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HOME > Short Stories > The Soul of Abraham Lincoln > CHAPTER VIII THE BATEMAN INCIDENT
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 Hon. Newton Bateman was for many years Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Illinois, being chosen to that position in 1858 and holding the place with one brief intermission for fourteen years. He was then elected President of Knox College and served with distinction in that capacity for seventeen years. He knew Lincoln well. He was small in stature, and Lincoln was very tall. Lincoln used to introduce Bateman to friends, saying, "This is my little friend, the big schoolmaster of Illinois." He was, perhaps, the last man to shake hands with Abraham Lincoln as Lincoln was leaving Springfield, and he was one of the pallbearers at Lincoln's funeral. The version of Lincoln's Farewell Address which was published in the Illinois State Journal was printed on the day following Lincoln's departure and was reproduced from Dr. Bateman's memory of it. Although it varies from the official report it appears to have been a very nearly accurate report of what Lincoln actually said as judged by Lincoln's own reproduction of the address. Reference has already been made to the difficulties which Dr. J. G. Holland met in Springfield when he journeyed thither in quest of material on the Life of Lincoln. To his great satisfaction he was able to obtain from Mr. Bateman an incident which has become the corner-stone of a thousand Lincoln eulogies. It is here reproduced entire:
"Mr. Newton Bateman,[29] Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Illinois, occupied a room adjoining[Pg 115] and opening into the Executive Chamber. Frequently this door was open during Mr. Lincoln's receptions; and throughout the seven months or more of his occupation Mr. Bateman saw him nearly every day. Often when Mr. Lincoln was tired he closed his door against all intrusion, and called Mr. Bateman into his room for a quiet talk. On one of these occasions Mr. Lincoln took up a book containing a careful canvass of the city of Springfield in which he lived, showing the candidate for whom each citizen had declared it his intention to vote in the approaching election. Mr. Lincoln's friends had, doubtless at his own request, placed the result of the canvass in his hands. This was toward the close of October, and only a few days before the election. Calling Mr. Bateman to a seat at his side, having previously locked all doors, he said: 'Let us look over this book. I wish particularly to see how the ministers of Springfield are going to vote.' The leaves were turned, one by one, and as the names were examined Mr. Lincoln frequently asked if this one and that were not a minister, or an elder, or a member of such or such a church, and sadly expressed his[Pg 116] surprise on receiving an affirmative answer. In that manner they went through the book, and then he closed it and sat silently and for some minutes regarding a memorandum in pencil which lay before him. At length he turned to Mr. Bateman with a face full of sadness, and said: 'Here are twenty-three, ministers, of different denominations, and all of them are against me but three; and here are a great many prominent members of the churches, a very large majority of whom are against me. Mr. Bateman, I am not a Christian—God knows I would be one—but I have carefully read the Bible, and I do not so understand this book'; and he drew from his bosom a pocket New Testament. 'These men well know,' he continued, 'that I am for freedom in the territories, freedom everywhere as far as the Constitution and laws will permit, and that my opponents are for slavery. They know this, and yet, with this book in their hands, in the light of which human bondage cannot live a moment, they are going to vote against me. I do not understand it at all.'
"Here Mr. Lincoln paused—paused for long minutes, his features surcharged with emotion. Then he rose and walked up and down the room in the effort to retain or regain his self-possession. Stopping at last, he said, with a trembling voice and his cheeks wet with tears: 'I know there is a God, and that He hates injustice and slavery. I see the storm coming, and I know that His hand is in it. If He has a place and work for me—and I think He has—I believe I am ready. I am nothing, but truth is everything. I know I am right because I know that liberty is right, for Christ teaches it, and Christ is God. I have told them that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and Christ and reason say the same; and they will find it so. Douglas don't care whether slavery is voted up or voted down, but God cares, and humanity cares, and I care; and with God's help I shall not fail. I may not see the end; but it will come, and I shall be vindicated; and these men will find that they have not read their Bibles aright.'
"Much of this was uttered as if he were speaking to himself, and with a sad and earnest solemnity of manner impossible to be described. After a pause, he resumed: 'Doesn't it appear strange that men can ignore the moral aspects of this contest? A revelation could not make it plainer to me[Pg 117] that slavery or the government must be destroyed. The future would be something awful, as I look at it, but for this rock on which I stand [alluding to the Testament which he still held in his hand] especially with the knowledge of how these ministers are going to vote. It seems as if God had borne with this thing [slavery] until the very teachers of religion have come to defend it from the Bible, and to claim for it a divine character and sanction; and now the cup of iniquity is full, and the vials of wrath will be poured out.'"—Holland: Life of Lincoln, pp. 236-38.
