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Wilson, Douglas L., ed.; Davis, Rodney O., ed.; Gillespie, Joseph. 'Joseph Gillespie to William H. Herndon' in 'Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements About Abraham Lincoln' . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998. [format: book], [genre: letter]. Permission: University of Illinois Press
Persistent link to this document: http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/file.php?file=herndon180.html


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132. Joseph Gillespie to William H. Herndon.

Edwardsville 31st Jany 1866

Dr Sir

Yours enclosing a sketch of your lecture on the character of Mr Lincoln [1] is recd and I must say that I think you have delineated him with great truth & force You wish me to give you my views & recollections respecting him Ever since his death I have been endeavoring to recall to mind his prominent traits of character and I must confess that the task is no easy one Mr Lincoln had but few peculiarities & hardly an eccentricity His mind was made up of the traits which belong to mankind generally He was a remarkably temperate man; eschewing every indulgence not so much as it seemed to me, from principle as from a want of appetites I never heard him declaim against the use of tobacco or other stimulants although he never indulged in them He was genial but not very sociable He did not seek company but when he was in it he was the most entertaining person I ever knew He was once pressed into service to entertain Mr Van Buren at Rochester in your County & he succeeded to admiration [2] Mr

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Lincoln was ambitious but not very aspiring He was anxious to be in Congress but I think he never aspired to any thing higher untill the prospect for the Presidency burst upon him I am very sure that Mr Lincoln was not aware of his own abilities or standing & that he never expected to attain a very marked distinction In 1858 he made a speech in this place & had an appointment for one next day at Greenville I took him out in my buggy On the way the principal subject of conversation was the canvass he was conducting with Mr Douglass Knowing Lincolns power of using anecdotes I asked why he did not employ them in the discussion He replied that he thought the occasion was too grave & serious He said that the principal complaint he had to make against Mr Douglass was his continual assumption of superiority on account of his elevated position Mr Lincolns idea was that in the discussion of great questions nothing adventious should be lugged in as a make weight That was contrary to his notions of fairness His love of wealth was very weak I asked him on the trip above spoken of how much land he owned He said that the house & lot he lived on and one forty acre tract was all the real estate he owned and that he got the Forty for his services in the Black Hawk war [3] I inquired why he never speculated in land and pointed to a tract that I had located with a land warrant which cost me ninety cents an acre He said he had no capacity whatever for speculation and never attempted it All the use Mr Lincoln had for wealth was to enable him to appear respectable He never hoarded nor wasted but used money as he needed it and gave himself little or no concern about laying up He was the most indulgent parent I ever knew His children litterally ran over him and he was powerless to withstand their importunities He was remarkably tender of the feelings of others & never wantonly offended even the most despicable although he was a man of great nerve when aroused I have seen him on several occasions display great heroism when the circumstances seemed to demand it He was very sensitive where he thought he had failed to come up to the expectations of his friends I remember a case He was pitted by the Whigs in 1840 to debate with Mr Douglass the Democratic champion Lincoln did not come up to the requirements of the occasion He was conscious of his failure and I never saw any man so much distressed He begged to be permitted to try it again and was reluctantly indulged and in the next effort he transcended our highest expectations I never heard & never expect to hear such a triumphant vindication as he then gave of Whig measures or policy He never after to my knowledge fell below himself

In religious matters Mr Lincoln was theoretically a predestinarian His stem logic & perhaps early bias led him to that result He was never ashamed of the poverty and obscurity of his early life He was thoroughly master of all the phases of frontier life and woods craft and his most amusing stories consisted of incidents

