John George Nicolay.

Abraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 online

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Lincoln always regretted it, as he deprecated everything that savored
of the revolutionary."

Two years later the persecuted banks, harried by the demagogues and
swindled by the State, fell with a great ruin, and the financial
misery of the State was complete. Nothing was left of the brilliant
schemes of the historic Legislature of 1836 but a load of debt which
crippled for many years the energies of the people, a few miles of
embankments which the grass hastened to cover, and a few abutments
which stood for years by the sides of leafy rivers, waiting for their
long delaying bridges and trains.

During the winter of 1840-1 occurred the first clash of opinion and
principle between Mr. Lincoln and his life-long adversary, Mr.
Douglas. There are those who can see only envy and jealousy in that
strong dislike and disapproval with which Mr. Lincoln always regarded
his famous rival. But we think that few men have ever lived who were
more free from those degrading passions than Abraham Lincoln, and the
personal reprobation with which he always visited the public acts of
Douglas arose from his sincere conviction that, able as Douglas was,
and in many respects admirable in character, he was essentially
without fixed political morals. They had met for the first time in
1834 at Vandalia, where Douglas was busy in getting the circuit
attorneyship away from John J. Hardin. He held it only long enough to
secure a nomination to the Legislature in 1836. He went there to
endeavor to have the capital moved to Jacksonville, where he lived,
but he gave up the fight for the purpose of having himself appointed
Register of the Land Office at Springfield. He held this place as a
means of being nominated for Congress the next year; he was nominated
and defeated. In 1840 he was engaged in another scheme to which we
will give a moment's attention, as it resulted in giving him a seat on
the Supreme Bench of the State, which he used merely as a perch from
which to get into Congress.

There had been a difference of opinion in Illinois for some years as
to whether the Constitution, which made voters of all white male
inhabitants of six months' residence, meant to include aliens in that
category. As the aliens were nearly all Democrats, that party insisted
on their voting, and the Whigs objected. The best lawyers in the State
were Whigs, and so it happened that most of the judges were of that
complexion. A case was made up for decision and decided adversely to
the aliens, who appealed it to the Supreme Court. This case was to
come on at the June term in 1840, and the Democratic counsel, chief
among whom was Mr. Douglas, were in some anxiety, as an unfavorable
decision would lose them about ten thousand alien votes in the
Presidential election in November. In this conjuncture one Judge
Smith, of the Supreme Court, an ardent Democrat, willing to enhance
his value in his party, communicated to Mr. Douglas two important
facts: first, that a majority of the court would certainly decide
against the aliens; and, secondly that there was a slight imperfection
in the record by which counsel might throw the case over to the
December term, and save the alien vote for Van Buren and the
Democratic ticket. This was done, and when the Legislature came
together with its large Democratic majority, Mr. Douglas handed in a
bill "reforming" the Judiciary - for they had learned that serviceable
word already. The circuit judges were turned out of office, and five
new judges were added to the Supreme Court, who were to perform
circuit duty also. It is needless to say that Judge Douglas was one of
these, and he had contrived also in the course of the discussion to
disgrace his friend Smith so thoroughly by quoting his treacherous
communication of matters which took place within the court, that Smith
was no longer a possible rival for political honors.

It was useless for the Whigs to try to prevent this degradation of the
bench. There was no resource but a protest, and here again Lincoln
uttered the voice of the conscience of the party. He was joined on
this occasion by Edward D. Baker [Footnote: Afterwards senator from
Oregon, and as colonel of the 71st Pennsylvania (called the 1st
California) killed at Ball's Bluff.] and some others, who protested
against the act because

1st. It violates the principles of free government by subjecting the
Judiciary to the Legislature.

2d. It is a fatal blow at the independence of the judges and the
constitutional term of their offices.

3d. It is a measure not asked for or wished for by the people.

4th. It will greatly increase the expense of our courts or else
greatly diminish their utility.

5th. It will give our courts a political and partisan character,
thereby impairing public confidence in their decisions.

6th. It will impair our standing with other States and the world.

