One of the reasons I began studying history was a chance encounter with Louis XIV of France. I was perusing the college library of UIC as a former music major turned history major undergrad and chanced upon the king’s personal correspondence with his mistresses. The book was entitled The Letters of Louis XIV. For some reason, I picked up the book and began paging through it, reading the letters he wrote to his mistresses, of which there were many.

Initially, the read was difficult, the flowery language of the 18th century foreign to me, along with what I considered awkward sentence structure. At the time, I saw his writing more as poetry than the clumsy style of writing I was used to reading and that I fashioned. I stood in the library’s aisle with the book splayed open in my hands, and while the reading was a bit more difficult than I thought, I began to catch on, picking up the turn of a phrase and in short order, becoming lost in the king’s personal notes and letters to the many women he professed to love.

Reading his letters reminded me of passing notes in class to a girlfriend in grade school. Today’s kids don’t understand the anxiety of passing a note; the fact it might be dropped during the class period on its way to one’s beloved, only to be picked up and read by someone else. Or, worst of all, intercepted by the teacher who might choose to read it aloud to teach the offender a lesson.

Nowadays, such an incursion into someone’s notes might be met with some privacy statute lawsuit, angry parents, and kids who might claim to be emotionally damaged because of the public reading of one’s love note…said teacher being disciplined for such an egregious offense.

But I digress.

The king’s letters were important because they told me as a budding historian who this man really was. His innermost thoughts took on life in those letters, his guard put to the side as he took up quill and parchment to craft those notes. There was no filter between my eyes and the longest serving French king in history…the Sun King. It was just Louis XIV and me, and it was revelatory.

I’d never thought of history in those terms back then, my historical studies relegated to staid and programmed textbooks punctuated with the occasional article. There were no first-person letters allowing me to get insight into the working mind of the subject, just the facts and only the facts. On occasion a teacher might regale us with an interesting story or two, but for the most part history was taught the old-fashioned way…lecture and textbook readings.

I’ve never forgotten the time spent with Louis XIV that day for it opened my eyes to an entirely new way to study history; go to the source as much as possible and read for yourself their very words. I adopted that approach when I was a working teacher, preferring limited textbook engagement to reading the actual history.

This brings me to Mr. Lincoln.

I’ve spent some time reading through some of his letters and correspondence prior to the Civil War, most specifically, the letters of 1855, the majority topic of which was slavery and Mr. Lincoln’s dislike and disagreement with that institution. He was out of politics during that time, brought back in because of the Kansas-Nebraska Act[1]. Mr. Lincoln’s opposition to slavery is not in dispute, having stood against it before the Civil War any number of times and in many ways.[2] What comes across in these letters is a man approaching disgust about the hypocrisy of the period regarding not only slavery but the positions many took on the issue publicly and privately. Mr. Lincoln “calls out” such hypocrisy in his letter to Mr. Speed in no uncertain terms. Further, he excoriates those who say one thing and do another, that which serves their purposes privately versus their public persona.

To wit: “You say if Kansas fairly votes herself a free state, as a Christian you will rather rejoice at it. All decent slave-holders talk that way; and I do not doubt their candor. But they never vote that way.”[3]

I was surprised at Mr. Lincoln’s candor, especially since his words were directed toward what some say were his best friend, Joshua Speed. He minced no words in his 1855 letter and left no doubt about his feelings on both slavery and hypocrisy.

 People and politicians will say one thing publicly, but then, when eyes are off them, say, in the voting booth, do the opposite, their agenda or political ideology too powerful to overcome. There is power in anonymity, much more so than in publicity for in anonymity we can give way to that which we know is wrong but do so without the prying eyes of judgement, something Mr. Lincoln seems to be chastising his great friend about in said letter.

In the letter he goes on to indict the entirety of the nation at large by accusations of not living up to our stated ideals in the Declaration of Independence. Mr. Lincoln states, “As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings[4] get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics. When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no presence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”[5]

Consider the power of his words. It is inconceivable to me the United States without an Abraham Lincoln, yet such was the power of hypocrisy to Lincoln that it might have come to pass. We do not have any way of knowing if Mr. Lincoln might have held true to his statement, only that his statement reflected his growing anger and dissatisfaction with not only those who might support slavery,  but that the nation as a whole seemed to disregard its founding principles, something the great Frederick Douglass opined about as well during his July 4th speech of 1852 (while still praising the Founders, defending the Constitution, and professing his love for the nation – ingredients conveniently left out when re-enactments of Mr. Douglass’ speech are presented).

Hypocrisy. There is not a person among us who has not tasted this most distasteful of all caster oils. Whether we’ve participated in it or become its victim, hypocrisy leaves behind it a stench not easily wiped clean. For Mr. Lincoln, a man by all accounts whose principles were as sturdy as Roman columns, hypocrisy approached a bridge too far, yet at the same time as evidenced by his letter, knew there was little which could be done about it. People, especially those in political power, seem unable to help themselves, infected with the disease of powerlust which forces them to compromise their principles, becoming hypocrites in the process.

Earlier in the letter, Mr. Lincoln speaks of an anecdote in the Illinois legislature wherein the Nebraska bill was introduced, garnering the support of only 3 member democrats, of which there were 70 of the 100 members. When it came time to vote only a few days later, the resolution encouraged to pass by Illinois leadership, it passed with large majorities. Mr. Lincoln does not speak of this in glowing terms, but rather with a tinge of disgust as though pointing out not only the power of party, but of the hypocrisy of those who only days before were mostly silent on the issue.

It seems things have not changed much since 1855, and for members of Congress that do swim against the tide of leadership, the waters become choppy, so much so, the independent boat begins to sink. Accusations of “crazy,” or “unhinged,” or assassinations of character occur for simply standing one’s ground. Woe to the party member who does not go along with the official party stance for you will be exposed and excoriated.

Mr. Lincoln spoke from a position of relative safety as he was not part of the legislature at the time but based on his actions just prior to and during the Civil War, one gets the impression he would stand his ground anyway, party lines be damned.

Interestingly, Mr. Lincoln ends his letter to Joshua Speed in the following manner:

“On the leading subject of this letter, I have more of her sympathy [Mary Todd] than I have of yours. And yet let say I am your friend forever.”[6]

A seemingly simple letter that reveals mountains of information from one of the remarkable lives in American history.

[1] This act proposed allowing settlers to vote on whether to allow slavery in their territories

[2] He voted many times for the Wilmot Proviso that sought to ban slavery from the territories acquired from Mexico during the Mexican-American War. Further, he opposed the extension of slavery into new territories west. His letter to his great friend, Joshua Speed in 1855 outlines his positions quite succinctly.

[3] Lincoln, Abraham, Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, The Library of America, p.363

[4] A political movement in the 1850s who believed a conspiracy existed by Catholics to subvert civil and religious liberty; the group was populated mainly by Protestants.

[5] Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, p. 363.

[6] Ibid., 363.