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Wilson, Douglas L., ed.; Davis, Rodney O., ed.; Sweet, Leonard. 'Leonard Swett 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=herndon162.html


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124. Leonard Swett to William H. Herndon [1].

Chicago. Jan'y 17th 1866.

Dear Sir:

I received your letter today, asking me to write you by Freaday. Fearing if I delay, you will not get done it in time, I will give you such hasty thoughts as may occour to me to night. I have mislaid your second lecture, so that I have not read it at all, and have not read your first one since about the time it was published. What I shall say therefore, will be based upon my own ideas, rather than a review of the lectures.

Lincoln's whole life was a calculation of the law of forces, and ultimate results. The world to him was a question of cause and effect. He believed the results to which certain causes tended, would surely follow; he did not believe that those results could be materially hastened, or impeded. His whole political history, especially since the agitation of the Slavery question, has been based upon this theory. He believed from the first, I think, that the agitation of Slavery would produce its overthrow, and he acted upon the result as though it was present from the beginning. His tactics were, to get himself in the right place and remain there still, until events would find him in that place. His course of action led him to say and do things which could not be understood, when considered in reference to the immediate surroundings in which they were done, or said. + + + [2] You will remember in his campaign against Douglas in 1858, the first ten lines of the first speech he made defeated him. The sentiments of the "house divided against itself," seemed

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wholly inappropriate. It was a speech made at the commencement of a campaign, and apparently made for the campaign, and apparently made for the campaign. Viewing it in this light alone, nothing could have been more unfortunate, or unappropriate; it was saying first the wrong thing, yet he saw it was an abstract truth, but standing by the speech would ultimately find him in the right place. I was inclined at the time to believe these words were hastily and inconsiderately uttered, but subsequent facts have convinced me they were deliberate and had been matured. Judge T. L Dickey says that at Bloomington at the first Republican Convention, in 1856, he uttered the same sentences in a Speech delivered there, and that after the meeting was over, he (Dickey) called his attention to these remarks. Lincoln justied himself in making them, by stating they were true; but finally at Dickey's urgent request, he pronounced that for his sake, or upon his advice, he would not repeat them. In the Summer of 1859 when he was dining with a party of his intimate friends at Bloomington the subject of his Springfield speech was discussed. We all insisted it was a great mistake, but he justied himself, and finally said, "Well Gentlemen, you may think that Speech was a mistake, but I never have believed it was, and you will see the day when you will consider it was the wisest thing I ever said." + + + [3]

He never believed in political combinations; he never believed any Class of men could accomplish in politics any particular given purpose and consequently whether an individual man, or class of men supported or opposed him, never made any difference in his feelings, or his opinions of his own success. If he was elected, he seemed to believe that no person, or class of persons could ever have defeated him; and if defeated, he believed nothing could ever have elected him. Hence, when he was a candidate, he never wanted any thing done for him. He seemed to want to let the whole question alone, and for everybody else to do the same. I remember after the Chicago Convention when a great portion of the East were known to be dissatisfied at his nomination — . When fierce conflicts were going on in New York and Pennsylvania and when great exertions seemed requisite to harmonize and mold in concert the action of our friends. Lincoln always seemed to oppose all efforts made in that direction. I arranged with Mr. Thurlow Weed afther the Chicago Convention to meet him at Springfield. (I was present at the interview, but he said nothing. It was proposed that Judge Davis should go to New York and Pennsylvania to survey the field, and see what was necessary to be done.) Lincoln consented, but it was always my opinion that he consented reluctantly. He saw that the pressure of a campaign was an external force, coercing the party into unity. If it failed to produce that result, he believed any individual effort would also fail. If the desired result followed, he considered it attributable to the great cause, and not aided by the lesser ones. He sat down in his chair at Springfield and made himself the Mecca to which all politicians made pilgrimages. He told them all a story, said nothing, and sent them away. All his efforts to procure a second nomination were in the same direction. I believe he earnestly desired that nomination.

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He was much more eager for it, than he was for the first one, and yet from the first he discouraged all efforts on the part of his friends to obtain it. From the middle of his first term, all his adversaries were busily at work for themselves. Chase had three, or four secret societies, and an immense patronage extending all over the country; Fremont was constantly at work; yet Lincoln would never do anything either to hinder them, or to help himself.

He was considered too conservative, and his adversaries were trying to outstrip him in satisfying the radical element. I had a conversation with him upon this subject in October in 1863, and tried to induce him to recommend in his annual message, the consitutional amendment abolishing slavery. I told him was not very radical, but I believed the result of this war would be the extermination of slavery; that Congress would pass the resolution; and that it was proper at that time to be done. I told him if he took that stand, it was an outside position and no one could maintain himself upon any measure more radical, and if he failed to take the position, his rivals would. Turning to me suddenly he said, "Is not that question doing well enough now?" I replied that it was. "Well", said he, "I have never done an official act with a view to promote my own personal aggrandizement, and I don't like to begin now, I can see that time coming; whoever can wait for it, will see it — whoever stands in its way, will be run over by it."

