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625. Jonathan Birch (Jesse W. Weik Interview)


"Having no office of his own, Mr. Lincoln, when not engaged in court, spent a good deal of his time in the clerk's office. Very often he could be seen there surrounded by a group of lawyers and such persons as are usually found about a courthouse, some standing, others seated on chairs or tables, listening intently to one of his characteristic and inimitable stories. His eyes would sparkle with fun, and when he had reached the point in his narrative which invariably evoked the laughter of the crowd, nobody's enjoyment was greater than his. An hour later he might be seen in the same place or in some law office near by, but, alas, how different! His chair, no longer in the center of the room, would be leaning back against the wall; his feet drawn up and resting on the front rounds so that his knees and chair were about on a level; his hat tipped slightly forward as if to shield his face; his eyes no


longer sparkling with fun or merriment, but sad and downcast and his hands clasped around his knees. There, drawn up within himself as it were, he would sit, the very picture of dejection and gloom. Thus absorbed have I seen him sit for hours at a time defying the interruption of even his closest friends. No one ever thought of breaking the spell by speech; for by his moody silence and abstraction he had thrown about him a barrier so dense and impenetrable no one dared to break through. It was a strange picture and one I have never forgotten.

"In his physical make-up Mr. Lincoln could not be said to be a man of prepossessing personal appearance; but his splendid head and intellectual face made up in a large measure for all his physical defects, if such they might be called. When intellectually aroused he forgot his embarrassment, his eyes kindled, and even in his manner he was irresistible. It is well known that he was more or less careless of his personal attire, and that he usually wore in his great canvass with Douglas a linen coat, generally without any vest, a hat much the worse for wear, and carried with him a faded cotton umbrella which became almost as famous in the canvass as Lincoln himself. Late one afternoon during this canvass I boarded the train at Bloomington, soon after which Mr. Lincoln himself entered the same car in which I was seated, wearing this same linen coat and carrying the inevitable umbrella. On his arm was the cloak that he was said to have worn when he was in Congress nine years before. He greeted and talked freely with me and several other persons whom he happened to know, but as night drew on he withdrew to another part of the car where he could occupy a seat by himself. Presently he arose, spread the cloak over the seat, lay down, somehow folded himself up till his long legs and arms were no longer in view, then drew the cloak about him and went to sleep. Beyond what I have mentioned he had no baggage, no secretary, no companion even. At the same time his opponent, Judge Douglas, was traveling over the State in his private car surrounded by a retinue of followers and enjoying all the luxuries of the period.

"It was during this canvass, with every fiber of his being tremulous with emotion, I heard him, in one of his speeches denouncing the extension of slavery, passionately exclaim: 'That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says "You toil and work and earn bread and I'll eat it." No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.' The melting pathos with which Mr. Lincoln said this and its effect on his audience cannot be described."

Weik, 198-201



1. For JWW's personal relation to Birch, see §624, note 1. JWW says that Birch met with WHH when the latter came to Greencastle, Indiana, in 1887 to collaborate with JWW on their biography and that "what Birch, who was the embodiment of truthful and conscientious statement, said about Lincoln was verified by Herndon" (Weik, 198). This appears to be excerpted from a statement published after Birch's death in The Outlook, Feb. 11, 1911, reprinted in Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed., Intimate Memories of Lincoln (Elmira, N.Y.: Primavera Press, 1945), 104-8.

2. This is from AL's speech in the last joint debate with Douglas at Alton, October 15, 1858, CW 3:315.