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Abraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 online

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election, and assigned as a reason that it was so very hard to be
clever for a long time at once." Before the caucus had eliminated the
individual initiative, there was much more of personal feeling in
elections. A vote against a man had something of offense in it, and
sometimes stirred up a defeated candidate to heroic vengeance. In 1827
the Legislature elected a State treasurer after an exciting contest,
and before the members had left the house the unsuccessful aspirant
came in and soundly thrashed, one after the other, four of the
representatives who had voted against him. Such energy was sure to
meet its reward, and he was soon after made clerk of the Circuit
Court. It is related by old citizens of Menard County, as a
circumstance greatly to the credit of Abraham Lincoln, that when he
was a candidate for the Legislature a man who wanted his vote for
another place walked to the polls with him and ostentatiously voted
for him, hoping to receive his vote in return. Lincoln voted against
him, and the act was much admired by those who saw it.

One noticeable fact is observed in relation to the politicians of the
day - their careers were generally brief. Superannuation came early. In
the latter part of the last century and the first half of this, men
were called old whom we should regard as in the prime of life. When
the friends of Washington were first pressing the Presidency upon him
in 1788, he urged his "advanced age" as an imperative reason for
declining it: he was fifty-six years old. When Ninian Edwards was a
candidate for Governor of Illinois in 1826, he was only fifty-one, and
yet he considered it necessary in his published addresses to refer to
the charge that he was too old for the place, and, while admitting the
fact that he was no longer young, to urge in extenuation that there
are some old things, - like old whisky, old bacon, and old friends, -
which are not without their merits. Even so late as 1848, we find a
remarkable letter from Mr. Lincoln, who was then in Congress, bearing
upon the same point. His partner, William H. Herndon, had written him
a letter, complaining that the old men in Sangamon County were
unwilling to let the young ones have any opportunity to distinguish
themselves. To this Lincoln answered in his usual tone of grave
kindness: "The subject of your letter is exceedingly painful to me;
and I cannot but think there is some mistake in your impression of the
motives of the old men. I suppose I am now one of the old men, and I
declare on my veracity, which I think is good with you, that nothing
could afford me more satisfaction than to learn that you and others of
my young friends at home were doing battle in the contest and
endearing themselves to the people and taking a stand far above any I
have ever been able to reach in their admiration. I cannot conceive
that other old men feel differently. Of course, I cannot demonstrate
what I say; but I was young once, and I am sure I was never
ungenerously thrust back." The man who thus counseled petulant youth
with the experienced calmness of age was thirty-nine years old. A
state of society where one could at that age call himself or be called
by others an old man, is proved by that fact alone to be one of
wearing hardships and early decay of the vital powers. The survivors
of the pioneers stoutly insist upon the contrary view. "It was a
glorious life," says one old patriarch; "men would fight for the love
of it, and then shake hands and be friends; there is nothing like it
now." Another says, "I never enjoy my breakfast now as I used to, when
I got up and ran down a deer before I could have anything to eat." But
they see the past through a rosy mist of memory, transfigured by the
eternal magic of youth. The sober fact is that the life was a hard
one, with few rational pleasures, few wholesome appliances. The strong
ones lived, and some even attained great length of years; but to the
many age came early and was full of infirmity and pain. If we could go
back to what our fore-fathers endured in clearing the Western
wilderness, we could then better appreciate our obligations to them.
It is detracting from the honor which is their due to say that their
lives had much of happiness or comfort, or were in any respect
preferable to our own.