7th. It is a party measure for party purposes from which no practical
good to the people can possibly arise, but which may be the source of
immeasurable evils.

The undersigned are well aware that this protest will be altogether
unavailing with the majority of this body. The blow has already fallen;
and we are compelled to stand by, the mournful spectators of the
ruin it will cause.

[Sidenote: Ford's "History," p. 221.]

It will be easy to ridicule this indignant protest as the angry outcry
of beaten partisans; but fortunately we have evidence which cannot be
gainsaid of the justice of its sentiments and the wisdom of its
predictions. Governor Ford, himself a Democratic leader as able as he
was honest, writing seven years after these proceedings, condemns them
as wrong and impolitic, and adds, "Ever since this reforming measure
the Judiciary has been unpopular with the Democratic majorities. Many
and most of the judges have had great personal popularity - so much so
as to create complaint of so many of them being elected or appointed
to other offices. But the Bench itself has been the subject of bitter
attacks by every Legislature since." It had been soiled by unclean
contact and could not be respected as before.



During all the years of his service in the Legislature, Lincoln was
practicing law in Springfield in the dingy little office at the corner
of the square. A youth named Milton Hay, who afterwards became one of
the foremost lawyers of the State, had made the acquaintance of
Lincoln at the County Clerk's office and proposed to study law with
him. He was at once accepted as a pupil, and his days being otherwise
employed he gave his nights to reading, and as his vigils were apt to
be prolonged he furnished a bedroom adjoining the office, where
Lincoln often passed the night with him. Mr. Hay gives this account of
the practice of the law in those days:

"In forming our ideas of Lincoln's growth and development as a lawyer,
we must remember that in those early days litigation was very simple
as compared with that of modern times. Population was sparse and
society scarcely organized, land was plentiful and employment
abundant. There was an utter absence of the abstruse questions and
complications which now beset the law. There was no need of that close
and searching study into principles and precedents which keeps the
modern law-student buried in his office. On the contrary, the very
character of this simple litigation drew the lawyer into the street
and neighborhood, and into close and active intercourse with all
classes of his fellow-men. The suits consisted of actions of tort and
assumpsit. If a man had a debt not collectible, the current phrase
was, 'I'll take it out of his hide.'


"This would bring on an action for assault and battery. The free
comments of the neighbors on the fracas or the character of the
parties would be productive of slander suits. A man would for his
convenience lay down an irascible neighbor's fence, and indolently
forget to put it up again, and an action of trespass would grow out of
it. The suit would lead to a free fight, and sometimes furnish the
bloody incidents for a murder trial. Occupied with this class of
business, the half-legal, half-political lawyers were never found
plodding in their offices. In that case they would have waited long
for the recognition of their talents or a demand for their services.
Out of this characteristic of the times also grew the street
discussions I have adverted to. There was scarcely a day or hour when
a knot of men might not have been seen near the door of some prominent
store, or about the steps of the court-house eagerly discussing a
current political topic - not as a question of news, for news was not
then received quickly or frequently, as it is now, but rather for the
sake of debate; and the men from the country, the pioneers and
farmers, always gathered eagerly about these groups and listened with
open-mouthed interest, and frequently manifested their approval or
dissent in strong words, and carried away to their neighborhoods a
report of the debaters' wit and skill. It was in these street talks
that the rising and aspiring young lawyer found his daily and hourly
forum. Often by good luck or prudence he had the field entirely to
himself, and so escaped the dangers and discouragements of a decisive
conflict with a trained antagonist."


