John George Nicolay.

Abraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 online

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Captain Elijah Iles's company, Illinois Mounted Volunteers, A. Lincoln
(Sangamon County) appears as a private from May 27, 1832, to June 16,
1832, when the company was mustered out of service by Lieutenant
Robert Anderson, Third United States Artillery and Colonel (Assistant
Inspector-General) Illinois Volunteers. Brigadier-General Henry
Atkinson, in his report of May 30, 1832, stated that the Illinois
Volunteers were called out by the Governor of that State, but in haste
and for no definite period of service. On their arrival at Ottawa they
became clamorous for their discharge, which the Governor granted,
retaining - of those who were discharged and volunteered for a further
period of twenty days - a sufficient number of men to form six
companies, which General Atkinson found at Ottawa on his arrival there
from Rock River. General Atkinson further reports that these companies
and some three hundred regular troops, remaining in position at Rock
River, were all the force left him to keep the enemy in check until
the assemblage of the three thousand additional Illinois militia
called out by the Governor upon his (General A.'s) requisition, to
rendezvous at Ottawa, June 12-15, 1832,

"There can be no doubt that Captain Iles's company, mentioned above,
was one of the six which served until June 16, 1832, while the fact is
fully established that the company of which Mr. Lincoln was a member
was mustered out by Lieutenant Robert Anderson, who, in April, 1861,
was in command of Fort Sumter. There is no evidence to show that it
was mustered in by Lieutenant Jefferson Davis. Mr. Davis's company (B,
First United States Infantry) was stationed at Fort Crawford,
Wisconsin, during the months of January and February, 1832, and he is
borne on the rolls as 'absent on detached service at the Dubuque mines
by order of Colonel Morgan.' From March 26 to August 18, 1832, the
muster-rolls of his company report him as absent on furlough."]



[Sidenote: 1832.]

The discharged volunteer arrived in New Salem only ten days before the
August election, in which he had a deep personal interest. Before
starting for the wars he had announced himself, according to the
custom of the time, by a handbill circular, as a candidate for the
Legislature from Sangamon County. [Footnote: We are aware that all
former biographers have stated that Lincoln's candidacy for the
Legislature was subsequent to his return from the war, and a
consequence of his service. But his circular is dated March 9, 1832,
and the "Sangamo Journal" mentions his name among the July, and
apologizes candidates in for having accidentally omitted it in May.]
He had done this in accordance with his own natural bent for public
life and desire for usefulness and distinction, and not without strong
encouragement from friends whose opinion he valued. He had even then
considerable experience in speaking and thinking on his feet. He had
begun his practice in that direction before leaving Indiana, and
continued it everywhere he had gone. Mr. William Butler tells us that
on one occasion, when Lincoln was a farmhand at Island Grove, the
famous circuit-rider, Peter Cartwright, came by, electioneering for
the Legislature, and Lincoln at once engaged in a discussion with him
in the cornfield, in which the great Methodist was equally astonished
at the close reasoning and the uncouth figure of Mr. Brown's
extraordinary hired man. At another time, after one Posey, a
politician in search of office, had made a speech in Macon, John
Hanks, whose admiration of his cousin's oratory was unbounded, said
that "Abe could beat it." He turned a keg on end, and the tall boy
mounted it and made his speech. "The subject was the navigation of the
Sangamon, and Abe beat him to death," says the loyal Hanks. So it was
not with the tremor of a complete novice that the young man took the
stump during the few days left him between his return and the

[Sidenote: Reynolds, "My Own Times," p. 291.]

