More than One Stubborn Log in the Field

By October 1, 2014

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Okay, so this is from a different era. Still, I think it applies!

1863 was a troublesome year for Abraham Lincoln.  His Emancipation Proclamation went into effect January 1st, but it needed to be vindicated by victories on the battlefield.  However, Grant’s prolonged siege of Vicksburg and the game-changing victory at Gettysburg wouldn’t see completion until early July.

Those victories were inconceivable mid-1863, especially after costly Union losses at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville the previous winter and spring. Lincoln had another problem on his hands, too:  political trouble in Missouri, brewing since the start of the war and coming to a head in the summer of 1863.  The Border State had a large population of slave owners and had been occupied by a heavy Union military presence since early in the war.  The various Unionist factions that arose in the state continued to press Lincoln to support their respective camps, either in spreading immediate emancipation to Missouri or allowing slavery to exist with a more gradual emancipation plan.  When a delegation of the more radical faction visited Lincoln in Autumn to appeal for his support, he refused to add presidential clout to either group.

Frustrated with the politicking in Missouri, but unwilling to join sides, Lincoln remarked to a reporter that he had “adopted the plan learned when a farmer boy engaged in plowing.  When he came across stumps too deep and too tough to be torn up, and too wet to burn, he plowed round them.”  In other words, he opted for the course of least resistance rather than directly dealing with the most difficult of situations—and possibly unwinnable ones— as in Missouri.[1]

Wait—he said that about Missourians?

Yes, he did.  Mormons may be familiar with the metaphor of the immovable stump or piece of wood, but only in relation to Utah during the Civil War—another situation in which Lincoln faced a stubborn, resolute population with no readily apparent solution to the impasse.  According to reporter T.B.H. Stenhouse’s account, he asked Lincoln in June 1863 about the President’s intentions for the Mormons.  Lincoln replied with the same story as above:  “Stenhouse, when I was a boy on the farm in Illinois there was a great deal of timber on the farm which we had to clear away.  Occasionally we would come to a log which had fallen down.  It was too hard to split, too wet to burn, and too heavy to move, so we plowed around it.  You go back and tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone I will let him alone.”[2]

This is the story that Mormons celebrate—the idea that a sitting U.S. President would finally leave the Mormons alone, after decades of persecution that had been as high-up and as recent as Lincoln’s predecessor in the White House.  (The story’s obvious flaw often goes unnoticed:  Lincoln didn’t arrive in Illinois until 1830, when he was 21 years old.[3])

But there’s at least one more occasion that Lincoln may have used the metaphor:

Governor Blank [sic] went to the War Department one day in a towering rage:

“I suppose you found it necessary to make large concessions to him, as he returned from you perfectly satisfied,” suggested a friend.

“Oh, no,” the President replied, “I did not concede anything. You have heard how that Illinois farmer got rid of a big log that was too big to haul out, too knotty to split, and too wet and soggy to burn.

“‘Well, now,’ said he, in response to the inquiries of his neighbors one Sunday, as to how he got rid of it, ‘well, now, boys, if you won’t divulge the secret, I’ll tell you how I got rid of it—I ploughed around it.’

“Now,” remarked Lincoln, in conclusion, “don’t tell anybody, but that’s the way I got rid of Governor Blank. I ploughed all round him, but it took me three mortal hours to do it, and I was afraid every minute he’d see what I was at.”[4]

Mormons may be disappointed to hear that they were not the only fallen log or deeply-rooted stump in the field, or at least that Lincoln used the metaphor in more situations than just with them.  Mormons love a story that connects them to someone famous and generally regarded as virtuous.  But I think a larger lesson is important here, too—one about Lincoln rather than the Mormons.  Lincoln used stories to suit his purpose, painting word pictures that fit the situations in which he found himself. Lincoln’s use of the fallen timber metaphor in multiple situations speaks once again to his abilities as a consummate politician and pragmatist.  While he did not avoid confrontation by any means, he definitely chose his battles carefully, sometimes delaying volatile—or unwinnable—ones indefinitely.  Generally, this had positive results for the Great Emancipator.[5]

Still, the fact that he died before his party could press him into a more definite enforcement of anti-polygamy legislation like the 1862 Morrill Anti-bigamy law allowed for Lincoln to be remembered by Mormons as someone willing to let them alone, which was the best deal any president had given them in their brief history.[6]

 

 

[1] Chicago Tribune, Oct. 30, 1863.  For additional background on the Missouri situation (which I have grossly oversimplified here), see David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1995), 451-54.

[2] Retold in Mary Jane Woodger, “Abraham Lincoln and the Mormons,” in Civil War Saints, ed. Kenneth L. Alford (Provo:  Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2012), 61.  Woodger discusses several Mormon variants on the tale, along with their respective origins, in footnote 2 of her essay.

[3] See Donald, 36-7.

[4]Alexander K. McClure, “Abe” Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories (Chicago?:  Henry Neill, 1904), 110.  Available online at this link.  McClure was an editor of a Philadelphia newspaper and a former Civil War soldier who gathered hundreds of snippets about Lincoln from varied unidentified sources for his book.

[5] Nowhere was this more evident than in Lincoln’s own presidential Cabinet.  As Doris Kearns Goodwin surmised, “his political genius was not simply his ability to gather the best men of the country around him,” many of whom were ideological or political opposites to Lincoln and each other, “but to impress upon them his own purpose, perception, and resolution at every juncture.” In Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2005), 701.

