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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=herndon505.html


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399. Joseph Gillespie to William H. Herndon.

Edwardsville Dec 8th 1866

Dear Friend

yours of yesterday is recd in which you ask if I remember whether Mr. Lincoln was given to abstract speculation or not My impression is that he was less given to pure abstraction than most of thoughful and investigating minds should say that he was contemplative rather than speculative He wanted something solid to rest upon and hence his bias for mathematics and the physical sciences I think he bestowed more attention to them than upon metaphysical speculations I have heard him descant upon the problem whether a ball discharged from a gun in a horizontal position would be longer in reaching the ground

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than one dropped at the instant of discharge from the muzzle the gun and he said it always appeared to him that they would both reach the ground at the same time even before he had read the philosophical explanation He was fond of astronomy but I cant call to mind any reference of his to geology He doubtless had read and thought of the subject but it did not engage his attention to the degree that astronomy and mechanical science did He invited me one day at Washington city to call upon him in the evening when he said we would go to the observatory and take a look at the moon through the large teloscope It proved to be cloudy and I did not go I have no recollection of ever hearing Mr Lincoln express him self in reference to the infinities sometimes his mind ranged beyond the solid grounds, on which it delighted to dwell. He exercised himself in endeavoring to trace out the source and developement of language and he told me that on one occasion he prepared (or perhaps) delivered a lecture [1] in Springfield on that subject and that he was surprised to find his investigations in that direction so interesting and instructive to himself He used to say that the attempt to ascertain wherein wit consisted baffled him more than any other undertaking of the kind That the first impression would be that the thing was of easy solution but the varieties of wit were so great that what would explain one case would be wholly inapplicable to another I am of opinion that there was a slight tinge of fatalism in Mr Lincolns composition which would or might have led him to believe somewhat in destiny Mr Lincoln told me once that he could not avoid believing in predestination although he considered it a very unprofitable field of speculation because it was hard to reconcile that belief with responsibility for ones act After he became President he gave unmistakable indications of being a believer in destiny I feel quite sure that there was not a moment when he despaired of success in putting down the rebellion and he trusted more in Divine power than in human instrumentality Mr Lincoln had as strong a faith that it was in the purposes of the Almighty to save this Country as ever Moses had that God would deliver the Israelites from bondage and he came to believe that he himself was an instrument foreordained to aid in the accomplishment of this purpose as well as to emancipate the slaves I do not think that he was (what I would term) a blind believer in fate or destiny but that he considered the means foreordained as well as the end and therefore he was extremely diligent in the use of the means Mr Lincoln had a remarkably inquiring mind and I have no doubt he roamed over the whole field of knowledge There were departments however upon which he fixed his attention with special interest Those which were of a practical character and having a solid and indisputable basis he made himself master of so far as time & opportunity would allow and this will account for his bringing out certain branches in conversation and being silent in regard to others about which he must have read as much as persons ordinarily do He did not seem to think that to be of much value which could not be proven or rather demonstrated His love

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of and capacity for analysis was wonderful He analysed every proposition with startling clearness and only discussed those branches of his case upon which it hinged leaving the others clear out of view He was a marvel of fairness in debate both in the courts & the political arena and he never desired to obtain an unfair advantage From this I should infer that the sense of right & wrong was extremely acute in his nature Mr Lincoln was undemonstrative and consequently his character had to be studied to be understood One would not comprehend his salient traits at first aquaintance and so he was sometimes misunderstood He was by some considered cold hearted or at least indifferent towards his friends This was the result of his extreme fairness He would rather disoblige a friend than do an act of injustice to a political opponent His strong sense of justice made him hate slavery intensely but he was so undemonstrative that he seldom gave utterance to his feelings even on that question He never talked feelingly on the subject to me but once although he knew that I agreed with him about the wrongs of that institution To sum up his character I should say that he had greater natural mental cabilre than any man I ever Knew He was extremely just and fair minded He was gentle as a girl and yet as firm for the right as adamant He was tender hearted without much shew of sensibility His manners were Kind without ostentation He was unquestionably ambitious for official distinction but he only desired place to enable him to do good and serve his country & his kind It was somewhat strange how Mr Lincoln constituted as he was could be a radical But radical he was so far as ends were concerned while he was conservative as to the means to be employed to bring about the ends I think he had it in his mind for a long time to war upon slavery untill its destruction was effected but he always indicated a preference for getting rid of slavery by purchase rather than the war power He was an artful man and yet his art had all the appearance of simple mindedness For instance he would not begin the work of emancipation when proposed by Freemont nor would he proclaim the freedom of the slave untill he had given the masters one hundred days notice to lay down their arms This was done to place them obviously in the wrong and strengthen his justification for the act Mr Lincoln Knew that it was not in the power of the masters to lay down their arms but they being in the wrong he had no scruples about making that wrong appear monstrous He was grave and gay alternately He was the most rigidly logical in debate and yet he illustrated every point by a humerous anecdote