Mr. Stuart was either in Congress or actively engaged in canvassing
his district a great part of the time that his partnership with
Lincoln continued, so that the young lawyer was thrown a good deal on
his own resources for occupation. There was not enough business to
fill up all his hours, and he was not at that time a close student, so
that he soon became as famous for his racy talk and good-fellowship at
all the usual lounging-places in Springfield as he had ever been in
New Salem. Mr. Hay says, speaking of the youths who made the County
Clerk's office their place of rendezvous, "It was always a great treat
when Lincoln got amongst us. We were sure to have some of those
stories for which he already had a reputation, and there was this
peculiarity about them, that they were not only entertaining in
themselves, but always singularly illustrative of some point he wanted
to make." After Mr. Hay entered his office, and was busily engaged
with his briefs and declarations, the course of their labors was often
broken by the older man's wise and witty digressions. Once an
interruption occurred which affords an odd illustration of the
character of discussion then prevalent. We will give it in Mr. Hay's
words: "The custom of public political debate, while it was sharp and
acrimonious, also engendered a spirit of equality and fairness. Every
political meeting was a free fight open to every one who had talent
and spirit, no matter to which party the speaker belonged. These
discussions used often to be held in the court-room, just under our
office, and through a trap-door, made there when the building was used
for a store-house, we could hear everything that was said in the hall
below. One night there was a discussion in which E. D. Baker took
part. He was a fiery fellow, and when his impulsiveness was let loose
among the rough element that composed his audience there was a fair
prospect of trouble at any moment. Lincoln was lying on the bed,
apparently paying no attention to what was going on. Lamborn was
talking, and we suddenly heard Baker interrupting him with a sharp
remark, then a rustling and uproar. Lincoln jumped from the bed and
down the trap, lighting on the platform between Baker and the
audience, and quieted the tumult as much by the surprise of his sudden
apparition as by his good-natured and reasonable words."

[Lamon p. 396.]

He was often unfaithful to his Quaker traditions in those days of his
youth. Those who witnessed his wonderful forbearance and self-
restraint in later manhood would find it difficult to believe how
promptly and with what pleasure he used to resort to measures of
repression against a bully or brawler. On the day of election in 1840,
word came to him that one Radford, a Democratic contractor, had taken
possession of one of the polling-places with his workmen, and was
preventing the Whigs from voting. Lincoln started off at a gait which
showed his interest in the matter in hand. He went up to Radford and
persuaded him to leave the polls without a moment's delay. One of his
candid remarks is remembered and recorded: "Radford! you'll spoil and
blow, if you live much longer." Radford's prudence prevented an actual
collision, which, it must be confessed, Lincoln regretted. He told his
friend Speed he wanted Radford to show fight so that he might "knock
him down and leave him kicking."

Early in the year 1840 it seemed possible that the Whigs might elect
General Harrison to the Presidency, and this hope lent added energy to
the party even in the States where the majority was so strongly
against them as in Illinois. Lincoln was nominated for Presidential
Elector and threw himself with ardor into the canvass, traversing a
great part of the State and speaking with remarkable effect. Only one
of the speeches he made during the year has been preserved entire:
this was an address delivered in Springfield as one of a series - a
sort of oratorical tournament participated in by Douglas, Calhoun,
Lamborn, and Thomas on the part of the Democrats, and Logan, Baker,
Browning, and Lincoln on the part of the Whigs. The discussion began
with great enthusiasm and with crowded houses, but by the time it came
to Lincoln's duty to close the debate the fickle public had tired of
the intellectual jousts, and he spoke to a comparatively thin house.
But his speech was considered the best of the series, and there was
such a demand for it that he wrote it out, and it was printed and
circulated in the spring as a campaign document.


