Sunday, February 8, 2015

Duvergier de Hauranne: A Frenchman in Lincoln's Washington -- "Republics Fill Positions of General Esteem and Power with Carpenters Like Abraham Lincoln"

In diplomatic parlance, it could be called a “courtesy call.”  These are meetings, usually offered out of a sense of obligation, by prominent officials:  ministers, ambassadors and so forth.  They are intended to be short; they almost never have a prearranged agenda.  Usually, the demandeur of the courtesy call wants to shake the prominent person’s hand – at a minimum -- and ideally establish some sort of connection.    Duvergier de Hauranne had requested such a meeting, and it did take place eventually, with the young Frenchman introduced to Lincoln by Charles Sumner, at what amounted to the President’s open office hours.  In fact, throughout his presidency, Lincoln made a practice of receiving visitors and petitioners on this wildly democratic basis,  in what he labeled “public opinion baths.”

In early 1865, Abraham Lincoln held in his hands the future of the country and the American people.  The outcome of a devastating and traumatic Civil War was no longer in doubt, but a vast challenge of reconstruction and reconciliation lay ahead.  Few of Duvergier de Hauranne’s conversations in Washington that winter would have gone at any length without reference to the President and his plans for the postbellum future.  But Lincoln was still in the minds of most of his countrymen a rough and tumble politician, successful for sure but not universally admired, not yet a haloed martyr for a sacred cause. 

Duvergier de Hauranne was inclined even before he met Lincoln to defend the incumbent President.  How can I believe,” he asks, “in the reputation for incompetence that is imputed to him in Europe?  This man who has raised himself by his own unaided efforts from a “log cabin” deep in the Indiana woods to the presidency of the United States cannot possibly be a run-of-the-mill person.  He needed a great deal more than just intelligence – a gift less rare than we commonly realize – which counts for nothing without character.  He also needed the moral force, those virtues of perseverance and resolution which are, indeed, the American virtues par excellence.”

As he awaits his turn to meet the President, Duvergier de Hauranne marvels, again, at the ease of access to the White House:

For a foreigner, the White House possesses a certain prestige…Yet its doors stand open to every American:  like a church, it is everybody’s house.   At all hours of the day, you will find curious or idle people milling about in the great reception room where the President holds his popular audiences.  It is said that some visitors – country bumpkins no doubt – cut pieces from the silk curtains to take home as souvenirs of their pilgrimage.  You may think that a policeman or at least a guard has been posted.  Not at all!  There is only a notice asking visitors to respect the furnishings, which belong to the government.

Ushered into the President’s suite, Duvergier de Hauranne watches Lincoln interact with a pretty young woman in velvet who flirtatiously seeks a favor from him.  He is unmoved, the Frenchman reports, urging her to come to the point and dismissing her after jotting down some notes behinda huge desk piled so high with papers that it seemed to enclose him like the walls of a confessional.”
Lincoln in his office, 1864

While other supplicants sit in a row awaiting their turn, Duvergier de Hauranne is invited over to meet Lincoln:

The President rose to receive us; it was then that his great height was revealed.  I looked up and saw a bony face, framed by a shock of carelessly combed hair, a flat nose and a wide mouth with tightly closed lips.  His face was angular and furrowed by deep wrinkles.  His eyes were strangely penetrating and held a sardonic expression; he seemed sad and preoccupied, bent under the burden of his immense task.  His posture was awkward and like nothing I’ve ever seen before – partly rigid and partly loose-jointed; he doesn’t seem to know how to carry his great height.  We all opened our mouths after the customary handshake, I to pay him a compliment, Mr. Sumner to explain who I was, and he himself to respond to my remark and to pretend that he already knew my name.  His voice is far from musical; his language is not flowery; he speaks more or less like an ordinary person from the West and slang comes easily to his tongue.

It may be that Duvergier de Hauranne is underwhelmed by the Lincoln he meets in the flesh, as opposed to the conceptual Lincoln he reveres as the embodiment of republican virtue.  Or, perhaps, Duvergier de Hauranne is simply being objective when he argues that the desiderata of leadership in a republic is inherently different from that of a monarchy like his native France:

…He is simple, serious and full of good sense.  He made some comments on Mr. Everett and on the unrealistic hopes the Democratic party entertained four years ago that it could impose its policies on the victorious Republicans.  These remarks may have been lacking in sparkle, but the thought behind them was subtle and witty.  There was not a single burst of clownish laughter, not a single remark in doubtful taste, not one of the “jokes” for which he is famous.  We shook hands again and left him to his chores.  I took away from this ten-minute interview an impression of a man who is doubtless not very brilliant, not very polished, but worthy, honest, capable and hardworking.  I think the Europeans who have spoken and written about him have been predisposed to consider it amusing to exaggerate his odd ways – either that or else they went to the White House expecting to see some splendid, decorative figure, wearing a white tie and behaving in a manner both courteous and condescending like some sort of republican monarch.  What a stupid and egregious error to expect that Abraham Lincoln, the former Mississippi boatman, could have the manners of a king or a prince.

…In a republic, people are more practical and down to earth.  The President is chosen to perform his political functions, not to dance royal quadrilles nor to gallop up and down in a plumed hat at military reviews.  It is not necessary that he be a man of letters or a scholar; he need not have written philosophical treatises, nor published a ten-volume set of collected works.  He doesn’t even have to be what Americans call “a fine gentleman.”  Uncalloused, perfumed hands are useless in the rough game of American politics.  Provided he does his job well and honestly, no one troubles to ask whether he writes in a “classical” style or whether he is dressed in the height of fashion.  Despotism holds up little idols for the crowd’s adoration; but republics fill positions of general esteem and power with carpenters like Abraham Lincoln.

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