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While the fate and future of the Christian religion in nowise depends upon the sentiments of Abraham Lincoln, yet the life and character of this remarkable man belong to the public, to tell for evil or for good on coming generations; and as the attempt has been made to impute to him the vilest sentiments, even to his dying day, it is fitting and just that the weakness and infidelity charged upon his later life should not go down unchallenged to posterity. The latest biography of Mr. Lincoln, published under the name of Col. W. H. Lamon, but with the large co-operation of Mr. W. H. Herndon, concerns itself with the endeavor to establish certain allegations injurious to the good name of the illustrious man, whose tragic and untimely death has consecrated his memory in the hearts of a grateful nation. Two charges in this biography are worthy of especial notice and disproof,—the charge that he was born a bastard, and the charge that he died an infidel. Mr. Lamon begins his pleasing task by raising dark and unfounded insinuations as to the legitimacy of his hero, and then occupies from twenty-five to thirty pages with evidence to prove that Mr. Lincoln was a confirmed infidel, and died playing a "sharp game on the Christian community"; that, in his "morbid ambition for popularity," he would say good Lord or good Devil, "adjusting his religious sentiments to his political interests." In meeting these insinuations and charges I shall necessarily have recourse to political[Pg 315] documents and papers, but it shall not be my aim to parade Mr. Lincoln's political opinions, further than to eliminate from his writings and speeches his religious sentiments.
As to the ungracious insinuation that Mr. Lincoln was not the child of lawful wedlock, I have only to say that it is an insinuation unsupported by a shadow of justifiable evidence. The only thing on which Mr. Lamon bases the insinuation is, that he has been unable to find any record of the marriage Mr. Lincoln's parents. Just as if it would be any evidence against the fact of their marriage if no record could be found. If every man in this country is to be considered as illegitimate who cannot produce his parents' certificate of marriage, or find a record of it in a family Bible anywhere, there will be a good many very respectable people in the same category with Mr. Lincoln. Such an insinuation might be raised with as much plausibility in the case of multitudes of the early settlers of the country. It is a questionable act of friendship thus to rake "the short and simple annals of the poor," and upon such slender evidence raise an insinuation so unfounded. But I am prepared to show that if Mr. Lamon has found no record of the marriage of Mr. Lincoln's parents, it is simply because he has not extended his researches as faithfully in this direction as he has in some others. It appears that there is a well-authenticated record of the marriage of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks, and, in the same connection, the birth of Abraham Lincoln and Sarah Lincoln. Hearing that the Hon. J. C. Black, of Champaign, Ill., a warm personal friend of Mr. Lincoln, had in his possession several papers given to him soon after Mr. Lincoln's death by a member of the family, and among them a leaf from the family Bible containing the record of the marriage of Mr. Lincoln's parents, I at once telegraphed to him in relation to this record, and have in my possession the following letter, which will explain itself:
Champaign, Ill., Jan. 8th, 1873.
J. A. Reed:
Dear Sir—Your telegram of the 7th reached me this A. M. In reply permit me to say that I was in possession of the leaf of which you speak, and which contained the record of the marriage of Thos. Lincoln and Nancy Hanks, the birth of Abraham Lincoln and Sarah Lincoln. The leaf is very old, and is the last page of the Apocrypha. It was given to me, with certificate of genuineness, by Dennis F. Hanks in 1866. I have sent both record and certificate to Wm. P. Black, attorney at law, 131 La Salle Street, Chicago, Ill., and duly by him delivered to the Illinois[Pg 316] Historical Association. Hon. I. N. Arnold called on my brother and obtained the originals for use in a revised edition of his life of Lincoln, and I understand that since then they have passed into the hands of Robt. Lincoln, Esq., where they were when I last heard from them. Hoping that what I have written may be of some use, I remain
Very truly yours,
J. C. Black.
Presuming that the first of Colonel Lamon's libels upon Mr. Lincoln's memory is thus sufficiently disposed of, I proceed to consider the charges against his religious life and character. The best refutation of these charges lies on the pages of the book in which they are advanced. However skeptical Mr. Lincoln may have been in his earlier life, Mr. Lamon persists in asserting and attempting to prove that he continued a confirmed skeptic to the last: that he was an unbeliever in the truth of the Christian religion, and died an infidel; that, while "he was by no means free from a kind of belief in the supernatural, he rejected the great facts of Christianity as wanting the support of authentic evidence"; that, "during all the time of his residence at Springfield and in Washington, he never let fall from his lips an expression which remotely implied the slightest faith in Jesus Christ, as the Son of God and the Saviour of men"; that "he was at all times an infidel." From twenty-five to thirty pages of evidence is produced in proof of this allegation.
But all this positive statement as to Mr. Lincoln's persistent and final infidelity is contradicted by the admissions of the book itself. It is admitted that there did come a time in Mr. Lincoln's life at Springfield when he began to affiliate with Christian people, and to give his personal presence and support to the Church. It is admitted that he did so plausibly identify himself with the Christian community that "his New Salem associates and the aggressive deists with whom he originally united at Springfield gradually dispersed and fell away from his side." Here is the fact, openly and squarely stated by Mr. Lamon, that Mr. Lincoln, even while at Springfield, did make such a change in his sentiments and bearing toward the Christian community, that "the aggressive deists and infidels with whom he originally united gradually dispersed and fell away from his side." He no sooner turned away from them in sentiment than they turned away from him in fact.
But how does the biographer attempt to explain this? How does he account for this admitted and observable change in Mr.[Pg 317] Lincoln's life, that relieved him of the presence of so much aggressive deistical company? Why, by means of an explanation that kills the accusation itself—an explanation that fastens upon Mr. Lincoln the very charge of hypocrisy against which he professes to defend him. He accounts for this admitted and observable change in the attitude of Mr. Lincoln towards the Christian community, not by supposing that there was any sincerity about it, but by affirming that he was trying "to play a sharp game on the Christians of Springfield!" It was because "he was a wily politician, and did not disdain to regulate his religious manifestations with reference to his political interests"; and because, "seeing the immense and augmenting power of the churches, he aspired to lead the religious community, foreseeing that in order to his political success he must not appear an enemy within their gates." And yet, if we are to believe Colonel Lamon, he was an enemy all the while at heart; and while attending church, and supporting the Gospel, and making Sabbath school speeches, and speeches before the Bible Society, he was at heart a disbeliever of the truth and an antagonist of the cause which he professed to be supporting. In other words, he was all these years playing the arrant hypocrite; deceiving the Christian community and wheedling it for political purposes; playing the role of a gospel hearer in the sanctuary, and a hail fellow well met with profane fellows of the baser sort in the private sanctum of infidelity or "aggressive deism."
Strangely enough, however, Colonel Lamon and his companion in authorship not only praise Mr. Lincoln's greatness, but laud his singular conscientiousness and integrity of motive almost to perfection. Says Mr. Herndon, "He was justly entitled to the appellation, Honest Abe"; "honesty was his pole star; conscience, the faculty that loves the just and the right, was the second great quality and forte of Mr. Lincoln's character." "He had a deep, broad, living conscience. His great reason told him what was true and good, right and wrong, just or unjust, and his conscience echoed back the decision, and it was from this point he spoke and wove his character and fame among us. His conscience ruled his heart." [See Herndon's letter in Carpenter's Life of Lincoln.]
In confirmation of this, Mr. Lamon goes on to show that Mr. Lincoln scorned everything like hypocrisy or deceit. In fact he makes his hero to be such a paragon of honesty and[Pg 318] conscious integrity of motive that he would not undertake to plead a bad cause before a jury if he could possibly shift the responsibility over on to some other lawyer, whose conscience was not quite so tender. He brings in the testimony of a most reputable lawyer of another place in confirmation of this, who states: "That for a man who was for a quarter of a century both a lawyer and a politician, Mr. Lincoln was the most honest man I ever knew. He was not only morally honest but intellectually so. He could not reason falsely; if he attempted it he failed. In politics he never would try to mislead. At the bar, when he thought he was wrong, he was the weakest lawyer I ever saw." "In a closely contested case where Mr. Lincoln had proved an account for a client, who was, though he knew it not, a very slippery fellow, the opposing attorney afterward proved a receipt clearly covering the entire case. By the time he was through Mr. Lincoln was missing. The court sent for him to the hotel. 'Tell the judge,' said Mr. Lincoln, 'that I can't come; my hands are dirty and I came over to clean them.'"
Page after page is thus taken to show Mr. Lincoln's singular conscientiousness and honesty, his incapability of hypocrisy or deceit, as a lawyer, a politician and a gentleman. And yet these consistent biographers go back on all this testimony of their own mouths when they come to explain the admitted change in his life when he began to lean toward the church, and the "aggressive deists" parted company with him. Then they find it convenient to call him a "wily politician," who is "playing a sharp game with the Christians"; "the cautious pretender who does not disdain to regulate his religious manifestations with reference to his political interests." They saddle upon him the vilest hypocrisy and deceit, and make him "act the liar's part," in order to send him down to posterity an infidel. On one page they reason that Mr. Lincoln could not have made any such admissions of his belief in the Christian religion as have been maintained, as such admissions would be contrary to his well-known character; on the next page they affirm that Mr. Lincoln could not act the hypocrite; and on a third they do not hesitate to attribute to him the very grossest duplicity, in their zeal to fasten on him the charge of permanent skepticism. They go back on their own logic, eat their own argument, and give the lie to the very charge they are laboring with such considerable pains to establish.
[Pg 319]
The book, therefore, I repeat, bears on its own pages the best refutation of the charge it makes against Mr. Lincoln. Surely, such serious inconsistency of statement, such illogical absurdity, even, could hardly have escaped the notice of the biographers if some preconceived opinion had not prejudiced their minds and blinded their eyes. The animus of the book and the purpose for which it was written are only too apparent.
Perhaps it might suffice to rest the refutation of this charge against Mr. Lincoln's religious character on the internal evidence of Colonel Lamon's volume with which I have thus far been occupied. But there is something to be said concerning the authenticity and accuracy of the testimony by which the charge seems to be supported.
I have been amazed to find that the principal persons whose testimony is given in this book to prove that their old friend lived and died an infidel, never wrote a word of it, and never gave it as their opinion or allowed it to be published as covering their estimate of Mr. Lincoln's life and religious views. They were simply familiarly interviewed, and their testimony misrepresented, abridged and distorted to suit the purpose of the interviewer, and the business he had on hand.
The two gentlemen whose names are most relied upon, and who stand first on the list of witnesses to establish the charge these biographers have made, are the Hon. John T. Stuart, and Col. Jas. H. Matheny, of Springfield, old and intimate friends of Mr. Lincoln.
Hon. John T. Stuart is an ex-member of Congress, and was Mr. Lincoln's first law partner,—a gentleman of the highest standing and ability in his profesion, and of unimpeachable integrity. Mr. Lamon has attributed to Mr. Stuart testimony the most disparaging and damaging to Mr. Lincoln's character and opinions,—testimony which Mr. Stuart utterly repudiates, both as to language and sentiment, as the following letter shows:—
Springfield, Dec. 17th, 1872.
Rev. J. A. Reed:
Dear Sir—My attention has been called to a statement in relation to the religious opinions of Mr. Lincoln, purporting to have been made by me and published in Lamon's Life of Lincoln. The language of that statement is not mine; it was not written by me, and I did not see it until it was in print.
I was once interviewed on the subject of Mr. Lincoln's religious opinions, and doubtless said that Mr. Lincoln was in the earlier part of[Pg 320] his life an infidel. I could not have said that "Dr. Smith tried to convert Lincoln from infidelity so late as 1858, and couldn't do it." In relation to that point, I stated, in the same conversation, some facts which are omitted in that statement, and which I will briefly repeat. That Eddie, a child of Mr. Lincoln, died in 1848 or 1849, and that he and his wife were in deep grief on that account. That Dr. Smith, then Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, at the suggestion of a lady friend of theirs, called upon Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, and that first visit resulted in great intimacy and friendship between them, lasting till the death of Mr. Lincoln, and continuing with Mrs. Lincoln till the death of Dr. Smith. I stated that I had heard, at the time, that Dr. Smith and Mr. Lincoln had much discussion in relation to the truth of the Christian religion, and that Dr. Smith had furnished Mr. Lincoln with books to read on that subject, and among others one which had been written by himself, some time previous, on infidelity; and that Dr. Smith claimed that after this investigation Mr. Lincoln had changed his opinion, and become a believer in the truth of the Christian religion: that Mr. Lincoln and myself never conversed upon that subject, and I had no personal knowledge as to his alleged change of opinion. I stated, however, that it was certainly true, that up to that time Mr. Lincoln had never regularly attended any place of religious worship, but that after that time he rented a pew in the First Presbyterian Church, and with his family constantly attended the worship in that church until he went to Washington as President. This much I said at the time, and can now add that the Hon. Ninian W. Edwards, the brother-in-law of Mr. Lincoln, has, within a few days, informed me that when Mr. Lincoln commenced attending the First Presbyterian Church he admitted to him that his views had undergone the change claimed by Dr. Smith.
I would further say that Dr. Smith was a man of very great ability and on theological and metaphysical subjects had few superiors and not many equals.
Truthfulness was a prominent trait in Mr. Lincoln's character, and it would be impossible for any intimate friend of his to believe that he ever aimed to deceive, either by his words or his conduct.
Yours truly,
John T. Stuart.
