederacy, and his old friend, Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States, met once again for the purpose of adjusting their differences. In January, 1865, Francis P. Blair had visited Richmond with the knowledge and consent of Mr. Lincoln to confer with Mr. Davis about matters of peace. Blair knew he had no authority and it was what we would call today an exploratory visit. The result of the conference in Richmond was the meeting of a Confederate Commission, headed by Alex Stephens with Abraham Lincoln and Seward in Hampton Roads. The other members of the Confederate Commission were Senator Robert M. T. Hunter and Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell who had been a member of the Supreme Court of the United States until his own state, Virginia, had seceded. All three were known as anti-Davis men and it was probably for this reason that Davis appointed them. But the conference was doomed to failure by the directions given the respective groups of commissioners. Davis delegated his Commissioners to confer with a committee from the North concerning matters pertaining "to our two countries." Lincoln had agreed to meet the Commissioners from Richmond to confer on matters pertaining "to our common country." I have long believed that which I cannot prove, that Lincoln consented to meet the Southern Commissioners because his old friend Alex Stephens was to be among them. Though the conference on board the "City Queen" bore no fruit, it has furnished us with one of the famous Lincoln stories which will be repeated for generations to come. Stephens always had to be careful of his health and as he came into the ward room of the ship where the conference was to be held he began to take off mufflers, shawls and his "great-coat" so that Lincoln remarked to Seward, "Never have I seen so small a nubbin with so much husk." General Grant relates that he had the pleasure of telling this story to Stephens much to the latter's amusement.
But a far more precious story came out of this incident. As the conference broke up, the conversation became general and with Lincoln and Stephens personal and intimate. The President asked the Vice-President if there was anything that he could do for him. Stephens told Lincoln that his nephew, Lieutenant John Stephens, was imprisoned on Johnson's Island. They had heard little from him but had learned that he was seriously ill. and they feared for his life, if he could not be released. The next day Lincoln returned to Washington and wired the officer in command at Johnson's Island to parole Lieutenant John A. Stephens and send him to Washington to report to Mr. Lincoln at the White House. Lieutenant Stephens saw Lincoln twice while he was in Washington. First, on his arrival when Mr. Lincoln discovered that Stephens had many friends in the city, and he permitted him to remain as long as he saw fit. The day that Lieutenant Stephens left Washington, he again called on President Lincoln, who gave him a letter which read as
Washington February 10, 1865
"Hon. A. H. Stephens
"According to our agreement, your nephew, Lieut. Stephens, goes to you, bearing this note. Please, in return, to select and send to me, that officer of the same rank, imprisoned at Richmond whose physical condition most urgently requires his release.
He also presented him with a carte de visite photograph of himself and dryly remarked, "Suppose you take this along with you. I don't expect there are many of them down South."
It was early in May before John Stephens, now a Major, could deliver the letter to his famous uncle. The war was over and there was a gathering of the Stephens clan at Liberty Hall just a week before Little Aleck's arrest. Stephens in his journal notes, "John had just got home from Johnson's Island where he had been a prisoner for a long time; had been captured at Fort Hudson in 1863. Mr. Lincoln, at my request, had granted him a special parole, for which I was truly obliged; ****** He had written me a letter by John which I never saw until after his assassination. I almost wept over the letter when I saw it." All the bitterness of war is forgotten. A great man mourns his great friend.
If time would permit it would be interesting to follow the fortunes of "Little Aleck," the tragedy of his imprisonment in Fort Warren, to which reference has already been made. After five months he was released on parole and became one of the greatest forces in the South for a just reconstruction.
If one may indulge in one of the "ifs" of history—if Lincoln had lived, the South would not have suffered the additional tragedy of the reconstruction it experienced. In his first inaugural Lincoln had queried, "Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws? Can treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens than laws can among friends? Suppose you go to war, you cannot fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides, and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions as to terms of intercourse are again upon you." Enemies had ceased their fighting now friendship had its opportunity to do its healing work but the great friend of the South who had admonished his countrymen to "judge not that ye be not judged" had been removed from his seat of mercy by the assassins bullet.
