A Study in Greatness
OF THE educational documentary motion pictures which Helen and I shot, edited, and produced, the three on the life of Lincoln have been the most highly acclaimed.
Allan Nevins is recognized as probably the greatest authority on Lincoln’s life. He was not only good enough to review my Lincoln scripts—making a change in only one word—but he paid the high compliment of writing me personally that he wished he could have chronicled Lincoln’s life as well, in as few words. We became good friends with Nevins
Also with Carl Sandburg, to whom we showed our three films after their completion.
My love of Lincoln probably had its beginnings in school days in Howell, Michigan. In 1916, my parents bought their first automobile and took my brother and me on a trip down into the Lincoln country of Kentucky—visiting his birthplace at the Sinking Spring farm near Hodgenville. From then on his writings, his acts of altruism and goodwill, and his simple greatness, made lasting impressions on my life.
Helen, too, in her school years had learned of and appreciated Lincoln’s greatness. After our marriage, May 1, 1928, we drove to the Lincoln country of Kentucky for our honeymoon.
When we began producing educational motion pictures, it was quite natural that our thoughts turned toward Lincoln. In the late 1950s, to gather pictorial material for the three films on his life, we visited 28 states. Later we circled the entire globe to produce a picture record of “Lincoln’s Influence Around the World.”
The three films depicting his life story were Lincoln’s Youth, The Illinois Years and The War Years. Following are my scripts for these three films:
The story of Abraham Lincoln is like the story of trees. For the strength of trees—the mood and the spirit of trees—was in his bone and blood, from his birth to his burial.
It is a story of the strong, the fine, yet the gentle and honest qualities in the living fiber of America.
Three states make up the Lincoln Country. In central Kentucky he was born, and lived until he was seven at the Sinking Spring and the Knob Creek farms. In southern Indiana he was raised to manhood. In the state of Illinois he made his way toward greatness.
A marble memorial protects the floorless log cabin where the life of Abraham Lincoln began, on the Sinking Spring farm, near Hodgenville, Kentucky. A great white oak, nearly 300 years old, still spreads protective branches, as it did when the Lincoln lived there.
The Sinking Spring, which gave the farm its name, still flows from its rocky recess. Flowing spring, growing tree, and running stream, create a living connection with that bare-branched wintry Sunday of February 12, in 1809, when Abraham Lincoln was born into the backwoods of history.
When Abe was two the family moved to the Knob Creek farm, nine miles away. Years later, Lincoln wrote: “My earliest recollection is of the Knob Creek place. Our farm was composed of three fields which lay in the valley surrounded by high hills and deep gorges.” The cabin—long ago destroyed—has been reconstructed.
Here, in his first remembered act, young Abe toddled behind his father, Tom Lincoln, helping in the fields. When an infant brother, little Edward Lincoln, passed away, Abe had his first impression of Death.
Frontier commerce enlivened the Cumberland Trail, which passed directly in front of the Knob Creek farm. Slaves were sometimes driven past the Lincoln home. Abe’s young ears heard his elders denounce the crime of slavery.
Itinerant storytellers stirred Abe’s mind with his first groping concepts of an outside world, and of men and events beyond the hills.
Nancy Hanks Lincoln was a sterling mother to Abe and his sister. She told stories from the Bible, starting easy traceries in Abe’s mind, which were one day to gouge into a mighty channel, aflood with literary and spiritual greatness.
Abe’s older sister Sarah was his closest companion. The two of them attended school, “by littles,” as he later expressed it. They followed Knob Creek, winding through an enchanted world, alive with wonders for those alert to see. On the two mile walk to school, they learned as much as they did in classes. The schoolmaster was poorly educated, and learning was by the “blab” method. The children studied aloud, so the teacher might know they were hard at their lessons.
Life and surroundings at Knob Creek were serene, steady, strong. For seven years, Kentucky molded Abe’s destiny. Then, partly because the state permitted slavery, the family migrated to Indiana.
A ferry boat today makes the Ohio River crossing, close to the spot where the Lincoln family ferried. The slave state of Kentucky was left behind; before them was the new free territory of Indiana, where Lincoln would live for a quarter of his life.
The route between the Ohio River and the family’s destination, near Gentryville, Indiana, is now a marked Memorial Highway. When the Lincoln family made the journey, it was a wild, forested trail.
As the last days of autumn slipped away, the Lincoln, lacking time to build a cabin, threw up a three-sided “half-faced camp.” Throughout a dismal winter they were huddled in the lean-to, exposed to cold. It was one of the low periods in the Lincoln family life.
With spring, a cabin was started. A replica of this cabin stands today at nearby Rockport, Indiana. Among the reconstructed buildings there, is also a school of the type Abe attended. The exact location of the cabin home where Lincoln lived for 14 years—through youth to manhood—is marked, with hearth and sill logs cast in bronze.
