A Sacred Exchange (Pt. 2)

(This is the second installment in a three part series highlighting the correspondence of four prominent historical figures. The introductory post can be found here.)

The difficulty of settling how to properly order our four characters of interest is a daunting one. It is nearly impossible to choose who to begin with, and to accomplish anything resembling an accurate representation of the scope of their writings. This acknowledged, I have selected John Adams first for the two following reasons: I have not yet finished David McCullough’s biographical account of his life, and have chosen to adhere mostly to a chronological timeline in navigating the potential historical figures. As a result, Lincoln will be included here, with Einstein and Bonhoeffer bringing up the rear in the final installment.

Not having reached the last page of McCullough’s book naturally will mean much that could have been potentially relayed here will be left out. While this is unavoidable, it by no means undermines the legitimacy of relaying that which I have already come across in it. There is a treasury of insights and passions that inhabit even the earlier periods of Adam’s life and resulting correspondence, and therefore the beginning sections of McCullough’s work. I would certainly be remiss in failing to include his contributions here as part of this discussion.

As for David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Donald weaves together a masterful account of Lincolns life, and strikes the chord which all good biographies strive for: an intimate acquaintance with his personality and motivating convictions. The curtain is drawn back, revealing a man devoted to the enormous task bestowed on him of maintaining the integrity of the American experiment. It is this piece of the puzzle, above all others, which enables the reader to understand and scrutinize the entirety of Lincoln’s decisions as Commander-in-Chief during perhaps the most turbulent portion in our nation’s history. More specifically to our purposes here, the book aligns excellently with our desire to peer into his private thoughts and sentiments. Piece by piece, his letters to colleagues, generals, politicians, and even ordinary citizens reveal the chief end to which he strove tirelessly: the preservation of union among the states.

John Adams: Statesman, Lawyer, Politician, and Devoted Husband and Father

“Objects of the most stupendous magnitude, measures in which the lives and liberties of millions, born and unborn are most essentially interested, are now before us. We are in the very midst of revolution, the most complete, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the history of the world.”  (McCullough 127)

As a first point of observation, it is important to understand Adams as the New England man that he was; this identity undoubtedly shaped his navigation through the many spheres into which he made a foray. As McCullough describes it, he was “emphatically independent by nature, hardworking, frugal – all traits in the New England tradition – he was anything but cold or laconic as supposedly New Englanders were.” (18) It is this grounding to his geographical, cultural and familial roots which manifests itself in various shades throughout his prolific assemblage of letters, and which certainly played a vitally animating role in his professional endeavors – ranging from local Massachusetts lawyer to the second President of the newly formed American republic. He was a man accustomed to the rigors of farming life, and to the bitter cold of an unforgiving New England winter. This familiarity with ruggedness of circumstance honed his mind and skills in turn, and enabled mastery of the academic, professional, and political undertakings he is renowned for. The necessary soundness of body and will integral to success as a farmer certainly set the stage for his prowess as a statesman, member of the Continental Congress and beyond.

What is also apparent throughout his writings is his affinity for nuanced and in depth analysis of any question at hand. His mental powers were of a caliber to be reckoned with. He was incredibly well read, and as a result of this exposure – and his love for debate amongst friends and colleagues which sharpened his stances – possessed a working knowledge base that is formidable by any standards, and which could be turned to the defense or critique of almost any topic. He capably brings this to bear in his exchanged notes and letters.

This constant observational acuity generated quite the mental posture ripe for commentary. For example, his determination as a young man in procuring a position at the office of an attorney – which entailed paying a fee in order to be eligible – necessitated a job as a schoolmaster. This scenario produced an amusing excerpt, in which he relays his observations of the classroom complexities – from the vantage point of a dictator of sorts:

“I sometimes, in my sprightly moments, consider myself, in my great chair at school, as some dictator at the the head of a commonwealth. In this little state I can discover all the great geniuses, all the surprising actions and revolutions of the great world in miniature. I have several renowned generals but three feet high, and several deep-projecting politicians in petticoats. I have others catching and dissecting flies, accumulating remarkable pebbles, cockleshells, etc., with as ardent curiosity as any virtuoso in the Royal Society…. At one table sits Mr. Insipid foppling and fluttering, spinning his whirligig, or playing with his fingers as gaily and wittily as any Frenchified coxcomb brandishes his cane and rattles his snuff box. At another sits the polemical divine, plodding and wrangling in his mind about Adam’s fall in which we sinned, all as his primer has it.” (McCullough 38)