It was a remarkable speech in many respects - and in none more than in
this, that it represented the highest expression of what might be
called his "first manner." It was the most important and the last
speech of its class which he ever delivered - not destitute of sound
and close reasoning, yet filled with boisterous fun and florid
rhetoric. It was, in short, a rattling stump speech of the kind then
universally popular in the West, and which is still considered a very
high grade of eloquence in the South. But it is of no kindred with his
inaugural addresses, and resembles the Gettysburg speech no more than
"The Comedy of Errors" resembles "Hamlet." One or two extracts will
give some idea of its humorous satire and its lurid fervor. Attacking
the corruptions and defalcations of the Administration party he said:
"Mr. Lamborn insists that the difference between the Van Buren party
and the Whigs is that, although the former sometimes err in practice
they are always correct in principle, whereas the latter are wrong in
principle; and the better to impress this proposition he uses a
figurative expression in these words, 'The Democrats are vulnerable in
the heel, but they are sound in the heart and head.' The first branch
of the figure - that is, the Democrats are vulnerable in the heel - I
admit is not merely figuratively but literally true. Who that looks
but for a moment at their Swartwouts, their Prices, their Harringtons,
and their hundreds of others scampering away with the public money to
Texas, to Europe, and to every spot of the earth where a villain may
hope to find refuge from justice, can at all doubt that they are most
distressingly affected in their heels with a species of running itch?
It seems that this malady of their heels operates on the sound-headed
and honest-hearted creatures, very much as the cork leg in the comic
song did on its owner, which, when he once got started on it, the more
he tried to stop it the more it would run away. At the hazard of
wearing this point threadbare, I will relate an anecdote which seems
to be too strikingly in point to be omitted. A witty Irish soldier who
was always boasting of his bravery when no danger was near, but who
invariably retreated without orders at the first charge of the
engagement, being asked by his captain why he did so, replied,
'Captain, I have as brave a heart as Julius Caesar ever had, but
somehow or other whenever danger approaches, my cowardly legs will run
away with it.' So with Mr. Lamborn's party - they take the public money
into their hands for the most laudable purpose that wise heads and
honest hearts can dictate; but before they can possibly get it out
again, their rascally vulnerable heels will run away with them."


The speech concludes with these swelling words: "Mr. Lamborn refers to
the late elections in the States, and from their results confidently
predicts every State in the Union will vote for Mr. Van Buren at the
next Presidential election. Address that argument to cowards and
slaves: with the free and the brave it will affect nothing. It may be
true; if it must, let it. Many free countries have lost their liberty,
and ours may lose hers; but if she shall, be it my proudest plume, not
that I was the last to desert, but that I never deserted her. I know
that the great volcano at Washington, aroused and directed by the evil
spirit that reigns there, is belching forth the lava of political
corruption in a current broad and deep, which is sweeping with
frightful velocity over the whole length and breadth of the land,
bidding fair to leave unscathed no green spot or living thing; while
on its bosom are riding, like demons on the wave of Hell, the imps of
the Evil Spirit, and fiendishly taunting all those who dare to resist
its destroying course with the hopelessness of their efforts; and
knowing this, I cannot deny that all may be swept away. Broken by it
I, too, may be; bow to it, I never will. The probability that we may
fall in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause
we believe to be just. It shall not deter me. If ever I feel the soul
within me elevate and expand to those dimensions not wholly unworthy
of its almighty architect, it is when I contemplate the cause of my
country, deserted by all the world beside, and I standing up boldly
alone, hurling defiance at her victorious oppressors. Here, without
contemplating consequences, before Heaven, and in face of the world, I
swear eternal fealty to the just cause, as I deem it, of the land of
my life, my liberty, and my love. And who that thinks with me will not
fearlessly adopt that oath that I take? Let none falter who thinks he
is right, and we may succeed. But if after all we should fail, be it
so. We still shall have the proud consolation of saying to our
consciences, and to the departed shade of our country's freedom, that
the cause approved of our judgment, and adored of our hearts, in
disaster, in chains, in torture, in death, we never faltered in

These perfervid and musical metaphors of devotion and defiance have
often been quoted as Mr. Lincoln's heroic challenge to the slave
power, and Bishop Simpson gave them that lofty significance in his
funeral oration. But they were simply the utterances of a young and
ardent Whig, earnestly advocating the election of "old Tippecanoe" and
not unwilling, while doing this, to show the people of the capital a
specimen of his eloquence. The whole campaign was carried on in a tone
somewhat shrill. The Whigs were recovering from the numbness into
which they had fallen during the time of Jackson's imperious
predominance, and in the new prospect of success they felt all the
excitement of prosperous rebels. The taunts of the party in power,
when Harrison's nomination was first mentioned, their sneers at "hard
cider" and "log-cabins," had been dexterously adopted as the slogan of
the opposition, and gave rise to the distinguishing features of that
extraordinary campaign. Log-cabins were built in every Western county,
tuns of hard cider were filled and emptied at all the Whig mass
meetings; and as the canvass gained momentum and vehemence a curious
kind of music added its inspiration to the cause; and after the Maine
election was over, with its augury of triumph, every Whig who was able
to sing, or even to make a joyful noise, was roaring the inquiry, "Oh,
have you heard how old Maine went?" and the profane but powerfully
accented response, "She went, hell-bent, for Governor Kent, and
Tippecanoe, and Tyler too."

