Just before Christmas 1859, the 50-year-old Lincoln looked back at his previous decade and noticed that it was split into two roughly equal parts. For the five years after 1849 (the year he wrapped up his single term in Congress), he’d “practiced law more assiduously than ever before.” So assiduously, that by 1854 he “was losing interest in politics” as a career.
But in that year he was “aroused again” as a potential candidate for office by “the repeal of the Missouri Compromise.” The specter of slavery extension north of the Missouri Compromise line of 36°30” — made possible by the Kansas-Nebraska Act — revived his taste for electoral battle.
Win or lose, he’d seized the issue that would crystallize his sharpest thinking, his strongest feeling, and his deftest political calculation. He would stake out a position at the center of northern opinion on slavery and cling to it with fierce resolve, hating slavery with the passion of an abolitionist, and loving union with the moderation of a conservative.
The rekindling of his political aspirations in 1854 gives the period 1849-1854 a special poignancy in the arc of his public career. It’s the last bloc of time in his life when he wasn’t sure how to proceed with his life. Ambitious for public service but lacking concrete options, Lincoln had settled into the law.
Yet for all his relentless activity on the legal circuit, this was a time of vocational limbo, perhaps even (as Michael Burlingame argues in Abraham Lincoln: A Life, vol. 1, pp. 357-62) a forty-something’s passage through a “mid-life crisis.”
His striking eulogy for President Zachary Taylor in the summer of 1850 suggests how his mind was churning. He was roaming widely and deeply in thought and feeling, connecting political and military affairs to timeless quandaries about the human condition.
Taylor died in the White House on July 9, after only 16 months in office. Two days earlier, Lincoln had arrived in Chicago to defend a client in U.S. District Court. On July 10, with the trial just under way, news of Taylor’s demise reached the city by telegraph. That evening, a meeting was held to pick the city’s eulogist, and the visiting lawyer and wordsmith from Springfield was promptly chosen.
Lincoln agreed to do the job — he didn’t “feel at liberty to decline” — but he warned the selection committee not to expect much. “The want of time for preparation,” he wrote, “will make the task for me a very difficult one to perform, in any degree satisfactory to others or to myself.”
When the trial ended on July 24 with exoneration for his client Charles Hoyt (found not guilty of infringing on another man’s water-wheel patent), Lincoln put the final touches on his speech and delivered it the following afternoon at City Hall.
In the main body of the eulogy, Lincoln dramatically recounted Taylor’s exploits in the Mexican War, going out of his way to praise him as an intrepid fighter in the very war Lincoln himself had opposed. This was one general, he said, who had fearlessly taken the battle to the enemy. This was also a leader who instinctively put the needs of the whole army, and nation, ahead of personal pique. By the usual standard of military honor, Taylor would have deprived Colonel William Worth (who’d spoken ill of Taylor in Washington) of further opportunities for heroism. Instead, he thought only of putting the best officers in place, and he judged Worth one of the best.
Lincoln was praising Taylor for selflessness as much as courage. Moral stature mattered in war and politics. It mattered in part, said Lincoln, because with his death, all that was left of Taylor or any other man was “the fruits of his labor, his name, his memory and example.”
Taylor’s sudden end called to Lincoln’s mind both the fragility of the republic — which other leader would now step forward to help rein in the people’s discordant passions? — and the evanescence of human life. The death of a great man like Taylor forced everyone to confront the brute fact “that we, too, must die.”
High office or privileged station offered no protection against the final leveling. Yes, personal virtue was revealed by the grandeur of one’s civic accomplishments, but it was also measured by a humble acceptance of life’s brevity. Lincoln pitched no rosy outcome for Taylor beyond the grave, and sang no hymn to the permanence of his fame.
The eulogist took heart instead from a steadfast stoicism, reminding the audience of Taylor’s last words: “I have done my duty, I am ready to go.” (As reported in the press on July 10, the president had said, “I die. I am ready for the summons. I have endeavored to do my duty. I am sorry to leave my old friends.”)
Lincoln went on to state that if they had served their nation with “singleness of purpose,” dying leaders would know they had secured “that country’s gratitude” and “its best honors.” Lincoln sealed his eulogy by reciting 6 of the 14 stanzas of William Knox’s 1818 poem “Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?” He selected verses stressing the common “pilgrimage road” that the living shared with the dead:
So the multitude goes, like the flower or the weed,
That withers away to let others succeed;
So the multitude comes, even those we behold,
To repeat every tale that has often been told.
By 1865, thanks to the wide reprinting of the eulogy, many people associatedthis poem with Lincoln. Some people thought he’d written it himself. After his death, hundreds of newspapers around the country ran the complete poem, many of them attributing it to him. They noted how often he’d recited it from memory, remembering his lost friends and family members. The final stanza got the most play, and it comforted many readers in part because they knew it had comforted him:
’Tis the wink of an eye, ’tis the draught of a breath,
From the blossoms of health, to the paleness of death.
From the gilded saloon, to the bier and the shroud,
Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud!