Lincoln, Macbeth, and the Moral Imagination

Michael Knox Beran*

[From HUMANITAS, Volume XI, No. 2, 1998
© National Humanities Institute, Washington, DC USA]

A few years before my grandmother died, she cleared out her house, and gave me some of her souvenirs of Lincoln. There was nothing extraordinary, nothing rare, nothing valuable in the collection: a bad oil painting, a couple of framed copies of Brady portraits, a facsimile of the letter to Mrs. Bixby on the death of her sons in battle—the kind of things many Americans had in their houses a couple of generations ago. One item, however, struck me, the little legend printed at the top of the Bixby letter. "The famous Bixby letter," the legend declared, "the model of perfect English."1Reading it, I couldnt disagree. Some have contended that Lincoln’s secretary, John Nicolay, actually drafted the letter; if he did he had succeeded wonderfully in mastering his boss’s style, in reproducing the precision of his language, the severe grace of his sentences.2

Lincoln was a model writer of English prose—but he was also something else: a model of how a decent man comes to terms with the darker aspects of his own character. In Lincoln’s confession of his fascination with Macbeth he has left us a clue which, when taken together with certain passages from his speeches, and certain asides to his friends, amounts to the most elaborate and fascinating kind of confession. Those clues allow us to reconstruct, however imperfectly, the inner drama of a soul perplexed by its own ambitious yearnings—and permit us to glimpse the moral imagination of a civilized man in action.

Macbeth was Lincoln’s favorite play. Although he had a passing acquaintance with many of Shakespeare’s plays, he was more familiar with some than with others, and thought himself as intimate with a few as the scholars and actors who made it their profession to study them.3 "Some of Shakspeare’s [sic] plays I have never read," Lincoln wrote James Hackett, an actor and author of a book called Notes and Comments upon Certain Plays and Actors of Shakespeare, "while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader."4 Among the latter Lincoln included Lear, Richard III, and Hamlet.5 But of all the plays Macbeth fascinated Lincoln the most. "I think nothing equals Macbeth," he said.6

Any comprehensive interpretation of Lincoln must acknowledge how central a place Macbeth occupied in his imagination. If the Lincoln whom Garry Wills gave us, in Lincoln at Gettysburg, Americanized the funeral oration of Pericles, if the Lincoln whom Edmund Wilson gave us, in Patriotic Gore, Americanized the King James version of the Gospels, we must set beside these Lincolns still another Lincoln, the Lincoln who Americanized Macbeth, and who acted out something of its drama in his life.7 We should call it melodrama if we were dealing with a lesser man than Lincoln; but it is precisely because we are dealing with a man of Lincoln’s stature that melodrama is an inappropriate word. Lincoln had quite enough "force" to bring the thing off, even if the young Henry Adams failed to perceive it. (The twenty-three year old Adams, when he encountered Lincoln at the inaugural ball in 1861, saw only "a long, awkward figure; a plain, ploughed face; a mind, absent in part, and in part evidently worried by white kid gloves; . . . above all a lack of apparent force.")8 Lincoln was peculiarly drawn to Macbeth; and if he believed that nothing could touch it, we are perfectly justified in supposing that nothing but it so profoundly touched him. We do injustice to a man when we ignore his contention that a particular text has moved him deeply and affected him powerfully. Where a text has touched a man’s passions in the way that Macbeth touched Lincoln’s, we have only to look, closely and carefully, to see how many and strong are the text’s connections to the circumstances of his life.

Like Shakespeare’s protagonist, Lincoln, too, was a man of "vaulting ambition."9 His law partner, William Herndon, thought him "inordinately ambitious," and likened the ambition that drove him to a "little engine" that "knew no rest."10 At low points in his career, when his ambitious desires went unsatisfied, Lincoln became sullen and dejected. In the dingy law office in Springfield he would sit, for hours at a time, "staring vacantly out the windows."11

But Lincoln was not merely an ambitious man; he was a man who, throughout his adult life, was fascinated by the question of what ambition is. Was it a good quality? A destructive one? As a young man Lincoln memorably sketched the character of the supremely ambitious man. In an 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Lincoln observed that, unlike those whose ambition aspired "to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair," the supremely ambitious man found no "gratification" in "supporting and maintaining an edifice" that had been erected by others.12 The presidency itself, Lincoln said, would never "satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon." The "[t]owering genius" of such men

disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. . . . Distinction will be . . . the paramount object [of the man who possesses such towering genius], and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being done, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.13 The thesis advanced by Lincoln in the Lyceum address is that ambition is a dangerous, even an evil quality. Although the ambitious man will sometimes gratify his desire for greatness by "doing good," he will "boldly" set about doing "harm" if he sees no other path to distinction. It is not a particularly original insight; what is unusual about it is that it is the insight of a practicing politician. We are not used to finding a public man, a man of action, brooding over the ambition that compels him to act as he does. But if Lincoln was candid enough to admit—as he sometimes did—that he was an ambitious man, he was at the same time extraordinarily defensive about the nature of the ambition that drove him.14 He took pains to assure people that he had not been corrupted by ambition and that ambition had not influenced the most critical of his public actions. And yet, like Mark Anthony’s denial of Caesar’s ambition, the very vehemence of Lincoln’s assertions makes them somehow suspect.15 Consider the lengths to which Lincoln went to convince the nation that the part he played in the making of the Civil War was an altogether innocent one. In his second inaugural address Lincoln declared that on the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil-war. All dreaded it—all sought to avert it. . . . Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.16 The South, Lincoln maintained in his second inaugural address, made the war; the North—the remnant of the Union—merely accepted it. Or as Lincoln said to the South in 1861: "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war."17 Lincoln’s attitude is that of Caesar: civil war was the other side’s fault. "Hoc voluerunt," Caesar grunted when, in the aftermath of Pompey’s defeat, he surveyed the Roman dead at Pharsalus: "They would have it thus."18 As Caesar to his senatorial opponents, so Lincoln to his Southern ones. Hoc voluerunt.

But it was not true. The momentous issue of civil war had been in Lincoln’s hands as well. In the interval between his election to the presidency and his inauguration as president a committee of thirteen senators had attempted to negotiate a compromise between the states. Senator Crittenden of Kentucky had superintended their efforts. Even so sympathetic a biographer as Lord Charnwood observed that the responsibility of bringing these negotiations to an end "must probably be attributed to the advice of Lincoln."19 Others might in the end have wrecked the attempt at compromise; but the fact remains, Lord Charnwood wrote, that "Lincoln did wreck it, at a time when it seemed likely to succeed, and it is most probable that thereby he caused the Civil War."20

Lincoln’s attempt to minimize the role he himself played in fomenting civil war is immediately apparent in the disingenuousness of the rhetoric he employed after his election to the presidency. Lincoln studiously maintained that his single overriding goal—his "paramount object" in the great crisis before him—was to preserve the Union. But this assertion was not true.21 Lincoln’s paramount object, when he assumed the presidency, was to prevent the extension of slavery into the vast territories of the American West. Lincoln’s opposition to territorial slavery formed the very core of his mature political program. It had reinvigorated his political career; it had inspired his supporters; it had enabled him to embarrass Stephen A. Douglas in their great debates; it had won him the Republican nomination for the presidency; it had been the first principle of his presidential campaign. Lincoln, ever since the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, had been deeply and passionately committed to keeping the pristine territories of the West free from the scourge of slavery.22 And yet, however passionately held Lincoln’s convictions might have been, if preservation of the Union really had been his paramount object in the winter of 1860-61, he would almost certainly have been willing to compromise on the supposedly subordinate question of territorial slavery if by doing so he could have preserved the republic. For as the Southern states began, one by one, to secede from the Union—South Carolina was the first to go, on December 20, 1860—it was obvious that Lincoln’s position threatened to tear the country apart.

The compromise toward which Senator Crittenden was working—a restoration of the old Missouri prohibition of slavery north of latitude 36º30'—was one which ought to have been acceptable to Lincoln.23 Lincoln had, in the past, defended the Missouri bargain: he had repeatedly appealed for its restoration, and he had vigorously chastised those politicians who, like Senator Douglas, had departed from its tenets.24 A few encouraging words from the President-elect about Crittenden’s efforts might have meliorated, perhaps even diffused, the crisis. But no words came. "They seek a sign," Lincoln said, "and no sign shall be given them."25 The Southerners were bluffing, he declared, even though he had every reason to take them seriously; their talk of disunion was only a "trick by which the South breaks down every Northern man."26 "Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery," Lincoln instructed William Kellogg, a Republican congressman from Illinois, in December 1860.27 "The tug has to come & better now than later."28 The man who claimed that his paramount object was to preserve the Union was gambling recklessly with its future in the winter of 1860-61, playing a dangerous game of chicken with the South.

