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The Soul of Abraham Lincoln by William Eleazor Barton

The Soul of Abraham Lincoln
by
William Eleazor Barton

CHAPTER XII

LINCOLN'S BURNT BOOK

In the chapter on the "Conditions of Lincoln's Young Manhood at New Salem "mention was made of the "book" which Lincoln is said to have written, opposed to the Christian religion, a book which his employer, Samuel Hill, is said to have snatched from his hand and thrown into the fire lest Lincoln's infidelity should ruin his political career. To have treated this subject at length would have thrown that chapter out of focus, and it is time that we should learn the truth about it.
Colonel Lamon tells us about this book thus: 
"He had made himself thoroughly familiar with the writings of Paine and Volney,—the Ruins by one and the Age of Reason by the other. His mind was full of the subject, and he felt an itching to write. He did write, and the result was a 'little book.' It was probably merely an extended essay, but it was ambitiously spoken of as a 'book' by himself and by the persons who were made acquainted with its contents. In this book he intended to demonstrate,—
"First, that the Bible was not God's revelation; and
"Secondly, that Jesus was not the Son of God." —Lamon, Life of Lincoln, pp. 157-58.
Lamon wrote this in 1872 of a book supposed to have been written by Lincoln and burned by Hill in 1834. We have already quoted from Herndon's account, but it is brief and for convenience will bear reading here in full: 
"In 1834, while still living in New Salem and before he became a lawyer, he was surrounded by a class of people exceedingly liberal in matters of religion. Volney's Ruins and Paine's Age of Reason passed from hand to hand, and furnished food for the evening's discussion in the tavern and village store. Lincoln read both these books and thus assimilated them into his own being. He prepared an extended essay—called by many a book—in which he made an argument against Christianity, striving to prove that the Bible was not inspired, and therefore not God's revelation, and that Jesus Christ was not the Son of God. The manuscript containing these audacious and comprehensive propositions he intended to have published or given a wide circulation in some other way. He carried it to the store, where it was read and freely discussed. His friend and employer, Samuel Hill, was among the listeners, and seriously questioning the propriety of a promising young man like Lincoln fathering such unpopular notions, he snatched the manuscript from his hands and thrust it into the stove. The book went up in flames, and Lincoln's political future was secure."—Herndon, III, 439, 440.
Mr. Herndon had already given this information to Lamon in another form, and Lamon used it in his list of certificates from Lincoln's old friends that Lincoln was an infidel. 
As printed in Lamon's book, Herndon's account of the burnt manuscript was communicated in the following letter: 
"As to Mr. Lincoln's religious views, he was, in short, an infidel, ... a theist. He did not believe that Jesus was God, nor the Son of God,—was a fatalist, denied the freedom of the will. Mr. Lincoln told me a thousand times, that he did not believe the Bible was the revelation of God, as the Christian world contends. The points that Mr. Lincoln tried to demonstrate [in his book] were: First, That the Bible was not God's revelation; and, Second, That Jesus was not the Son of God. I assert this on my own knowledge, and on my veracity. Judge Logan, John T. Stuart, James H. Matheny, and others, will tell you the truth. I say they will confirm what I say, with this exception,—they will make it blacker than I remember it. Joshua F. Speed of Louisville, I think, will tell you the same thing."—Lamon, Life of Lincoln, p. 489.
It is important to notice that we do not have two witnesses concerning this book, but only one. Lamon gives no evidence of having possessed any independent knowledge of the book.

