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of the people, even while they were unquestionably in the minority;
but this year they completely defeated their opponents and gained that
control of the county which they never lost as long as the party

If Mr. Lincoln had no other claims to be remembered than his services
in the Legislature of 1836-7, there would be little to say in his
favor. Its history is one of disaster to the State. Its legislation
was almost wholly unwise and hurtful. The most we can say for Mr.
Lincoln is that he obeyed the will of his constituents, as he promised
to do, and labored with singular skill and ability to accomplish the
objects desired by the people who gave him their votes. The especial
work intrusted to him was the subdivision of the county, and the
project for the removal of the capital of the State to Springfield.
[Footnote: "Lincoln was at the head of the project to remove the seat
of government to Springfield; it was entirely intrusted to him to
manage. The members were all elected on one ticket, but they all
looked to Lincoln as the head" STEPHEN T, LOGAN.] In both of these he
was successful. In the account of errors and follies committed by the
Legislature to the lasting injury of the State, he is entitled to no
praise or blame beyond the rest. He shared in that sanguine epidemic
of financial and industrial quackery which devastated the entire
community, and voted with the best men of the country in favor of
schemes which appeared then like a promise of an immediate millennium,
and seem now like midsummer madness.

[Sidenote: Ford, p. 102.]

[Footnote: Reynolds, "Life and Times."]

He entered political life in one of those eras of delusive prosperity
which so often precede great financial convulsions. The population of
the State was increasing at the enormous rate of two hundred percent
in ten years. It had extended northward along the lines of the wooded
valleys of creeks and rivers in the center to Peoria; on the west by
the banks of the Mississippi to Galena; on the east with wide
intervals of wilderness to Chicago. The edge of the timber was
everywhere pretty well occupied, though the immigrants from the forest
States of Kentucky and Tennessee had as yet avoided the prairies. The
rich soil and equable climate were now attracting an excellent class
of settlers from the older States, and the long-neglected northern
counties were receiving the attention they deserved. The war of Black
Hawk had brought the country into notice; the utter defeat of his
nation had given the guarantee of a permanent peace; the last lodges
of the Pottawatomies had disappeared from the country in 1833. The
money spent by the general Government during the war, and paid to the
volunteers at its close, added to the common prosperity. There was a
brisk trade in real estate, and there was even a beginning in Chicago
of that passion for speculation in town lots which afterwards became a

It was too much to expect of the Illinois Legislature that it should
understand that the best thing it could do to forward this prosperous
tendency of things was to do nothing; for this is a lesson which has
not yet been learned by any legislature in the world. For several
years they had been tinkering, at first modestly and tentatively, at a
scheme of internal improvements which should not cost too much money.
In 1835 they began to grant charters for railroads, which remained in
embryo, as the stock was never taken. Surveys for other railroads were
also proposed, to cross the State in different directions; and the
project of uniting Lake Michigan with the Illinois River by a canal
was of too evident utility to be overlooked. In fact, the route had
been surveyed, and estimates of cost made, companies incorporated, and
all preliminaries completed many years before, though nothing further
had been done, as no funds had been offered from any source. But at
the special session of 1835 a law was passed authorizing a loan of
half a million dollars for this purpose; the loan was effected by
Governor Duncan the following year, and in June, aboard of canal
commissioners having been appointed, a beginning was actually made
with pick and shovel.

[Sidenote: Ford, p. 181.]

A restless feeling of hazardous speculation seemed to be taking
possession of the State. "It commenced," says Governor Ford, in his
admirable chronicle, "at Chicago, and was the means of building up
that place in a year or two from a village of a few houses to be a
city of several thousand inhabitants. The story of the sudden fortunes
made there excited at first wonder and amazement; next, a gambling
spirit of adventure; and lastly, an all-absorbing desire for sudden
and splendid wealth. Chicago had been for some time only one great
town-market. The plots of towns for a hundred miles around were
carried there to be disposed of at auction. The Eastern people had
caught the mania. Every vessel coming west was loaded with them, their
money and means, bound for Chicago, the great fairy-land of fortunes.
But as enough did not come to satisfy the insatiable greediness of the
Chicago sharpers and speculators, they frequently consigned their
wares to Eastern markets. In fact, lands and town lots were the staple
of the country, and were the only article of export." The contagion
spread so rapidly, towns and cities were laid out so profusely, that
it was a standing joke that before long there would be no land left in
the State for farming purposes.