Lincoln’s position on the question of territorial slavery was, of course, an eminently just one. It was so just, indeed, that Lincoln was probably right to have refused to enter into any compromise concerning it, even though, by refusing, he put the Union in the gravest peril of its history. What is troubling is not that Lincoln should have refused to compromise on the question of territorial slavery, but that he should have concealed that refusal beneath the lofty rhetoric of Union. As part of this strategy of concealment Lincoln referred to the question of territorial slavery only twice in his first inaugural address, even as he conceded that that question was the "only substantial" one in "dispute" between the sections.29 At first glance Lincoln’s refusal to address in any comprehensive way what he called "the naked question," the "only substantial dispute" facing the nation, is striking; only gradually does it become apparent that Lincoln had reason to say as little about the dispute as possible.30 His opposition to territorial slavery had served its purpose. It had carried him to the White House. And it had created the kind of crisis which an ambitious man could not help but love: a crisis that would enable him to realize all of those visions of glory that had fascinated him since his youth, a crisis that would permit him to compete with Washington himself for a supreme place in the pantheon of the nation’s heroes. (Before he left Springfield to take up the presidency, Lincoln observed that the task before him was "greater than that which rested upon Washington."31) For Lincoln to have talked about the question of territorial slavery after his election to the presidency would have served only to remind Americans that the crisis of the Union—a crisis that, in Lincoln’s words, threatened to sever the "bonds of affection" that bound the nation together and to cut the "mystic chords of memory" that united its citizens32—had its origins in a dispute which even then could have been settled by means of artful political compromise.

The rhetorical sleight of hand that Lincoln performed in the first inaugural address—the smooth and plausible way in which he transformed himself from an ambitious partisan in a political and moral dispute into a righteous champion of Union and constitutional order—was a masterful one, one that enabled him to escape, evade, deny, responsibility for the conflagration that ensued. "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war." Perhaps it was impossible for Lincoln to have been any more candid than this when, on that March day in 1861, he took the oath of office on the steps of the Capitol. Perhaps it was impossible, on that late winter day, for him to have admitted that his own principles—and his own ambitions—had played a part in provoking the crisis the country now faced. But if Lincoln could not have made this admission when the crisis was at its height, when its outcome was still in doubt, when its satisfactory resolution was by no means certain, then he should have made the admission—there was a need for him to make the admission—when, at the time of the second inaugural address, the War was almost over. In March 1865 there was no need for those fighting words, those distortions of truth, which are sometimes necessary when the outcome of a great struggle has not yet been decided. For in March 1865 the outcome of the struggle was no longer in doubt. The War was nearly over. General Sherman, at the head of sixty thousand troops, had reached the sea. The surrender of General Lee at Appomattox Court House was a month away. When, in his second inaugural address, the President spoke of the need to bind up, charitably and without malice, the nation’s wounds, he ought to have acknowledged the role his own opposition to territorial slavery had played in the painful, but perhaps necessary, process that had resulted in civil war. Truth is great and will prevail; but this particular truth was one which Abraham Lincoln did not want to prevail.

Why was he afraid of the truth? Why did he wish to minimize the part his opposition to territorial slavery had played in the "making" of the Civil War? Lincoln was not Caesar, he was not Bonaparte, he was not a bad man who deliberately sought to pull down a republic. Why then did he distort truth, why did he engage in a propagandistic cover-up, why did he attempt, in his second inaugural address, to rewrite history, in the way that bad men do? Caesar’s Bellum Civile is a more accurate depiction of the causes of the Roman civil war than the second inaugural address is of our American one. The mystery becomes all the greater when we reflect that Lincoln did not need to cover up the truth. The ambition that led him to oppose the extension of slavery, to thumb his nose in the face of the South, and to risk the republic itself in a war that cost over half a million Americans their lives was a just ambition, harnessed to a noble cause. But even just ambition, Lincoln knew, has an element of tawdriness in it. And even just ambition has the power to haunt a man’s mind.

The theme of Macbeth—the theme of the perversity of ambition—obsessed Abraham Lincoln. Even in other of Shakespeare’s plays it is the theme of perverse ambition—the theme of Macbeth—that preoccupied and fascinated him. "Unlike you gentlemen of the profession," Lincoln wrote James Hackett in the summer of 1863, "I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing, ‘O, my offense is rank, [and smells to heaven,]’ surpasses that commencing, ‘To be, or not to be.’ But pardon this small attempt at criticism."33 In Hamlet the haunted words of Claudius, the king who murdered a brother to gain a throne, fascinate Lincoln, not the words of Hamlet himself, the ineffectual intellectual who, in contrast to Claudius, Macbeth, and Lincoln himself, was unable to translate ambition into action. It is not surprising that Lincoln cited Richard III as one of Shakespeare’s plays, along with Hamlet and Macbeth, that affected him most powerfully. Abraham Lincoln, as ambitious a man as any America has produced, was fully versed in the greatest literature of ambition. As the Civil War drew closer to its conclusion, that literature helped him to come to terms with what he and others had done.

