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HOME > Short Stories > The Soul of Abraham Lincoln > CHAPTER XII LINCOLN'S BURNT BOOK
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 In the chapter on the "Conditions of Lincoln's Young Manhood at New Salem" mention was made of the "book" which Lincoln is said to have written, opposed to the Christian religion, a book which his employer, Samuel Hill, is said to have snatched from his hand and thrown into the fire lest Lincoln's infidelity should ruin his political career. To have treated this subject at length would have thrown that chapter out of focus, and it is time that we should learn the truth about it. Colonel Lamon tells us about this book thus:
"He had made himself thoroughly familiar with the writings of Paine and Volney,—the Ruins by one and the Age of Reason by the other. His mind was full of the subject, and he felt an itching to write. He did write, and the result was a 'little book.' It was probably merely an extended essay,[40] but it was ambitiously spoken of as a 'book' by himself and by the persons who were made acquainted with its contents. In this book he intended to demonstrate,—
"First, that the Bible was not God's revelation; and
"Secondly, that Jesus was not the Son of God."
—Lamon, Life of Lincoln, pp. 157-58.
Lamon wrote this in 1872 of a book supposed to have been written by Lincoln and burned by Hill in 1834.
We have already quoted from Herndon's account, but it is brief and for convenience will bear reading here in full:
"In 1834, while still living in New Salem and before he became a lawyer, he was surrounded by a class of people exceedingly liberal in matters of religion. Volney's Ruins[Pg 147] and Paine's Age of Reason passed from hand to hand, and furnished food for the evening's discussion in the tavern and village store. Lincoln read both these books and thus assimilated them into his own being. He prepared an extended essay—called by many a book—in which he made an argument against Christianity, striving to prove that the Bible was not inspired, and therefore not God's revelation, and that Jesus Christ was not the Son of God. The manuscript containing these audacious and comprehensive propositions he intended to have published or given a wide circulation in some other way. He carried it to the store, where it was read and freely discussed. His friend and employer, Samuel Hill, was among the listeners, and seriously questioning the propriety of a promising young man like Lincoln fathering such unpopular notions, he snatched the manuscript from his hands and thrust it into the stove. The book went up in flames, and Lincoln's political future was secure."—Herndon, III, 439, 440.
Mr. Herndon had already given this information to Lamon in another form, and Lamon used it in his list of certificates from Lincoln's old friends that Lincoln was an infidel.
As printed in Lamon's book, Herndon's account of the burnt manuscript was communicated in the following letter:
"As to Mr. Lincoln's religious views, he was, in short, an infidel, ... a theist. He did not believe that Jesus was God, nor the Son of God,—was a fatalist, denied the freedom of the will. Mr. Lincoln told me a thousand times, that he did not believe the Bible was the revelation of God, as the Christian world contends. The points that Mr. Lincoln tried to demonstrate [in his book] were: First, That the Bible was not God's revelation; and, Second, That Jesus was not the Son of God. I assert this on my own knowledge, and on my veracity. Judge Logan, John T. Stuart, James H. Matheny, and others, will tell you the truth. I say they will confirm what I say, with this exception,—they will make it blacker than I remember it. Joshua F. Speed of Louisville, I think, will tell you the same thing."—Lamon, Life of Lincoln, p. 489.
It is important to notice that we do not have two witnesses concerning this book, but only one. Lamon gives no evidence of having possessed any independent knowledge of the book.[Pg 148] His information was derived from Herndon. In the chapter on "Lincoln's Young Manhood" we considered how slight was Herndon's personal connection with New Salem. The town had vanished long before he ever visited the spot, and apparently the only time he ever spent there for the purpose of study was a Sunday afternoon and Monday morning, October 14 and 15, 1866. On the occasion of that visit he gathered the material for his lecture on Ann Rutledge. So far as we have evidence, he learned nothing at this time about Lincoln's burnt book. In his letter, written to be included in Lamon's biography, in which reference to this book is made, he says: "I assert this on my own knowledge and on my own veracity." That sentence appears at first reading to refer to Herndon's personal knowledge of the book, but a second reading with the context shows that Herndon does not mean to claim that he had personal knowledge of the book, but personal knowledge of Lincoln's belief or the lack of it.
Where did Herndon learn about this book?