The future of the State for many years to come was thus discounted by
the fervid imaginations of its inhabitants. "We have every requisite
of a great empire," they said, "except enterprise and inhabitants,"
and they thought that a little enterprise would bring the inhabitants.
Through the spring and summer of 1836 the talk of internal
improvements grew more general and more clamorous. The candidates for
office spoke about little else, and the only point of emulation among
the parties was which should be the more reckless and grandiose in its
promises. When the time arrived for the assembling of the Legislature,
the members were not left to their own zeal and the recollection of
their campaign pledges, but meetings and conventions were everywhere
held to spur them up to the fulfillment of their mandate. The
resolutions passed by the principal body of delegates who came
together in December directed the Legislature to vote a system of
internal improvements "commensurate with the wants of the people," a
phrase which is never lacking in the mouth of the charlatan or the

[Sidenote: "Ford's History," p. 184.]

These demands were pressed upon a not reluctant Legislature. They
addressed themselves at once to the work required of them, and soon
devised, with reckless and unreasoning haste, a scheme of railroads
covering the vast uninhabited prairies as with a gridiron. There was
to be a rail-road from Galena to the mouth of the Ohio River; from
Alton to Shawneetown; from Alton to Mount Carmel; from Alton to the
eastern State boundary - by virtue of which lines Alton was to take the
life of St. Louis without further notice; from Quincy to the Wabash
River; from Bloomington to Pekin; from Peoria to Warsaw; - in all, 1350
miles of railway. Some of these terminal cities were not in existence
except upon neatly designed surveyor's maps. The scheme provided also
for the improvement of every stream in the State on which a child's
shingle-boat could sail; and to the end that all objections should be
stifled on the part of those neighborhoods which had neither railroads
nor rivers, a gift of two hundred thousand dollars was voted to them,
and with this sop they were fain to be content and not trouble the
general joy. To accomplish this stupendous scheme, the Legislature
voted eight million dollars, to be raised by loan. Four millions were
also voted to complete the canal. These sums, monstrous as they were,
were still ridiculously inadequate to the purpose in view. But while
the frenzy lasted there was no consideration of cost or of
possibilities. These vast works were voted without estimates, without
surveys, without any rational consideration of their necessity. The
voice of reason seemed to be silent in the Assembly; only the
utterances of fervid prophecy found listeners. Governor Ford speaks of
one orator who insisted, amid enthusiastic plaudits, that the State
could well afford to borrow one hundred millions for internal
improvements. The process of reasoning, or rather predicting, was easy
and natural. The roads would raise the price of land; the State could
enter large tracts and sell them at a profit; foreign capital would be
invested in land, and could be heavily taxed to pay bonded interest;
and the roads, as fast as they were built, could be operated at a
great profit to pay for their own construction. The climax of the
whole folly was reached by the provision of law directing that work
should be begun at once at the termini of all the roads and the
crossings of all rivers.

It is futile and disingenuous to attempt, as some have done, to fasten
upon one or the other of the political parties of the State the
responsibility of this bedlam legislation. The Governor and a majority
of the Legislature were elected as Jackson Democrats, but the Whigs
were as earnest in passing these measures as their opponents; and
after they were adopted, the superior wealth, education, and business
capacity of the Whigs had their legitimate influence, and they filled
the principal positions upon the boards and commissions which came
into existence under the acts. The bills were passed, - not without
opposition, it is true, but by sufficient majorities, - and the news
was received by the people of the State with the most extravagant
demonstrations of delight. The villages were illuminated; bells were
rung in the rare steeples of the churches; "fire-balls," - bundles of
candle-wick soaked in turpentine, - were thrown by night all over the
country. The day of payment was far away, and those who trusted the
assurances of the sanguine politicians thought that in some mysterious
way the scheme would pay for itself.