After he had killed Duncan, Macbeth imagined that he would never sleep again:

Macbeth: Methought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep," the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast,—

Lady Macbeth: What do you mean?

Macbeth: Still it cried, "Sleep no more!" to all the house:
"Glamis hath murder’d sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more!"34

Lincoln was drawn to Macbeth’s lines about sleep. In April 1865, after a visit to the headquarters of the army at City Point, Virginia, Lincoln returned to Washington aboard the steamer River Queen with Senators Sumner and James Harlan and a young French nobleman, the Marquis de Chambrun. For several hours Lincoln read passages from Macbeth aloud to the party.35 Chambrun and Sumner remembered that Lincoln dwelt particularly on Macbeth’s lines about Duncan, which he read over twice: Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Can touch him further. . . .36
Within the week Lincoln would himself be dead, and the words that so intrigued him in the last days of his life have come in retrospect to seem prophetic. But for Lincoln himself Macbeth’s words were not prophecy; he had a different reason for dwelling on them. Duncan might have "slept well": but Lincoln himself did not. Lincoln, like Macbeth, slept rather "in the affliction of . . . terrible dreams" that shook him nightly.37 He dreamt of a horrible accident involving his son Tad’s gun. "Think you better take ‘Tad’s’ pistol away," he wired his wife from the White House. "I had an ugly dream about him."38 In March he dreamt that the White House was on fire.39 A few days before his death, Edmund Wilson noted, Lincoln had another nightmare, in which he saw a "crowd of people hurrying to the East Room of the White House." When he followed them there, he "found his own body laid out and heard voices saying, ‘Lincoln is dead.’ "40 But the nightmares that disturbed Lincoln’s sleep and troubled his dreams do not by themselves explain the fatigue he felt in 1865; they do not by themselves explain the longing for the oblivion of sleep that led him to linger over Macbeth’s words. When journalist Noah Brooks suggested to the President that he needed rest, Lincoln replied, "I suppose it is good for the body. But the tired part of me is inside and out of reach."41 On the River Queen Lincoln marveled at how "true a description of the murderer" Shakespeare’s portrait of Macbeth was: "the dark deed achieved," Lincoln said, "its tortured perpetrator came to envy the sleep of his victim."42 Lincoln knew why.

"Better be with the dead," Macbeth said, "Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace."43 Duncan was at peace; but Macbeth, like Lincoln, lived, lived to know "the torture" of a mind consumed in "restless ecstasy":

0! full of Scorpions is my mind, dear wife!44 Although David Herbert Donald, in his life of Lincoln, paints a picture of a chief executive who was surprisingly contented in the late winter and early spring of 1865—a man who "showed no trace of any late-night anguish over his own responsibility for the conflict"—this contentedness was largely superficial.45 Lincoln had found the presidency "a harrowing experience," Edmund Wilson said.46 He was "shaken," Richard Hofstadter wrote, by the burden of the office, by "a burden of responsibility terrifying in its dimensions."47 Lincoln may even have been stricken, Charles W. Ramsdell suggested, "by an awareness of his own part in whipping up the crisis" that had led to the War.48 "Lincoln’s rage for personal success," Hofstadter wrote, "his external and worldly ambition, was quieted when he entered the White House, and he was at last left alone to reckon with himself."49 The moral pressure was excruciating, and it had its effect on Lincoln’s robust constitution. Visitors to the White House noted the "anxiety and weariness" in his face, the "drooping eyelids" that looked "almost swollen," the "dark bags beneath the eyes."50 When his old friend Joshua Speed saw him ten days before the second inauguration, he was astonished by the President’s condition. "I am very unwell now," Lincoln told Speed, "my feet and hands of late seem always to be cold, and I ought perhaps to be in bed."51 Although he conducted himself more nobly and more magnanimously than did Macbeth, and although he had, unlike Macbeth, been motivated by principle as well as by ambition, Lincoln was a no less haunted man, a fact which certain of the photographs taken near the end of his life reveal to be true, photographs which never fail to produce an unaccountable tremor of emotion even if one has seen them a hundred times.

