When the sentiment in England in favor of the the South in our Civil War seemed to be growing to a point where Great Britain might recognize the Southern Confederacy, Mr. Lincoln asked Mr. Beecher to go over and present the Union side. Those speeches of Mr. Beecher, a stranger in a strange country, to hostile audiences, were probably as extraordinary an evidence of oratorical power as was ever known. He captured audiences, he overcame the hostility of persistent disturbers of the meetings, and with his ready wit overwhelmed the heckler.
At one of the great meetings, when the sentiment was rapidly changing from hostility to favor, a man arose and asked Mr. Beecher: "If you people of the North are so strong and your cause is so good, why after all these years of fighting have you not licked the South?" Mr. Beecher's instant and most audacious reply was: "If the Southerners were Englishmen we would have licked them." With the English love of fair play, the retort was accepted with cheers.
While other orators were preparing, he seemed to be seeking occasions for talking and drawing from an overflowing reservoir. Frequently he would spend an hour with a crowd of admirers, just talking to them on any subject which might be uppermost in his mind. I knew an authoress who was always present at these gatherings, who took copious notes and reproduced them with great fidelity. There were circles of Beecher worshippers in many towns and in many States. This authoress used to come to New Haven in my senior year at Yale, and in a circle of Beecher admirers, which I was permitted to attend, would reproduce these informal talks of Mr. Beecher. He was the most ready orator, and with his almost feminine sympathies and emotional nature would add immensely to his formal speech by ideas which would occur to him in the heat of delivery, or with comment upon conversations which he had heard on the way to church or meeting.
I happened to be on a train with him on an all-day journey, and he never ceased talking in the most interesting and effective way, and pouring out from his rich and inexhaustible stores with remarkable lucidity and eloquence his views upon current topics, as well as upon recent literature, art, and world movements.
Beecher's famous trial on charges made by Theodore Tilton against him on relations with Tilton's wife engrossed the attention of the world. The charge was a shock to the religious and moral sense of countless millions of people. When the trial was over the public was practically convinced of Mr. Beecher's innocence. The jury, however, disagreed, a few holding out against him. The case was never again brought to trial. The trial lasted six months.
One evening when I was in Peekskill I went from our old homestead into the crowded part of the village, to be with old friends. I saw there a large crowd and also the village military and fire companies. I asked what it was all about, and was informed that the whole town was going out to Mr. Beecher's house, which was about one and one-half miles from the village, to join in a demonstration for his vindication. I took step with one of the companies to which I belonged when I was a boy, and marched out with the crowd.
The president of the village and leading citizens, one after another, mounted the platform, which was the piazza of Mr. Beecher's house, and expressed their confidence in him and the confidence of his neighbors, the villagers. Then Mr. Beecher said to me: "You were born in this town and are known all over the country. If you feel like saying something it would travel far." Of course, I was very glad of the opportunity because I believed in him. In the course of my speech I told a story which had wonderful vogue. I said: "Mr. Lincoln told me of an experience he had in his early practice when he was defending a man who had been accused of a vicious assault upon a neighbor. There were no witnesses, and under the laws of evidence at that time the accused could not testify. So the complainant had it all his own way. The only opportunity Mr. Lincoln had to help his client was to break down the accuser on a cross-examination. Mr. Lincoln said he saw that the accuser was a boastful and bumptious man, and so asked him: 'How much ground was there over which you and my client fought?' The witness answered proudly: 'Six acres, Mr. Lincoln.' 'Well,' said Lincoln, 'don't you think this was a mighty small crop of fight to raise on such a large farm?' Mr. Lincoln said the judge laughed and so did the district attorney and the jury, and his client was acquitted."
The appositeness was in the six acres of ground of the Lincoln trial and of the six months of the Beecher trial. As this was a new story of Lincoln's, which had never been printed, and as it related to the trial of the most famous of preachers on the worst of charges that could be made against a preacher, the story was printed all over the country, and from friends and consular agents who sent me clippings I found was copied in almost every country in the world.