Of course, not all of his social or political observations were so lighthearted. In a detailed letter to his cousin Nathan  Webb, he lays out a compelling account of the ever shifting centralization of power throughout the corridors of history – and an incredibly prescient projection of what America was to become and face as a nation:

“Even mighty states and kingdoms are not exempted. If we look into history, we shall find some nations rising from contemptible beginnings and spreading their influence, until the whole globe is subjected to their ways. When they have reached the summit of grandeur, some minute and unsuspected cause commonly affects their ruin, and the empire of the world is transferred to some other place. Immortal Rome was at first but an insignificant village, inhabited only by a few abandoned ruffians, but by degrees it rose to a stupendous height, and excelled in arts and arms all the nations that preceded it. But the demolition of Carthage (what one should think should have established it in supreme dominion) by removing all danger, suffered it to sink into debauchery, and made it at length an easy prey to Barbarians. England immediately upon this began to increase (the particular and minute cause of which I am not historian enough to trace) in power and magnificence, and is now the greatest nation upon the globe. Soon after the Reformation a few people came over into the new world for conscience sake. Perhaps this (apparently) trivial incident may transfer the great seat of empire into America. It looks likely to me. For if we can remove the turbulent Gallics, our people according to exactest computations, will in another century, become more numerous than England itself. Should this be the case, since we have (I may say) all the naval stores of the nation in our hands, it will be easy to obtain the mastery of the seas, and then the united force of all Europe, will not be able to subdue us. The only way to keep us from setting up for ourselves is to disunite us. Divide et impera. Keep us in distinct colonies, and then, some great men in each colony, desiring the monarchy of the whole, they will destroy each others’ influence and keep the country in equilibrio. Be not surprised that I am turned politician. The whole town is immersed in politics.” (McCullough 39-40)

Here is a sampling of his further musings to friends and family on government, Independence, and the struggle with Great Britain:

“We may please ourselves with the prospect of free and popular governments. But there is great danger that those governments will not make us happy. God grant they may. But I fear that in every assembly, members will obtain an influence by noise not sense. By meanness, not greatness. By ignorance, not learning. By contracted hearts, not large souls. . . . There is one thing, my dear sir, that must be attempted and most sacredly observed or we are all undone. There must be decency and respect, and veneration introduced for persons of authority of every rank, or we are undone. In a popular government, this is our only way.” (McCullough 105-106)
“The thought that we might be driven to the sad necessity of breaking our connection with G[reat] B[ritain], exclusive of the carnage and destruction which it was easy to see must attend the separation, always gave me a great deal of grief.” (McCullough 89)
“The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.” (McCullough 130)

McCullough also highlights Adams’ passion for practicing law, and the inextricable elements of morality and justice he felt were bound up in its enforcement:

“His love of the law, too, grew greater. He felt privileged, blessed in his profession, he told Jonathan Sewall:

‘Now to what higher object, to what greater character, can any mortal aspire than to be possessed of all this knowledge, well digested and ready at command, to assist the feeble and friendless, to discountenance the haughty and lawless, to procure redress to wrongs, the advancement of right, to assert and maintain liberty and virtue, to discourage and abolish tyranny and vice?’ ” (McCullough 53)

As eloquent, profound, and somewhat prophetic as his writing in other arenas may have been, the ink poured onto the page in expression of the undying love for his wife Abigail stands unparalleled. The exchanges that resulted from his often long absences from her side – almost always necessitated by his duties away at Congress – afford a glimpse of his primary motivations and deepest affections. His darling Abigail and their children surely held the highest place in his heart. In my estimation, there is no finer way to conclude our look into his private correspondence than to enjoy a sampling of his letters to her.

“Your sentiments of the duties we owe to our country are such as become the best of women and the best of men. Among all the disappointments and perplexities which have fallen my share in life, nothing has contributed so much to support my mind as the choice blessing of a wife. . . . I want to take a walk with you in the garden—to go over to the common, the plain, the meadow. I want to take Charles in one hand and Tom in the other, and walk with you, Nabby on your right hand and John on my left, to view the corn fields, the orchards . . . Alas, poor imagination! How faintly and imperfectly do you supply the want of [the] original and reality!” (McCullough 107)