Lincoln did not, of course, become recklessly bloody in the way that Macbeth did:

I am in blood
Stepp’d so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.52
But if Lincoln did not become as personally bloody as Macbeth, he nevertheless resigned himself to rates of casualty from which even an ambitious man might have shrunk in the winter of 1860-61, could he have foreseen them. The rates of casualty sustained during the Civil War were without precedent in American history. They have never since been equaled. The anguished cry of Macbeth’s Scotland was also the cry of Lincoln’s America: Bleed, bleed, poor country. . . .53 The man who in 1865 composed the second inaugural address was haunted by the ocean of blood that had been spilt in four years’ time: Yet, if God wills that it [the War] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."54 This is almost a précis of Macbeth’s own words: "blood will have blood."55 Of course the sin to be expiated in the second inaugural address is the sin of slavery, not the sin of ambition, a sin for which the entire nation, and not simply the South, was to be punished. Lincoln observed that neither the prayer of the North nor the prayer of the South had been "answered fully."56 The Civil War, Lincoln said, could be ascribed to nothing other than "the providence of God": "He gives to both North and South," he continued, "this terrible War."57 But if Lincoln succeeded in convincing the nation of the truth of this providential interpretation of the War, it may be doubted whether he succeeded in convincing himself.58 If he had succeeded in convincing himself that he was merely the agent of God’s will—an "accidental instrument," as he sometimes liked to call himself—he would never have been as haunted by the War, and by its appalling bloodshed, as he so obviously was.59 Lincoln was not John Brown. He was not an Old Testament prophet, eager to purge a land with blood. On the contrary, he was an ambitious pagan, of the "family of the lion, the tribe of the eagle."60 And he shuddered to think what his ambition, together with his principles, had helped to provoke.

It is true that Lincoln believed he was implicated in the general sin of slavery simply by virtue of the fact that he was an American, the citizen of a nation in which human bondage had been woven into the fabric of the Constitution. But it is difficult to believe that Lincoln’s recognition of his own complicity in the institution of slavery was the primary cause of the guilt he felt when he contemplated the agony of civil war. It was not for this reason that Lincoln was reading and re-reading Macbeth in 1865, taking it with him on boat trips on the Potomac, reciting its poetry aloud to his friends, allowing its imagery to saturate his mind and penetrate his dreams. If Lincoln tells us, in the second inaugural address, that in God’s eyes the Northerner is hardly less guilty than the Southerner where slavery is concerned, he also tells us that, in his own eyes, it is the Southerner who is far more obviously, viscerally, directly guilty:

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we not be judged. . . . The Almighty has His own purposes.61 The Almighty might view a Northerner like Lincoln as no less guilty than a Southerner like Edmund Ruffin or Jefferson Davis. But Lincoln tells us that he himself has never been able to acquiesce in this belief. Lincoln says "judge not that ye not be judged" only after he himself has rendered very efficient judgment.

Lincoln’s own indirect complicity in slavery cannot explain the anguish he felt when he contemplated the tragedy of civil war. Knowledge that slavery "was, somehow, the cause of the War"62 rather assuaged than provoked his conscience. For in so far as slavery was the cause of the War, Lincoln was himself guiltless, or was at least no more guilty than any other American, and perhaps a good deal less guilty than the Southern ones; he had not the blood of six hundred thousand men personally on his hands. Lincoln anguished over the ocean of blood spilt in the course of the Civil War precisely because he could never satisfy himself that slavery and Southern recalcitrance were the sole causes of the War; he had always to wonder to what extent his own decision not to compromise on the question of territorial slavery—a decision prompted both by principle and by ambition—had caused it. Lincoln was not so self-righteous as John Brown was, or as the second inaugural address makes him seem. He had blood on his hands; and the knowledge that it was a just God who willed that he have blood on his hands was not always a consolation. Did Lincoln believe that he was doing the work of a divine providence? Edmund Wilson believed that he did.63 But did not Macbeth, in fulfilling the prophecies of the Weird Sisters, believe that he had been led on by the "air-drawn dagger" of fate?64 However justifiable his actions were, Lincoln knew that he had the blood of a nation on his hands: and there were times when even a conception of providential will, and a consciousness of principled ambition, did not sufficiently answer to the purpose of washing them clean:

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.65
In his moment of triumph, at the end of a great war in which the forces under his command won an astonishing victory, Abraham Lincoln re-read Macbeth, and reflected on how costly a thing is even a just ambition. This willingness to explore, however indirectly, the darker recesses, the secret places, of his own character, this willingness to throw light upon the "black and deep desires" latent within him—at a time when lesser men would have been conscious only of the glory of the moment—is evidence of the sensitivity of Lincoln’s conscience, the power of his moral imagination, and the greatness of his heart.66

He did not, of course, resolve the problem of ambition; no one ever will. But he acknowledged that the problem existed, and he used the resources provided by the larger civilization—resources that included the tragic poetry of Macbeth—to come to terms with it. His fascination with Macbeth explains as nothing else does why Lincoln was willing, in Hofstadter’s words, to take upon himself "the moral burden of the War."67 Shakespeare taught him that there was no other way.68

A conscience as sensitive as Lincoln’s is the perfection and flower of our civilization, and helps explain many of the blessings we enjoy today. We have only a very imperfect idea of how such consciences are formed, and an even less perfect idea of why they develop more fully in some than in others. That the development of conscience is somehow connected to the resources—moral, literary, spiritual—of a particular civilization seems probable; but the precise nature of the connection remains obscure. We can only hope that our American civilization has still the resources to produce leaders with the kind of highly developed conscience, the kind of highly developed moral imagination, that Abraham Lincoln possessed.