[6] See Woodger, 77-78.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period From the Archives Memory Miscellaneous Politics


Comments

  1. Excellent work! Thanks, Nate!

    Comment by J Stuart — October 1, 2014 @ 7:37 am

  2. Lincoln was the politician for his time. Begs the question of how things might have been different if he had lived to fill his second term.

    Comment by RW Ricks — October 1, 2014 @ 7:52 am

  3. Good work, Nate.

    Comment by janiecej — October 1, 2014 @ 9:07 am

  4. Nice, Nate. I think most Mormons are surprised to see that Lincoln oversaw the first anti-polygamy bill, the Morrill anti-bigamy law, in 1862. But then, we’ve become pretty good at overlooking inconvenient facts.

    Comment by Ben P — October 1, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

  5. Thanks, Nate.

    Comment by Saskia — October 1, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

  6. I don’t know what you mean by “oversaw,” Ben, but I’ve never seen any evidence that Lincoln was involved in any aspect of the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. He didn’t ask Congress to take up such legislation in his annual messages, he certainly didn’t walk over to the Capitol to interfere in the deliberations of the Congress, and he didn’t expend any resources (Congress hadn’t appropriated any funds anyway) to enforce the law after he signed it. All he did was sign the act, and there are a lot of reasons other than animus towards the church that could explain that. He had, after all, bigger issues to worry about, and had more reason to worry about antagonizing Congress, which was less than two miles down Pennsylvania Avenue, than the Mormons, who were almost 2,000 miles away, and who couldn’t vote against him.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 1, 2014 @ 8:17 pm

  7. Mark: you’re right that “oversaw” was the wrong word–it implies more involvement than there actually was. The perils of making off-hand remarks in blog comments!

    I do think there is evidence that he was not too disatisfied with it, though, especially given the fact he wasn’t too hesitant to antagonize Congress or bend legal precedents during the time.

    Comment by Ben P — October 2, 2014 @ 8:36 am

  8. What’s the earliest source for the Lincoln quote re: BY? [I once traced its genealogy but now can’t remember). I looked at the letter Stenhouse wrote about his meeting in June of 1863. There’s no colorful metaphor, only a bare “if the people [the Saints] let him alone, he would let them alone.” So I presume someone else, or perhaps Stenhouse himself, later fleshed it out. There are so many apocryphal Lincoln quotes. I do think if Lincoln had used the colorful metaphor when he met with Stenhouse, Stenhouse would have included it in his letter. [Stenhouse to BY, 7 June 1863, Box 29, Folder 13, CR 1234 1, CHL]. Of course, what Lincoln actually said — per Stenhouse — is itself of great significance in terms of his policy toward Utah.

    Comment by John Turner — October 2, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

  9. John,
    Here’s the full footnote from Woodger, 78-79, but based on what you write about the 7 June 1863 letter there was plenty of wiggle room for modifying the tale, and there’s definitely additional work to be done to track down who said what and when:

    2. T.B.H. Stenhouse to Brigham Young, June 7, 1863, Brigham Young Correspondence, Church Archives, as cited in Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), 170; also found in Gustive O. Larsen, The “Americanization” of Utah for Statehood (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1971), 60n61. Also see Preston Nibley, Brigham Young: The Man and His Work (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1936), 369. Nibly told the writer that his account was based on Orson F. Whitney, Popular History of Utah (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1916), 180, 2:24-25, and verbal statements from Whitney. Young to G.Q. Cannon, Great Salt Lake City, June 25, 1863, credits the statement “I will leave them alone, if they will let me alone” to Lincoln’s conversation with Stenhouse on the 6th inst. Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (chronological scrapbook of typed entries and newspaper clippings, 1830-present), June 25, 1863, Church History Library, Salt Lake City. An AP dispatch from Washington, June 7, mentions the presence in the capitol of “a prominent Mormon.” New York Times, June 8, 1863, 5. In a sermon on June 4, 1864, Young told the plowing anecdote but identified it as “what was told the President…said to a gentleman who is a preacher and a member of Congress.” Deseret News, June 22, 1864, 303. At an anti-Cullom bill meeting in Salt Lake in 1870, Stenhouse, who had left the Church, stated that he had heard Lincoln make the “let them alone” pledge. Tullidge’s Quarterly Magazine, October 1880, 60. For Brigham Young’s version of Lincoln’s statement in a letter to George Q. Cannon, see B.H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 5:70. Yet another version appears in Whitney, Popular History of Utah, 180.

    Comment by Nate R. — October 2, 2014 @ 8:40 pm

  10. Ben, I agree. There’s no reason to think that Lincoln viewed the Mormons as anything other than a minor (and peculiar) blip on the horizon.

    You’re also right about his willingness to push Congress and stretch the Constitutional prerogatives of the presidency, but all that pushing and stretching were pointed at one end–the preservation of the Union. What happened to Utah and the Mormons fits in seamlessly–let Congress have its moment and enact a law aimed at the Mormons, sign the act to avoid antagonizing them, but then ignore it. Don’t enforce the law if the result might be the cutting of communications with California, or the addition of one more territory to the rebellion.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 3, 2014 @ 9:28 am

  11. Sloppy writing. Should have written “sign the act to avoid antagonizing the bill’s sponsors in Congress.”

    Comment by Mark B. — October 3, 2014 @ 9:30 am


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