Into young Lincoln’s hands an ax was thrust almost at once. An ax, and the woods where he used it, were to be his constant companions until he was 23.
For almost two years in Indiana, around the hearthstone of the wilderness cabin, his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, continued to mold and guide his life. Then, in the fall month of October, in her 35th year, when Abe was just nine years old, his mother died. For the second time, young Abe had a sharp, stinging contact with Death.
Two years later, his father made a short visit back to Kentucky, returning with a new wife—Sarah Bush Lincoln. The relationship between young Lincoln and his new mother was one of the strange ingredients of his greatness. She sensed that he was different. For 11 years, until Abe grew to manhood, she helped to shape his destiny. It was to his stepmother that he
referred when he said: “All that I am or hope to be, I owe to
my angel mother.”
She laughed with him at his jokes and pranks. She was sympathetic toward his compassion for animals and for every living thing. While the father scoffed at education, the stepmother encouraged it.
There were more schools—blab schools. But Lincoln’s total formal schooling throughout his life added up to less than a year.
It was the reading of books that educated Abe Lincoln. He read A Life of George Washington and no one can say what such a book did to the mind of a boy headed upward. He read Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe, and Grimshaw’s History of the United States. In the Kentucky Preceptor he read about slavery, and began to wonder about the justice of it
Young Lincoln walked 17 miles on several occasions, to the law office of Mr. Pitcher in Rockport, to borrow a book. Then 17 miles back home.
The Bible was the only book which the Lincoln family owned. Abe absorbed its stately marching language the way the roots of a tree draw riches from the soil. He was eventually to leave to the world even more words than are in all the Bible.
And, like an echo disturbing the silent forests of Indiana, phrases inspired by the Bible seemed to come from the future.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
“Let us have faith that right makes might.”
“With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Young Lincoln had few books. But no boy, on whom destiny had an eye, could be more favored than to be locked for 14 years in an Indiana wilderness with the few solid volumes which that wilderness frontier possessed.
The leaves of books shared with the leaves of the forest in the education of Abe Lincoln. The lonely stillness of the trees, the harshness, yet the wild grandeur of those Indiana woods, twined themselves like a forest vine around, and into, his makeup and character, in such a way that in all his life he did not escape their influence.
His sister Sarah had married and, when Abe was 18, Sarah died in childbirth. His only sister, his closest companion through the childhood years, was laid to rest in the burial plot of the meeting house. Across Lincoln’s life, again, came the shadowy, searing mystery of Death.
Hard work and a rugged life had made Abe as strong as an oak. In the backwoods, frontier atmosphere of southern Indiana he grew from a lad of seven to a giant of twenty-one, six feet-four inches tall, and weighing nearly 200 pounds.
The frontier could break a man or make a man. It made Lincoln. For 14 long, hard, formative years—for a quarter of his life—Indiana and its frontier shaped his destiny.
Then the Lincolns migrated to Illinois.
The Illinois Years
When the Lincoln family left the Indiana home where they had lived a pioneer life for 14 years, Abraham Lincoln was 21. A boulder marks the site which they chose for their first Illinois home, south of Decatur, on the forested banks of the Sangamon River.
Here, Lincoln was hired to split 3000 rails. Thirty years later, those rails would give him the slogan with which to win the presidential nomination.
After a flatboat journey down the Sangamon and the Mississippi to New Orleans, Abe left his father’s home for good.
The door to a new life opened to him in the pioneer village of New Salem, Illinois, 20 miles north of Springfield. In this village, today reconstructed as it was in Lincoln’s time, Abe spent six years. Here he was saddened by the death of Ann Rutledge, a neighbor. Here he was postmaster and surveyor. He became a partner in the Lincoln-Berry store, the failure of which left him to shoulder the entire partnership debt.
It was during his New Salem years that Lincoln picked up the law book and laid down the ax.
But the physique, which the ax helped build, won him leadership. Abe was a strange sort of frontiersman who used no curse words, no liquor, no tobacco, and who was too tenderhearted to kill a chicken. Yet he became the physical, as well as the intellectual, leader in a village of strong, rough pioneers. His jokes and stories endeared him to all who knew him.
Then Lincoln’s career was interrupted by the Black Hawk War. It was a vest pocket sort of war. Abe killed no Indians, though he did save one from an unjust lynching. But his selection, by popular vote, as captain of the New Salem volunteers, gave him, he said, more satisfaction than any other contest he ever won.
Within a few months he won another contest—election to the State Legislature.
After six years in New Salem, the door of the village and its backwoods way of life closed behind him. As a young lawyer, age 28, he moved for good to Springfield, where his achievements in law and politics began to attract attention.
Two other individuals who would play great parts in Lincoln’s life were also gaining prominence in Springfield circles. One was his fiery, ambitious political rival, Stephen A. Douglas. The other was Mary Todd.