During the latter part of "the winter of the deep snow," Lincoln
became acquainted with one Denton Offutt, an adventurous and
discursive sort of merchant, with more irons in the fire than he could
well manage. He wanted to take a flat-boat and cargo to New Orleans,
and having heard that Hanks and Lincoln had some experience of the
river, he insisted on their joining him. John Johnston was afterwards
added to the party, probably at the request of his foster-brother, to
share in the golden profits of the enterprise; for fifty cents a day,
and a contingent dividend of twenty dollars apiece, seemed like a
promise of immediate opulence to the boys. In the spring, when the
rivers broke up and the melting snows began to pour in torrents down
every ravine and gully, the three young men paddled down the Sangamon
in a canoe to the point where Jamestown now stands; whence they walked
five miles to Springfield, where Offutt had given them rendezvous.
They met him at Elliott's tavern and far from happy. Amid the
multiplicity of his engagements he had failed to procure a flat-boat,
and the first work his new hands must do was to build one. They cut
the timber, with frontier innocence, from "Congress land," and soon
had a serviceable craft afloat, with which they descended the current
of the Sangamon to New Salem, a little village which seems to have
been born for the occasion, as it came into existence just before the
arrival of Lincoln, nourished for seven years while he remained one of
its citizens, and died soon after he went away. His introduction to
his fellow-citizens was effected in a peculiar and somewhat striking
manner. Offutt's boat had come to serious embarrassment on Rutledge's
mill-dam, and the unwonted incident brought the entire population to
the water's edge. They spent a good part of the day watching the
hapless flat-boat, resting midships on the dam, the forward end in the
air and the stern taking in the turbid Sangamon water. Nobody knew
what to do with the disaster except "the bow-oar," who is described as
a gigantic youth "with his trousers rolled up some five feet," who was
wading about the boat and rigging up some undescribed contrivance by
which the cargo was unloaded, the boat tilted and the water let out by
boring a hole through the bottom, and everything brought safely to
moorings below the dam. This exploit gained for young Lincoln the
enthusiastic admiration of his employer, and turned his own mind in
the direction of an invention which he afterwards patented "for
lifting vessels over shoals." The model on which he obtained this
patent - a little boat whittled by his own hand in 1849, after he had
become prominent as a lawyer and politician - is still shown to
visitors at the Department of the Interior. We have never learned that
it has served any other purpose.



[Sidenote: Lamon, p. 83.]

They made a quick trip down the Sangamon, the Illinois, and the
Mississippi rivers. Although it was but a repetition in great part of
the trip young Lincoln had made with Gentry, it evidently created a
far deeper impression on his mind than the former one. The simple and
honest words of John Hanks leave no doubt of this. At New Orleans, he
said, they saw for the first time "negroes chained, maltreated,
whipped, and scourged. Lincoln saw it; his heart bled; said nothing
much, was silent, looked bad. I can say, knowing it, that it was on
this trip that he formed his opinion of slavery. It run its iron in
him then and there, May, 1831. I have heard him say so often." The
sight of men in chains was intolerable to him. Ten years after this he
made another journey by water with his friend Joshua Speed, of
Kentucky. Writing to Speed about it after the lapse of fourteen years,
he says: "In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip on a
steamboat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well
do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were on board
ten or a dozen slaves shackled together with irons. That sight was a
continual torment to me, and I see something like it every time I
touch the Ohio or any other slave border. It is not fair for you to
assume that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually
exercises, the power of making me miserable."

There have been several ingenious attempts to show the origin and
occasion of Mr. Lincoln's antislavery convictions. They seem to us an
idle waste of labor. These sentiments came with the first awakening of
his mind and conscience, and were roused into active life and energy
by the sight of fellow-creatures in chains on an Ohio River steamboat,
and on the wharf at New Orleans.

The party went up the river in the early summer and separated in St.
Louis. Abraham walked in company with John Johnston from St. Louis to
Coles County, and spent a few weeks there with his father, who had
made another migration the year before. His final move was to Goose
Nest Prairie, where he died in 1851, [Footnote: His grave, a mile and
a half west of the town of Farmington, Illinois, is surmounted by an
appropriate monument erected by his grandson, the Hon. Robert T.
Lincoln.] at the age of seventy-three years, after a life which,
though not successful in any material or worldly point of view, was
probably far happier than that of his illustrious son, being unvexed
by enterprise or ambition. Abraham never lost sight of his parents. He
continued to aid and befriend them in every way, even when he could
ill afford it, and when his benefactions were imprudently used. He not
only comforted their declining years with every aid his affection
could suggest, but he did everything in his power to assist his
stepbrother Johnston - a hopeless task enough. The following rigidly
truthful and yet kindly letters will show how mentor-like and
masterful, as well as generous, were the relations that Mr. Lincoln
held to these friends and companions of his childhood:

