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HOME > Short Stories > The Soul of Abraham Lincoln > CHAPTER XIV "VESTIGES OF CREATION"
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 Lincoln was a man of few books. Much has been made of the fact that when a lad he eagerly read every book within reach; but he did not continue that habit in his mature years. Something happened to the lad in adolescence that changed him mentally as well as physically. His sudden upshoot in stature permanently tired him; he became disinclined to activity. His movements were much slower, and his habits of thought more sluggish. Arnold attempts to make a list of his "favorite books," but does not make much progress (Life of Lincoln, pp. 443, 444). About all there is to be said is that he read the Bible both as a boy and man, and came to have an appreciation and love of Shakspeare, particularly Hamlet and Macbeth, but he never read Shakspeare through. He was fond of some of the poems of Burns, the rollicking humor of "Tam o' Shanter," the withering scorn—an element which had a considerable place in Lincoln's nature—of "Holy Willie's Prayer," the manly democracy of "A Man's a Man for a' That"; but he never quoted Burns. He had little appreciation of music, but liked negro melodies—not the genuine ones, but the minstrel-show sort—camp-meeting ballads, Scotch songs, and mournful narrative compositions, of which the woods were moderately full in his boyhood, and which he continued to enjoy. Broadly humorous songs moved him to mirth, but he cared more for those that were sad. Everyone knows his love for the mediocre but melodious poem, "O Why Should the Spirit of Mortal be Proud," which like the religious song he loved, "How tedious and tasteless the hours," moved mournfully in triple time, flaunting crêpe in the face of the spirit of the waltz. About the only contemporary poem which he is known to have cared much for[Pg 167] was Holmes' "Last Leaf," in which he was particularly moved by the lines,— "The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that he has prest,
In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb."
Herndon is correct in saying that Lincoln read less and thought more than any man prominent in public life in his generation.
But the few books that Lincoln read in his mature years affected him greatly; and when we know of his reading a book because he cared for it, we may well endeavor to discover that book and inquire whether it be not possible to trace its influence in the development, slow but sure, of the mental and spiritual processes of Abraham Lincoln.
A highly important statement concerning the philosophical and religious views of Lincoln is found in Herndon's Life of Lincoln, and it is remarkable that neither Herndon nor any of the hundreds of writers who have gleaned, as all must glean, from his pages, appears to have followed further the most important of its suggestions:
"For many years I subscribed for and kept on our office table the Westminster and Edinburgh Review and a number of other English periodicals. Besides them, I purchased the works of Spencer, Darwin, and the utterances of other English scientists, all of which I devoured with great relish. I endeavored, but with little success, in inducing Lincoln to read them. Occasionally he would snatch one up and peruse it for a little while, but he soon threw it down with the suggestion that it was entirely too heavy for an ordinary mind to digest. A gentleman in Springfield gave him a book called, I believe, Vestiges of Creation, which interested him so much that he read it through. The volume was published in Edinburgh, and undertook to demonstrate the doctrine of development, or evolution. The treatise interested him greatly, and he was deeply impressed with the notion of the so-called 'universal law' evolution; he did not extend greatly his researches, but by[Pg 168] continual thinking in a single channel seemed to grow into a warm advocate of the new doctrine. Beyond what I have stated he made no further advances into the realm of philosophy. 'There are no accidents,' he said one day, 'in my philosophy. Every effect must have its cause. The past is the cause of the present, and the present will be the cause of the future. All these are links in the endless chain stretching from the Infinite to the finite.'"—Herndon, III, 438.
I count it remarkable that neither Herndon nor any other of Lincoln's biographers appears to have made further inquiry about this book, which is not mentioned in Herndon's index, and which I have not found referred to elsewhere in connection with Lincoln. The book is not in any of the great Lincoln collections which I have visited, nor has any Lincoln student to whom I have mentioned it had it in mind, or failed to be impressed with the value of it when we have discussed the matter.
The book itself is not in the Lincoln Home at Springfield, nor is it in the Oldroyd Collection at Washington, in one of which places I hoped that it might be found. Neither the librarian of the Illinois Historical Society in Springfield, nor Mr. Barker, the painstaking and discriminating collector and vendor of Lincoln books in Springfield, had ever noticed the title in Herndon's book, though both were at once impressed with its significance when I called it to their attention.
The material in Herndon's lectures on Lincoln is pretty well absorbed in his book, and quoted in this volume; but there are some interesting additional details in Herndon's letters. In these, answering specific questions or replying to definite statements, he now and then added a statement which was not later included in his book, but which has prese............
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