John George Nicolay.

Abraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 online

. (page 5 of 31)
Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 5 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


inhabitants of the south and the center were principally from what
came afterwards to be called the border slave States. They were mostly
a simple, neighborly, unambitious people, contented with their
condition, living upon plain fare, and knowing not much of anything
better. Luxury was, of course, unknown; even wealth, if it existed,
could procure few of the comforts of refined life. There was little or
no money in circulation. Exchanges were effected by the most primitive
forms of barter, and each family had to rely chiefly upon itself for
the means of living. The neighbors would lend a hand in building a
cabin for a new-comer; after that he must in most cases shift for
himself. Many a man arriving from an old community, and imperfectly
appreciating the necessities of pioneer life, has found suddenly, on
the approach of winter, that he must learn to make shoes or go
barefoot. The furniture of their houses was made with an axe from the
trees of the forest. Their clothing was all made at home. The buckskin
days were over to a great extent, though an occasional hunting-shirt
and pair of moccasins were still seen. But flax and hemp had begun to
be cultivated, and as the wolves were killed off the sheep-folds
increased, and garments resembling those of civilization were spun and
woven, and cut and sewed, by the women of the family. When a man had a
suit of jeans colored with butternut-dye, and his wife a dress of
linsey, they could appear with the best at a wedding or a quilting
frolic. The superfluous could not have been said to exist in a
community where men made their own buttons, where women dug roots in
the woods to make their tea with, where many children never saw a
stick of candy until after they were grown. The only sweetmeats known
were those a skillful cook could compose from the honey plundered from
the hollow oaks where the wild bees had stored it. Yet there was
withal a kind of rude plenty; the woods swarmed with game, and after
swine began to be raised, there was the bacon and hoe-cake which any
south-western farmer will say is good enough for a king. The greatest
privation was the lack of steel implements. His axe was as precious to
the pioneer as his sword to the knight errant. Governor John Reynolds
speaks of the panic felt in his father's family when the axe was
dropped into a stream. A battered piece of tin was carefully saved and
smoothed, and made into a grater for green corn.

[Sidenote: William H. Herndon's speech at Old Settlers' Meeting,
Menard County.]

[Sidenote: "Old Times in McLean County," p. 194.]

They had their own amusements, of course; no form of society is
without them, from the anthropoid apes to the Jockey Club. As to the
grosser and ruder shapes taken by the diversions of the pioneers, we
will let Mr. Herndon speak - their contemporary annalist and ardent
panegyrist: "These men could shave a horse's mane and tail, paint,
disfigure, and offer it for sale to the owner. They could hoop up in a
hogshead a drunken man, they themselves being drunk, put in and nail
fast the head, and roll the man down hill a hundred feet or more. They
could run down a lean and hungry wild pig, catch it, heat a ten-plate
stove furnace hot, and putting in the pig, could cook it, they dancing
the while a merry jig." Wild oats of this kind seem hardly compatible
with a harvest of civilization, but it is contended that such of these
roysterers as survived their stormy beginnings became decent and
serious citizens. Indeed, Mr. Herndon insists than even in their hot
youth they showed the promise of goodness and piety. "They attended
church, heard the sermon, wept and prayed, shouted, got up and fought
an hour, and then went back to prayer, just as the spirit moved them."
The camp-meeting may be said, with no irreverent intention, to have
been their principal means of intellectual excitement. The circuit
preachers were for a long time the only circulating medium of thought
and emotion that kept the isolated settlements from utter spiritual
stagnation. They were men of great physical and moral endurance,
absolutely devoted to their work, which they pursued in the face of
every hardship and discouragement. Their circuits were frequently so
great in extent that they were forced to be constantly on the route;
what reading they did was done in the saddle. They received perhaps
fifty dollars from the missionary fund and half as much more from
their congregations, paid for the most part in necessaries of life.
Their oratory was suited to their longitude, and was principally
addressed to the emotions of their hearers. It was often very
effective, producing shouts and groans and genuflections among the
audience at large, and terrible convulsions among the more nervous and
excitable. We hear sometimes of a whole congregation prostrated as by
a hurricane, flinging their limbs about in furious contortions, with
wild outcries. To this day some of the survivors of that period insist
that it was the spirit of the Almighty, and nothing less, that thus
manifested itself. The minister, however, did not always share in the
delirium of his hearers. Governor Reynolds tells us of a preacher in
Sangamon County, who, before his sermon, had set a wolf-trap in view
from his pulpit. In the midst of his exhortations his keen eyes saw
the distant trap collapse, and he continued in the same intonation
with which he had been preaching, "Mind the text, brethren, till I go
kill that wolf!" With all the failings and eccentricities of this
singular class of men, they did a great deal of good, and are entitled
to especial credit among those who conquered the wilderness. The
emotions they excited did not all die away in the shouts and
contortions of the meeting. Not a few of the cabins in the clearings
were the abode of a fervent religion and an austere morality. Many a
traveler, approaching a rude hut in the woods in the gathering
twilight, distrusting the gaunt and silent family who gave him an
unsmiling welcome, the bare interior, the rifles and knives
conspicuously displayed, has felt his fears vanish when he sat down to
supper, and the master of the house, in a few fervent words, invoked
the blessing of heaven on the meal.