His rivals were using money profusely; Journals and influences were being subsidized against him. I accidentally learned that a Washington newspaper through a purchase of the establishment was to be turned against him, and consulted him about taking steps to prevent it. The only thing I could get him to say, was, that he would regret to see the paper turned against him. Whatever was done had to be done without his knowledge. Bennett with his paper you know is a power. [4] The old fellow wanted to be noticed by Lincoln, and he wanted to support him. A friend of his who was certainly in his secrets (it came out through a woman when a Frenchman would say, "Who is she?") [5] came over to Washington and intimated if Lincoln would invite Bennett to come over and chat with him, his paper would be all right. Bennett wanted nothing, He simply wanted to be noticed. Lincoln in talking about N. said, "I understand N. Bennett has made a great deal of money, some say not very properly; now he wants me to make him respectable. I have never invited Mr. Bennett or Mr. Greely here — I shall not therefore, especially Mr. Bennett."

All Lincoln would say was, that he was receiving everybody and he should receive Mr. Bennett if he came. Notwithstanding his entire inaction, he never for a moment doubted his second nomination. One time in his room disputing with him as to who his real friends were; he told me if I would not show it, he would make a list of how the Senate stood. When he got through, I pointed out some five, or six that I told him I knew he was mistaken in. Said he, "You may think so, but you keep that until the Convention and tell me then whether I was right." He

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was right to a man. He kept a kind of account book of how things were progressing for three, or four months, and whenever I would get nervous and think things were going wrong, he would get out his estimates and show how everything on the great scale of action — the resolutions of Legislatures, the instructions of delegates, and things of that character, was going exactly — as he expected. These facts with many others of a kindred nature have convinced me that he managed his politics upon a plan entirely different from any other man the country has ever produced. It was by ignoring men, and ignoring all small causes, but by closely calculating the tendencies of events and the great forces which were producing logical results.

In his conduct of the war he acted upon the theory that but one thing was necessary, and that was a united North. He had all shades of sentiments and opinions to deal with, and the consideration was always presented to his mind, How can I hold these discordant elements together? [6] Hence in dealing with men he was a trimmer, and such a trimmer the world has never seen. Halifax who was great in his day as a trimmer, would blush by the side of Lincoln. Yet Lincoln never trimmed in principles — it was only in his conduct with men. He used the patronage of his office to feed the hunger of these various factions. Weed always declared that he kept a regular account book of his appointments in New York, dividing the various tit-bits of favor so as to give each faction more than it could get from any other source; yet never enough to satisfy its appetite. They all had access to him; they all received favors from him; and they all complained of ill-treatment; but while unsatisfied, they all had "large expectations,"and saw in him the chance of getting more than from any one else — they were sure of getting in his place. He used every force to the best possible advantages. He never wasted anything, and would always give more to his enemies than he would to his friends, and the reason was, because he never had anything to spare, and in the close calculation of attaching the factions to him; he counted upon the abstract affection of his friends as an element to be offset against some gift with which he must appease his enemies. Hence, there was always some truth in the charge of his friends that he failed to reciprocate their devotion with his favors. The reason was that he had only just so much to give away — "He always had more horses than oats." An adhesion of all forces was indispensable to his success and the success of the country; hence, he husbanded his means with a nicety of calculation. Adhesion was what he wanted; if he got it gratuitously, he never wasted his substance paying for it.

His love of the ludicrous was not the least peculiar of his characteristics. His love of fun made him overlook everything else but the point of the joke sought after. If he told a good story that was refined and had a sharp point, he did not like it any the better because it was refined. If it was outrageously low and dirty,

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he never seemed to see that part of it. If it had the sharp ring of wit, nothing ever reached him but the wit. Almost any man that will tell a very vulgar story, has got in a degree a vulgar mind, but it was not so with him. With all his purity of character and exalted morality and sensibilty, which no man can doubt, when hunting for wit, he had no ability to discriminate between the vulgar and the refined — substances from which he extricated it. It was the wit he was after — the pure jewel, and he would pick it up out of the mud, or dirt just as readily as he would from a parlor table.

He had very great kindness of heart. His mind was full of tender sensibilities; he was extremely humane, yet while these attributes were fully developed in his character and unless intercepted by his judgement controlled him, they never did control him contrary to his judgment. He would strain a point to be kind, but he never strained to breaking. Most of men of much kindly feeling are controlled by this sentiment against their judgment, or rather that sentiment beclouds their Judgment. It was never so with him. He would be just as kind and generous as his judgment would let him be — no more. If he ever deviated from this rule, it was to save life. He would sometimes I think, do things he knew to be impolitic and wrong to save some poor fellow's neck. I remember one day being in his room when he was sitting at his table with a large pile of papers before him. After a pleasant talk, he turned quite abruptly and said, "Get out of the way, Swett; to morrow is butcher-day, and I must go through these papers and see if I cannot find some excuse to let these poor fellows off."