Similar testimony, to the extent of a page or more of finely printed matter, Mr. Lamon attributes to Col. Jas. H. Matheny, of Springfield, Ill., an old acquaintance of Mr. Lincoln, an able lawyer and of high standing in the community. Mr. Matheny testifies that he never wrote a word of what is attributed to him; that it is not a fair representation of either his language or his opinions, and that he never would have allowed such an article to be published as covering his estimate of Mr. Lincoln's life and character. Here is what this gentleman has to say, given over his own signature:—
Springfield, Dec. 16th, 1872.
Rev. J. A. Reed:
Dear Sir—The language attributed to me in Lamon's book is not from my pen. I did not write it, and it does not express my sentiments of Mr. Lincoln's entire life and character. It is a mere collection of[Pg 321] sayings gathered from private conversations that were only true of Mr. Lincoln's earlier life. I would not have allowed such an article to be printed over my signature as covering my opinion of Mr. Lincoln's life and religious sentiments. While I do believe Mr. Lincoln to have been an infidel in his former life, when his mind was as yet unformed, and his associations principally with rough and skeptical men, yet I believe he was a very different man in later life; and that after associating with a different class of men, and investigating the subject, he was a firm believer in the Christian religion.
Yours truly,
Jas. H. Matheny.
It is unnecessary that I occupy more space with the rest of the testimony, as there is none of it given over the signature of anybody, save that which is given over the signature of W. H. Herndon. All aside from this bears evidence of having been manipulated to suit the purpose for which it is wanted, and is either contradictory, or fails to cover the whole of Mr. Lincoln's life. Judge Davis, for instance, is made to say: "I don't know anything about Lincoln's religion, nor do I think anybody else knows anything about it." Of what value can the testimony be that is prefaced with such declarations of knowing nothing about the matter?
John G. Nicolay is made to testify, that "to his knowledge Mr. Lincoln did not change his views after he came to Washington"; and yet he states in immediate connection that "he does not know what his views were, never having heard him explain them."
Jesse W. Fell either testifies, or is made to testify, to Mr. Lincoln's skeptical notions. And yet Mr. Fell admits that it "was eight or ten years previous to his death" that he believed him to be entertaining the views of which he speaks, "and that he may have changed his sentiments after his removal from among us." All this would be strange kind of testimony on which to convict Mr. Lincoln of murder in the presence of a judge and jury. But with such evidence it is sought to convict him of infidelity.
We are enabled to see, therefore, in the light of this revelation, of what "trustworthy materials" this book is composed; how much Mr. Lamon's "names and dates and authorities, by which he strengthens his testimony," are to be depended upon; and what reason unsuspecting or sympathizing critics and journalists have for arriving at the sage conclusion that Mr. Lincoln "was, in his habit of thought, heterodox in the extreme to the close of his life, and a very different man from what he was[Pg 322] supposed to be." The evidence of this book, so far as the prominent witnesses are concerned, and so far as it relates to the later years of Mr. Lincoln's life, is not only utterly untrustworthy, but even an ingenious and romantic invention.
Having shown what claims Mr. Lamon's book has to being the "only fair and reliable history" of Mr. Lincoln's life and views, and of what "trustworthy materials" it is composed, I shall now give the testimony I have collected to establish what has ever been the public impression, that Mr. Lincoln was in his later life, and at the time of his death, a firm believer in the truth of the Christian religion. The infidelity of his earlier life is not so much to be wondered at, when we consider the poverty of his early religious instruction and the peculiar influences by which he was surrounded. Gideon Welles, formerly Secretary of the Navy, in a recent article in the Galaxy, in accounting for the late and peculiar manifestation of faith which Mr. Lincoln exhibited, says: "It was doubtless to be attributed in a great measure to the absence of early religious culture—a want of educational advantages in his youthful frontier life." This, together with the fact that his youth and early manhood were spent chiefly among a rough, illiterate and skeptical class of people, is amply confirmed by Mr. Lamon's narrative.
On the same authority it appears that Mr. Lincoln had in his former life read but few books, and that everything he had read, of an intellectual character, bearing on the truth of the Bible, was of an infidel sort. It does not appear that he had ever seen, much less read, a work on the evidences of Christianity till his interview with Rev. Dr. Smith in 1848. We hear of him as reading Paine, Voltaire and Theodore Parker, but nothing on the other side. The men by whom he was surrounded in his earlier life, it seems, kept him well supplied with their kind of literature. He was familiar with some of the master spirits of infidelity and theism, but had never grappled with the evidences of Christianity as presented by the great defenders of the Christian faith.