His information was derived from Herndon. In the chapter on "Lincoln's Young Manhood" we considered how slight was Herndon's personal connection with New Salem. The town had vanished long before he ever visited the spot, and apparently the only time he ever spent there for the purpose of study was a Sunday afternoon and Monday morning, October 14 and 15, 1866. On the occasion of that visit he gathered the material for his lecture on Ann Rutledge. So far as we have evidence, he learned nothing at this time about Lincoln's burnt book. In his letter, written to be included in Lamon's biography, in which reference to this book is made, he says: "I assert this on my own knowledge and on my own veracity." That sentence appears at first reading to refer to Herndon's personal knowledge of the book, but a second reading with the context shows that Herndon does not mean to claim that he had personal knowledge of the book, but personal knowledge of Lincoln's belief or the lack of it.
Where did Herndon learn about this book?
He learned it from James H. Matheny, who had never seen the "book" but had received the information in confidence from Lincoln. It will be remembered that Matheny repudiated the supposed letter to Herndon which Lamon printed as from him and said that he never wrote it, but that Herndon compiled it from scraps of several conversations, and that it did not represent Matheny's opinion of Lincoln's ultimate religion. It is not necessary to suppose that either Herndon
or Lamon intended to misrepresent Matheny. Lamon had no original documents to work from and the copy which he received of Herndon's notes of Matheny's conversation he took to be the copy of a letter from Matheny and printed it as such. It appears to be quite clear that this was the only source of Herndon's knowledge of Lincoln's burnt book. The following is the report of these scraps of conversation with Matheny as Herndon wrote them down and as Lamon printed them:
"I knew Mr. Lincoln as early as 1834-5; know he was an infidel. He and W. D. Herndon used to talk infidelity in the clerk's office in this city, about the years 1837-40. Lincoln attacked the Bible and the New Testament on two grounds: first, from the inherent or apparent contradictions under its lids; second, from the grounds of reason. Sometimes he ridiculed the Bible and New Testament, sometimes seemed to scoff it, though I shall not use that word in its full and literal sense. I never heard that Lincoln changed his views, though his personal and political friend from 1834 to 1860. Sometimes Lincoln bordered on atheism. He went far that way, and often shocked me. I was then a young man and believed what my good mother told me. Stuart & Lincoln's office was in what was called Hoffman's Row, on North Fifth Street, near the public square. It was in the same building as the clerk's office, and on the same floor. Lincoln would come into the clerk's office, where I and some young men—Evan Butler, Newton Francis, and others—were writing or staying, and would bring the Bible with him; would read a chapter; argue against it. Lincoln then had a smattering of geology, if I recollect it. Lincoln often, if not wholly, was an atheist; at least, bordered on it. Lincoln was enthusiastic in his infidelity. As he grew older, he grew more discreet, didn't talk much before strangers about his religion; but to friends, close and bosom ones, he was always open and avowed, fair and honest; but to strangers, he held them off from policy. Lincoln used to quote Burns. Burns helped Lincoln to be an infidel, as I think; at least, he found in Burns a like thinker and feeler. Lincoln quoted 'Tarn o' Shanter.' 'What! send one to heaven, and ten to hell!' etc. 
"From what I know of Mr. Lincoln and his views of Christianity, and from what I know as honest and well founded rumor; from what I have heard his best friends say and regret for years; from what he never denied when accused, and from what Lincoln hinted and intimated, to say no more—he did write a little book on infidelity at or near New Salem, in Menard County, about the year 1834 or 1835. I have stated these things to you often. Judge Logan, John T. Stuart, yourself, know what I know, and some of you more.
"Mr. Herndon, you insist on knowing something which you know I possess, and got as a secret, and that is, about Lincoln's little book on infidelity. Mr. Lincoln did tell me that he did write a little book on infidelity. This statement I have avoided heretofore; but, as you strongly insist upon it,—probably to defend yourself against charges of misrepresentation,—I give it to you as I got it from Lincoln's mouth." —Lamon, Life of Lincoln, pp. 487-88.
We have here our one witness that Mr. Lincoln while at New Salem, freshly risen from the reading of Volney and Paine, and having what Lamon called the "itch for writing" wrote some kind of essay adverse to the doctrines of Christianity as Lincoln then understood them. Matheny never saw the book and never talked with anyone so far as we know who had seen it, excepting Lincoln himself, who told him in confidence that he had written such an essay. The fact that Matheny says that he "got it as a secret" would seem to indicate that Lincoln had no pride in it, and his reference to Herndon's insistence indicates that Herndon had no other source of information.
Lincoln did, then, write something of this character and it may have been burned; though it is extremely doubtful whether it met so spectacular a fate or was anything like so formidable a document as tradition has represented it. 