To be haunted by something one has seen in oneself, to be haunted by the concrete facts, the bloody facts, of one’s own capacity for evil, to confront some ugliness in oneself, an ugliness previously suppressed, or successfully ignored, but now nakedly visible—this is not the only way to attain self-knowledge, and to stimulate the development of the moral imagination. It is the tragic way. "To know my deed," Macbeth says, " ‘Twere best not know myself."69 The tragic protagonist goes mad, and eats grass; or he redeems himself through an act of profound expiation. Lincoln did not put his eyes out, as did Oedipus; nor did he "smote him[self] thus," as did Othello, or "by self and violent hands" take "off" his life, as Lady Macbeth is thought to have done.70 But how careless he was of his life, and how carelessly did he expose his tall figure to the fire of the rebel guns.71 If Lincoln did not, like Othello and Lady Macbeth, "take off his life," he yet dreamt of his death. Edmund Wilson thought he almost longed for it. Lincoln, Wilson wrote,

must have suffered far more than he ever expressed from the agonies and griefs of the War, and it was morally and dramatically inevitable that this prophet who had crushed opposition and sent thousands of men to their deaths should finally attest his good faith by laying down his own life with theirs.72 When Wilkes Booth, bred up in Shakespeare, assassinated the sixteenth President, he thought in the obvious terms of Julius Caesar: sic semper tyrannis.73 But Lincoln himself, who had also been bred up in Shakespeare, and who had always about him a well-worn copy of Shakespeare’s works, could only have thought in terms of Macbeth: It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood. . . .74 We rightly view Lincoln, not only as our greatest national hero, but also as our most totally and deeply tragic one.75 A tragic hero, however, is not a saint, for in the hero there is villainy as well as nobility, evil as well as good. "There is rarely any rising but by a commixture of good and evill arts," Bacon said.76 Lincoln knew how true Bacon’s observation was. "There are few things," he said, which are "wholly evil, or wholly good."77 There is perhaps villainy as well as nobility, evil as well as good, even in the saints themselves. Those who doubt it must look again into Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Lincoln left no Confessions behind him; but in his confession of his intimacy with Macbeth he may be seen to have composed the subtlest kind of apology. Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?78 * Michael Knox Beran is the author of The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy, a biography which was selected as one of the New York Times's notable books for 1998. [Back]

1 "The model of perfect English": the facsimile print of the Bixby letter is in the possession of the author. [Back]

2 Nicolay may have drafted the Bixby letter: David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 680n. [Back]

3 Cf. William Herndon, Life of Lincoln (New York: Da Capo, 1983), 257. [Back]

4 Lincoln to James H. Hackett, August 17, 1863, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings: 1859-1865 (New York: Library of America, 1989), 493. Hackett as author of Notes and Comments upon Certain Plays and Actors of Shakespeare, with Criticism and Correspondence (1863): see Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 746n. Hackett as actor: David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, 569. [Back]

5 Among the latter Lincoln included Lear, Richard III, and Hamlet: Lincoln to James H. Hackett, August 17, 1863, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 493. [Back]

6 Lincoln to James H. Hackett, August 17, 1863, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 493. [Back]

7 Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992); Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1984), 99-106. [Back]

8 Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (New York: Library of America, 1983), 817. [Back]

9 Shakespeare, Macbeth, I, vii, 28. References are to the Yale Shakespeare, edited by Wilbur L. Cross and Tucker Brooke (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993). [Back]

10 Inordinately ambitious: William Herndon, Life of Lincoln, 162. A little engine that knew no rest: ibid., 304. [Back]

11 David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, 163-64. Herndon said that the law office in Springfield was "dingy." See William Herndon, Life of Lincoln, 365. [Back]

12 Lincoln, Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield: The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions, January 27, 1838, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1832-1858 (New York: Library of America, 1989), 34. [Back]

