[From the Journal des Debats, April 29, 1865.]
The Index, of London, publishes a letter, addressed to the Times by Mr. Mason, representative of the southern States in England This letter is a reply to the despatch of Mr. Stanton, Secretary of War, to Mr Adams, on the subject of the assassination of the President of the United States. We can easily understand that Mr. Mason should desire to exculpate his party from all complicity in so abominable a crime; but we cannot help lamenting the violent tone of his letter. This was not the moment to give himself up to bitter recriminations; and every one will be of opinion that the observations by which Mr. Mason endeavors to invalidate certain assertions made by Mr. Stanton, would had much more weight had they been of a more moderate character. The sad impression produced upon all minds by the murder of Mr. Lincoln will put the language of the representative of the South in a light all the more unfavorable.—Editorial.[Page 126]
On learning the terrible calamity which has just snatched from the republic of the United States its best citizen, our mind was immediately carried back beyond the last four years to that sad moment when the news of the election of Mr. Lincoln and the outbreak of the civil war came across the Atlantic almost simultaneously. Then every one among us took sides—each of us enrolled himself morally in one of the two armies, according to his habits of thought and the bent of his inclination. A great many Frenchmen have, in the midst of our barren revolutions, and after numberless deceptions, contracted a kind of general aversion to democracy, and in the eyes of those Frenchmen, who are now in a frame of mind exactly the reverse to that of their forefathers rushing to the help of the American republic, the probable fall of that same republic was not an unwelcome event. Others again, the friends of democracy, but of a democracy disciplined, guided by a single master, or rather personified in one head, saw with not less pleasure the approach of a dissolution which would confirm their theories, and demonstrate once more that democracy can only exist at the price of liberty. Fashion, the spirit of imitation, our supposed interest in the Mexican enterprise, came in aid of these sentiments, and the South was so little wanting in partisans among us, that hardly a fortnight ago the news of the taking of Richmond was received with an exclamation of regret in the midst even of the legislative chambers.
(Note.—See the last sitting on the discussion of the address, and the cry of “So much the worse,” reported in the Moniteur of the 16th of April.)
On the other hand, the political instinct which made enlightened Frenchmen interested in the maintenance of the American power more and more necessary to the equilibrium of the world—the desire to see a great democratic State surmount the terrible trials, and continue to give an example of the most perfect liberty, united with the most absolute equality—the need, in short, of lodging somewhere a sympathy, an admiration, and a hope which were but little stimulated in the Old World, assured the cause of the North a number of friends, jealous of maintaining the political traditions of France, and the liberal spirit of our country. We ourselves were of that number, and we still remember the uneasiness with which we awaited the first words of that President, then unknown, upon whom a heavy task had fallen, and from whose advent to power might be dated the ruin or regeneration of his country. All we knew was, that he had sprung from the humblest walks of life; that his youth had been spent in manual labor; that he had been shepherd, carpenter, farmer, rail-layer; that he was self-taught, then raised by degrees in his town, his county, and his State, until he became the candidate of a great party, and was elected by the majority of his fellow-citizens. What, however, was this favorite of democracy? Might not his elevation have been due even to his imperfections? Was it not to be feared that this election was one of those errors in the choice of men to which democratic societies are so liable, and which are so fatal to them? But as soon as Mr. Lincoln arrived at Washington, having encountered many dangers, and been already threatened with the knife of the assassin, as soon as he spoke, all our doubts and fears were dissipated; and it seemed to us that fate itself had pronounced in favor of the good cause, since, in such an emergency, it had given to the country an honest man.
He was in fact an honest man, giving to the word its full meaning, or rather the sublime sense which belongs to it, when honesty has to contend with the severest trials which can agitate states, and with events which have an influence on the fate of the world. Very different in this respect from most of the great men whom it is agreed at the present day to admire. Mr. Lincoln had but one object in view from the day of his election to that of his death, namely, the fulfilment of his duty, and his imagination never carried him beyond it. The idea of doing more or anything else than his duty never entered his plain and upright mind. It is a common error on this side of the Atlantic to praise or [Page 127] blame Mr. Lincoln for having undertaken spontaneously the abolition of slavery, and having plunged his country into war to abolish it. It was to know him very little to attribute such conduct to him, or even such designs. Undoubtedly Mr. Lincoln loudly condemned the injustice of slavery; and while deploring not long ago the duration of the great struggle, he said that it was, perhaps, in the order of Providence that civil war should cause as much blood to flow by the sword as had been shed by the lash, and that it should destroy as much wealth as had been produced by the labor extorted from man by the iniquitous violence of man. But Mr. Lincoln never confounded his feelings with his duty, nor: looked upon that duty in any other light than as tending to the well-being of the republic whose destinies had been committed to his hands. There is no doubt that he felt a lively joy the day when the necessities of the war commanded him, rather than permitted him, to decree the abolition of slavery, and he thanked God for being the instrument of such an act. But he did not hasten on that event by a day or an hour; and this noble desire was only second to another ardent wish, because the performance of his duty—that is to say, the welfare of the United States—was foremost in all the aspirations of his heart.
Such was this plain and great, good man; and if it is desired to estimate the value of a man of this kind to a nation in danger, only conceive that the United States, instead of finding at their head a resolute servant, devoted to duty, had fallen into other hands. Let us suppose that, instead of consulting only the clear and strong voice of conscience and honor, Mr. Lincoln had asked himself, like a profound philosopher, on which side preponderates the chances of this civil war; if the American Union was not in fact too large to hold together; if geography and the philosophy of history did not decree its dissolution; if Jefferson Davis were not, after all, the instrument of this great change, and the man expressly sent to accomplish it—such reasonings, supported by a few defeats, (and defeats were not wanting,) would very quickly have persuaded Mr. Lincoln that, in resigning himself to peace and the dissolution of the republic, he was simply acting in obedience to destiny. These are the roads in which a man may travel when he looks for rules of conduct elsewhere than in his conscience. But Mr. Lincoln was as far removed from these subtleties as light is from darkness. He had the good fortune to be religious; but his religion ranged itself by the side of his duty. He did not think that God could hold another language to him than that of his conscience; and if he regarded the reverses of honest men as trials, it was because he always believed that God was with them.
So nothing could shake him. He supported both patiently and ably the ill-will of Europe; he saw without alarm the armies of the republic losing courage or dispersing; he saw without fear and anger his capital filled with traitors; he carried on recruiting in the middle of New York when the city was on fire. He repelled all idea of a dictatorship; submitted himself, at the period fixed by law, to the popular election, and taking his burden willingly upon him, set out on his road, and took no account of obstacles. A sense of duty has this extraordinary advantage in it, that the chances of life cannot affect it.
He approached at last the termination of so many trials. Guided by the instinct of an upright heart, and seconded by the able counsels of that minister who had the honor of being attacked at the same time with himself, and whose death appeared to be equally necessary to the enemies of his country, Mr. Lincoln had eventually thwarted by victory the blind and lamentable enterprise undertaken by the authors of the civil war, and of which his generous moderation was about to be employed in effacing the recollection. He could display with some degree of pride aloft and triumphant that Union flag which had been twice intrusted to him, and which he had preserved through so many perils. It is at the moment that he is struck that the unforeseen blow resounds so grievously in the hearts of all honest men in the Old as in the New World. The Romans have held in pious reverence the memory of a certain Fabius [Page 128] Dorso, who, during the siege of Rome by the Gauls, passed slowly through the enemy’s lines, carrying with him respectfully the necessary offerings for a sacrifice, which was to be offered in a day and at a place fixed. It is in a very similar manner that this honest man has pursued his course for more than four years, holding religiously in his hands as a sacred deposit the threatened existence of his country. Less fortunate than Fabius Dorso, he has fallen at the very foot of the altar, and covered it with his blood. But his work was done, and the spectacle of a rescued republic was what he could look upon with consolation when his eyes were closing in death. Moreover, he has not lived alone for his country, since he leaves to every one in the world to whom liberty and justice are dear a great remembrance and a pure example.