“Oh, my dear girl, I thank heaven that another fortnight will restore you to me—after so long a separation. My soul and body have both been thrown into disorder by your absence, and a month or two more would make me the most insufferable cynic in the world. I see nothing but faults, follies, frailties and defects in anybody lately. People have lost all their good properties or I my justice or discernment. But you who have always softened and warmed my heart, shall restore my benevolence as well as my health and tranquility of mind. You shall polish and refine my sentiments of life and manners, banish all the unsocial and ill natured particles in my composition, and form me to that happy temper that can reconcile a quick discernment with a perfect candor. Believe me, now and ever your faithful 

Lysander” (McCullough 57)

Abraham Lincoln: A Resounding Voice for Union


“I fully appreciate the present peril the country is in, and the weight of responsibility on me.” (Vintage 275)

Little introduction to Abraham Lincoln is needed. The tragic nature of such a formative epoch for our nation as the Civil War has understandably drawn the attentions of historians like few other time periods have. Naturally, the man who stood firm at the helm of our government throughout its ensuing chaos has garnered much of this attention; this has produced quite the expansive landscape of scholarship on all things relating to Lincoln’s life, rendering him one of the most familiar Presidents.

David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln certainly holds a prominent place in those ranks. From my own reading of the book, it was clear to see Donald’s grasping of Lincoln’s background, motivations, and animating convictions. While his masterful account of Lincoln’s early life, ascent to prominence, and performance of his executive duties frequently steers the reader into the territory of his correspondence, he refrains from including substantial excerpts in the book. Rather, he provides summaries of them, which include words and phrases found within, but almost never the entirety of the text. As a result of this approach, traversing through the book primarily provides exposure to the core ideas found throughout Lincoln’s correspondence and is an excellent springboard to further examination of his writings. Considering the nature of our conversation here then, I will therefore appeal instead to various other volumes of Lincoln’s collected writings and speeches for most excerpts.

Again, this is not to imply that Donald has left us without a framework for assessing Lincoln’s correspondence. As an excellent example, Donald calls attention throughout the book to a key element of this framework which permeates Lincoln’s letters: he was invariably a man with a deep affection for the common people. This is certainly due in large part to his background, which in many ways possesses similarities to the one that shaped John Adams. Donald relays that as a young man “he tried nearly every other kind of work the frontier offered: carpenter, riverboat man, store clerk, soldier, merchant, postmaster, blacksmith, surveyor, lawyer,  politician.” (38) The frontier lifestyle he was immersed in cultivated a magnetic ability to gather many around him, and endowed him with the networking skills necessary to run successful political campaigns and a presidential administration. At any point of his life, he could be seen swapping stories with anyone who might lend an ear, and he possessed an astounding capacity to recall particular details of their lives. Donald comments on this unique social deftness Lincoln displayed as a lawyer traveling the Illinois circuit. “Staying in these small towns also gave him a political advantage, and in his future political contests his strongest supporters were attorneys and clients he met on the circuit. He got to know thousands of central Illinois voters by name. In 1847, when J.H. Buckingham, a reporter for the Boston Courier, made a stage-coach trip through central Illinois with Lincoln, he found that he ‘knew, or appeared to know, every body we met, the name of the tenant of every farm-house, and the owner of every plat of ground…. he had a kind word, a smile and a bow for every body on the road, even to the horses, and the cattle, and the swine.'” (106)

Although this close connection with the common man afforded many moments of mirth and leisure, it also generated much anguish on his part. The image of a President so closely tied to the grief and struggle of his fellow citizens during the heartbreak of the war is captured in this letter to the parents of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, killed near the outset of the war in 1860:

“To the Father and Mother of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth:

My dear Sir and Madam, In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall. In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surpassingly great. This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as seemed to me, the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew. And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse. My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would permit. To me, he appeared to have no indulgences or pastimes; and I never heard him utter a profane, or intemperate word. What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents. The honors he labored for so laudably, and, in the sad end, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them, no less than for himself.

In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.

May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power. Sincerely your friend in a common affliction —

A. Lincoln” (Abraham Lincoln Online)

The far reaching range of acquaintances Lincoln possessed as a consequence of his superb social acumen afforded rich soil in which another vital element of his writings could thrive. He utilized the arena found within those pages to various correspondents to expound upon the issues tearing at the fabric of the country, especially that of slavery and the government’s mediating role in the policies attending to it. As a lawyer and politician, this naturally galvanized a large portion of his focus when communicating with colleagues and friends. In that process of exposition and commentary on the issues of the day, convictions were formulated that would guide his actions further down the road as his Presidential timeline unfolded and the war progressed. His sentiments may have existed prior to their residence on the page, but they were undoubtedly given flesh and blood as they were fortified in ink. Just as Adams had sown the seeds of Independence with his writings, so too Lincoln labored to express and defend his stances on slavery, the union of the states, and his role to play therein.