He ran as a Whig. As this has been denied on authority which is
generally trustworthy, it is well enough to insist upon the fact. We
have a memorandum in Mr. Lincoln's own handwriting in which he says he
ran as "an avowed Clay man." In one of the few speeches of his, which,
made at this time, have been remembered and reported, he said: "I am
in favor of a national bank; I am in favor of the internal improvement
system, and of a high protective tariff. These are my sentiments and
political principles." Nothing could be more unqualified or outspoken
than this announcement of his adhesion to what was then and for years
afterwards called "the American System" of Henry Clay. Other testimony
is not wanting to the same effect. Both Major Stuart and Judge Logan
[Footnote: The Democrats of New Salem worked for Lincoln out of their
personal regard for him. That was the general understanding of the
matter here at the time. In this he made no concession of principle
whatever. He was as stiff as a man could be in his Whig doctrines.
They did this for him simply because he was popular - because he was
Lincoln. STEPHEN T. LOGAN. July 6, 1875.] say that Lincoln ran in 1832
as a Whig, and that his speeches were unevasively in defense of the
principles of that party. Without discussing the merits of the party
or its purposes, we may insist that his adopting them thus openly at
the outset of his career was an extremely characteristic act, and
marks thus early the scrupulous conscientiousness which shaped every
action of his life. The State of Illinois was by a large majority
Democratic, hopelessly attached to the person and policy of Jackson.
Nowhere had that despotic leader more violent and unscrupulous
partisans than there. They were proud of their very servility, and
preferred the name of "whole-hog Jackson men" to that of Democrats.
The Whigs embraced in their scanty ranks the leading men of the State,
those who have since been most distinguished in its history, such as
S. T. Logan, Stuart, Browning, Dubois, Hardin, Breese, and many
others. But they were utterly unable to do anything except by dividing
the Jackson men, whose very numbers made their party unwieldy, and by
throwing their votes with the more decent and conservative portion of
them. In this way, in the late election, they had secured the success
of Governor Reynolds - the Old Ranger - against Governor Kinney, who
represented the vehement and proscriptive spirit which Jackson had
just breathed into the party. He had visited the General in
Washington, and had come back giving out threatenings and slaughter
against the Whigs in the true Tennessee style, declaring that "all
Whigs should be whipped out of office like dogs out of a meat-house";
the force of south-western simile could no further go. But the great
popularity of Reynolds and the adroit management of the Whigs carried
him through successfully. A single fact will show on which side the
people who could read were enlisted. The "whole-hog" party had one
newspaper, the opposition five. Of course it would have been
impossible for Reynolds to poll a respectable vote if his loyalty to
Jackson had been seriously doubted. As it was, he lost many votes
through a report that he had been guilty of saying that "he was as
strong for Jackson as any reasonable man should be." The Governor
himself, in his naive account of the canvass, acknowledges the
damaging nature of this accusation, and comforts himself with quoting
an indiscretion of Kinney's, who opposed a projected canal on the
ground that "it would flood the country with Yankees."

It showed some moral courage, and certainly an absence of the
shuffling politician's fair-weather policy, that Lincoln, in his
obscure and penniless youth, at the very beginning of his career, when
he was not embarrassed by antecedents or family connections, and when,
in fact, what little social influence he knew would have led him the
other way, chose to oppose a furiously intolerant majority, and to
take his stand with the party which was doomed to long-continued
defeat in Illinois. The motives which led him to take this decisive
course are not difficult to imagine. The better sort of people in
Sangamon County were Whigs, though the majority were Democrats, and he
preferred through life the better sort to the majority. The papers he
read were the Louisville "Journal" and the "Sangamo Journal," both
Whig. Reading the speeches and debates of the day, he sided with
Webster against Calhoun, and with Clay against anybody. Though his
notions of politics, like those of any ill-educated young man of
twenty-two, must have been rather crude, and not at all sufficient to
live and to die by, he had adopted them honestly and sincerely, with
no selfish regard to his own interests; and though he ardently desired
success, he never abated one jot or tittle of his convictions for any
possible personal gain, then or thereafter.

