WE have said something on a previous Occasion of Lincoln
as a man and as the leader of a great cause. We desire now to dwell upon a point which is often neglected in considering the
career of the hero of the Union, but which, from the point of view of letters, is of absorbing interest. No criticism of Mr. Lincoln can be in any sense adequate which does not deal with his astonishing power over words. It is not too much to say of him that he is among the greatest masters of prose ever produced by the English race. Self-educated, or rather not educated at all in the ordinary sense, as be was, he contrived to obtain an insight and power in the handling of the mechanism of letters such as has been given to few men in his, or, indeed, in any age. That the gift of oratory should be a natural gift, is understandable enough, for the methods of the orator, like those of the poet, are primarily sensuous, and may well be instinctive. Mr. Lincoln's achievement seems to show that no less is the writing of prose an endowment of Nature. Mr. Lincoln did not get his ability to handle prose through his gift of speech: That these are separate though co-ordinate faculties, is a matter beyond dispute, for many of the great orators of the world have proved themselves ex- ceedingly inefficient in the matter of deliberate composition. Mr. Lincoln enjoyed both gifts. His letters, despatches, memoranda, and written addresses are even better than his speeches ; and in speaking thus of Mr. Lincoln's prose, we ure not thinking merely of certain pieces of inspired rhetoric. We do not praise his work because, like Mr. Bright, he could exercise his power of coining illuminating phrases as effectively upon paper as on the platform. It is in his conduct of the pedestrian portions of composition that Mr. Lincoln's genius for prose style is exhibited. Mr. Bright's writing cannot claim to answer the description which Hazlitt has given of the successful prose-writer's performance. Mr. Lincoln's can. What Hazlitt says is complete and perfect in definition. He tells us that the prose-writer so uses his pen "that he loses no particle of the exact characteristic extreme impression of the thing he writes about ; " and with equal significance he points out that "the prose-writer is master of his materials," as "the poet is the slave of his style." If these words convey a true definition, then Mr. Lincoln is a master of prose. Whatever the subject he has in hand, whether it be bald or impassioned, businesslike or pathetic, we feel that we "lose no particle of the exact characteristic extreme impression" of the thing written about. We have it all, and not merely a part. Every line shows that the writer is master of his materials ; that he guides the words, never the words him. This is, indeed, the predominant note through- out all Mr. Lincoln's work. We feel that he is like the engineer Abvaltant Lola: a Ifirdary, fly .1-ohn G. Nioolay and Jobn Hay. In 10 yo?s. New York: Tin Coat:Ivy Company. Loudon : T. Fisher Unveil. '1R90.
who controls some mighty reservoir. As he desires, he opens the various sluice-gates, but for no instant is the water not under his entire control. We are sensible in reading Mr. Lincoln's writings, that an immense force is gathered up behind him, and that in each jet that flows, every drop is meant. Some writers only leak ; others half flow through determined channels, half leak away their words like a broken lock when it is emptying. The greatest, like Mr. Lincoln, send out none but clear-shaped streams.
The "Second Inaugural "—a written composition, though read to the citizens from the steps of the Capitol—well illus- trates our words. Mr. Lincoln had to tell his countrymen that after a four years' struggle, the war was practically ended. The four years' agony, the passion of love which he felt for his country, his joy in her salvation, his sense of tenderness for those who fell, of pity mixed with sternness for the men who had deluged the land with blood,—all the thoughts these feelings inspired were behind Lincoln pressing for expression. A writer of less power would have been over- whelmed. Lincoln remained master of the emotional and intellectual sitaation. In three or four hundred words that burn with the heat of their compression, he tells the history of the war and reads its lesson. No nobler thoughts were ever conceived. No man ever found words more adequate to his desire. Here is the concluding half of the address :—
" Both parties deprecated war ; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive ; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came. One- eighth of the whole population were coloured slaves, not distri- buted generally over the Union, but localised in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war ; while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party ex- pected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the con- flict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less funda- mental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God ; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces ; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. ° Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence eometh.' If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a lying God always ascribe to him ? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.' With malice toward none ; with charity for all ; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in ; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."
Here is the whole tale of the nation's shame and misery, of her heroic struggles to free herself therefrom, and of her victory. Had Lincoln written a hundred times as much more, he could not have said more fully what he desired to say. Every thought receives its complete expression, and there is no word employed which does not directly and manifestly contribute to the development of the central thought.
As an example of Lincoln's more familiar style, we may quote from that inimitable series of letters to his Generals to which we made allusion on a former occasion.The following letter was addressed to General Hooker on his being appointed to command the Army of the Potomac, after mismanagement and failure had made a change of Generals absolutely necessary :—
"I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appears to me to be sufficient reasons, and yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable, quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm ;,
but I think that during General Burnside's command of the army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country and to a most meritorious and honourable brother-officer. I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the army and the Government needed a dictator. Of course, it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those Generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The Government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit, which you have aided to infuse into the army, of criticising their commander and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can to put it down. Neither you nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army while such a spirit prevails in it. And now beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance go forward and give us victories."
It is possible that this letter may sound too severe in tone when read without the context. If, however, the condition of the Army at the time and the intrigues of the various com- manders are considered, it will be recognised as erring in no way on the side of harshness. The irony is particularly delightful, and in no sense forced.
Though somewhat out of place, we must add by way of postscript to our notice, a pretty legend that has grown up around the memory of Lincoln in his own country. The farmers of Central Illinois firmly believe that the brown thrush of their woodlands did not sing for three years after Lincoln's murder.
Before leaving the work under review, we must again con- gratulate the editors on the tone of moderation and fairness they have displayed throughout. Their book is destined to become a, national monument to Lincoln's memory, and it is therefore particularly fortunate that it should be so devoid, of rancour and party spirit. That the views it expresses will be challenged in many particulars, we do not doubt; but no one will be able to arraign it for want of honesty of purpose.