A portion of his letter to his friend Joshua Speed in August 1855 is a fine example of this.  In it, he articulates his view on the “Know-Nothing” movement – which was  strongly anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic – and how it was situated in the larger conversations playing out on the national stage:

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.” (Vintage 105-106)

In similar fashion, Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, received a letter from Lincoln in August of 1862. Its conclusion wonderfully clarifies the impetus behind his actions as President:

“I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

A. Lincoln.” (Abraham Lincoln Online)

The final sentence in this letter to Greeley is pivotal, in that it reveals the rationale employed in a delineation between his role as President and his personal convictions on the question of slavery. A letter to Albert Hodges in 1864 accomplishes a similar task, but specifically addresses the policy of emancipation. Here are the core excerpts from it that constitute the backbone of his argument for enacting emancipation:

“My dear Sir: You ask me to put in writing the substance of what I verbally said the other day, in your presence, to Governor Bramlette and Senator Dixon. It was about as follows:

‘I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power. I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times, and in many ways. And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery. I did understand however, that my oath to preserve the constitution to the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government — that nation — of which that constitution was the organic law . . . I could not feel that, to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the constitution, if, to save slavery, or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country, and Constitution all together. When, early in the war, Gen. Fremont attempted military emancipation, I forbade it, because I did not then think it an indispensable necessity. When a little later, Gen. Cameron, then Secretary of War, suggested the arming of the blacks, I objected, because I did not yet think it an indispensable necessity. When, still later, Gen. Hunter attempted military emancipation, I again forbade it, because I did not yet think the indispensable necessity had come. When, in March, and May, and July 1862 I made earnest, and successive appeals to the border states to favor compensated emancipation, I believed the indispensable necessity for military emancipation, and arming the blacks would come, unless averted by that measure. They declined the proposition; and I was, in my best judgment, driven to the alternative of either surrendering the Union, and with it, the Constitution, or of laying strong hand upon the colored element. I chose the latter . . .  . 

And now let any Union man who complains of the measure, test himself by writing down in one line that he is for subduing the rebellion by force of arms; and in the next, that he is for taking these hundred and thirty thousand men from the Union side, and placing them where they would be but for the measure he condemns. If he can not face his case so stated, it is only because he can not face the truth.’ “

After this examination of the issue through the lens of policy, his shift in tone when  concluding the letter is striking. The final paragraph is steeped in an appeal to the providence of God, and a deferral to His wisdom in using the war as a means of cleansing the nation of the great evil of slavery:

“I add a word which was not in the verbal conversation. In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God. Yours truly,

A. Lincoln” (Abraham Lincoln Online)

This theme of God’s providential influence on the nation’s trajectory was not a new one for Lincoln; it makes many appearances throughout his writings and speeches. In this spirit, perhaps there is no more fitting a conclusion to an examination of Lincoln’s writings than to alight upon his prescient words penned to George Robertson in 1855. The war that would rend the Union in two was still a few years off at the time it was written, and yet with his pen he would already cut straight to the heart of that struggle soon to ensue. Tragically, the question posed in ink at this letter’s conclusion would eventually be answered in the blood of countless Union and Confederate soldiers. It reads as follows:

“That spirit which desired the peaceful extinction of slavery, has itself become extinct, with the occasion, and the men of the Revolution. Under the impulse of that occasion, nearly half the states adopted systems of emancipation at once; and it is a significant fact, that not a single state has done the like since. So far as peaceful, voluntary emancipation is concerned, the condition of the negro slave in America, scarcely less terrible to the contemplation of a free mind, is now as fixed, and hopeless of change for the better, as that of the lost souls of the finally impenitent. The Autocrat of all the Russias will resign his crown, and proclaim his subjects free republicans sooner than will our American masters voluntarily give up their slaves.

Our political problem now is ‘Can we, as a nation, continue together permanently – forever – half slave, and half free?’ The problem is too mighty for me. May God, in his mercy, superintend the solution. Your much obliged friend, and humble servant

A. Lincoln” (Vintage 101)


Works Cited

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. Print.

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Print.

First Vintage Books / The Library of America. Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Print.

Abraham Lincoln Online: Selected Letters by Abraham Lincoln


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