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in his boyish days amongst his country play fellows He had a marvelous relish for every thing of that sort and the happiest faculty of turning his numerous reminiscences to good account in illustration in after life No man could tell a story as well as he could He never missed the nib of an anecdote He always maintained stoutly that the best stories originated with Country boys & in the rural districts He had great faith in the strong sense of Country People and he gave them credit for greater intelligence than most men do If he found an idea prevailing generally amongst them he believed there was something in it although it might not harmonize with science He had great faith in the virtues of the mad stone [4] although he could give no reason for it and confessed that it looked like superstition but he said he found the People in the neighborhood of these stones fully impressed with a belief in their virtues from actual experiment and that was about as much as we could ever know of the properties of medicines Mr Lincoln had more respect for & confidence in the masses than any statesman this Country has ever produced He told me in the spring of 1864 that the People were greatly ahead of the poloticians in their efforts for and confidence in putting down the rebellion He said the government had been driven by the public voice into the employment of means & the adoption of measures for carrying on the war which they would not have dared to put into practise without such backing He prized the suggestions of the unsophisticated People more than what was called State craft or political wisdom He really believed that the voice of the People in our emergency was next thing to the voice of God He said he had no doubt whatever of our success in overthrowing the rebellion at the right time God he said was with us and the People were behaving so nobly that all doubt had been removed from his mind as to our ultimate success The Army & the Navy he said were in the right trim & the right hands He firmly believed that no People in ancient or modern times had evinced as much patriotism or such a self sacrificing spirit as the loyal People of the United States But Mr Lincolns love of justice & fair play was his predominating trait I have often listened to him when I thought he would certainly state his case out of court It was not in his nature to assume or attempt to bolster up a false position He would abandon his case first He did so in the case of Buckmaster for the use of Denhom vs Beems & Arthur [5] in our Supreme Court in which I happened to be opposed to him Another gentleman less fastidious took Mr Lincolns place and gained the case In 1856, Mr. Lincoln had set his heart upon the U.S Senate There was a majority for the first time in the history of Illinois against the Democratic party in the Legislature This result was mainly attributed to his efforts and he was the first choice of all but five of the opposition members I was a member & enthusiastically for Lincoln [6] We (his friends) regarded this as perhaps his last chance for that high position There was danger if we did not succeed in electing our

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man soon that some of the members who had been elected as free soilers would go over to Matteson & elect him When the voting commenced to our amazement five of our men steadily refused to vote for Mr Lincoln & threw their votes upon judge Trumbull After several ballots I went to Mr Lincoln and asked him what he thought we ought to do He said unhesitatingly "You ought to drop me and go for Trumbull That is the only way you can defeat Matteson" Judge Logan came up about that time and insisted on running Lincoln still But the latter said if you do you will lose both Trumbull and myself and I think the cause in this case is to be preferred to men We adopted his suggestion & turned upon Trumbull and elected him although it grieved us to the heart to give up Mr Lincoln This I think shews that Mr Lincoln was capable of sinking himself for the cause in which he was engaged Mr Lincolns sense of justice was intensely strong It was to this mainly that his hatred of slavery may be attributed He abhorred the institution It was about the only public question on which he would become excited I recollect meeting with him once at Shelbyville when he remarked that something must be done or slavery would overrun the whole country He said there were about 600,000 non slave holding whites in Kentucky to about 33,000 slave holders That in the convention then recently held it was expected that the delegates would represent these classes about in proportion to their respective numbers but when the convention assembled there was not a single representative of the non slaveholding class Every one was in the interest of the slaveholders and said he this thing is spreading like wild fire over the Country In a few years we will be ready to accept the institution in Illinois and the whole country will adopt it I asked him to what he attributed the change that was going on in public opinion He said he had put that question to a Kentuckian shortly before who answered by saying — you might have any amount of land, money in your pocket or bank stock and while travelling around no body would be any the wiser but if you had a darkey trudging at your heels every body would see him & know that you owned slaves — It is the most glittering ostentatious & displaying property in the world and now says he if a young man goes courting the only inquiry is how many negroes he or she owns and not what other property they may have The love for Slave property was swallowing up every other mercenary passion Its ownership betokened not only the possession of wealth but indicated the gentleman of leisure who was above and scorned labour These things Mr Lincoln regarded as highly seductive to the thoughtless and giddy headed young men who looked upon work as vulgar and ungentlemanly Mr Lincoln was really excited and said with great earnestness that this spirit ought to be met and if possible checked That slavery was a great & crying injustice an enormous national crime and that we could not expect to escape punishment for it I asked him how he would proceed in his efforts to check the spread of slavery He confessed that he did not see his way clearly I think he made up his mind from that time that he would oppose slavery actively I know that Mr Lincoln always contended that no man had any right (other than mere brute force gave him) to a slave He used to say that it was singular that