But "Little Aleck" carries on, released from Fort Warren, he returns to Crawfordville, and in just a few months we hear him speaking for the Union on Washington's Birthday, 1866, again before the State Legislature of Georgia. Stephens had noted Mr. Lincoln's expression concerning the Seceded States as being "out of their proper practical relation to the Union." Lincoln had used this expression time and time again at the Hampton Roads conference, and in his last public address on April 11, 1865, he remarked that these states "finding themselves safely at home, it would be utterly immaterial whether they had ever been abroad." How reminiscent of this thought are these words of Mr. Stephens, "We are in the condition of a man with a dislocated limb or a broken leg, and a very bad compound fracture at that. How it became broken should not be with him a question of so much importance as how it can be restored to health, vigor and strength. This requires of him, as the highest duty to himself, to wait quietly and patiently in splints and bandages until nature resumes her active powers, until the vital functions perform their office." Temperate, tolerant, sympathetic, he speaks to his fellow Georgians as a father would talk to his children. I believe I have read the greater portion of "Alex Stephens' " speeches and I feel that this is the greatest that he ever made, not only was it the greatest that he ever delivered, but the New York Times had the whole speech reported by special wire from Milledgeville, "A feat of newspaper enterprise unparalleled, so far as we remember."
The whirligig spins on! February 12th, 1878. The House of Representatives moves in a desultory fashion, transacting
the routine business of the day. Suddenly it is announced that the members of the United States Senate have arrived to join their fellow legislators for the purpose of accepting from Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson, Frank B. Carpenter's famous painting, "The Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation." Vice-President William A. Wheeler presided and introduced the first speaker, a tall, handsome, bearded man in the prime of his life. James A. Garfield, who in just a few short years was himself to experience the assassins bullet.
Garfield spoke that day on "Lincoln and Emancipation" and told the now familiar story of how it came into being. It is a speech that bears reading even now. But the honors of the occasion went to the other speaker, slight in form, crippled in body, not towering in height above his fellow legislators, but speaking from a wheel chair in piercing accents which Lincoln had first heard in those same halls and had written Billy Herndon that they reminded him of Logan. The gentleman from Georgia, Alexander Hamilton Stephens. Once a Whig, now a Democrat; once the Vice-President of the Confederacy, now a member of the House of Representatives, in his own cherished Union.
"Mr. President, with regard to the subject of the painting, I propose, if strength permits, to submit a few remarks; first, as to the central figure, the man; after that, as to the event commemorated. I knew Mr. Lincoln well. We met in the House in December, 1847. We were together during the thirtieth Congress. I was as intimate with him as with any other man of that Congress, except perhaps one. That exception was my colleague, Mr. Toombs. Of Mr. Lincoln's general character I need not speak. He was warmhearted; he was generous; he was magnanimous; he was most truly, as he afterward said on a memorable occasion, 'with malice towards none, with charity for all.'
"In bodily form he was above the average; and so in intellect; the two were in symmetry. Not highly cultivated, he had a native genius far above the average of his fellows. Every fountain of his heart was ever overflowing with the 'milk of human kindness.' So much for him personally. From my attachment to him, so much the deeper was the pang in my own breast as well as of millions at the horrible manner of his 'taking off.' That was the climax of our troubles and the spring from which came afterward 'unnumbered woes.' But of those events no more now. Widely as we differed on public questions and policies, yet as a friend I may say:
'No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode;
There they alike in trembling hope repose,
The bosom of his Father and his God.'
"So much I have felt it my duty on this occasion to say in behalf of one with whom I held relations so intimate, and one who personally stood so high in my estimation.
"Now as to the great historic event which this picture represents, and which it is designed to commemorate.
"This is perhaps a subject which, as my friend from Ohio has said, the people of this day and generation are not exactly in a condition to weigh rightfully and judge correctly. One thing was remarked by him which should be duly noted. That was this: Emancipation was not the chief object of Mr. Lincoln in issuing the proclamation. His chief object, the ideal to which his whole soul was devoted, was the preservation of the Union."
In a war torn world where even a confusion of tongues speaks a universal hatred, is peace a hopeless dream of rosy-visioned idealists? Or is it possible that we can look forward to the time when all nations shall be free from the slavery of totalitarianism and see consummated the "Federation of the World The Parliament of Man?" In our own country we have seen that it is possible for sovereign states to form a more perfect union so may not the words of Lincoln be prophetic, "We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic cords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearth-stone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."