It will be noted that Colonel Matheny says nothing about the burning of the book. Herndon got that item from some other source, and apparently misunderstood it. This information, apparently, Herndon picked up on the occasion of his visit to New Salem. Samuel Hill may, indeed, have reminded Lincoln that if he intended to run for the Legislature against Peter Cartwright, it would be better for him not to be known as an infidel; and indeed if Lincoln was known as an infidel, Peter Cartwright was not the man to have failed to remind him of it. But at the time when Samuel Hill snatched something out of Lincoln's hand and threw it into the fire he was not concerned so much about Lincoln's political future as he was about something else. The document which Samuel Hill burned contained very little about theology.
When on an evening in November, 1866, Mr. Herndon, but lately returned from his visit to the site of New Salem, delivered in the old court house in Springfield before a small and critical audience his lecture on Ann Rutledge, he informed his hearers that in 1834 that sweet young girl of nineteen was simultaneously loved by three men, one of whom was Abraham Lincoln. He omitted the names of the other two, and filled in their place in the manuscript with blanks. The world has long since learned the other two names, of John McNamur and Samuel Hill. Herndon's reason for concealingthem at the time was probably the fact that their descendants were living near, but those descendants are well aware of it now, and have been for years.
Hill and McNamur were partners, and Ann loved McNamur and rejected Hill. McNamur went East, and was gone so long that it was believed he was either dead or had proved untrue, and Hill's hope lit up again only to meet a second disappointment. Ann Rutledge still loved McNamur, but, believing him forever lost to her, she had made her second choice, and that choice was not Hill. Hill awoke to the sad discovery that having once been refused for his partner's sake he was refused again for the sake of his clerk. This shy, gawky, lank, and ill-mannered young fellow who was selling goods in Hill's store and studying law and cherishing all manner of ambitions had aspired to the hand of Ann Rutledge and had been accepted.
The truth about it came out in the discovery of a letter which Hill had written to McNamur. Hill was making one last effort to learn whether McNamur was living or dead, and if living whether he still loved Ann; and was reproaching him for his delay and neglect. This letter did not find its way to the post office ; in some way it was lost and was picked up by the children who brought it to Lincoln. This was the document which Lincoln held in his hand when he and Hill came to their final reckoning concerning the heart of Ann Rutledge; and the argument between them, while friendly, developed some heat, and that was what Hill snatched from Lincoln's hand and threw into the fire.
As for the book or essay or whatever it may have been in which Lincoln passed on his undigested reading of Volney and Paine, we do not know what became of that, nor need we greatly care. It went the way of a good deal of literature which Lincoln was producing at this time, probably with no dream that any of it would ever see a printing-press. It is hardly credible that Lincoln, who never printed a book even in his maturer years, should have had serious purpose of printing this particular bit of half-fledged philosophy. 
But we have knowledge, and very direct knowledge, of something else which Lincoln wrote at this time. We learn of it not by any such circuitous route of hearsay evidence as accompanies the story of the so-called book on infidelity. We learn of it from a man who received it at Lincoln's hands and who read it and remembered its contents and was a competent witness not only as to the production of the book, but also as to its argument. This is none other than Mentor Graham, the schoolmaster of New Salem, who introduced Lincoln to Kirkham's Grammar, who taught Lincoln surveying, who had Lincoln in his home as a lodger, and who knew more about Lincoln's religious views during his years at New Salem than any other man who lived to tell the world about it after Lincoln's death. In Irwin's article, which we have already quoted, is found this letter from Mentor Graham.
Mentor Graham is a much better witness than either Mr. Herndon or Colonel Matheny,—better because equally honest, and a man of less violent prejudices and of more sober habits, and especially because he had direct personal knowledge of the facts. In his letter to Mr. Irwin, under date of March 17, 1874, Mentor Graham relates that when Lincoln was living in Graham's house in New Salem in 1833, studying English grammar and surveying under this good schoolmaster, Lincoln one morning said to him: 
"Graham, what do you think of the anger of the Lord?" 
Graham replied, "I believe the Lord never was angry or mad, and never will be; that His loving kindness endureth forever, and that He never changes."
Lincoln said, "I have a little manuscript written which I will show you."
The manuscript was written on foolscap paper, about a half-quire in size, and was written in a plain hand. Mentor read it.
"It was a defense of universal salvation. The commencement of it was something about the God of the universe never being excited, mad, or angry. I had the manuscript in my possession some week or ten days. I have read many books on the subject, and I don't think in point of perspicacity and plainness of reasoning I ever read one to surpass it. I remember well his argument. He took the passage, 'As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive,' and followed with the proposition that whatever the breach or injury of Adam's transgression to the human race was, which no doubt was very great, was made right by the atonement of Christ."
On this point, then, we have abundant witness. Lincoln argued from the fall of man to the redemptive work of Christ as the Baptist preachers were in the habit of doing, but instead of finding there the basis of an argument for individual election and particular salvation or damnation, found in it the basis of faith in universal salvation. 
How Lincoln can have reconciled this kind of reasoning with his readings from Thomas Paine can be understood by those who have read Paine—which most men who discuss him have not—and who know the form of argument of the backwoods preachers which Lincoln had known all his life and little else in the way of reasoned discourse in spiritual things. His line of argument was a not unnatural resultant of the forces at work in his mind.
But what about the book which Hill burned?
Here again we have the personal knowledge of Mentor Graham. He was not, indeed, actually present when the manuscript was burned. No one, probably, was present, except Hill and Lincoln. But Graham was very much nearer to the event in point both of time and distance than either Herndon or Matheny, from whom Herndon learned about it, and learned incorrectly.
What Hill snatched from Lincoln's hand and burned was a letter which Hill had written to McNamur about Ann Rutledge. The letter was lost and picked up by the school children, who brought it to Lincoln, the postmaster. Lincoln, knowing Hill's handwriting, and guessing the nature of the letter, kept it to discuss with Hill alone; and they did discuss it together. Hill was demanding of McNamur that he either come back to New Salem, or release Ann Rutledge from her engagement; and what he learned was, that his successful rival was not now McNamur, but Lincoln. Here is what Graham says about it:
"Some of the school children had picked up the letter and handed it to Lincoln. Hill and Lincoln were talking about it, when Hill snatched the letter from Lincoln and put it into the fire. The letter was respecting a young lady, Miss Ann Rutledge, for whom all three of these gentlemen seemed to have respect."
Graham lived in New Salem at the time that this incident occurred. Neither Herndon nor Matheny lived there. Graham left New Salem when it ceased to be a town, and spent the remainder of his life among the people who had been his neighbors in New Salem and who became residents with him in the near-by town of Petersburg. Graham had direct access to the facts.
The reason why it was not much talked about is evident enough. Hill, McNamur, and Lincoln all married, and their wives and children were living not far from where these events occurred. The triangular misunderstanding of three young men about a young woman who had died many years before was a matter for quiet gossip on the part of the older inhabitants, but it did not come to the general knowledge of the public until Herndon delivered his unwelcome lecture on Ann Rutledge. In some things he learned and told the truth. But his material had been too hastily gathered, and was too quickly rushed into a lecture to be reliable in all respects, and it requires about four titles to cover its diversified and unstratified subject-matter.
Our knowledge of the burnt book is, therefore, a matter in which we come finally to the remote recollection of James Matheny on the one hand, who never saw the book, and who manifestly misunderstood some parts of the story, and the close and intimate knowledge of Mentor Graham on the other. Lincoln apparently told Matheny in confidence that he while he was living in Salem wrote an essay against the Christian religion, and Matheny regarded it as a secret but told it to Herndon. Herndon heard some gossip about a manuscript which Hill burned, and thought it to have been the same. Mentor Graham had reliable information as to what it was that Hill burned, and moreover knew from his own personal knowledge that Lincoln wrote a very different manuscript than the one of which he told Matheny, for he himself had read it, and remembered its general nature.
Why Lincoln wrote on both sides of the same subject we do not know and it is not necessary to ask. He may have been practicing his skill in debating; he may have held one view at one time and another at another; he may have been uncertain what view he really held and have been seeking to formulate his opinions. It would not be fair to judge his mature opinion by our scant knowledge of what was contained in either of these two manuscripts. But the thing which should be remembered is that we know more about the book in favor of Christianity than we know of the book against it. Mentor Graham was a truthful and a competent witness and he had both seen and read the book, which is not true of anyone through whom we have knowledge of the other essay.
We are not at liberty to draw the sharp distinction which sometimes has been drawn against the rampant infidelity of Lincoln's earlier years and the supposed orthodoxy of his mature life. Neither of these may have been as hard and fast as have sometimes been assumed. It is quite possible that Abraham Lincoln never became a Christian of the type who could have expressed his faith in the terms of the Bateman interview; it is equally possible that even in those callow years when he was reading Tom Paine and Volney and writing subsophomoric effusions on things he knew little about, the germ of religious faith was actually present even in his doubt.

William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1920), 146-155.

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