There was very little social intercourse; a visit was a serious
matter, involving the expenditure of days of travel. It was the custom
among families, when the longing for the sight of kindred faces was
too strong to withstand, to move in a body to the distant settlement
where their relatives lived and remain with them for months at a time.
The claims of consanguinity were more regarded than now. Almost the
only festivities were those that accompanied weddings, and these were,
of course, of a primitive kind. The perils and adventures through
which the young pioneers went to obtain their brides furnish forth
thousands of tales by Western firesides. Instead of taking the rosy
daughter of a neighbor, the enterprising bachelor would often go back
to Kentucky, and pass through as many adventures in bringing his wife
home as a returning crusader would meet between Beirut and Vienna. If
she was a young woman who respected herself, the household gear she
would insist on bringing would entail an Iliad of embarrassments. An
old farmer of Sangamon County still talks of a featherbed weighing
fifty-four pounds with which his wife made him swim six rivers under
penalty of desertion.

It was not always easy to find a competent authority to perform the
ceremony. A justice in McLean County lived by the bank of a river, and
his services were sometimes required by impatient lovers on the other
bank when the waters were too torrential to cross. In such cases,
being a conscientious man, he always insisted that they should ride
into the stream far enough for him to discern their features, holding
torches to their faces by night and by storm. The wooing of those days
was prompt and practical. There was no time for the gradual approaches
of an idler and more conventional age. It is related of one Stout, one
of the legendary Nimrods of Illinois, who was well and frequently
married, that he had one unfailing formula of courtship. He always
promised the ladies whose hearts he was besieging that "they should
live in the timber where they could pick up their own firewood."

Theft was almost unknown; property, being so hard to get, was
jealously guarded, as we have already noticed in speaking of the
settlement of Kentucky. The pioneers of Illinois brought with them the
same rigid notions of honesty which their environment maintained. A
man in Macoupin County left his wagon, loaded with corn, stuck in the
prairie mud for two weeks near a frequented road. When he returned he
found some of his corn gone, but there was money enough tied in the
sacks to pay for what was taken. Men carrying bags of silver from the
towns of Illinois to St. Louis rather made a display of it, as it
enhanced their own importance, and there was no fear of robbery. There
were of course no locks on the cabin doors, and the early merchants
sometimes left their stores unprotected for days together when they
went to the nearest city to replenish their stock. Of course there
were rare exceptions to this rule, but a single theft alarmed and
excited a whole neighborhood. When a crime was traced home, the family
of the criminal were generally obliged to remove.

[Sidenote: N.W. Edwards, "Life and Times of Ninian Edwards," p. 163.]

There were still, even so late as the time to which we are referring,
two alien elements in the population of the State - the French and the
Indians. The French settlements about Kaskaskia retained much of their
national character, and the pioneers from the South who visited them
or settled among them never ceased to wonder at their gayety, their
peaceable industry and enterprise, and their domestic affection, which
they did not care to dissemble and conceal like their shy and reticent
neighbors. It was a daily spectacle, which never lost its strangeness
for the Tennesseeans and Kentuckians, to see the Frenchman returning
from his work greeted by his wife and children with embraces of
welcome "at the gate of his door-yard, and in view of all the
villagers." The natural and kindly fraternization of the Frenchmen
with the Indians was also a cause of wonder to the Americans. The
friendly intercourse between them, and their occasional
intermarriages, seemed little short of monstrous to the ferocious
exclusiveness of the Anglo-Saxon. [Footnote: Michelet notices this
exclusiveness of the English, and inveighs against it in his most
lyric style. "Crime contre la nature! Crime contre l'humanite! Il sera
expie par la sterilite de l'esprit."] The Indians in the central part
of Illinois cut very little figure in the reminiscences of the
pioneers; they occupied much the same relation to them as the tramp to
the housewife of to-day. The Winnebago war in 1827 and the Black Hawk
war in 1831 disturbed only the northern portion of the State. A few
scattered and vagrant lodges of Pottawatomies and Kickapoos were all
the pioneers of Sangamon and the neighboring counties ever met. They
were spared the heroic struggle of the advance-guard of civilization
in other States. A woman was sometimes alarmed by a visit from a
drunken savage; poultry and pigs occasionally disappeared when they
were in the neighborhood; but life was not darkened by the constant
menace of massacre. A few years earlier, indeed, the relations of the
two races had been more strained, as may be inferred from an act
passed by the territorial Legislature in 1814, offering a reward of
fifty dollars to any citizen or ranger who should kill or take any
depredating Indian. As only two dollars was paid for killing a wolf,
it is easy to see how the pioneers regarded the forest folk in point
of relative noxiousness. But ten years later a handful only of the
Kickapoos remained in Sangamon County, the specter of the vanished
people. A chief named Machina came one day to a family who were
clearing a piece of timber, and issued an order of eviction in these
words: "Too much come white man. T'other side Sangamon." He threw a
handful of dried leaves in the air to show how he would scatter the
pale faces, but he never fulfilled his threats further than to come in
occasionally and ask for a drink of whisky. That such trivial details
are still related, only shows how barren of incident was the life of
these obscure founders of a great empire. Any subject of conversation,
any cause of sensation, was a godsend. When Vannoy murdered his wife
in Springfield, whole families put on their best clothes and drove
fifty miles through bottomless mud and swollen rivers to see him
hanged.

[Sidenote: Power, "Early Settlers of Sangamon County," p. 88.]

It is curious to see how naturally in such a state of things the
fabric of political society developed itself from its germ. The county
of Sangamon was called by an act of the Legislature in 1821 out of a
verdant solitude of more than a million acres, inhabited by a few
families. An election for county commissioners was ordered; three men
were chosen; they came together at the cabin of John Kelly, at Spring
Creek. He was a roving bachelor from North Carolina, devoted to the
chase, who had built this hut three years before on the margin of a
green-bordered rivulet, where the deer passed by in hundreds, going in
the morning from the shady banks of the Sangamon to feed on the rich
green grass of the prairie, and returning in the twilight. He was so
delighted with this hunters' paradise that he sent for his brothers to
join him. They came and brought their friends, so it happened that in
this immense county, several thousand square miles in extent, the
settlement of John Kelly at Spring Creek was the only place where
there was shelter for the commissioners; thus it became the temporary
county-seat, duly described in the official report of the
commissioners as "a certain point in the prairie near John Kelly's
field, on the waters of Spring Creek, at a stake marked Z and D (the
initials of the commissioners), to be the temporary seat of justice
for said county; and we do further agree that the said county-seat be
called and known by the name of Springfield." In this manner the
future capital received that hackneyed title, when the distinctive and
musical name of Sangamon was ready to their hands. The same day they
agreed with John Kelly to build them a court-house, for which they
paid him forty-two dollars and fifty cents. In twenty-four days the
house was built - one room of rough logs, the jury retiring to any
sequestered glade they fancied for their deliberation. They next
ordered the building of a jail, which cost just twice as much money as
the court-house. Constables and overseers of the poor were appointed,
and all the machinery of government prepared for the population which
was hourly expected. It was taken for granted that malefactors would
come and the constables have employment; and the poor they would have
always with them, when once they began to arrive. This was only a
temporary arrangement, but when, a year or two later, the time came to
fix upon a permanent seat of justice for the county, the resources of
the Spring Creek men were equal to the emergency. When the
commissioners came to decide on the relative merits of Springfield and
another site a few miles away, they led them through brake, through
brier, by mud knee-deep and by water-courses so exasperating that the
wearied and baffled officials declared they would seek no further, and
Springfield became the county-seat for all time; and greater destinies
were in store for it through means not wholly dissimilar. Nature had
made it merely a pleasant hunting-ground; the craft and the industry
of its first settlers made it a capital.

[Sidenote: "History Of Sangamon County," p. 83.]

[Sidenote: "Old Times in McLean County," p. 235.]

[Sidenote: Ford, "History of Illinois," p. 53.]

The courts which were held in these log huts were as rude as might be
expected; yet there is evidence that although there was no superfluity
of law or of learning, justice was substantially administered. The
lawyers came mostly from Kentucky, though an occasional New Englander
confronted and lived down the general prejudice against his region and
obtained preferment. The profits of the profession were inconceivably
small. One early State's Attorney describes his first circuit as a
tour of shifts and privations not unlike the wanderings of a mendicant
friar. In his first county he received a fee of five dollars for
prosecuting the parties to a sanguinary affray. In the next he was
equally successful, but barely escaped drowning in Spoon River. In the
third there were but two families at the county-seat, and no cases on
the docket. Thence he journeyed across a trackless prairie sixty
miles, and at Quincy had one case and gained five dollars. In Pike
County our much-enduring jurist took no cash, but found a generous
sheriff who entertained him without charge. "He was one of nature's
noblemen, from Massachusetts," writes the grateful prosecutor. The
lawyers in what was called good practice earned less than a street-
sweeper to-day. It is related that the famous Stephen A. Douglas once
traveled from Springfield to Bloomington and made an extravagant
speech, and having gained his case received a fee of five dollars. In
such a state of things it was not to be wondered at that the
technicalities of law were held in somewhat less veneration than what
the pioneer regarded as the essential claims of justice. The
infirmities of the jury system gave them less annoyance than they give
us. Governor Ford mentions a case where a gang of horse-thieves
succeeded in placing one of their confederates upon a jury which was
to try them; but he was soon brought to reason by his eleven
colleagues making preparations to hang him to the rafters of the jury
room. The judges were less hampered by the limitations of their legal
lore than by their fears of a loss of popularity as a result of too
definite charges in civil suits, or too great severity in criminal
cases. They grew very dexterous in avoiding any commitment as to the
legal or moral bearings of the questions brought before them. They
generally refused to sum up, or to comment upon evidence; when asked
by the counsel to give instructions they would say, "Why, gentlemen,
the jury understand this case as well as you or I. They will do
justice between the parties." One famous judge, who was afterwards
governor, when sentencing a murderer, impressed it upon his mind, and
wished him to inform his friends, that it was the jury and not the
judge who had found him guilty, and then asked him on what day he
would like to be hanged. It is needless to say that the bench and bar
were not all of this class. There were even at that early day lawyers,
and not a few, who had already won reputation in the older States, and
whose names are still honored in the profession. Cook, McLean,
Edwards, Kane, Thomas, Reynolds, and others, the earliest lawyers of
the State, have hardly been since surpassed for learning and ability.

[Sidenote: Ford, "History of Illinois," p. 31.]

[Sidenote: Ford, p. 81.]

In a community where the principal men were lawyers, where there was
as yet little commerce, and industrial enterprise was unknown, it was
natural that one of the chief interests of life should be the pursuit
of politics. The young State swarmed with politicians; they could be
found chewing and whittling at every cross-roads inn; they were busy
at every horse-race, arranging their plans and extending their
acquaintance; around the burgoo-pot of the hunting party they
discussed measures and candidates; they even invaded the camp-meeting
and did not disdain the pulpit as a tribune. Of course there was no
such thing as organization in the pioneer days. Men were voted for to
a great extent independently of partisan questions affecting the
nation at large, and in this way the higher offices of the State were
filled for many years by men whose personal character compelled the
respect and esteem of the citizens. The year 1826 is generally taken
as the date which witnessed the change from personal to partisan
politics, though several years more elapsed before the rule of
conventions came in, which put an end to individual candidacy. In that
year, Daniel Pope Cook, who had long represented the State in Congress
with singular ability and purity, was defeated by Governor Joseph
Duncan, the candidate of the Jackson men, on account of the vote given
by Cook which elected John Quincy Adams to the Presidency. The bitter
intolerance of the Jackson party naturally caused their opponents to
organize against them, and there were two parties in the State from
that time forward. The change in political methods was inevitable, and
it is idle to deplore it; but the former system gave the better men in
the new State a power and prominence which they have never since
enjoyed. Such men as Governor Ninian Edwards, who came with the
prestige of a distinguished family connection, a large fortune, a good
education, and a distinction of manners and of dress - ruffles, gold
buttons, and fair-topped boots - which would hardly have been pardoned
a few years later; and Governor Edward Coles, who had been private
secretary to Madison, and was familiar with the courts of Europe, a
man as notable for his gentleness of manners as for his nobility of
nature, could never have come so readily and easily to the head of the
government after the machine of the caucus had been perfected. Real
ability then imposed itself with more authority upon the ignorant and
unpretending politicians from the back timber; so that it is remarked
by those who study the early statutes of Illinois that they are far
better drawn up, and better edited, than those of a later period, when
illiterate tricksters, conscious of the party strength behind them,
insisted on shaping legislation according to their own fancy. The men
of cultivation wielded an influence in the Legislature entirely out of
proportion to their numbers, as the ruder sort of pioneers were
naturally in a large majority. The type of a not uncommon class in
Illinois tradition was a member from the South who could neither read
nor write, and whose apparently ironical patronymic was Grammar. When
first elected he had never worn anything except leather; but regarding
his tattered buckskin as unfit for the garb of a lawgiver, he and his
sons gathered hazelnuts enough to barter at the nearest store for a
few yards of blue strouding such as the Indians used for breech-
clouts. When he came home with his purchase and had called together
the women of the settlement to make his clothes, it was found that
there was only material enough for a very short coat and a long pair
of leggins, and thus attired he went to Kaskaskia, the territorial
capital. Uncouth as was his appearance, he had in him the raw material
of a politician. He invented a system - which was afterwards adopted by
many whose breeches were more fashionably cut - of voting against every
measure which was proposed. If it failed, the responsibility was
broadly shared; if it passed and was popular, no one would care who
voted against it; if it passed and did not meet the favor of the
people, John Grammar could vaunt his foresight. Between the men like
Coles and the men like Grammar there was a wide interval, and the
average was about what the people of the State deserved and could
appreciate. A legislator was as likely to suffer for doing right as
for doing wrong. Governor Ford, in his admirable sketch of the early
history of the State, mentions two acts of the Legislature, both of
them proper and beneficial, as unequaled in their destructive
influence upon the great folks of the State. One was a bill for a loan
to meet the honest obligations of the commonwealth, commonly called
"the Wiggins loan"; and the other was a law to prevent bulls of
inferior size and breed from running at large. This latter set loose
all the winds of popular fury: it was cruel, it was aristocratic; it
was in the interest of rich men and pampered foreign bulls; and it
ended the career of many an aspiring politician in a blast of
democratic indignation and scorn. The politician who relied upon
immediate and constant contact with the people certainly earned all
the emoluments of office he received. His successes were hardly
purchased by laborious affability. "A friend of mine," says Ford,
"once informed me that he intended to be a candidate for the
Legislature, but would not declare himself until just before the



Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 5 of 31)