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Abe & Fido
By Matthew Algeo
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2015 Matthew Algeo
All rights reserved.
Had he died in 1855, Abraham Lincoln's life would have been judged a great success, the epitome of what later generations would call the American Dream. Born into poverty in a Kentucky log cabin on February 12, 1809, he'd practically taught himself to read and write. As a young man he moved to Illinois, where he studied law (again, independently), and with his friend William Herndon, built a thriving law practice in the state capital, Springfield. He'd served four terms in the Illinois legislature and one in the US House of Representatives. And he'd married well: Mary Todd, whom he'd wed in 1842, came from a distinguished (and, certainly by Lincoln's standards, wealthy) Kentucky family. He and Mary had three children: Robert, Willie, and Tad. (Their second son, Edward, had died just short of his fourth birthday in 1850.)
Abraham Lincoln had earned universal respect among those who knew him well. He was one of Springfield's most beloved and trusted citizens, renowned for his fairness as well as his good humor.
Yet in 1855 Lincoln considered himself a failure. At times he might even have wished he were dead. Early that year, shortly before his forty-sixth birthday, he'd narrowly lost a bid for a seat in the US Senate. At the time, senators were chosen by state legislatures. In Illinois the legislature comprised seventy-five representatives and twenty-five senators, so fifty-one votes were needed to win a seat. On the first ballot, Lincoln, running as the Whig candidate, received forty-five. But his vote total diminished with each succeeding ballot, and the seat eventually went to Lyman Trumbull, an antislavery Democrat who would go on to serve three terms in the Senate. (Trumbull cowrote the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery.)
Publicly, Lincoln was stoic. He congratulated Trumbull and even attended his victory party, where he admitted he was disappointed, though "not too disappointed to congratulate my friend Trumbull." (Later Lincoln would hail Trumbull "for his rigid honesty, his high-toned independence, & his unswerving devotion to principle.")
Privately, however, Lincoln was devastated, and the loss plunged him into a deep depression. According to his law partner, William Herndon, Lincoln "thirsted for public notice and hungered — longed for approbation and when he did not get that notice or that approbation — and was not thoroughly appreciated ... he writhed under it."
Elihu B. Washburne, a congressman from Illinois (and future US secretary of state) who was one of Lincoln's staunchest supporters, later wrote that "no event in Mr. Lincoln's entire political career ... brought to him so much disappointment and chagrin" as his defeat in the 1855 Senate race.
"I never saw him so dejected," another supporter, Joseph Gillespie, remembered. "He said the fates seemed to be against him and he thought he would never strive for office again."
Lincoln had devoted so much time and energy to the Senate race that he had neglected his law practice, and immediately afterward he was forced to "pick up [his] lost crumbs." That summer he jumped at the chance to join a team of lawyers representing John H. Manny, the inventor of a mechanical reaper, who was being sued by Cyrus Hall McCormick for patent infringement.
Manny's legal team was headed by a Philadelphia lawyer named George Harding. Since he expected the case to be tried in a federal court in Chicago, Harding thought it would be a good idea to have an Illinois lawyer on the team, though, he noted condescendingly, "we were not likely to find a lawyer there who would be of real assistance in arguing such a case." Harding was referred to Lincoln and offered him a $400 retainer — roughly $10,000 in today's money — which Lincoln gladly accepted.
Unexpectedly, the court moved the case to Cincinnati. When Lincoln showed up for the trial, he found his presence neither expected nor welcomed. Harding, who had never seen Lincoln in person before, described him as "a tall, rawly boned, ungainly backwoodsman, with coarse, ill-fitting clothing." Another lawyer on Manny's team, the brilliant Edwin M. Stanton, was equally unimpressed with the poorly clad Illinoisan, whom he dismissed as "a low-down country lawyer."
"Why did you bring that d — — d long armed Ape here," Stanton asked Harding. "He does not know any thing and can do you no good." Lincoln was relegated to the role of spectator during the weeklong trial. And even though he stayed in the same hotel as the other lawyers, none of them would deign to speak with him. He was completely ostracized. Harding later admitted that neither he nor Stanton "ever conferred with him, ever had him at our table or sat with him, or asked him to our room, or walked to or from the court with him, or, in fact, had any intercourse with him." (Incidentally, their client won the case.)
It was a humiliating experience for Lincoln. When he returned to Springfield, he confided to his law partner, William Herndon, that he had been "roughly handled" in Cincinnati. (Still, never one to hold a grudge, Lincoln would make Edwin Stanton his secretary of war in 1862. For his part Stanton would later admit, "What a mistake I made about that man when I met him in Cincinnati.")
His mistreatment at the hands of Manny's lawyers, coupled with his failed bid to win the Senate seat earlier that year, only deepened Lincoln's depression. In fact, he'd been acting erratically for some time. His friend and fellow lawyer Henry Clay Whitney, who sometimes shared a room with Lincoln when the two men traveled the judicial circuit, said Lincoln suffered from nightmares. One night Whitney awoke to find his roommate "sitting up in his bed ... talking the wildest and most incoherent nonsense all to himself." Whitney said a "stranger to Lincoln would have supposed he had suddenly gone insane."