13 Ibid., 34-35 (emphases in original). [Back]

14 Lincoln was candid enough to admit that he was ambitious: see Lincoln, On Stephen Douglas, circa December 1856, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, 384 ("Even then, we were both ambitious . . ."). Observing that Lincoln "was unquestionably ambitious," Douglas L. Wilson draws attention to Springfield lawyer Albert Taylor Bledsoe’s assertion that, while Lincoln was "honest and truthful in all the ordinary affairs of life," he was "no stickler for truth in contests before the people for political office and power." "On the contrary," Bledsoe maintained, Lincoln "entertained the opinion, that ‘all is fair in politics.’ It was one of his favorite maxims, that ‘we must fight the devil with fire’; that is, with his own weapons." Douglas L. Wilson, Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Knopf, 1998), 315-16. [Back]

15 Cf. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, III, ii, 76-111. [Back]

16 Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 686 (emphases in original). [Back]

17 Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 223 (emphases in original). [Back]

18 Suetonius, Divus Julius, 30, 4; see the Loeb Classical Library, Suetonius I, 42-43. See also Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (London: Oxford, 1960), 50. [Back]

19 Lord Charnwood, Abraham Lincoln (New York: Henry Holt, 1917), 192. [Back]

20 Ibid., 194. [Back]

21 Lincoln explicitly stated that his "paramount object" was to "save the Union" in his famous August 22, 1862, letter to Horace Greeley: see Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 385. That saving the Union was Lincoln’s paramount object before 1863 is implicit in his first inaugural address: see Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 215-24, and the argument of this essay below. [Back]

22 Lincoln himself noted that the 14th section of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of May 30, 1854, "repeals the Missouri Compromise": Lincoln, Editorial in the Illinois Journal, September 11, 1854, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, 305. Lincoln’s political career appeared moribund in the early 1850s; but "the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused him again." William Herndon, Life of Lincoln, 291. Lincoln had at last found "his great idea." Herndon, Life of Lincoln, 313. After the enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska legislation in 1854, Lincoln gave a series of brilliant and passionate speeches—at Peoria on October 16, 1854; at Bloomington in May 1856 (only a newspaper account survives of this speech, a speech "full of fire and energy and force," one which Lincoln delivered to "deafening applause"); at Kalamazoo on August 27, 1856. The speeches culminate in the "House Divided" speech delivered at Springfield on June 16, 1858. [Back]

23 Senator John J. Crittenden proposed "to extend the Missouri Compromise line through the national territories, prohibiting slavery north of that line but establishing and maintaining it with federal protection south of that line." David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, 268. [Back]

24 "The Missouri Compromise ought to be restored," Lincoln declared in
his speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria on October 16, 1854: see Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, 335. To his friend Joshua F. Speed, Lincoln wrote that "the destruction of the Missouri Compromise . . . was nothing less than violence. . . . In my humble sphere, I shall advocate the restoration of the Missouri Compromise." Lincoln to Joshua F. Speed, August 24, 1855, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, 361-62. In the Peoria speech Lincoln spoke of the need for a "spirit of compromise" in dealing with the vexing question of slavery; and he said that he "would consent to the extension of it [i.e., slavery] rather than see the Union dissolved." Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, 335, 333. In the winter of 1860-61, however, Lincoln was unwilling to compromise on the question of territorial slavery; he was prepared to consent to the dissolution of the Union rather than acquiesce in any extension of it. See note 27 below. [Back]

25 David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, 261. [Back]

26 Ibid., 260. [Back]

27 Lincoln to William Kellogg, December 11, 1860, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 190 (emphasis in original). Cf. Lincoln to William H. Seward, February 1, 1861, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 197 ("I say now, however, as I have all the while said, that on the territorial question—that is, the question of extending slavery under the national auspices,—I am inflexible"). [Back]

28 Lincoln to William Kellogg, December 11, 1860, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings: 1859-1865, 190. [Back]

29 "One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended. That is the only substantial dispute." Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 221 (emphases in original). [Back]

30 "The question is simply this:—Shall slavery be spread into the new Territories, or not? This is the naked question." Lincoln, Speech at Kalamazoo, August 27, 1856, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, 376. [Back]

31 Lincoln, Farewell Address at Springfield, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 199. [Back]

32 Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 224. [Back]

33 Lincoln to James H. Hackett, August 17, 1863, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 493. [Back]

34 Shakespeare, Macbeth, II, ii, 46-55. [Back]

35 Cf. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, 580. [Back]

36 Shakespeare, Macbeth, III, ii, 25-29. Sumner remembered that Lincoln read the lines over twice: Lord Charnwood, Abraham Lincoln, 448. Chambrun’s recollection: see David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, 580. The voyage from City Point took two days; the River Queen set out on Saturday, April 8, and arrived in Washington on Sunday, April 9, where Lincoln received word of General Lee’s surrender. Lincoln read aloud from Macbeth on Sunday, April 9. Lord Charnwood, Abraham Lincoln, 448. [Back]