In the circular in which he announced his candidacy he made no
reference to national politics, but confined himself mainly to a
discussion of the practicability of improving the navigation of the
Sangamon, the favorite hobby of the place and time. He had no monopoly
of this "issue." It formed the burden of nearly every candidate's
appeal to the people in that year. The excitement occasioned by the
trip of the _Talisman_ had not yet died away, although the little
steamer was now dust and ashes, and her bold commander had left the
State to avoid an awkward meeting with the sheriff. The hope of seeing
Springfield an emporium of commerce was still lively among the
citizens of Sangamon County, and in no one of the handbills of the
political aspirants of the season was that hope more judiciously
encouraged than in the one signed by Abraham Lincoln. It was a well-
written circular, remarkable for its soberness and, reserve when we
consider the age and the limited advantages of the writer. It
concluded in these words: "Upon the subjects of which I have treated,
I have spoken as I have thought. I may be wrong in regard to any or
all of them; but holding it a sound maxim that it is better only
sometimes to be right than at all times wrong, so soon as I discover
my opinions to be erroneous I shall be ready to renounce them....
Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or
not, I can say for one, that I have no other so great as that of being
truly esteemed of my fellow-men, by rendering myself worthy of their
esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition is yet to
be developed. I am young, and unknown to many of you. I was born and
have ever remained in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy
or powerful relations or friends to recommend me. My case is thrown
exclusively upon the independent voters of the county; and, if
elected, they will have conferred a favor upon me, for which I shall
be unremitting in my labors to compensate. But if the good people in
their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been
too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined."

This is almost precisely the style of his later years. The errors of
grammar and construction which spring invariably from an effort to
avoid redundancy of expression remained with him through life. He
seemed to grudge the space required for necessary parts of speech. But
his language was at twenty-two, as it was thirty years later, the
simple and manly attire of his thought, with little attempt at
ornament and none at disguise. There was an intermediate time when he
sinned in the direction of fine writing; but this ebullition soon
passed away, and left that marvelously strong and transparent style in
which his two inaugurals were written.

Of course, in the ten days left him after his return from the field, a
canvass of the county, which was then - before its division - several
thousand square miles in extent, was out of the question. He made a
few speeches in the neighborhood of New Salem, and at least one in
Springfield. He was wholly unknown there except by his few comrades in
arms. We find him mentioned in the county paper only once during the
summer, in an editorial note adding the name of Captain Lincoln to
those candidates for the Legislature who were periling their lives on
the frontier and had left their reputations in charge of their
generous fellow-citizens at home. On the occasion of his speaking at
Springfield, most of the candidates had come together to address a
meeting there to give their electors some idea of their quality. These
were severe ordeals for the rash aspirants for popular favor. Besides
those citizens who came to listen and judge, there were many whose
only object was the free whisky provided for the occasion, and who,
after potations pottle-deep, became not only highly unparliamentary
but even dangerous to life and limb. This wild chivalry of Lick Creek
was, however, less redoubtable to Lincoln than it might be to an urban
statesman unacquainted with the frolic brutality of Clary's Grove.
Their gambols never caused him to lose his self-possession. It is
related that once, while he was speaking, he saw a ruffian attack a
friend of his in the crowd, and the rencontre not resulting according
to the orator's sympathies, he descended from the stand, seized the
objectionable fighting man by the neck, "threw him some ten feet,"
then calmly mounted to his place and finished his speech, the course
of his logic undisturbed by this athletic parenthesis. Judge Logan saw
Lincoln for the first time on the day when he came up to Springfield
on his canvass this summer. He thus speaks of his future partner: "He
was a very tall, gawky, and rough-looking fellow then; his pantaloons
didn't meet his shoes by six inches. But after he began speaking I
became very much interested in him. He made a very sensible speech.
His manner was very much the same as in after life; that is, the same
peculiar characteristics were apparent then, though of course in after
years he evinced more knowledge and experience. But he had then the
same novelty and the same peculiarity in presenting his ideas. He had
the same individuality that he kept through all his life."