The pile of papers he had were the records of Courts Martial of men who on the following day were to be shot. He was not examining the Records to see whether the evidence sustained the findings. He was purposely in search of occasions to evade the law in favor of life. I was one time begging for the life of a poor devil. [7] It was an outrageously bad case — I confessed I was simply begging. After sitting with his head down while I was talking, he interrupted me saying — "Grant never executed a man did he?" "I have been watching that thing." [8] Some of Mr. Lincoln's friends insisted that he lacked the strong attributes of personal affection which he ought to have exhibited. I think this is a mistake. Lincoln had too much justice to run a great government for a few favorites, and the complaints against him in this regard when properly digested amount to this, and no more: that he would not abuse the privileges of his situation.

He was certainly a very poor hater. He never judged men by his like, or dislike for them. If any given act was to be performed, he could understand that his enemy could do it just as well as any one. If a man had maligned him, or been guilty of personal ill-treatment and abuse, and was the fittest man for the place, he would put him in his Cabinet just as soon as he would his friend. I do not think he ever removed a man because he was his enemy, or because he disliked him.

The great secret of his power as an orator, in my judgment, lay in the clearness and perspicuity of his statements. When Lincoln had stated a case, it was always

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more than half argued and the point more than half won. [9] The first impression he generally conveyed was, that he had stated the case of his adversary better and more forcibly, than his opponent could state it himself. He then answered that state of facts fairly and fully, never passing by, or skipping over a bad point. When this was done, he presented his own case. There was a feeling when he argued a case, in the mind of any man who listened to him, that nothing had been passed over; yet if he could not answer the objections he argued in his own mind and himself arrived at the conclusion to which he was leading others; he had very little power of argumentation. The force of his logic was in conveying to the minds of others the same clear and thorough analysis he had in his own, and if his own mind failed to be satisfied, he had no power to satisfy any body else. His mode and force of argument was in stating how he had reasoned upon the subject and how he had come to his conclusion, rather than original reasoning to the hearer, and as the mind of listener, followed in the groove of his mind, his conclusions were adopted. [10] He never made sophistical argument in his life, and never could make one. I think he was of less real aid in trying a thoroughly bad cause, than any man I was ever associated with. If he could not grasp the whole case and master it; he was never inclined to touch it.

From the commencement of his life to its close, I have sometimes doubted whether he ever asked anybody's advice about anything. He would listen to everybody; he would hear everybody, but he never asked for opinions. I never knew him in trying a law-suit to ask the advice of any lawyer he was associated with. As a politican and as President he arrived at all his conclusions from his own reflections, and when his opinion was once formed he never had any doubt but what it was right.

You ask me whether he changed his religious opinions towards the close of his life. I think not. As he became involved in matters of the gravest importance, full of great responsibility and great doubt, a feeling of religious reverence, and belief in God — his justice and overruling power — increased upon him. He was full of natural religion; he believed in God as much as the most approved Church member; Yet he judged of Providence by the same system of great generalization as of everything else. He had in my judgment very little faith in ceremonials and forms. Whether he went to Church once a month or once a year troubled him but very little. He failed to observe the Sabath very scrupulously. I think he read "Petroleum V. Nasby" as much as he did the Bible. He would ridicule the Puritans, or swear in a moment of vexation; [11] but yet his heart was full of natural and cultivated religion. He believed in the great laws of truth, the rigid discharge of duty, his

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accountability to God, the ultimate triumph of right, and the overthrow of wrong. If his religion were to be judged by the line and rule of Church Creeds and unexceptionable language, he would fall far short of the standard; but if by the higher rule of purity of conduct, of honesty of motive, of unyielding fidelity to the right and acknowledging God as the Supreme Ruler, then he filled all the requirements of true devotion and love of his neighbor as himself.

One great public mistake of his character is generally received and acquiesced in: — he is considered by the people of this country as a frank, guileless, unsophisticated man. There never was a greater mistake. Beneath a smooth surface of candor and an apparent declaration of all his thoughts and feelings, he exercised the most exalted tact and the wisest discrimination. He handled and moved man remotely as we do pieces upon a chessboard. He retained through life, all the friends he ever had, and he made the wrath of his enemies to praise him. This was not by cunning, or intrigue in the low acceptation of the term, but by far seeing, reason and discernment. He always told enough only, of his plans and purposes, to induce the belief that he had communicated all; yet he reserved enough, in fact, to have communicated nothing. He told all that was unimportant with a gushing frankness; yet no man ever kept his real purposes more closely, or penetrated the future further with his deep designs. + + + [12]

I wish I had time to add some things and on the whole to make this shorter and better, but I have not.

I shall try, if desirable, to give you points from time to time, but you will please remember they are confidential.

Yours Truly
Leonard Swett

Huntington Library: LN2408, 2:90 — 105

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Wilson, Douglas L., ed.; Davis, Rodney O., ed.; Sweet, Leonard. 'Leonard Swett 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=herndon162.html
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