Mr. Lincoln is continually found voting with his friends in favor of
this legislation, and there is nothing to show that he saw any danger
in it. He was a Whig, and as such in favor of internal improvements in
general and a liberal construction of constitutional law in such
matters. As a boy, he had interested himself in the details of local
improvements of rivers and roads, and he doubtless went with the
current in Vandalia in favor of this enormous system. He took,
however, no prominent part in the work by which these railroad bills
were passed. He considered himself as specially commissioned to
procure the removal of the State capital from Vandalia to Springfield,
and he applied all his energies to the accomplishment of this work.
The enterprise was hedged round with difficulties; for although it was
everywhere agreed, except at Vandalia, that the capital ought to be
moved, every city in the State, and several which existed only on
paper, demanded to be made the seat of government. The question had
been submitted to a popular vote in 1834, and the result showed about
as many cities desirous of opening their gates to the Legislature as
claimed the honor of being the birthplace of Homer. Of these
Springfield was only third in popular estimation, and it was evident
that Mr. Lincoln had need of all his wits if he were to fulfill the
trust confided to him. It is said by Governor Ford that the "Long
Nine" were not averse to using the hopes and fears of other members in
relation to their special railroads to gain their adherence to the
Springfield programme, but this is by no means clear. We are rather
inclined to trust the direct testimony of Jesse K. Dubois, that the
success of the Sangamon County delegation in obtaining the capital was
due to the adroit management of Mr. Lincoln - first in inducing all the
rival claimants to unite in a vote to move the capital from Vandalia,
and then in carrying a direct vote for Springfield through the joint
convention by the assistance of the southern counties. His personal
authority accomplished this in great part. Mr. Dubois says: "He made
Webb and me vote for the removal, though we belonged to the southern
end of the State. We defended our vote before our constituents by
saying that necessity would ultimately force the seat of government to
a central position. But in reality we gave the vote to Lincoln because
we liked him, because we wanted to oblige our friend, and because we
recognized him as our leader." To do this, they were obliged to
quarrel with their most intimate associates, who had bought a piece of
waste land at the exact geographical center of the State and were
striving to have the capital established there in the interest of
their own pockets and territorial symmetry.

The bill was passed only a short time before the Legislature
adjourned, and the "Long Nine" came back to their constituents wearing
their well-won laurels. They were complimented in the newspapers, at
public meetings, and even at subscription dinners. We read of one at
Springfield, at the "Rural Hotel," to which sixty guests sat down,
where there were speeches by Browning, Lincoln, Douglas (who had
resigned his seat in the Legislature to become Register of the Land
Office at the new capital), S. T. Logan, Baker, and others, whose wit
and wisdom were lost to history through the absence of reporters.
Another dinner was given them at Athens a few weeks later. Among the
toasts on these occasions were two which we may transcribe: "Abraham
Lincoln: He has fulfilled the expectations of his friends, and
disappointed the hopes of his enemies"; and "A. Lincoln: One of
Nature's noblemen."



[Sidenote: 1837.]

On the 3rd of March, the day before the Legislature adjourned, Mr.
Lincoln caused to be entered upon its records a paper which excited
but little interest at the time, but which will probably be remembered
long after the good and evil actions of the Vandalia Assembly have
faded away from the minds of men. It was the authentic record of the
beginning of a great and momentous career. The following protest was
presented to the House, which was read and ordered to be spread on the
journals, to wit:

Resolutions upon the subject of domestic slavery having
passed both branches of the General Assembly at its
present session, the undersigned hereby protest against the
passage of the same.

