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Hiram Parks Bell:  Lincoln and Davis


The following is Chapter 14 from Hiram Parks Bell’s Men and Things, published 1907:


            “No two men in the last half of the Nineteenth Century engaged a larger share of public attention than Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.  Future generations will be anxious to know their history, actions, and achievements, without the time and labor required to gain the knowledge by searching the numerous volumes in which it is to be found.  They were both born in Kentucky, not far apart in distance, and near in time, Davis in 1808 and Lincoln in 1809.  They were born under the same moral, social, and civil institutions, but under diverse conditions; Lincoln, in abject poverty, Davis in comparative affluence.  Lincoln, without education in his boyhood, went to the wilderness of Illinois to earn his bread by the toil of his hands and the sweat of his brow.  Davis went from Transylvania University to West Point for military training.  After a few years they met in the Blackhawk War, Lincoln the awkward, untrained captain of a company of three-months raw militia; Davis, the scholarly, polished lieutenant of the regular army.  Lincoln next appears, successfully practicing the profession of law in the county of Sangammon, Ill.; Davis, at the head of the ‘Mississippi Rifles,’ winning victory for his country at Buena Vista, in Mexico.  Lincoln, a free-soil Whig, became a leading lawyer in the Northwest; Davis, a pro-slavery States Rights Democrat, became a planter in the Southwest.  They were both intensely patriotic and ambitious.  They had experienced alike the triumph of success and the chagrin of defeat.  Trumbull and Douglas each had defeated Lincoln for the United States Senate; a Warren County Whig had defeated Davis for the Legislature, and Henry S. Foote had defeated him for Governor of Mississippi.  Both had been Representatives in Congress.  Lincoln was an ardent supporter of the father-in-law of Davis, General Taylor, for the Presidency.  Davis supported Gen. Cass for that high office.

            “The compromise measures of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Legislation of 1854 formed the volcano, whose eruption deluged the land in the burning lava of human passion which was soon to be crimsoned into seas of human blood.

            “While Davis was quietly and ably administering the affairs of the War Department in Pierce’s Cabinet, Lincoln was busily and earnestly engaged in organizing the anti-slavery elements of all parties into the Republican party.  The condition of affairs in ‘bleeding Kansas’ supplied the means of success.  The anti-slavery people met in a ‘Freesoil’ convention in Bloomington in 1856.  To this convention Lincoln was chosen a delegate.  It was to this convention he delivered his celebrated ‘lost’ speech.  It was called his ‘lost’ speech because the reporters were so overwhelmed by its power and eloquence that they forgot to report it.  Joseph Mendell commenced to report it for a Chicago paper, but after writing a few lines of introduction, he laid aside his pencil and thought no more of the report until the conclusion of the speech.  It was preserved in this way.  A young lawyer with whom  Lincoln had thoroughly discussed the matter of the speech before its delivery took accurate and elaborate notes, by which he was afterwards able to reproduce it.  I doubt whether any other speech, ever delivered on this continent, ever produced consequences so momentous.  That speech formed and solidified the Republican party and made Lincoln its great leader.  After the expiration of Davis’ service in the cabinet, he was returned to the United States Senate, from Mississippi, and became, by common consent, leader of the pro-slavery States Rights sentiments of the South.  Lincoln was elected President on an anti-slavery platform.  Davis was the recognized champion of slavery and States Rights, as guaranteed by the Constitution.

            “Lincoln and Davis were alike in some respects.  They were each endowed with the highest order of mind.  They were both thoroughly educated; Lincoln, self-educated by close, constant, laborious reading and patient and profound thought and extensive observation and experience.  Davis’ education, the best the foremost institutions of the country could give, was enlarged and perfected by reading, thinking, and official association with the first men of this and foreign lands, in the discharge of cabinet, senatorial, and military duties.  They were both perfectly familiar with the political history of the country.  They belonged to opposite schools of constitutional construction and civic policy.  Lincoln was elected President of the United States of America.  The Southern States seceded, formed a new government, which they named ‘The Confederate States of America,’ and unanimously elected Davis president.  Thus, these two great men confronted each other.  They stood like the disputing knights, looking upon opposite sides of the same shield.  On Lincoln’s side of the device ‘Preservation of the Union;’ on Davis’ ‘The Sovereignty of the States, and the right of Self-Government.’  They were equally honest, conscientious, patriotic and determined, and compromise impossible, was inevitable, the fratricidal conflict came.  No one knows and no one can tell the burden of the labor they endured, the torture of anxiety they suffered, and the anguish of grief they experienced, during the four years of slaughter and blood.

