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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XXII. Lincoln

§ 9. Spiritual Enthusiasm for the Law

We come now to the year 1849, to Lincoln’s fortieth birthday, and probably to another obscure crisis in his career. For thirteen years at least, politics had appeared to contain his dominant ambition. Amid bursts of melancholy of the most intense sort, in spite, it would seem, of occasional fits of idleness, he seems in the main to have worked hard; he had made headway both in politics and in law; he had risen from grinding poverty to what relatively was ease. Now, he made the surprising decision to abandon politics. The reasons remain obscure. However, he carried his decision into effect. What the literary student might call his second period extends from his abandonment of politics to his return, from 1849 to 1855—or perhaps through the famous Douglas controversy in 1858.

It was a period of slight literary production—even including the speeches against Douglas—but of increasingly rapid literary development. One curious detail perhaps affords a clue worth following up. Shortly after his return from Congress Lincoln, with several other middle-aged men, formed a class that met in his law office for the study of German. Was this an evidence that his two years in the East had given him a new point of view? Was this restless mind, superficially changeable, sensitive to its surroundings, was it impressed—perhaps for the moment, overawed—by that Eastern culture of the mid-century, of the time—so utterly remote it seems today!—when German was the soul’s language in New England? Lincoln had visited New England, on a speech-making invitation, as a consequence of his romp against Cass. He was made much of by the New England Whigs—perhaps for what he was, perhaps as a Western prodigy uncouth but entertaining. From New England, and from his two years in Congress, he came home to forsake politics, to apply himself with immense zeal to the law, to apply himself to the acquistion of culture. The latter purpose appears before long to have burned itself out. There was a certain laziness in Lincoln alongside his titanic energy. It would seem that the question whether he could keep steadily at a thing depended not on his own will but on the nature of the task. With those things that struck deep into the parts of him that were permanent he was proof against weariness. But with anything that was grounded on the surface part of him, especially on his own reactions to the moment, it was hit or miss how long he would keep going. Whatever it was that started him after formal education in 1849, it had no result. In the rapid development of the next few years his new-found enthusiasm disappears. It is the native Lincoln moving still upon his original bent, though with swiftly increasing mentality, who goes steadily forward from the able buffoonery of the speech against Cass to the splendid directness of the speeches against Douglas.

In these years he became a very busy man. At their close he was one of the leading lawyers of the state. Two things grew upon him. The first was his understanding of men, the generality of men. He always seemed to have known men’s hearts. This was the gift of his mysticism–the gift which mysticism has often bestowed upon natures predisposed to kindness. Almost inevitably this gift produces sadness. Lincoln did not form an exception. The pity of men’s burdens, the vision of the tears of the world falling for ever behind its silences, was as real in this peasant dreamer of our rude West as in that clerkly mediæval dreamer whom Walter Pater has staged so magically in the choir at Amiens. But the exquisite melancholy of the singer in the high church with its glorious windows can easily slide down smooth reaches of artistic contemplation into egoism. The rough, hard world of the West, having less of refuge for the dreamer, made the descent less likely. Nevertheless its equivalent was possible. To stifle compassion, or to be made unstable by compassion, was a possible alternative before the rapidly changing Lincoln of the early years of this period. What delivered him from that alternative, what forced him completely around, turning him permanently from all the perils of mysticism while he retained its great gift, may well have been his years of hard work, not in contemplating men but in serving them. The law absorbed his compassion; it became for him a spiritual enthusiasm. To lift men’s burdens became in his eyes its aim. The man who serves is the one who comes to understand other men. It is not strange, having such native equipment for the result, that Lincoln emerged from this period all but uncannily sure in his insight into his fellows.