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the courts would hold that a man never lost his right to his property that had been stolen from him but that he instantly lost his right to himself if he was stolen Mr Lincoln always contended that the cheapest way of getting rid of slavery was for the nation to buy the slaves & set them free As you say Mr Lincoln could hardly be considered a genius, a poet, or an inventor but he had the qualities of a reformer He endeavored to bring back things to the old land marks but he never would have attempted to invent and compose new systems He had boldness enough when he found the building racked and going to decay to restore it to its original design but not to contrive a new & distinct edifice He believed that the framers of our government expected slavery to die out and adapted the system to that and but that their views were being frustrated by adventitious circumstances and his aim was to restric[t i]t to its original design Mr Lincoln had the appearance of being a slow thinker My impression is that he was not so slow as he was careful He never liked to put forth a proposition without revolving it over in his own mind but when he was compelled to act promptly as in debate he was quick enough Douglass who was a very skilful controversialist never obtained any advantage over him I never could discover any thing in Mr Lincolns mental composition remarkably singular His qualities were those ordenarily given to mankind but he had them in remarkable degree He was wonderfully kind, careful & just He had an immense stock of common sense and he had faith enough in it to trust it in every emergency He had passed through all the grades of society when he reached the Presidency and he had found common sense a sure reliance and he put it into practice He acted all through his career upon just such principles as every man of good common sense would approve & say "that is just as I would have done myself " There was nothing of the Napoleonic in his style of doing things If he had been in Napoleons place he never would have gone off to Egypt to strike a blow at England & he would have been equally careful not to send an army to Moscow Lincoln had no super human qualities (which we call genius) but he had those which belong to mankind generally in an astonishing degree If I may be allowed the expression Mr Lincoln was a great common man He was a giant but formed & fashioned like other men He only differed from most men in degree He had only their qualities but then he had them in larger measure than any man of modern times He loved the masses but was not strikingly partial to any particular individual Mr Lincoln cared but little for minor elections but entered very zealously into important & general ones Hence he was not generally successful at home & was not considered a good political organizer because he allowed the subordinate offices to be filled by those opposed to him When he had a larger theatre to operate upon however it cannot be denied that he acted with great boldness & skill He succeeded in breaking down the best organized party that ever existed in this, or any other Country and that under the lead of the most consummate chiefton we have ever had Douglass was bold original & energetic Polotics with him was a trade It was only an episode in Mr Lincolns life Douglass was idolized by his followers Lincoln was loved by his Douglass was the representative of his

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partizans Lincoln was the representative man of the unsophistocated People Douglass was great in the estimation of his followers Lincoln was good in the opinion of his supporters Douglass headed a party Lincoln stood upon a principle Lincoln did not begin his operations for the Presidency at the head of a party He had the tact and good fortune to combine so much of the old Whig & Democratic parties as rebelled against southern dictation, with the Free Soilers proper, and thus secured a majority of the free States At the time of his death he had however succeeded in organizing a party He had gained the confidence of a majority of the whole People in his fitness for the place All but the old political hacks had settled down in the belief that he was master of the situation & was the right man in the right place The amazing popularity he obtained was attributable to two things He had been successful under the most trying circumstances and then he was most emphatically one of the People He said and did things in a way that commended itself to the public taste and so that all could understand it The masses are naturally delighted at seeing one of their own class elevated if he proves competent and particularly if he succeeds by doing things in their way The idea that the affairs of State cannot be carried on in a plain common sense way is as old as the time of the Egyptian priesthood Statesmen have generally given countenance to this absurdity and inculcated the idea that state craft was beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals When we found Mr Lincoln administering the affairs of government with so much vigor & success we felt proud of him There was a strong tinge of sadness in Mr Lincolns composition He was not naturaly disposed to look on the bright side of the picture He felt very strongly that there was more of discomfort than real happiness in human existence under the most favorable circumstances and the general current of his reflections was in that channel He never obtruded these views upon others but on the contrary strove as much as possible to be gay & lively There was a slight dash of what is generally called superstition in Mr Lincolns mind He evidently believed that the perceptions were sometimes more unerring than reason and outstripped it I cant say that he fully believed in presentiments but he undoubtedly had gloomy forebodings as to himself. He told me after his election that he did not count confidentially, on living to get through with the task set before him; and I did not think that he apprehended death in the natural way, still I do not believe that he took any precautions to guard against danger. I met him once, coming alone from the war office to the White house, and remarked to him that I thought he was exposing himself to danger of assassination. He replied that no precautions he could take would be availing if they were determined to kill him. I rode out with him that evening to the soldiers home, when he was accompanied by an escort of cavalry, on the way he said that the escort was rather forced upon him by the military men, that he could see no certain protection against assassination if it was determined to take away his life. He said it seemed to him like putting up the gap in only one place when the fence was down all along