37 Cf. Shakespeare, Macbeth, III, ii, 19-21 (" . . . and sleep / In the affliction of these terrible dreams / That shake us nightly"). [Back]

38 Lincoln to Mary Todd Lincoln, June 9, 1863, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 453. [Back]

39 David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, 572. [Back]

40 Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore, 128. [Back]

41 Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Vintage, 1974), 173. Cf. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1998), 43, 239n ("It is a great relief to get away from Washington and the politicians. But nothing touches the tired spot"). [Back]

42 David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, 580. [Back]

43 Shakespeare, Macbeth, II, ii, 21-22. [Back]

44 Shakespeare, Macbeth, III, ii, 41. [Back]

45 David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, 566. [Back]

46 Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore, 130. [Back]

47 Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, 171-72. [Back]

48 Ibid., 172. [Back]

49 Hofstadter, American Political Tradition, 171. [Back]

50 David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, 446. [Back]

51 William Herndon, Lincoln, 424. Cf. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, 568. [Back]

52 Shakespeare, Macbeth, III, iv, 167-69. [Back]

53 Shakespeare, Macbeth, IV, iii, 36. [Back]

54 Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 687. [Back]

55 Shakespeare, Macbeth, III, iv, 151. [Back]

56 Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 687. [Back]

57 Ibid. [Back]

58 But cf. Lincoln, Meditation on the Divine Will, circa September 1862, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings: 1859-1865, 359. It is an early statement of a theme that Lincoln would work into the second inaugural address. [Back]

59 An accidental instrument: Lincoln, Reply to Oliver P. Morton at Indianapolis, February 11, 1861, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 200. Cf. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, 275. [Back]

60 Cf. Lincoln, Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield: The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, 34. [Back]

61 Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings: 1859-1865, 687. [Back]

62 That slavery "was, somehow, the cause of the War": Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings: 1859-1865, 686. [Back]

63 See Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore, 99-106. [Back]

64 Shakespeare, Macbeth, III, iv, 75; cf. Shakespeare, Macbeth, II, 1, 41-72. [Back]

65 Shakespeare, Macbeth, II, ii, 76-79. [Back]

66 Cf. Shakespeare, Macbeth, I, iv, 58-59: ". . . Stars, hide your fires; / Let not light see my black and deep desires . . . ." [Back]

67 Hofstadter, American Political Tradition, 171. [Back]

68 But cf. Nietzsche’s assertion, in Daybreak, that whoever "thinks that Shakespeare’s theatre has a moral effect, and that the sight of Macbeth irresistibly repels one from the evil of ambition, is in error . . . . He who is really possessed by raging ambition beholds this its image with joy; and if the hero perishes by his passion this precisely is the sharpest spice in the hot draught of this joy." Quoted in Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 519. Bloom endorses Nietzsche’s view when he states that "moral contexts . . . are simply irrelevant to Macbeth . . . ." Ibid., 539. [Back]

69 Shakespeare, Macbeth, II, ii, 91-92. [Back]

70 Shakespeare, Othello, V, ii, 406-ll (". . . Set you down this; / And say besides, that in Aleppo once, / Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk / Beat a Venetian and traduc’d the state, / I took by the throat the circumcised dog, / And smote him thus [He stabs himself] . . . .") Shakespeare, Macbeth, V, ii, 117-19 (". . . his fiendlike queen, / Who, as ’tis thought, by self and violent hands / Took off her life . . . .") [Back]

71 Consider Lincoln’s visit to Fort Stevens in 1864: "When the Confederates came within shooting distance, an officer twice cautioned Lincoln to get down, but he paid no attention." David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, 519. Cf. the recollections of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in Sheldon M. Novack, Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes (New York: Laurel [Dell], 1989), 87-88. [Back]

72 Wilson, Patriotic Gore, 130. [Back]

73 Sic semper tyrannis: Booth’s words after shooting Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, Friday, April 14, 1865. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, 597. [Back]

74 Shakespeare, Macbeth, III, iv, 151. Lincoln carried with him a well-worn copy of Shakespeare and read it constantly: William Herndon, Life of Lincoln, 257. [Back]

75 See the conclusion of Wilson’s essay on Lincoln in Patriotic Gore, 127-30. [Back]

76 Francis Bacon, "Of Nobility," in Bacon, The Essays, or Counsels Civill & Morall (Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1980), 43. [Back]

77 Lincoln, Speech in the United States House of Representatives on Internal Improvements, June 20, 1848, in Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, 192. [Back]

78 Shakespeare, Macbeth, V, i, 34-35 (words of Lady Macbeth). [Back]

Updated 1 July 2023