Dr. J. G. Holland was an author of ability and character. His Life of Lincoln was up to the time of its publication far and away the best that had appeared. Even Herndon and Lamon are compelled to speak of it with respect. Lamon says: "Out of the mass of work which appeared, of one only—Dr. Holland's—is it possible to speak with any degree of respect." That this also represented substantially the opinion of Herndon is clearly in evidence. With two such names as Newton Bateman and J. G. Holland supporting it, an incident of this character was certain to carry great weight. It can be found more or less abridged and in some cases garbled and enlarged in any one of a hundred books and of a thousand or probably ten thousand Lincoln's Day addresses. This report was the direct occasion for the assembling of a considerable mass of opposing evidence which we shall find in succeeding chapters. It was attacked publicly and directly by Ward Hill Lamon in his Life of Lincoln in 1872. The following is Mr. Lamon's reply:
"Mr. Newton Bateman is reported to have said that a few days before the Presidential election in 1860, Mr. Lincoln came into his office, closed the door against intrusion, and proposed to examine a book which had been furnished him, at his own request, 'Containing a careful canvass of the city of Springfield, showing the candidate for whom each citizen had declared his intention to vote at the approaching election. He ascertained that only three ministers of the gospel, out of twenty-three, would vote for him, and that, of the prominent church-members, a very large majority were against him.'[Pg 118] Mr. Bateman does not say so directly, but the inference is plain that Mr. Lincoln had not previously known what were the sentiments of the Christian people who lived with him in Springfield: he had never before taken the trouble to inquire whether they were for him or against him. At all events, when he made the discovery out of the book, he wept, and declared that he 'did not understand it at all.' He drew from his bosom a pocket New Testament, and, 'with a trembling voice and his cheeks wet with tears,' quoted it against his political opponents generally, and especially against Douglas. He professed to believe that the opinions adopted by him and his party were derived from the teachings of Christ; averred that Christ was God; and, speaking of the Testament which he carried in his bosom, called it 'this rock, on which I stand.' When Mr. Bateman expressed surprise, and told him that his friends generally were ignorant that he entertained such sentiments, he gave this answer quickly: 'I know they are: I am obliged to appear different to them.' Mr. Bateman is a respectable citizen, whose general reputation for truth and veracity is not to be impeached; but his story, as reported in Holland's Life, is so inconsistent with Mr. Lincoln's whole character, that it must be rejected as altogether incredible. From the time of the Democratic split in the Baltimore Convention, Mr. Lincoln, as well as every other politician of the smallest sagacity, knew that his success was as certain as any future could be. At the end of October, most of the States had clearly voted in a way which left no lingering doubts of the final result in November. If there ever was a time in his life when ambition charmed his whole heart,—if it could ever be said of him that 'hope elevated and joy brightened his crest,' it was on the eve of that election which he saw was to lift him at last to the high place for which he had sighed and struggled so long. It was not then that he would mourn and weep because he was in danger of not getting the votes of the ministers and members of the churches he had known during many years for his steadfast opponents: he did not need them, and had not expected them. Those who understood him best are very sure that he never, under any circumstances, could have fallen into such weakness—not even when his fortunes were at the lowest point of depression—as to play the part of a hypocrite for their support. Neither is it possible that[Pg 119] he was at any loss about the reasons which religious men had for refusing him their support; and, if he had said that he could not understand it at all, he must have spoken falsely. But the worst part of the tale is Mr. Lincoln's acknowledgment that his 'friends generally were deceived concerning his religious sentiments, and that he was obliged to appear different to them.'
"According to this version, which has had considerable currency, he carried a New Testament in his bosom, carefully hidden from his intimate associates: he believed that Christ was God; yet his friends understood him to deny the verity of the gospel: he based his political doctrines on the teachings of the Bible; yet before all men, except Mr. Bateman, he habitually acted the part of an unbeliever and reprobate, because he was 'obliged to appear different to them.' How obliged? What compulsion required him to deny that Christ was God if he really believed Him to be divine? Or did he put his political necessities above the obligations of truth, and oppose Christianity against his convictions, that he might win the favor of its enemies? It may be that his mere silence was sometimes misunderstood; but he never made an express avowal of any religious opinion which he did not entertain. He did not 'appear different' at one time from what he was at another, and certainly he never put on infidelity as a mere mask to conceal his Christian character from the world. There is no dealing with Mr. Bateman, except by a flat contradiction. Perhaps his memory was treacherous, or his imagination led him astray, or, peradventure, he thought a fraud no harm if it gratified the strong desire of the public for proofs of Mr. Lincoln's orthodoxy. It is nothing to the purpose that Mr. Lincoln said once or twice that he thought this or that portion of the Scripture was the product of divine inspiration; for he was one of the class who hold that all truth is inspired, and that every human being with a mind and a conscience is a prophet. He would have agreed much more readily with one who taught that Newton's discoveries, or Bacon's philosophy, or one of his own speeches, were the works of men divinely inspired above their fellows. But he never told anyone that he accepted Jesus Christ, or performed a single one of the acts which necessarily follow upon such a conviction. At Springfield and at Washington he was beset on the one hand by[Pg 120] political priests, and on the other by honest and prayerful Christians. He despised the former, respected the latter, and had use for both. He said with characteristic irreverence, that he would not undertake 'to run the churches by military authority'; but he was, nevertheless, alive to the importance of letting the churches 'run themselves in the interest of his party.' Indefinite expressions about 'Divine Providence,' the 'justice of God,' 'the favor of the Most High,' were easy, and not inconsistent with his religious notion. In this, accordingly, he indulged freely; but never in all that time did he let fall from his lips or his pen an expression which remotely implied the slightest faith in Jesus as the Son of God and the Saviour of men."—Lamon: Life of Lincoln, pp. 499-502.
Confronted by an irreconcilable contradiction like this, the easiest way is to cut the knot, and this may be done by any one of several methods. We may say that, while Lamon and Herndon were truthful men, their reputation for veracity, good as it was, is less than that of Bateman and Holland, and we prefer to believe the latter pair. Or, we may say that, while Bateman knew Lincoln well, both Herndon and Lamon knew him much better, and were better able to judge what Lincoln would have said. Or, we may say that Bateman was p............
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