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Abraham Lincoln, “Letter to Ephraim D. and Phoebe Ellsworth”

Letter to Ephraim D. and Phoebe Ellsworth, 5.5.1861
Abraham Lincoln

To the Father and Mother of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth:

My dear Sir and Madam,

In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall. In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surpassingly great. This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as seemed to me, the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew. And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse. My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would permit. To me, he appeared to have no indulgences or pastimes; and I never heard him utter a profane, or intemperate word. What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents. The honors he labored for so laudably, and, in the sad end, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them, no less than for himself.

In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.

May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power. Sincerely your friend in a common affliction —

A. Lincoln

Comment:

The opening of the letter is peculiar, to say the least: “In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own.” A country’s loss is as great as a family’s? “Noble” may not just be an adjective used to describe bravery generally. It may hearken back to the idea of something like Jefferson’s “natural aristocracy,” where those who have shown merit are more fit to govern. It may even go further, back to a classical idea of a “gentleman,” someone who has virtues that not everyone else may have. Of course, in the background is the predominant notion of “noble,” that of a person who inherited land by virtue of blood, whose family actually owns in perpetuity a part of a country and cannot be displaced except by the most complete of revolutions.

Lincoln seems to me to work with these notions of nobility in this letter. His very next sentence:

So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall.

The “noble” promises to be useful to one’s country. This encompasses all notions of nobility described above. The hopes of one’s self and friends are a different matter; this is more or less the classical notion of the noble that led to the factional strife the Federalist condemns. Those “hopes” always led to claims to rule, but notice how careful Lincoln’s language is. The list is of three: country, self, friends. The movement is to friends. It starts with utility, ends with hopes. A country based on freedom is a means to an end, and excellence for oneself and one’s friends is a perfectly acceptable end. And yet the need to be useful to one’s country has caused this loss of life.

Lincoln continues:

In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surpassingly great. This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as seemed to me, the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew.

The dead soldier symbolizes a country not even a hundred years old, one that allows natural talents to rule in place of traditions. This sounds like it could solve the problem the discussion above brought forth: if men of virtue/nobility are what we want in a country, how can we send them out to die so easily? The “answer” provided by considerations at this point is too cynical, however. We can send people to die because we don’t really care about their hopes; what matters is that their merit showed itself and was allowed to express itself. He was free to be a good solider here, and the result is what it is.

Lincoln cannot possibly end on that note. We need to know in some way how our affliction is as great as the family’s, how the private loss constitutes a public loss in the fullest sense.

And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse.

The letter has a reversal of sorts: one who would have every excuse for brashness had none. Given popular perception of the United States, and given some US actions (i.e. trying to conquer Mexico to turn it into a bunch of slave states), one could very easily ascribe “brashness” to this country. But you couldn’t ascribe it to the best of this country:

My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would permit. To me, he appeared to have no indulgences or pastimes; and I never heard him utter a profane, or intemperate word.

The letter is moving backwards, so to speak. In place of a discussion of how the young soldier commanded is a discussion of how the young commander related to his commander. There is no discussion of ability or martial spirit; in its place is temperance, perhaps the central classical virtue, and one usually loaded with evangelical ideas of how people should be (i.e. don’t drink anything, don’t curse, don’t dance, etc.). What is notable here is the simple respect he had for one’s elders. The  discussion of his spiritedness has been replaced by modesty, but why?

What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents. The honors he labored for so laudably, and, in the sad end, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them, no less than for himself.

We’re right back where we started, except instead of “country, self, friends” we have “parents.” His virtue was not merely from his nature, but cultivated privately. The private links with the public in that honor is meaningless outside of what his family thinks. We can give praise, but in the land of the free, that’s nowhere close to the be-all and end-all. What matters is the principle you personally stand for. Nobility is  almost entirely a private phenomenon that results in public goods. What he did for his parents and himself we recognize as laudable. It is not clear this logic can stand the slightest scrutiny, unless one sees “honor thy father and mother” as a central commandment to us all.

So we cannot stop here: What binds the parents to the Union? I can point out plenty of people who wave the flag nowadays and mutter about secession constantly – it isn’t clear to me that professed patriotism actually creates patriots. Lincoln concludes:

In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.

May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power. Sincerely your friend in a common affliction –

People naturally make friends; we can extend that concept and say with Tocqueville “associations.” As mentioned before on this blog, it isn’t clear what the private in-and-of itself is. Looking for self-knowledge means looking away from oneself constantly. In this case, the friend was the Executive power of the United States. The “sacredness” of sorrow diverges from natural friendship, like the way only God can console and no earthly power can. The letter ends with a divergence: there is no easy reconciliation between concepts of what is noble, and more importantly, no reconciliation between the noble simply and the needs of one’s country. There is just a “common affliction,” and that’s the only thing that binds. Piety can diverge for each of us when we express our hopes; the “common good” is the task of politics. It is piety as tragic that unites us.

5 Comments

  1. My own father, as a retired Captain of the US Air Force had to go and tell various families about the death of a father, son, uncle, daughter, or other relative.

    When I think of Lincoln, I do get that he tries to be noble and tries to do good. He really did. You will find him one of the few dozen that have actually done something for the better, even though it also cause a lot of loss and violence.

    Of course, noble is also a subjective type of concept. What makes a person noble and who is expert enough to deem someone noble?

    Unfortunately, in a leader’s position, or any one’s position to talk about loss. You can easily offend others with one wrong word.

    This is also something standard that the armed services sends out a letter to the deceased soldier’s kin or spouse. This is merely a more personalized version.
    .-= Nile´s last blog ..WordCamp Chicago 2010- I Am A Speaker =-.

  2. This is such a unique Memorial Day article. Thank you for this.
    .-= vange´s last blog ..We need a shorter URL. =-.

  3. Re: your comment “The opening of the letter is peculiar, to say the least: “In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own.” A country’s loss is as great as a family’s?” The dead Col. Elmer Ellsworth was a close friend of the Lincoln family and frequent visitor to the Lincoln home. Lincoln isn’t saying that the “nation’s” grief is close to the grief felt by Ellworth’s family. He’s saying that his own personal and deeply felt grief is close to theirs. Similarly, Lincoln’s comments on Ellworth’s personality, talents, and virtues (in the 19th-century sense–temperance, modesty, etc. carried different meanings) are based on personal knowledge and affection, not on some abstract definition of “nobility.” You’ve interpreted this letter with no knowledge, or perhaps simply no acknowledgement, of its context. This is a personal letter and a personal expression of grief–not an official statement. In history, context counts. You need to Rethink this one.

  4. @ jeg – I might display your comment in a more public setting. A quick check of your background reveals that you are professionally involved in Lincoln studies.

    I could be wrong – I’m well aware of that. The FAQ and previous entries discuss my methods for reading, and I’m pretty clear that aiming for the best question possible sometimes distorts the text. But you really haven’t told me a lot about Lincoln or history. You have told me a lot about your character through your comment, and you should be held accountable for such a tone given that you have public responsibilities.

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