Throughout his life, Lincoln was tortured by self-doubt, haunted by what he called "the hypo," short for hypochondriasis, a common term back then for depression and intense anxiety. Always cognizant of his own mortality, he measured his achievements against his ambitions and felt he'd come up short. He dwelled on goals unmet, dreams unfulfilled. Henry Clay Whitney said he "had never seen him so melancholy" as he was in 1855.
His home on the corner of Eighth and Jackson in Springfield offered little respite from his melancholia. His wife, Mary, was moody and cantankerous, prone to erratic behavior, with a penchant for spending more money than her husband earned from his law practice. Their children — twelve-year-old Bob, four-year-old Willie, and two-year-old Tad, all of whom Lincoln adored — were a handful, especially the youngest two, who conspired in all manner of mischief. Tad, who was born with a cleft palate and suffered from a speech impediment, was given to fits of frustrated rage. Much of the burden of raising the boys fell on Lincoln, as Mary, according to her cousin Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, was "always over-anxious."
Understandably, the light brown house at Eighth and Jackson was not always a happy place for Lincoln. Friends often noted that he seemed to prefer spending time away from his home, either riding the circuit on one of his trusty horses to litigate cases in distant locales, or just working long hours in his law office on the town square. David Davis, the judge who presided over the courts on Lincoln's circuit, remembered that Lincoln had a "strange disinclination to go home" and "was not domestically happy."
Something else was haunting Lincoln in 1855, looming over him and the rest of the country like a specter: slavery. It was the era's defining moral and political question, and Lincoln spent much time brooding over it. He had always found slavery reprehensible, but the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act the year before was forcing him (and the nation) to confront the issue once and for all. The act, sponsored by Stephen A. Douglas, a Democratic senator from Illinois and Lincoln's fiercest political rival, allowed each territory to decide for itself whether slavery would be permitted within its borders before applying for statehood. That decision would be made by a territorial legislature elected by the territory's (white male) residents. Supporters called this "popular sovereignty" and "the sacred right of self-government." Opponents called it a sham.
To Lincoln the Kansas-Nebraska Act was a transparent attempt to circumvent the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had effectively confined slavery to the South. Lincoln believed that the Constitution prohibited Congress from abolishing slavery in the states where it already existed, but he adamantly opposed its expansion beyond the borders of those states. This put him at odds with one of his oldest friends, Joshua Speed, whom Lincoln had met the day he moved to Springfield in 1837. When the twenty-eight-year-old Lincoln walked into Speed's general store and asked him how much a new mattress, sheets, and a pillow would cost, Speed said seventeen dollars. Lincoln said he didn't have that much money, so Speed made him a generous offer: "I have a large room with a double-bed upstairs, which you are very welcome to share with me."
"Where is your room?" Lincoln asked.
Speed pointed to the staircase.
Lincoln carried his saddlebags up the stairs, came back down, and announced: "Well, Speed, I am moved."
The two young men would share a bed for the next three years, a common arrangement at the time, though some have speculated that their relationship was not strictly platonic. Carl Sandburg, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Lincoln is as verbose as it is unreliable, described the relationship as "a streak of lavender and spots soft as May violets" in the life of the future president.
Whatever its nature, the relationship endured; Lincoln and Speed would remain lifelong friends, and in their correspondence Lincoln revealed as much about his inner feelings as he ever would. By 1855, Speed had moved back to his native Kentucky, where he oversaw his family's plantation, which was tended by a number of slaves. In a long, heartfelt letter to Speed dated August 24, 1855, Lincoln revealed much about his thinking on slavery at the time and, with uncanny empathy, his understanding of how the other side thought as well:
You know what a poor correspondent I am. Ever since I received your very agreeable letter of the 22nd. of May I have been intending to write you in answer to it. You suggest that in political action now, you and I would differ. I suppose we would; not quite as much, however, as you may think. You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it. So far there is no cause of difference. But you say that sooner than yield your legal right to the slave — especially at the bidding of those who are not themselves interested, you would see the Union dissolved. I am not aware that any one is bidding you to yield that right; very certainly I am not. I leave that matter entirely to yourself. I also acknowledge your rights and my obligations, under the constitution, in regard to your slaves. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio, there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union.
I do oppose the extension of slavery, because my judgment and feelings so prompt me; and I am under no obligation to the contrary. If for this you and I must differ, differ we must....
You say if Kansas fairly votes herself a free state, as a Christian you will rather rejoice at it. All decent slaveholders talk that way; and I do not doubt their candor. But they never vote that way. Although in a private letter, or conversation, you will express your preference that Kansas shall be free, you would vote for no man for Congress who would say the same thing publicly. No such man could be elected from any district in a slave-state....