DEAR JOHNSTON: Your request for eighty dollars I do not think it best
to comply with now. At the various times when I have helped you a
little, you have said to me, "We can get along very well now," but in
a very short time I find you in the same difficulty again. Now this
can only happen by some defect in your conduct.

What that defect is I think I know. You are not _lazy_, and still
you are an _idler_. I doubt whether, since I saw you, you have
done a good whole day's work in any one day. You do not very much
dislike to work, and still you do not work much, merely because it
does not seem to you that you could get much for it. This habit of
uselessly wasting time is the whole difficulty, and it is vastly
important to you, and still more so to your children, that you should
break the habit. It is more important to them because they have longer
to live, and can keep out of an idle habit before they are in it
easier than they can get out after they are in.

You are now in need of some money; and what I propose is that you
shall go to work "tooth and nail" for somebody who will give you money
for it. Let father and your boys take charge of things at home,
prepare for a crop, and make the crop; and you go to work for the best
money wages, or in discharge of any debt you owe, that you can get;
and to secure you a fair reward for your labor, I now promise you that
for every dollar you will, between this and the first of next May, get
for your own labor, either in money or as discharging your own
indebtedness, I will then give you one other dollar. By this, if you
hire yourself at ten dollars a month, from me you will get ten more,
making twenty dollars a month for your work. In this I do not mean you
should go off to St. Louis, or the lead mines, or the gold mines in
California; but I mean for you to go at it for the best wages you can
get close to home, in Coles County. Now, if you will do this you will
soon be out of debt, and, what is better, you will have a habit that
will keep you from getting in debt again. But if I should now clear
you out of debt, next year you would be just as deep in as ever. You
say you would almost give your place in heaven for seventy or eighty
dollars. Then you value your place in heaven very cheap, for I am sure
you can with the offer I make get the seventy or eighty dollars for
four or five months' work. You say if I will furnish you the money you
will deed me the land, and if you don't pay the money back you will
deliver possession. Nonsense. If you can't now live with the land, how
will you then live without it? You have always been kind to me, and I
do not mean to be unkind to you. On the contrary, if you will but
follow my advice, you will find it worth more than eighty times eighty
dollars to you.

Here is a later epistle, still more graphic and terse in statement,
which has the unusual merit of painting both confessor and penitent to
the life:

SHELBYVILLE, Nov. 4, 1851.

DEAR BROTHER: When I came into Charleston, day before yesterday, I
learned that you were anxious to sell the land where you live and move
to Missouri. I have been thinking of this ever since, and cannot but
think such a notion is utterly foolish. What can you do in Missouri
better than here? Is the land any richer? Can you there, any more than
here, raise corn and wheat and oats without work? Will anybody there,
any more than here, do your work for you? If you intend to go to work,
there is no better place than right where you are; if you do not
intend to go to work, you cannot get along anywhere. Squirming and
crawling about from place to place can do no good. You have raised no
crop this year, and what you really want is to sell the land, get the
money, and spend it. Part with the land you have, and, my life upon
it, you will never after own a spot big enough to bury you in. Half
you will get for the land you will spend in moving to Missouri, and
the other half you will eat and drink and wear out, and no foot of
land will be bought. Now, I feel it is my duty to have no hand in such
a piece of foolery. I feel that it is so even on your own account, and
particularly on mother's account. The eastern forty acres I intend to
keep for mother while she lives; if you will not cultivate it, it will
rent for enough to support her; at least, it will rent for something.
Her dower in the other two forties she can let you have, and no thanks
to me. Now do not misunderstand this letter. I do not write it in any
unkindness. I write it in order, if possible, to get you to face the
truth, which truth is, you are destitute because you have idled away
all your time. Your thousand pretenses deceive nobody but yourself. Go
to work is the only cure for your case.

A volume of disquisition could not put more clearly before the reader
the difference between Abraham Lincoln and the common run of Southern
and Western rural laborers. He had the same disadvantages that they
had. He grew up in the midst of poverty and ignorance; he was poisoned
with the enervating malaria of the Western woods, as all his fellows
were, and the consequences of it were seen in his character and
conduct to the close of his life. But he had, what very few of them
possessed any glimmering notion of, a fixed and inflexible will to
succeed. He did not love work, probably, any better than John
Johnston; but he had an innate self-respect, and a consciousness that
his self was worthy of respect, that kept him from idleness as it kept
him from all other vices, and made him a better man every year that he

We have anticipated a score of years in speaking of Mr. Lincoln's
relations to his family. It was in August of the year 1831 that he
finally left his father's roof, and swung out for himself into the
current of the world to make his fortune in his own way. He went down
to New Salem again to assist Offutt in the business that lively
speculator thought of establishing there. He was more punctual than
either his employer or the merchandise, and met with the usual reward
of punctuality in being forced to waste his time in waiting for the
tardy ones. He seemed to the New Salem people to be "loafing"; several
of them have given that description of him. He did one day's work
acting as clerk of a local election, a lettered loafer being pretty
sure of employment on such an occasion. [Footnote: Mrs. Lizzie H. Bell
writes of this incident: "My father, Menton Graham, was on that day,
as usual, appointed to be a clerk, and Mr. McNamee, who was to be the
other, was sick and failed to come. They were looking around for a man
to fill his place when my father noticed Mr. Lincoln and asked if he
could write. He answered that 'he could make a few rabbit tracks.'"]
He also piloted a boat down the Sangamon for one Dr. Nelson, who had
had enough of New Salem and wanted to go to Texas. This was probably a
task not requiring much pilot-craft, as the river was much swollen,
and navigators had in most places two or three miles of channel to
count upon. But Offutt and his goods arrived at last, and Lincoln and
he got them immediately into position, and opened their doors to what
commerce could be found in New Salem. There was clearly not enough to
satisfy the volatile mind of Mr. Offutt, for he soon bought Cameron's
mill at the historic dam, and made Abraham superintendent also of that
branch of the business.

It is to be surmised that Offutt never inspired his neighbors and
customers with any deep regard for his solidity of character. One of
them says of him with injurious pleonasm, that he "talked too much
with his mouth." A natural consequence of his excessive fluency was
soon to be made disagreeably evident to his clerk. He admired Abraham
beyond measure, and praised him beyond prudence. He said that Abe knew
more than any man in the United States; and he was certainly not
warranted in making such an assertion, as his own knowledge of the
actual state of science in America could not have been exhaustive. He
also said that Abe could beat any man in the county running, jumping,
or "wrastling." This proposition, being less abstract in its nature,
was more readily grasped by the local mind, and was not likely to pass