Mr Lincoln was pre-eminently humane He said to me once that Ould the rebel commissioner for exchanges had just notified them that he had put 16000

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of the men paroled at Vicksburg into the field without exchanging. [7] "Now" said he, "these men are liable to be put to death when recaptured for breach of parole If we do not do something of that sort this outrage will be repeated on every occasion What would you do under such circumstances? "Well" said I "that is too big a question for me" "It is indeed a serious question"! Said Mr Lincoln, "and I have been more sorely tried by it than any other that has occurred during the war It will be an act of great injustice to our soldiers to allow the paroled rebels to be put into the field without exchange Such a practice would demoralize almost any army in the world if played off upon them It would be nearly impossible to induce them to spare the lives of prisoners they might capture On the other hand" said he, "these men were no doubt told by their superiors that they had been exchanged and it would be hard to put them to death under such circumstances, on the whole" said he "my impression is that mercy bears richer fruits than any other attribute" Mr Lincoln was capable of immense physical & mental labor His mind and body were in perfect harmony He was verry powerful physically He was reputed to be one of the best wrestlers in the country The first time I saw him was in 1832 in the campaign against Black Hawk He was engaged in wrestling with a man named Dow Thompson from St Clair Co [8] The latter was the Champion of the Southern part of the State while Lincoln was put up as the champion from the North I never heard Mr Lincoln complain of being fatigued I think he was an utter stranger (in the early part of his life at least) to the feeling I have heard him regret while he was President that it was impossible for him to give audience to all who wished to see him and I do not think he was disengaged for an instant from the time he assumed the Presidential office untill his death from the consideration of public affairs except when he was asleep He was not in the habit of idolizing particular men and you would seldom hear him sounding the praises of any one He admired Mr Clay & Mr Webster & had great respect for Gen Taylor Of all men in the South (of those who differed from him on the slavery question I mean Mr Stephens of Georgia was his favorite have frequently heard him speak in very respectful terms of Stephens On the other hand he never manifested any bitter hatred towards his enemies It was enough for him in a controversy to get the better of his adversary in argument without descending to personal abuse He had not a particle of envy in his nature I recollect his telling me once that he went to Cincinnatti to attend to a patent case [9] He was expected to take the lead in the management of the suit but to be assisted by a young lawyer of that city He said he prepared himself as he thought thoroughly and flattered himself that he knew something of mechanics but said when I came to compare notes with my young associate I found that I knew nothing, said he; I told my client that my associate could lose all I knew and