Study with Mr Lincoln was a business not a pleasure He was extremely diligent when he had any thing to do in preparing himself but when his task was done he betook himself to recreation The information he gathered up was in reference to special questions and not with a view of laying in a general store of knowledge expecting that he would have occasion to use it and yet his natural tastes and aptitudes led him to explore most of those departments of study which bore mainly on the practical affairs of life He had not a particle of envy in his nature He always admitted that Douglass was a wonderfully great political leader and with a good cause to advocate he thought he would be invincible Mr Lincoln appeared

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to be either extremely mirthful or extremely sad although if he had griefs he never spoke of them in general conversation It was as a humorist that he towered above all other men it was ever my lot to meet In early times Illinois was conspicuous for the number of its story tellers The prevailing taste at that time took that direction When Mr Lincoln was about I never knew a man who would pretend to vie with him in entertaining a crowd He had an unfailing budget of genuinely witty and humerous anecdotes with which he illustrated every topic which could arise The application was always perfect and his manner of telling a story was inimitable although there was no acting in his manner for he was not in the least degree histrionick He never invented any of his stories but simply retailed them but how he could gather up such a boundless supply & have them ever ready at command was the wonder of all his accquaintences It might seem that this faculty would detract from his dignity but it did not No man ever commanded greater respect from or inspired more confidence in an audience than Mr. Lincoln did He used his stories as much for producing conviction in the minds of his hearers as for creating merriment If Mr Lincoln studied any one thing more than another and for effect it was to make himself understood by all classes He had great natural clearness and simplicity of statement and this faculty he cultivated with marked assiduity He despised everything like ornament or display & confined himself to a dry bold statement of his point and then worked away with sledge hammer logic at making out his case I believe Mr Lincoln succeeded in his purpose for I think the great body of our People understood and appreciated him better than any man this Country has ever produced

In religious matters I think Mr Lincoln cared but little for tenets or sects but had strong & pervading ideas of the infinite power wisdom & goodness of Deity and of mans obligations to his Maker and to his fellow beings He was economical without being parsimonious He never attempted a speculation in his life but always displayed a commendable zeal & alacrity to obtain business He was brave without being rash and never refrained from giving utterance to his views because they were unpopular or likely to bring him into danger at the same time he abstained from needlessly giving offence Mr Lincoln never idolized particular men but had wonderful faith in in the honesty & good sense of the masses In politics he was an old line whig a devout beleiver in a National currency, the developement of American industry, and internal improvements by the general government He always deprecated the removal of men from office for opinion sake although Mr Lincoln was eminently national in his feelings he looked with disfavor upon the American party and contended that a love of liberty & free government was not confined to this country; he ascribed our beneficent institutions rather to circumstances by which we were surrounded and the political ideas which had began to take root just before the revolution than to any superior intelligence or liberality on our part He contended that we were more indebted to our government than it was to us and that we were not entitled to greater credit for our liberality of sentiment on political questions than others equally liberal who were born and raised under less favorable auspices Mr Lincoln never I think

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studied history except in connection with politics with the exception of the history of the Netherlands and of the revolutions of 1640 & 1688 in England and of our revolutionary struggle he regarded it as of triffling value as "teaching by example" Indeed he thought that history as generally written was altogether to unreliable In this connexion he alluded to the fact that Gen J. D. Henry the most prominent figure in the black Hawk war of 1832 was completely ignored by the historians He also referred to the almost universal belief that a spirited passage at arms took place in Congress between Tristram Burgess & John Randolph when as Mr Lincoln said he never believed they had been in Congress together[ERROR: no link 2:2]

The above is about all I can scrape up relating to Mr Lincoln If it is of any use to you you are welcome to it

your friend
J Gillespie

Library of Congress: Herndon-Weik Collection. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress. Washington, D.C. 2869 — 73

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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=herndon505.html
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