It was one of the busiest and most enjoyable seasons of Lincoln's
life. He had grown by this time thoroughly at home in political
controversy, and he had the pleasure of frequently meeting Mr. Douglas
in rough-and-tumble debate in various towns of the State as they
followed Judge Treat on his circuit. If we may trust the willing
testimony of his old associates, Lincoln had no difficulty in holding
his own against his adroit antagonist, and it was even thought that
the recollection of his ill success in these encounters was not
without its influence in inducing Douglas and his followers, defeated
in the nation, though victorious in the State, to wreak their
vengeance on the Illinois Supreme Court.

[Sidenote: Copied from the MS. in Major Stuart's possession.]

[Sidenote: Noah W. Matheny, County Clerk.]

In Lincoln's letters to Major Stuart, then in Washington, we see how
strongly the subject of politics overshadows all others in his mind.
Under date of November 14, 1839, he wrote: "I have been to the
Secretary's office within the last hour, and find things precisely as
you left them; no new arrivals of returns on either side. Douglas has
not been here since you left. A report is in circulation here now that
he has abandoned, the idea of going to Washington; but the report does
not come in very authentic form so far as I can learn. Though,
speaking of authenticity, you know that if we had heard Douglas say
that he had abandoned the contest, it would not be very authentic.
There is no news here. Noah, I still think, will be elected very
easily. I am afraid of our race for representative. Dr. Knapp has
become a candidate; and I fear the few votes he will get will be taken
from us. Also some one has been tampering with old squire Wyckoff, and
induced him to send in his name to be announced as a candidate.
Francis refused to announce him without seeing him, and now I suppose
there is to be a fuss about it. I have been so busy that I have not
seen Mrs. Stuart since you left, though I understand she wrote you by
to-day's mail, which will inform you more about her than I could. The
very moment a speaker is elected, write me who he is. Your friend, as

Again he wrote, on New Year's Day, 1840, a letter curiously destitute
of any festal suggestions: "There is a considerable disposition on the
part of both parties in the Legislature to reinstate the law bringing
on the Congressional elections next summer. What motive for this the
Locos have, I cannot tell. The Whigs say that the canal and other
public works will stop, and consequently we shall then be clear of the
foreign votes, whereas by another year they may be brought in again.
The Whigs of our district say that everything is in favor of holding
the election next summer, except the fact of your absence; and several
of them have requested me to ask your opinion on the matter. Write me
immediately what you think of it.

"On the other side of this sheet I send you a copy of my Land
Resolutions, which passed both branches of our Legislature last
winter. Will you show them to Mr. Calhoun, informing him of the fact
of their passage through our Legislature! Mr. Calhoun suggested a
similar proposition last winter; and perhaps if he finds himself
backed by one of the States he may be induced to take it up again."

After the session opened, January 20, he wrote to Mr. Stuart,
accurately outlining the work of the winter: "The following is my
guess as to what will be done. The Internal Improvement System will be
put down in a lump without benefit of clergy. The Bank will be
resuscitated with some trifling modifications."

State affairs have evidently lost their interest, however, and his
soul is in arms for the wider fray. "Be sure to send me as many copies
of the Life of Harrison as you can spare. Be very sure to send me the
Senate Journal of New York for September, 1814," - he had seen in a
newspaper a charge of disloyalty made against Mr. Van Buren during the
war with Great Britain, but, as usual, wanted to be sure of his

Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 12 of 31)