But then Mr. Lincoln's mind was of too much greatness and intellectual candor to remain the victim of a false theory in the presence of clear and sufficient intellectual testimony. And he no sooner, in the providence of God, was placed in possession of the truth, and led to investigate for himself, than he stood firmly and avowedly on the side of the Christian religion.
[Pg 323]
In proof of this statement, I first of all produce the testimony of Rev. Dr. Smith, Mr. Lincoln's pastor at Springfield. In relation to Mr. Lincoln's opinion of Dr. Smith, it is only necessary for me to state that he stood so high in his esteem, that he gave him the appointment of Consul to Glasgow. Dr. Smith was in Scotland at the time of Mr. Lincoln's death, and soon after this sad event, Mr. Herndon conceived the notion of collecting materials for his intended biography. He accordingly addressed a letter to Dr. Smith in Scotland, with the view of getting some information from so respectable a source to prove that Mr. Lincoln had died an infidel. In this however he was mistaken, to his evident chagrin and disappointment. I shall give some extracts from Dr. Smith's printed letter, which is to be found in the Springfield Journal of March, 1867, in which he gives his opinion of both Mr. Herndon and Mr. Lincoln.
East Cainno, Scotland, 24th Jan. 1867.
W. H. Herndon, Esq.:
Sir—Your letter of the 20th Dec. was duly received. In it you ask me to answer several questions in relation to the illustrious President Abraham Lincoln. With regard to your second question, I beg leave to say it is a very easy matter to prove that while I was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of v Springfield, Mr. Lincoln did avow his belief in the divine authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, and I hold that it is a matter of the last importance not only to the present, but all future generations of the Great Republic, and to all advocates of civil and religious liberty throughout the world, that this avowal on his part, and the circumstances attending it, together with very interesting incidents illustrative of the excellence of his character, in my possession, should be made known to the public. I am constrained, however, most respectfully to decline choosing you as the medium through which such a communication shall be made by me. [Omitting that portion of the letter which bears on Mr. Herndon, I give what is written in vindication of Mr. Lincoln.—J. A. R.] My intercourse with Abraham Lincoln convinced me that he was not only an honest man, but pre?minently an upright man—ever ready, so far as in his power, to render unto all their dues.
It was my honor to place before Mr. Lincoln arguments designed to prove the divine authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, accompanied by the arguments of infidel objectors in their own language. To the arguments on both sides Mr. Lincoln gave a most patient, impartial, and searching investigation. To use his own language, he examined the arguments as a lawyer who is anxious to reach the truth investigates testimony. The result was the announcement by himself that the argument in favor of the divine authority and inspiration of the Scriptures was unanswerable. I could say much more on this subject, but as you are the person addressed, for the present I decline. The assassin Booth, by his diabolical act, unwittingly sent the illustrious martyr to glory, honor, and immortality; but his false friend has attempted to send him down to posterity with infamy branded on his forehead, as a man who,[Pg 324] notwithstanding all he suffered for his country's good, was destitute of those feelings and affections without which there can be no real excellency of character. Sir, I am with due respect your obedient servant,
Jas. Smith.
N.B.—It will no doubt be gratifying to the friends of Christianity to learn that very shortly after Mr. Lincoln became a member of my congregation, at my request, in the presence of a large assembly at the annual meeting of the Bible Society of Springfield, he delivered an address the object of which was to inculcate the importance of having the Bible placed in possession of every family in the State. In the course of it he drew a striking contrast between the Decalogue and the moral codes of the most eminent lawgivers of antiquity, and closed (as near as I can recollect) in the following language: "It seems to me that nothing short of infinite wisdom could by any possibility have devised and given to man this excellent and perfect moral code. It is suited to men in all conditions of life and includes all the duties they owe to their Creator, to themselves, and to their fellow-men."
J. S.
Mr. Lamon, aware of the importance of Dr. Smith's testimony, attempts to break the force of it by the argumentum ad nauseam. He alludes to Dr. Smith as a gentleman of "slender abilities for the conversion of so distinguished a person, and as having in his zeal composed a heavy tract out of his own head to suit the particular case, and that he afterwards drew the acknowledgment from Mr. Lincoln that it was unanswerable," and that he himself is the only man that can testify of such an admission on the part of Mr. Lincoln. This is all the gratuitous assertion of a man who is driven to the wall for evidence to prove his point. Now John T. Stuart has already testified to Dr. Smith's abilities as a theologian and a metaphysician having few superiors. He testifies to the fact that Dr. Smith's work was not written to suit Mr. Lincoln's case. It was written previously, before Dr. S............
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