They believe that the institution of slavery is founded
on both injustice and bad policy, but that the promulgation
of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than
abate its evils.

They believe that the Congress of the United States
has no power under the Constitution to interfere with the
institution of slavery in the different States.

They believe that the Congress of the United States
has the power, under the Constitution, to abolish slavery
in the District of Columbia, but that the power ought not
to be exercised, unless at the request of the people of the

The difference between these opinions and those contained
in the above resolutions is their reason for entering
this protest.

Representatives from the county of Sangamon.

It may seem strange to those who shall read these pages that a protest
so mild and cautious as this should ever have been considered either
necessary or remarkable. We have gone so far away from the habits of
thought and feeling prevalent at that time that it is difficult to
appreciate such acts at their true value. But if we look a little
carefully into the state of politics and public opinion in Illinois in
the first half of this century, we shall see how much of inflexible
conscience and reason there was in this simple protest.

[Sidenote: Edwards, "History of Illinois," p. 179.]

[Sidenote: Edwards, p. 180.]

The whole of the North-west territory had, it is true, been dedicated
to freedom by the ordinance of 1787, but in spite of that famous
prohibition, slavery existed in a modified form throughout that vast
territory wherever there was any considerable population. An act
legalizing a sort of slavery by indenture was passed by the Indiana
territorial Legislature in 1807, and this remained in force in the
Illinois country after its separation. Another act providing for the
hiring of slaves from Southern States was passed in 1814, for the
ostensible reason that "mills could not be successfully operated in
the territory for want of laborers, and that the manufacture of salt
could not be successfully carried on by white laborers." Yet, as an
unconscious satire upon such pretenses, from time to time the most
savage acts were passed to prohibit the immigration of free negroes
into the territory which was represented as pining for black labor.
Those who held slaves under the French domination, and their heirs,
continued to hold them and their descendants in servitude, after
Illinois had become nominally a free territory and a free State, on
the ground that their vested rights of property could not have been
abrogated by the ordinance, and that under the rule of the civil law
_partus sequitur ventrem_.

But this quasi-toleration of the institution was not enough for the
advocates of slavery. Soon after the adoption of the State
Constitution, which prohibited slavery "hereafter," it was evident
that there was a strong under-current of desire for its introduction
into the State. Some of the leading politicians, exaggerating the
extent of this desire, imagined they saw in it a means of personal
advancement, and began to agitate the question of a convention to
amend the Constitution. At that time there was a considerable
emigration setting through the State from Kentucky and Tennessee to
Missouri. Day by day the teams of the movers passed through the
Illinois settlements, and wherever they halted for rest and
refreshment they would affect to deplore the short-sighted policy
which, by prohibiting slavery, had prevented their settling in that
beautiful country. When young bachelors came from Kentucky on trips of
business or pleasure, they dazzled the eyes of the women and excited
the envy of their male rivals with their black retainers. The early
Illinoisans were perplexed with a secret and singular sense of
inferiority to even so new and raw a community as Missouri, because of
its possession of slavery. Governor Edwards, complaining so late as
1829 of the superior mail facilities afforded to Missouri, says: "I
can conceive of no reason for this preference, unless it be supposed
that because the people of Missouri have negroes to work for them they
are to be considered as gentlefolks entitled to higher consideration
than us plain 'free-State' folks who have to work for ourselves."

The attempt was at last seriously made to open the State to slavery by
the Legislature of 1822-3. The Governor, Edward Coles, of Virginia, a
strong antislavery man, had been elected by a division of the pro-
slavery party, but came in with a Legislature largely against him. The
Senate had the requisite pro-slavery majority of two-thirds for a
convention. In the House of Representatives there was a contest for a
seat upon the result of which the two-thirds majority depended. The
seat was claimed by John Shaw and Nicholas Hansen, of Pike County. The
way in which the contest was decided affords a curious illustration of
the moral sense of the advocates of slavery. They wanted at this
session to elect a senator and provide for the convention. Hansen
would vote for their senator and not for the convention. Shaw would
vote for the convention, but not for Thomas, their candidate for
senator. In such a dilemma they determined not to choose, but
impartially to use both. They gave the seat to Hansen, and with his
vote elected Thomas; they then turned him out, gave the place to Shaw,
and with his vote carried the act for submitting the convention
question to a popular vote. They were not more magnanimous in their
victory than scrupulous in the means by which they had gained it. The
night after the vote was taken they formed in a wild and drunken
procession, and visited the residences of the Governor and the other
free-State leaders, with loud and indecent demonstrations of triumph.