A memorial to Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, as president and first lady, stands today in Racine, Wisconsin. When she was 23 and Lincoln 33—and after they had once broken off their engagement—they were married.
The two were completely different in background and temperament. Mary was a Kentucky aristocrat, who loved finery. She overshadowed Lincoln in social graces. She was subject to headaches and fits of temper—symptoms of approaching mental illness. Some men, living in the shadow of such an ailment, might have rebelled or broken. Abraham Lincoln developed a towering patience. That patience became an ingredient of his greatness.
The Lincoln home still stands in Springfield. Here one of their four sons died—a new sorrow on the shoulders of husband and wife.
Mary and Lincoln were both ambitious but, here again, she overshadowed her husband. Hers was a burning type of ambition, which always prodded him on.
Before their marriage, Mary Todd was courted by both Lincoln and Douglas. Asked once whom she would wed, she is said to have replied: “The one who has the best chance of becoming president.” Despite their differences, their true relationship is expressed by the inscription on the wedding ring: “Love is Eternal.” Mary Todd was a powerful factor in Lincoln’s greatness.
Four years after their marriage, at age 37, Lincoln won election as a Whig to the national House of Representatives. Mary, in the background, urged him on.
As an unknown prairie congressman, he attracted little notice in Washington. But he did speak out vigorously against the Mexican War, branding it an act of aggression. His forthright stand on this war was political suicide. Back home, a storm swirled about his name. He was branded a “Benedict Arnold”—called a disgrace to his state.
In discouragement, at the end of a single term in congress, Lincoln returned to Springfield and the practice of law. He felt that he had no future in politics.
To obtain sufficient legal business, Lincoln “rode the circuit” to adjoining county seats, travelling seven months a year by buggy and horseback. There were days when he did not see a person. There was time to read, and to think.
As he had absorbed the strength of the Indiana forests, so now the qualities of his greatness were expanded with the rich expansiveness of the Illinois prairie. During his years riding the circuit, under the vast dome of the prairie skies, Lincoln matured from a self-advancing office seeker to a man of depth.
Then—the skies exploded. A bolt of lightning struck. In a miscalculated political maneuver, Stephen A. Douglas brought Lincoln back into politics and on the road to the White House.
Douglas, now a senator, introduced the Kansas-Nebraska bill, which would have the effect of repealing the Missouri Compromise and laying free territories open to possible slavery.
“No,” thundered Lincoln. “No,” echoed much of the nation.
In denouncing Douglas, Lincoln did not seek political office for himself. He was working to elect those who would fight the extension of slavery. He spoke throughout the state. In Kansas, guerrilla fighting broke out—a miniature Civil War. Talk of secession mounted. Discouraged, Lincoln said: “The problem is too mighty for me. May God in his mercy superintend the solution.”
The very greatness of Lincoln’s abilities forced him back into the political arena, to help dispel the gathering clouds. The newly-formed Republican Party nominated him to oppose Stephen A. Douglas in the race for the Senate.
Still standing in Springfield, with its symbolic pillars, is the old Illinois Capitol Building where the words of Lincoln’s acceptance speech rang out: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.”
As part of the senatorial campaign, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of joint debates on the general subject of slavery, to be held in seven cities throughout the state. People came from miles away. Thousands attended. Excitement mounted. Time after time, in those debates, Lincoln denounced slavery as a wrong.
“It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world.”
Lincoln lost the election for the Senate. But the debates had begun to bring him to the attention of the nation. He was invited to speak at Cooper Union in New York City. His words rang out: “Let us have faith that right makes might and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it.”
Elite easterners gave the crude westerner a standing ovation, and Cooper Union shook with applause. When talk of running him for president arose, Lincoln said: “I must, in candor, say I do not think I am fit for the presidency.”
Chicago had been chosen as the Republican nominating city, for the reason that Illinois had no candidate. But at Decatur, just before the national convention, Illinois Republicans held a state convention to choose the candidate they would back.
Thirty years before, at Decatur, Lincoln had lived and split rails. His name was put forth. Down the aisle came weather-beaten John Hanks, bearing a sign, and two rails of the 3000 which he and Abe had split at Decatur 30 years before.
“The rail-splitter for President,” rose the cry. Pandemonium broke loose. Lincoln was the popular choice. One week later, in Chicago, he won the nomination. His chief opponent in the presidential campaign was his old matrimonial and political rival, Stephen A. Douglas.
In November 1860, Abraham Lincoln defeated Douglas and his other opponents to be elected 16th President of the United States.
Between election day, and Lincoln’s inauguration, seven southern states seceded. Douglas showed his high patriotism by joining with Lincoln in trying to prevent a split in the Union.