Mary will probably pass a day to two in Louisville in October. My kindest regards to Mrs. Speed. On the leading subject of this letter, I have more of her sympathy that I have of yours.
And yet let [me] say I am Your friend forever
That same month, Lincoln wrote a letter to another Kentuckian, George Robertson, an eminent attorney who, during the debates over the Missouri Compromise thirty-five years earlier, had predicted "the peaceable elimination of slavery." Lincoln adamantly disagreed. He told Robertson that there was "no peaceful extinction of slavery in prospect for us." In his darkened mind, a civil war seemed inevitable.
"The Autocrat of all the Russias will resign his crown," he wrote in his letter to Robertson, "and proclaim his subjects free republicans sooner than will our American masters voluntarily give up their slaves."
In 1855 Abraham Lincoln found himself in a very dark place, facing an existential crisis. He had withdrawn from politics. He was reexamining his life. He was depressed by his own station, his perceived shortcomings, and the seemingly imminent dissolution of his beloved country. Biographer Michael Burlingame has described this period in Lincoln's life as his "midlife crisis."
So sometime that year, he got himself a dog: a yellow, long-eared mutt with a short bushy tail.
He named him Fido.
How Fido came to be part of the Lincoln family we do not know. He was probably a puppy at the time. We can imagine Lincoln walking home from work one evening and encountering an adorable stray: Lincoln, tall and lean in his stovepipe hat, bends his long frame to gently stroke the dog's mottled coat, and the pup follows him home. It's also possible that Willie or Tad found the dog and brought him home. Perhaps, as is often the case, it was the dog who adopted the family and not the other way around. One thing is certain: Lincoln did not buy the dog. While certain purebred dogs were bought and sold at the time, a mutt like Fido was so common as to be considered worthless.
Nor do we know precisely when Fido became part of the Lincoln family, but on this question a tantalizing clue lies buried in the dusty records of Diller's, a Springfield drugstore that went out of business during the Second World War. Jonathan Diller founded the business on the town square in 1839, and ten years later his cousin Roland Diller took it over. Roland Diller and his partner Charles Corneau would operate the pharmacy at various locations for the next sixty years, until 1899, when Roland's son Isaac took it over. Two years after that, in 1901, Isaac sold the business to go into real estate and insurance. Subsequent owners would run the pharmacy until 1945, when it finally closed for good after 106 years.
In the 1850s Diller's was much more than a drugstore. It was a local institution. Located near the state capitol, it was a kind of political clubhouse, where Springfield's business and political leaders gathered to discuss the issues of the day, great and small. As a prominent local attorney and sometime politician, Abraham Lincoln was naturally part of this coterie, and he and Roland Diller came to be good friends, despite the fact that Lincoln had once criticized Roland's cousin Jonathan, a Democrat, for being "an active partizan" when he served as the town's postmaster.
Diller's also sold candies, so the store was a popular hangout for local children as well, especially after a soda fountain was installed. In a 1900 letter to Roland Diller, Lincoln's eldest son, Robert, wrote, "It is far beyond my memory when I began to think Corneau & Diller's was a good place to go to, and I have no doubt all the boys of Springfield have been thinking so since I ceased to be a boy."
It was among the mortars and pestles at Diller's that Abraham Lincoln debated issues as momentous as slavery and as mundane as public sewers. He also filled orders for various medicines and toiletries at Diller's and kept an account there that he paid off annually.
Roland Diller was a relatively minor character in Lincoln's life, but he bequeathed history a unique perspective on his friend and faithful customer, for despite several relocations and a devastating fire in 1858, some of the drugstore's records have, amazingly, survived: three daybooks, three ledgers, and a blotter, some of which contain notations pertaining to purchases Lincoln made between 1849 and 1861. These mundane records shed light on the ordinary, everyday lives of Lincoln and his family. They report, for example, that the man who would become one of our greatest presidents stopped by Diller's to pick up a bottle of cologne for fifty cents on Tuesday, May 27, 1851. Many of the purchases (such as that cologne) were probably intended for Mary. Mary likely used regular purchases of "essence of coffee" — actually a concoction of dried molasses that was mixed with coffee — to treat her migraines. Mary was also the consumer of Wright's Indian Vegetable Pills, a patent medicine that promised to cure "sick headaches, hysterics, weak nerves, low spirits, female complaints, and stomach and lung disorders." For his children Lincoln purchased numerous remedies for respiratory ailments: hive syrup (for cough and croup), sweet oil (a chest rub), and Wistar's Balsam of Wild Cherry (a patent medicine for consumption, asthma, and bronchitis). And although he was a teetotaler, Lincoln also purchased several pints of brandy at Diller's, though, as the Lincoln historian James T. Hickey pointed out, "brandy, during this period, was extensively used for medicinal purposes, as well as canning, pickling, and cooking."
Excerpted from Abe & Fido by Matthew Algeo. Copyright © 2015 Matthew Algeo. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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