Public opinion at New Salem was formed by a crowd of ruffianly young
fellows who were called the "Clary's Grove Boys." Once or twice a week
they descended upon the village and passed the day in drinking,
fighting, and brutal horse-play. If a stranger appeared in the place,
he was likely to suffer a rude initiation into the social life of New
Salem at the hands of these jovial savages. Sometimes he was nailed up
in a hogshead and rolled down hill; sometimes he was insulted into a
fight and then mauled black and blue; for despite their pretensions to
chivalry they had no scruples about fair play or any such
superstitions of civilization. At first they did not seem inclined to
molest young Lincoln. His appearance did not invite insolence; his
reputation for strength and activity was a greater protection to him
than his inoffensive good-nature. But the loud admiration of Offutt
gave them umbrage. It led to dispute, contradictions, and finally to a
formal banter to a wrestling-match. Lincoln was greatly averse to all
this "wooling and pulling," as he called it. But Offutt's indiscretion
had made it necessary for him to show his mettle. Jack Armstrong, the
leading bully of the gang, was selected to throw him, and expected an
easy victory. But he soon found himself in different hands from any he
had heretofore engaged with. Seeing he could not manage the tall
stranger, his friends swarmed in, and by kicking and tripping nearly
succeeded in getting Lincoln down. At this, as has been said of
another hero, "the spirit of Odin entered into him," and putting forth
his whole strength, he held the pride of Clary's Grove in his arms
like a child, and almost choked the exuberant life out of him. For a
moment a general fight seemed inevitable; but Lincoln, standing
undismayed with his back to the wall, looked so formidable in his
defiance that an, honest admiration took the place of momentary fury,
and his initiation was over. As to Armstrong, he was Lincoln's friend
and sworn brother as soon as he recovered the use of his larynx, and
the bond thus strangely created lasted through life. Lincoln had no
further occasion to fight his own battles while Armstrong was there to
act as his champion. The two friends, although so widely different,
were helpful to each other afterwards in many ways, and Lincoln made
ample amends for the liberty his hands had taken with Jack's throat,
by saving, in a memorable trial, his son's neck from the halter.

This incident, trivial and vulgar as it may seem, was of great
importance in Lincoln's life. His behavior in this ignoble scuffle did
the work of years for him, in giving him the position he required in
the community where his lot was cast. He became from that moment, in a
certain sense, a personage, with a name and standing of his own. The
verdict of Clary's Grove was unanimous that he was "the cleverest
fellow that had ever broke into the settlement." He did not have to be
constantly scuffling to guard his self-respect, and at the same time
he gained the good-will of the better sort by his evident
peaceableness and integrity.

here shown in reduced fac-simile is from the Exercise Book presented
by William H. Herndon to the Keyes-Lincoln Memorial Collection. When
the book was written Lincoln was about seventeen.]

He made on the whole a satisfactory clerk for Mr. Offutt, though his
downright honesty must have seemed occasionally as eccentric in that
position as afterwards it did to his associates at the bar. Dr.
Holland has preserved one or two incidents of this kind, which have
their value. Once, after he had sold a woman a little bill of goods
and received the money, he found on looking over the account again
that she had given him six and a quarter cents too much. The money
burned in his hands until he locked the shop and started on a walk of
several miles in the night to make restitution before he slept. On
another occasion, after weighing and delivering a pound of tea, he
found a small weight on the scales. He immediately weighed out the
quantity of tea of which he had innocently defrauded his customer and
went in search of her, his sensitive conscience not permitting any
delay. To show that the young merchant was not too good for this
world, the same writer gives an incident of his shop-keeping
experience of a different character. A rural bully having made himself
especially offensive one day, when women were present, by loud
profanity, Lincoln requested him to be silent. This was of course a
cause of war, and the young clerk was forced to follow the incensed
ruffian into the street, where the combat was of short duration.
Lincoln threw him at once to the ground, and gathering a handful of
the dog fennel with which the roadside was plentifully bordered, he
rubbed the ruffian's face and eyes with it until he howled for mercy.
He did not howl in vain, for the placable giant, when his discipline
was finished, brought water to bathe the culprit's smarting face, and
doubtless improved the occasion with quaint admonition.

A few passages at arms of this sort gave Abraham a redoubtable
reputation in the neighborhood. But the principal use he made of his
strength and his prestige was in the capacity of peacemaker, an office
which soon devolved upon him by general consent. Whenever old feuds
blossomed into fights by Offutt's door, or the chivalry of Clary's
Grove attempted in its energetic way to take the conceit out of some
stranger, or a canine duel spread contagion of battle among the
masters of the beasts, Lincoln usually appeared upon the scene, and
with a judicious mixture of force and reason and invincible good-
nature restored peace.

While working with Offutt his mind was turned in the direction of
English grammar. From what he had heard of it he thought it a matter
within his grasp, if he could once fall in with the requisite
machinery. Consulting with Menton [Footnote: This name has always been

Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 6 of 31)