He learned it from James H. Matheny, who had never seen the "book" but had received the information in confidence from Lincoln. It will be remembered that Matheny repudiated the supposed letter to Herndon which Lamon printed as from him and said that he never wrote it, but that Herndon compiled it from scraps of several conversations, and that it did not represent Matheny's opinion of Lincoln's ultimate religion. It is not necessary to suppose that either Herndon or Lamon intended to misrepresent Matheny. Lamon had no original documents to work from and the copy which he received of Herndon's notes of Matheny's conversation he took to be the copy of a letter from Matheny and printed it as such. It appears to be quite clear that this was the only source of Herndon's knowledge of Lincoln's burnt book. The following is the report of these scraps of conversation with Matheny as Herndon wrote them down and as Lamon printed them:
"I knew Mr. Lincoln as early as 1834-5; know he was an infidel. He and W. D. Herndon used to talk infidelity in the[Pg 149] clerk's office in this city, about the years 1837-40. Lincoln attacked the Bible and the New Testament on two grounds: first, from the inherent or apparent contradictions under its lids; second, from the grounds of reason. Sometimes he ridiculed the Bible and New Testament, sometimes seemed to scoff it, though I shall not use that word in its full and literal sense. I never heard that Lincoln changed his views, though his personal and political friend from 1834 to 1860. Sometimes Lincoln bordered on atheism. He went far that way, and often shocked me. I was then a young man and believed what my good mother told me. Stuart & Lincoln's office was in what was called Hoffman's Row, on North Fifth Street, near the public square. It was in the same building as the clerk's office, and on the same floor. Lincoln would come into the clerk's office, where I and some young men—Evan Butler, Newton Francis, and others—were writing or staying, and would bring the Bible with him; would read a chapter; argue against it. Lincoln then had a smattering of geology, if I recollect it. Lincoln often, if not wholly, was an atheist; at least, bordered on it. Lincoln was enthusiastic in his infidelity. As he grew older, he grew more discreet, didn't talk much before strangers about his religion; but to friends, close and bosom ones, he was always open and avowed, fair and honest; but to strangers, he held them off from policy. Lincoln used to quote Burns. Burns helped Lincoln to be an infidel, as I think; at least, he found in Burns a like thinker and feeler. Lincoln quoted 'Tam o' Shanter.' 'What! send one to heaven, and ten to hell!' etc.
"From what I know of Mr. Lincoln and his views of Christianity, and from what I know as honest and well-founded rumor; from what I have heard his best friends say and regret for years; from what he never denied when accused, and from what Lincoln hinted and intimated, to say no more—he did write a little book on infidelity at or near New Salem, in Menard County, about the year 1834 or 1835. I have stated these things to you often. Judge Logan, John T. Stuart, yourself, know what I know, and some of you more.
"Mr. Herndon, you insist on knowing something which you know I possess, and got as a secret, and that is, about Lincoln's little book on infidelity. Mr. Lincoln did tell me[Pg 150] that he did write a little book on infidelity. This statement I have avoided heretofore; but, as you strongly insist upon it,—probably to defend yourself against charges of misrepresentation,—I give it to you as I got it from Lincoln's mouth."—Lamon, Life of Lincoln, pp. 487-88.
We have here our one witness that Mr. Lincoln while at New Salem,[41] freshly risen from the reading of Volney and Paine, and having what Lamon called the "itch for writing" wrote some kind of essay adverse to the doctrines of Christianity as Lincoln then understood them. Matheny never saw the book and never talked with anyone so far as we know who had seen it, excepting Lincoln himself, who told him in confidence that he had written such an essay. The fact that Matheny says that he "got it as a secret" would seem to indicate that Lincoln had no pride in it, and his reference to Herndon's insistence indicates that Herndon had no other source of information.
Lincoln did, then, write something of this character and it may have been burned; though it is extremely doubtful whether it met so spectacular a fate or was anything like so formidable a document as tradition has represented it.
It will be noted that Colonel Matheny says nothing about the burning of the book. Herndon got that item from some other source, and apparently misunderstood it. This information, apparently, Herndon picked up on the occasion of his visit to New Salem. Samuel Hill may, indeed, have reminded Lincoln that if he intended to run for the Legislature against Peter Cartwright, it would be better for him not to be known as an infidel; and indeed if Lincoln was known as an infidel, Peter Cartwright was not the man to have failed to remind him of it. But at the time when Samuel Hill snatched something out of Lincoln's hand and threw it into the fire he was not concerned so much about Lincoln's political future as he was about something else. The document which Samuel Hill burned contained very little about theology.
[Pg 151]
When on an evening in November, 1866, Mr. Herndon, but lately returned from his visit ............
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