HAVING JUST LOST HIS HARD-FOUGHT 1858 BID FOR THE SENATE, LINCOLN CONSOLES HIS CAMPAIGN MANAGER
Better days ahead, or behind, the tumultuous mid-term election of 2018 is now over, albeit in a hostile fashion. Losers, this time, are especially mournful. They might want then, to look back, as much as forward, to try and heal. At an even more fraught and divisive moment in our past, Abraham Lincoln, too, lost an epic contest – and so 160 years ago wrote this letter, whose final words, echoing King Solomon, are once more worth heeding.
Feeling bad about losing his 1858 senatorial race to Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln reputedly said, “like the boy that stumped his toe – ‘it hurt too bad to laugh, and he was too big to cry.’ ” Adding to his injury, was insult: he lost despite having won the most votes. He had polled 190,000 to Douglas’s 176,000, but the number that ended up counting was eight. That was the difference between the seats held by the Democrats and Republicans in the Illinois legislature, 54-46, and it was state legislatures that – until 1913, anyway – “indirectly” elected senators. Thus Lincoln could claim, as he did in an autobiographical sketch written while running for President in 1860, that only once, in his almost 35 years in politics, was he “ever beaten on a direct vote of the people.” (And even in that race, in 1832, in which four state legislators were chosen from a field of fifteen, Lincoln was away serving in the Black Hawk War and, when finally mustered out, barely had time to campaign.) But losing now to Douglas, having spent the late summer and early fall canvassing the state and, on seven times, famously debating him face-to-face, was a bitter disappointment. It was, he felt, the final nail in his political coffin – and a blow to a struggle, he said, “in which I felt more than a merely selfish interest.”
About halfway through the middle of the 19th century, the fight over Southern slavery, which had begun in the Northeast, spread suddenly, to the West. The discovery of gold in California, silver in Nevada, and the acquisition of vast new territories in the victorious war against Mexico – a quarter of today’s continental United States – threatened the always delicate North-South accord. A burgeoning population wanted to go West and bring their slaves with them; just as a growing abolitionist movement wanted slavery ended, period. By 1854 Congress repealed the Missouri Compromise and instead, by terms of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, left the issue of whether to allow slavery in the new territories to be decided by local self-determination.
In place of a unifying Federal law, states would now vote under the doctrine of “Popular Sovereignty,” one by one, on the issue, fundamentally, of whether melanin-producing cells located in the bottom layer of the skin’s epidermis denoted their possessor a human being, or a piece of property. Whether it was legal to own another human being, however, was a question for more than just the western territories. The Supreme Court, too, had an opinion. In 1857 it ruled in the Dred Scott case – Scott, a slave taken to Missouri, had sued for his freedom – that no “negro of the African race,” whether slave or free, could be a citizen of the United States, with a right to sue again. In the words of Chief Justice Roger Taney, Blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The framers of the Constitution, Taney insisted, believed “the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.” And, as if that was not ignominious enough, the Court further declared that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional to begin with, and that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in the territories, ever. To lawyer Lincoln in Illinois, all of this – the “new-fangled” doctrine; the wrongly decided case; the brazen assumption of historical facts that were not true – were meant to do just one thing: cloak the national spread of slavery. This “nationalization of slavery,” as Lincoln saw it, would as much as anything, cause the Civil War.
“Aroused as he had never been before” Lincoln, for the first-time in over a decade, rushed headlong into politics. His fury at the spread of slavery into the new territories of the West saw him speaking against it wherever he could, and in 1858, contesting a senate seat against Democrat Stephen A. Douglas on behalf of the newly-formed Republican party. The seven Lincoln-Douglas debates – in which was argued whether the nation might, as Lincoln later famously phrased it in his Cooper Union speech, “endure permanently half slave and half free” – have long since become part of American folklore and certainly, they occasioned, in Lincoln, the most audacious rise from obscurity to political prominence in American history. Thousands upon thousands of Illinoisans came out to hear the candidates and thousands and thousands of newspaper inches chronicled their contest. Win or lose – and Lincoln lost – this transformative fight would, incredibly, catapult him from the plains to the presidency two years later.
But writing here, two weeks after his defeat, the profoundly depressed Lincoln applies a balm to wounded feelings – not his own, but that of his de facto campaign manager, Norman Judd: “You are feeling badly,” he says, “ ‘And this too shall pass away’ – Never fear.”
Judd had, at that point, much to distress him: his friend and candidate had barely lost, and the state Republican party, which he headed, was badly in debt. It was in fact to retire that debt that Judd had written Lincoln the day before, asking him for a contribution. But Lincoln, too, was broke – and no good either, he writes, at fundraising:
I am willing to pay according to my ability; but I am the poorest hand living to get others to pay. I have been on expenses so long without earning any thing that I am absolutely without money now for even household purposes. Still, if you can put in two hundred and fifty dollars for me towards discharging the debt of the Committee, I will allow it when you and I settle the private matter between us. This, with what I have already paid, and with an outstanding note of mine, will exceed my subscription of five hundred dollars. This too, is exclusive of my ordinary expenses during the campaign, all which being added to my loss of time and business, bears pretty heavily upon one no better off in world’s goods than I; but as I had the post of honor, it is not for me to be over-nice. You are feeling badly, – “And this too shall pass away” – Never fear.
Judd’s disappointment would pass away faster, perhaps, than either he or Lincoln could ever have imagined: within six weeks, Lincoln would be proposed as a possible presidential candidate in 1860. The two men would soon enough be back in business, with Judd making sure that the Republican national convention was held in Chicago. There, Judd nominated Lincoln, seated the delegations to Lincoln’s advantage, and worked hard to secure Lincoln’s victory. The hard-fought race against Douglas in ’58 had allowed Lincoln a hearing on the great questions of the day – and so paved the way to his ascension to the presidency two years later, with the prophetic “Never fear.” Indeed.
Lincoln’s use of the phrase “And this too shall pass away,” he would explain a year later speaking at a Wisconsin State Fair, came from an Eastern folktale attributed to King Solomon. “An Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence,” he said, “to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! – how consoling in the depths of affliction! ‘And this, too, shall pass away.'” But Lincoln did not stop there. He had something to add that day in Wisconsin, something just as important, something that had made him — a lifelong melancholic — rise up again and again in the world. There was, he might as well have been saying, work to be done.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN. 1809 – 1865. The 16th President of the United States
Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), 1 page, quarto, Springfield, November 16, 1858. To Norman Buel Judd (1815 – 1878, Lincoln’s 1858 campaign manager, and later, minister to Prussia.)