            “Lincoln and Davis were unlike in their personnel.  Lincoln was tall in stature, six feet and two inches, raw-boned, with hands and feet large, and limbs long, ungraceful in movement and attitude; indifferent to dress and almost ludicrously uncouth on horseback.  The expression on his face was variable as the weather.  In repose, it was indicative of profound thought.  When telling an anecdote, in which he excelled,  it kindled with the light of humor.  At times, his face was shaded with the expression of mingled dignity and sorrow, with a ‘faraway look’ that told of some tender emotion that silently stirred the depths of his great heart.  Davis was five feet, ten inches in height, compactly built, with rather small hands and feet; a finely rounded and well-formed head; plainly but neatly dressed; talked in a low, calm voice; with manners the perfection of grace and elegance.  He sat his horse like a Knight of the Crusaders.  His step, with a very slight limp from a wound in the foot at Buena Vista, was the elastic tread of the trained soldier.  They differed widely in their style of composition and elocution.

            “Lincoln expressed his thoughts mainly by the use of nouns, verbs, and participles, using short, simple, Saxon words, many of them one syllable, but well chosen, to express forcibly the idea.  Like the miner, digging in the gravel for gold, he struggled by the shortest and simplest way to reach the nuggets of truth his honest heart sought to find.  He was sparing in the use of adjectives and adverbs.  His sentences were sometimes rugged and disjointed.  They lacked smoothness and completeness in roundness and rhythm, but went without ceremony or surplusage straight to the center and presented his thought in unadorned purity.  And yet occasionally, though rarely, he excelled all the great masters in the beauty, power, and pathos of his style, as exemplified in his Gettysburg speech, his letter of condolence of Mrs. Bixby, and the incomparable sentences with which he closes his first inaugural.  He said, ‘I am loathe to close.  We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.  The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched (as they surely will be), by the better angels of our nature.’

            Davis’ style, like his character, was chaste and clean, his words aptly chosen, and so arranged into sentences as to evoke the precise thought, with mathematical accuracy.  It was smooth, easy, graceful, and clear as sunlight.  It was cold, presented the thought intended without the slightest tint of coloring.  Davis was precise but not pretentious.  He seemed to be cold without being so.  He believed in forms.  It was constitutional with him.  His training at West Point, his administration of the War Department, adding to his natural inclination in that direction, made him punctilious in the observance of forms.  He was proud, but it was the soldiery pride of conscious honor and rectitude.  He was brave; he never ‘stooped to conquer.’  He would have ‘perished in flames at the stake sooner than bend the supple hinges of the knee, that thrift may follow fawning.’

            “Davis closed his first inaugural in these eloquent words:  ‘It is joyous, in the midst of these perilous times, to look around upon a people united in heart, where one purpose of high resolve animates and accentuates the whole; where sacrifices to be made are not weighed in the balance against honor and right, and liberty and equality.  Obstacles may retard, but they cannot prevent the progress of a movement, sanctified by its justice and sustained by a virtuous people.  Reverently let us invoke the God of our fathers to guide and protect us in our efforts to perpetuate the principles which, by His blessing, they are able to vindicate and transmit to their posterity.  With the continuance of His favor, ever gratefully acknowledged, we may hopefully look forward to success, to peace, and to prosperity.’

            “The attitude of these two great men may be summarized thus:  Lincoln would destroy the ‘Constitution to serve the Union.’ Davis would dissolve the Union to serve the Constitution.  During these stormy times, they had a similar personal and family bereavement; they each had a favorite boy.  Tad Lincoln died in the White House at Washington; Joe Davis was killed by a fall from the verandah of the Executive Mansion at Richmond.  The heart of Lincoln had lavished all its wealth of affection on Tad.  It was wrung with anguish at his death.  I witnessed grief personified, in Davis, at the funeral of Joe.  A feeling of deep sadness stealthily steals over one, as he reflects upon the end of these two great men.  Lincoln was the head of a government de jure; Davis, of a government de facto.  They were, respectively, the commanders-in-chief of the armies and navies of their governments in which three and a half million men were engaged---on land and sea---in a death grapple for national existence, and these were brothers of the same blood, identified in history, hopes, and destiny.  In the hour of exultant victory, Lincoln was basely assassinated by a citizen brought back into the Union he died and suffered so much to restore.  Davis, in the mortification of defeat, was cruelly imprisoned and disfranchised by a government, to the service of which he had given his best thought and blood, and died without a country.

            “It will be the wonder of those who come after us that a people with a history so glorious, resources so immense, progress so rapid, and a prosperity so universal, would rudely risk or wreck it all in a sectional Civil War.  The reason they did is simple and obvious.  It was because passion, avarice, and ambition usurped the throne of reason, justice, and patriotism.”