They considered their success already assured; but they left out of
view the value of the moral forces called into being by their insolent
challenge. The better class of people in the State, those heretofore
unknown in politics, the schoolmasters, the ministers, immediately
prepared for the contest, which became one of the severest the State
has ever known. They established three newspapers, and sustained them
with money and contributions. The Governor gave his entire salary for
four years to the expenses of this contest, in which he had no
personal interest whatever. The antislavery members of the Legislature
made up a purse of a thousand dollars. They spent their money mostly
in printer's ink and in the payment of active and zealous colporteurs.
The result was a decisive defeat for the slave party. The convention
was beaten by 1800 majority, in a total vote of 11612, and the State
saved forever from slavery.

[Illustration: MARTIN VAN BUREN.]

But these supreme efforts of the advocates of public morals,
uninfluenced by considerations of personal advantage, are of rare
occurrence, and necessarily do not survive the exigencies that call
them forth. The apologists of slavery, beaten in the canvass, were
more successful in the field of social opinion. In the reaction which
succeeded the triumph of the antislavery party, it seemed as if there
had never been any antislavery sentiment in the State. They had voted,
it is true, against the importation of slaves from the South, but they
were content to live under a code of Draconian ferocity, inspired by
the very spirit of slavery, visiting the immigration of free negroes
with penalties of the most savage description. Even Governor Coles,
the public-spirited and popular politician, was indicted and severely
fined for having brought his own freedmen into the State and having
assisted them in establishing themselves around him upon farms of
their own. The Legislature remitted the fine, but the Circuit Court
declared it had no constitutional power to do so, though the Supreme
Court afterwards overruled this decision. Any mention of the subject
of slavery was thought in the worst possible taste, and no one could
avow himself opposed to it without the risk of social ostracism. Every
town had its one or two abolitionists, who were regarded as harmless
or dangerous lunatics, according to the energy with which they made
their views known.

From this arose a singular prejudice against New England people. It
was attributable partly to the natural feeling of distrust of
strangers which is common to ignorance and provincialism, but still
more to a general suspicion that all Eastern men were abolitionists.
Mr. Cook, who so long represented the State in Congress, used to
relate with much amusement how he once spent the night in a farmer's
cabin, and listened to the honest man's denunciations of "that - -
Yankee Cook." Cook was a Kentuckian, but his enemies could think of no
more dreadful stigma to apply to him than that of calling him a
Yankee. Senator James A. McDougall once told us that although he made
no pretense of concealing his Eastern nativity, he never could keep
his ardent friends in Pike County from denying the fact and fighting
any one who asserted it. The great preacher, Peter Cartwright, used to
denounce Eastern men roundly in his sermons, calling them "imps who
lived on oysters" instead of honest corn-bread and bacon. The taint of
slavery, the contagion of a plague they had not quite escaped, was on
the people of Illinois. They were strong enough to rise once in their
might and say they would not have slavery among them. But in the petty
details of every day, in their ordinary talk, and in their routine
legislation, their sympathies were still with the slave-holders. They
would not enlist with them, but they would fight their battles in
their own way.

Their readiness to do what came to be called later, in a famous
speech, the "dirty work" of the South was seen in the tragic death of
Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy, in this very year of 1837. He had for some
years been publishing a religious newspaper in St. Louis, but finding

Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 10 of 31)