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not miss it and I insisted that he should take the lead It required no effort on his part to admit another man's superiority and his admission that Gen Grant was right & he was wrong about operations at Vicksburg was not intended for effect as some suppose but was perfectly in character I am unable to call to mind any expression from Mr Lincoln of a preference for one article of diet over an another I should judge that he was totally indifferent on that head Mr. Lincoln had an astonishing memory I never found it at fault He could recall every incident of his life particularly if any thing amusing was connected with it Mr Lincoln used anecdotes as labour saving contrivances He could convey his ideas on any subject through the form of a simple story or homely illustration with better effect than any man I ever knew To illustrate I was talking with him once about State sovereignty He said the advocates of that theory always reminded him of the fellow who contended that the proper place for the big kettle was inside of the little one There is one little incident in the political life of Mr Lincoln which perhaps ought to be explained, as it has been charged by some against him, as an act of dereliction of duty; and that was his jumping out of a window, to avoid voting as a member of the Legislature. The facts were these Gov Carlin convened the Legislature of 1840 — 41, by proclamation: two weeks earlier than it would have met under the constitution. At the previous session an Act had been passed legalizing the suspension of specie payments by the Bank untill the end of the next session of the general assembly. On the morning of the last day of the first two weeks of the session, as we supposed, it was ascertained that the Democrats had determined to adjourn sine die & make those two weeks a distinct session, at the end of which the Bank would be compelled to resume specie payments or forfeit its charter. The Whigs believed that this step would be not only unfair to the Bank which had had no notice of or made any preperation for such a proceeding and that it would benefit only the Banks of other states which held the paper of our Bank by enabling them to draw its specie for its bills which they held while it could get nothing from them on their bills which it held and that the loss of the deprecetion of our Bank circulation would fall principally upon our citizens who were holders of small sums The Whigs determined if possible to prevent the sine die adjournment knowing that the Constitution would convene the Legislature on the following monday It required a quorum to adjourn sine die Less than a quorum could adjourn from day to day As the Constitution then stood it was necessary to have two members to call the ayes & nays to shew that a quorum was not voting If the Whigs absented themselves there would not be a quorum left even with the two who should be deputed to call the ayes & nays The Whigs immediately held a meeting & resolved that they would all stay out except Lincoln & me who were to call the ayes & nays We appeared in the afternoon motion to adjourn sine die was made & we called the ayes & nays The Democrats discovered the game and the sergeant at arms was sent out to gather up the absentees There was great excitement in the House which was then held in a church in Springfield We soon discovered that several Whigs had

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been caught and brought in and that the plan had been spoiled and we (Lincoln & I) determined to leave the Hall and going to the door found it locked and then raised a window & jumped out but not untill the democrats had succeeded in adjourning Mr Gridley of McLean accompanied us in our exit The result of this operation was just as we anticipated the Bank resumed & paid out nearly all of its specie to Banks & Brokers in other states while not a cent could be obtained from them as the Banks every where had been authorized to suspend specie payment In a few weeks the folly of the course of the majority became apparent and they themselves introduced a bill again legalizing a suspension but it was too late Our Bank had been too much weakened & it went under at the general resumption of specie payments I think Mr Lincoln always regretted that he entered into the arrangement as he deprecated everything that Savored of the revolutionary In politics Mr Lincoln was before all things in favor of perfect equality He consequently detested aristocracy in all its forms and loved our government and its founders almost to idolatry He was for a National Currency Internal improvements by the general government and the encouragement of home manufacturies On this latter subject I have heard him make arguments greatly more powerful and convincing than anything I have ever heard or read

This is a hasty sketch of what I remember concerning Mr Lincoln If my attention should be directed to any particulars I might be able to recall other things and shall take great pleasure in answering any calls you may make on me Let me hear from you often If I can be the means of imparting any information touching the life of a truly good & great man I shall be supremely gratified feel proud of his fame as I have ever regarded him as the genuine product of American institutions

Yours truly
J. Gillespie

Library of Congress: Herndon-Weik Collection. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress. Washington, D.C. 2446 — 55; Huntington Library: LN2408, 2:20 — 40

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Wilson, Douglas L., ed.; Davis, Rodney O., ed.; Gillespie, Joseph. 'Joseph Gillespie to William H. Herndon' in 'Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements About Abraham Lincoln' . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998. [format: book], [genre: letter]. Permission: University of Illinois Press
Persistent link to this document: http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/file.php?file=herndon180.html
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