Friday, May 25, 2018
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David Shribman


Hawthorne's observations about Lincoln still stand up

It was a meeting of a gothic genius and a political magus.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, the novelist from Salem, Mass., and Abraham Lincoln, the politician from New Salem, Ill., didn't speak to each other, but Hawthorne did accompany a delegation of businessmen from a Massachusetts whip factory to a White House session with the 16th president in March, 1862.

That meeting, 150 years ago this month, one of the many sessions a chief executive customarily has with visitors to the capital, produced remarkable insights about the president.

The 9 a.m. session started late because the president was having breakfast. "His appetite, we were glad to think, must have been a pretty fair one," Hawthorne wrote, "for we waited about half an hour in one of his antechambers."

Lincoln had a big appetite and he made a big impression, for the group soon glimpsed what Hawthorne described as "the homeliest man I ever saw, yet by no means repulsive or disagreeable."

Hawthorne set forth his observations in an essay that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly magazine. The article is included in the Library of America's newest volume on the Civil War. Here are some annotated excerpts:

President Lincoln is the essential representative of all Yankees, and the veritable specimen, physically, of what the world seems determined to regard as our characteristic qualities.

In this regard, Lincoln seems little different from most American presidents. Theodore Roosevelt personified American vigor at the turn of the last century, Woodrow Wilson stood for American idealism, Franklin Roosevelt for American determination -- and, with the New Deal, American experimentation.

Later, Harry Truman stood for American practicality in an age of ideology, John F. Kennedy for American sophistication at a time when American culture was thought to have come of age, Jimmy Carter for American innocence, and Ronald Reagan for American optimism.

There is no describing his lengthy awkwardness, nor the uncouthness of his movement; and yet it seemed as if I had been in the habit of seeing him daily, and had shaken hands with him a thousand times in some village street; so true was he to the aspect of the pattern American …

James Fields, the editor of the Atlantic, objected to this characterization. At his bidding, Hawthorne removed it. But Lincoln's rough-hewn looks were as much a part of his political identity as Kennedy's handsome bearing and Bill Clinton's joyful openness. Lincoln was awkward and homely. He was also the greatest American political figure of his time, perhaps of all time.

A great deal of native sense; no bookish cultivation, no refinement; honest at heart, and thoroughly so, and yet, in some sort, sly -- at least endowed with a sort of tact and wisdom that are akin to craft, and would impel him, I think, to take an antagonist in flank, rather than to make a bull-run at him right in front. But, on the whole, I liked this sallow, queer, sagacious visage, with the homely human sympathies that warmed it ……

Lincoln had uncommon common sense, was wise but not pedantic, honest but crafty. The latter is often ignored. There may have been an internal dishonesty to Lincoln's emancipation plan, which covered territory over which he had no power, or to his assault on civil liberties -- declaring martial law and suspending habeas corpus aren't ordinarily celebrated -- but the overall package was more than a sagacious visage. It was virtuosity in action.

He is evidently a man of keen faculties, and, what is still more to the purpose, of powerful character. As to his integrity, the people have that intuition of it which is never deceived.

Not everyone thought of him as Honest Abe. The rail splitter was a hair-splitter, too. He was derided by abolitionists and black leaders as too timid, by moderates as too radical, and by many as being dishonest with the country and himself.

Was the war to preserve the Union or to free the slaves? Did he believe blacks were equal to or inferior to whites? Should slaves be freed or returned to Africa? Often his answer to questions such as these was: both.

But the president is teachable by events, and has now spent a year in a very arduous course of education; he has a flexible mind, capable of much expansion, and convertible towards far loftier studies and activities than those of his early life; and, if he came to Washington as a backwoods humorist, he has already transformed himself into … a statesman …

Presidents come to office on a wave of determination: Win the war. Withdraw from the war. Cure poverty, disease, the economy. They do a few of these things, often poorly, and then forget about the rest. Reality -- a synonym for the modern presidency -- intrudes.

"One of the things about being president," President Obama said last month, "is that you get better as time goes on."

There is, however, plenty of evidence to the contrary. As time went on, Woodrow Wilson's stubbornness divided the country over the League of Nations, Lyndon Johnson's demons produced the credibility gap and the Vietnam quagmire, Ronald Reagan's hands-off style produced the Iran-Contra affair, Bill Clinton's lack of discipline led to impeachment.

But Mr. Obama, who in the past has harnessed the audacity of hope, has chosen the right role model. Abraham Lincoln got better as time went on. From our perspective 150 years after his encounter with Nathaniel Hawthorne, he's still getting better.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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