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 — one of the great missed opportunities of history — 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, was nothing remarkable, one of the many sessions a chief executive customarily has with visitors to the capital, and yet it produced remarkable insights about the president. At this event, Lincoln was given what Hawthorne described as “a splendid whip,” a handy tool, perhaps, to keep his Cabinet of rivals together, to move his leading general to action, and by year’s end to overcome the opposition from the South and the skepticism from the North over his Emancipation Proclamation.
The 9 a.m. session was late in starting; 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 a broader essay on his trip to Washington and Virginia that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. The article is included in the Library of America’s newest volume on the Civil War, an anthology of contemporary accounts, speeches, diary entries and reminiscences covering 1862, the second year of the conflict.
As the country observes the sesquicentennial of the war, the observations of one of the nation’s greatest writers on one of the nation’s greatest leaders possess unusual power. Here are some annotated excerpts:
l 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, including the modern ones. 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 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.
l 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, though with a certain extravagance which, possibly, I exaggerated still further by the delighted eagerness with which I took it in.
James T. Fields, the editor of The Atlantic, objected to this characterization and 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.
l 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 (it 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.
l 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.
Make no mistake: 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, by many as being dishonest not only with the country but also with 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 like this, infuriating to us even 150 years later, was: both.
l 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. Reach out to one group, comfort another, put a third in its place. 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,” Barack Obama said last month, “is 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, Richard Nixon’s lust for power produced Watergate, Ronald Reagan’s hands-off style produced the Iran-Contra affair, Bill Clinton’s lack of discipline led to impeachment.
But 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.