As Lincoln departed from his Springfield home for the nation’s capital, one day before his 52nd birthday, he addressed his neighbors from the train, at the Great Western Railway Station:
“My friends. No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young, to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when or whether ever I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that divine being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”
Lincoln left the prairies of Illinois forever, and headed toward Washington, and immortality.
The War Years
March 4, 1861. To a nation, already scarred by secession, Abraham Lincoln delivered his First Inaugural Address. Jefferson Davis, two weeks before, in Montgomery, Alabama, had been inaugurated to head the provisional Confederacy.
President Buchanan, his term expiring, had declared that the Federal Government was impotent to prevent secession by force.
Lincoln spoke largely to the seceding states: “The Union is perpetual….No state upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union. We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies…. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every heart and hearthstone all over this broad land will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Thirty-five days later, cannon bombarded Fort Sumter.
To Robert E. Lee, Lincoln offered the Union command. Though opposed to secession, Lee—loyal Virginian—rejected the offer. His action was among the most tragic moments in history.
And then—the battle of brother against brother—the Civil War.
Searing flames of conflict licked out toward Washington, and the White House. Across the Potomac, in Arlington, Lincoln could plainly see Confederate flags. At Bull Run, a few short miles from Washington, disaster struck. Shattered Union remnants poured across the Potomac, back into the capital. Government buildings became make-shift hospitals. Lincoln, from the White House, saw the bedraggled scenes of suffering and defeat.
Panic swept the north. Some advised peace on rebel terms.
Said Walt Whitman, poet of the Civil War: “If there was nothing else of Abraham Lincoln to stamp him with, it is enough…that he endured that hour, that day…a crucifixion day… that he unflinchingly stemmed it, and resolved to lift himself and the Union.”
There were other days when Lincoln, and Lincoln alone, saved the Union because of his courage and his faith. Borne down with tragedy, he grew in greatness.
Mary Todd Lincoln had seven of her family fighting against the Union. The president had to defend her against the ugly name of spy. His face furrowed in deepening sorrow.
Lincoln suffered, as general after general failed him in command. Deeper grew the furrows on Lincoln’s face.
The president’s favorite son, Willie, fell ill. There were soul-twisting nights of waiting. And then—Death. The furrows on his face turned to scars upon his heart. He sought the quiet of the Washington countryside to renew his spirit.
In his days of tragedy, Lincoln was sustained by the forces which had molded his early life—by the strength of heart which he had absorbed from the Indiana forests; by the precepts learned from his mother and his stepmother; by patience and suffering, developed in the illness of his wife, and the deaths of his mother, of his sister, of Ann Rutledge, and two sons. The strong sense of humor acquired in his frontier youth helped sustain him. So too did the knowledge and inspiration of the Bible.
The solid foundations laid during his years in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, helped save the Union during his years as president.
While searching for capable generalship, Lincoln studied military tactics and for a time actually took the field as supreme commander. In a skirmish near Washington, his hat drew enemy fire. He removed it, but an officer three feet from him was shot and killed.
1862. Fiercely, tragically, the battles mounted.
1863. The Year of Climax. It dawned with a gift of freedom to three million men and women in bondage. Lincoln said: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”
His act of emancipation would bring 186,000 former slaves into the northern armies, helping to save the Union. “Now therefore I, Abraham Lincoln…do order and declare… that all persons held as slaves within said…states…shall be free.”
July 1, 1863; Gettysburg, climactic battle of the War to save the Union. At the end of three days, the Union forces had won, but 53,000 men lay killed or maimed.
With Gettysburg Battlefield as a background—four-anda-half months later—Lincoln achieved the climax of his uttered thoughts—the Gettysburg Address.
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
On the day following General Meade’s Union victory at Gettysburg—July 4, 1863—out in the West, at Vicksburg, another victory was being won by another Union General, Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln gave him supreme command.
Slowly, fatefully, through the year of 1864, the Civil War ground on.
Palm Sunday, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, General Lee surrendered.
On Good Friday, just five days later, John Wilkes Booth, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, fired the fatal and fateful shot. Next morning, in a house across the street, Abraham Lincoln died.
Said Jefferson Davis, of the martyred president: “Next to the destruction of the Confederacy, the death of Abraham Lincoln was the darkest day the South has ever known.”
From Washington to California, a nation mourned.
Then Abraham Lincoln went home—back to Springfield, Illinois.
In Springfield, he had said: “I know not when or whether ever I shall return.” But he had returned.
As he had been born under great friendly trees at the Sinking Spring farm in Hodgenville, Kentucky so now he lies forever under the great friendly trees of Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield.
And people—old people, but especially young people—visit the man they love. No one says, “hands off” the statue of Lincoln there because he would not have said it. People from every state and from every continent come to stand in reverence at his tomb. People were his love and his life. And they remember he said:
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”
“We cannot escape history. We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trials through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.”