There were two or three men at the meeting whose good opinion was
worth more than all the votes of Lick Creek to one beginning life:
Stephen T. Logan, a young lawyer who had recently come from Kentucky
with the best equipment for a _nisi prius_ practitioner ever
brought into the State; Major Stuart, whom we have met in the Black
Hawk war, once commanding a battalion and then marching as a private;
and William Butler, afterwards prominent in State politics, at that
time a young man of the purest Western breed in body and character,
clear-headed and courageous, and ready for any emergency where a
friend was to be defended or an enemy punished. We do not know whether
Lincoln gained any votes that day, but he gained what was far more
valuable, the active friendship of these able and honorable men, all
Whigs and all Kentuckians like himself.

The acquaintances he made in his canvass, the practice he gained in
speaking, and the added confidence which this experience of measuring
his abilities with those of others gave, were all the advantages which
Lincoln derived from this attempt. He was defeated, for the only time
in his life, in a contest before the people. The fortunate candidates
were E. D. Taylor, J. T. Stuart, Achilles Morris, and Peter
Cartwright, the first of whom received 1127 votes and the last 815.
Lincoln's position among the eight defeated candidates was a very
respectable one. He had 657 votes, and there were five who fared
worse, among them his old adversary Kirkpatrick. What must have been
especially gratifying to him was the fact that he received the almost
unanimous vote of his own neighborhood, the precinct of New Salem, 277
votes against 3, a result which showed more strongly than any words
could do the extent of the attachment and the confidence which his
genial and upright character had inspired among those who knew him

Having been, even in so slight a degree, a soldier and a politician,
he was unfitted for a day laborer; but being entirely without means of
subsistence, he was forced to look about for some suitable occupation.
We know he thought seriously at this time of learning the trade of a
blacksmith, and using in that honest way the sinew and brawn which
nature had given him. But an opening for another kind of business
occurred, which prevented his entering upon any merely mechanical
occupation. Two of his most intimate friends were the brothers
Herndon, called, according to the fashion of the time, which held it
unfriendly to give a man his proper name, and arrogant for him to
claim it, "Row" and "Jim." They kept one of those grocery stores in
which everything salable on the frontier was sold, and which seem to
have changed their occupants as rapidly as sentry-boxes. "Jim" sold
his share to an idle and dissolute man named Berry, and "Row" soon
transferred his interest to Lincoln. It was easy enough to buy, as
nothing was ever given in payment but a promissory note. A short time
afterwards, one Reuben Radford, who kept another shop of the same
kind, happened one evening to attract the dangerous attention of the
Clary's Grove boys, who, with their usual prompt and practical
facetiousness, without a touch of malice in it, broke his windows and
wrecked his store. The next morning, while Radford was ruefully
contemplating the ruin, and doubtless concluding that he had had
enough of a country where the local idea of neighborly humor found
such eccentric expression, he hailed a passer-by named Greene, and
challenged him to buy his establishment for four hundred dollars. This
sort of trade was always irresistible to these Western speculators,
and Greene at once gave his note for the amount. It next occurred to
him to try to find out what the property was worth, and doubting his
own skill, he engaged Lincoln to make an invoice of it. The young
merchant, whose appetite for speculation had just been whetted by his
own investment, undertook the task, and, finding the stock of goods
rather tempting, offered Greene $250 for his bargain, which was at
once accepted. Not a cent of money changed hands in all these
transactions. By virtue of half a dozen signatures, Berry and Lincoln
became proprietors of the only mercantile establishment in the
village, and the apparent wealth of the community was increased by a
liberal distribution of their notes among the Herndons, Radford,
Greene, and a Mr. Rutledge, whose business they had also bought.

Fortunately for Lincoln and for the world, the enterprise was not
successful. It was entered into without sufficient reflection, and
from the very nature of things was destined to fail. To Berry the
business was merely the refuge of idleness. He spent his time in
gossip and drank up his share of the profits, and it is probable that
Lincoln was far more interested in politics and general reading than
in the petty traffic of his shop. In the spring of the next year,
finding that their merchandise was gaining them little or nothing,
they concluded to keep a tavern in addition to their other business,
and the records of the County Court of Sangamon County show that Berry
took out a license for that purpose on the 6th of March, 1833.
[Transcriber's Note: Lengthy footnote (1) relocated to chapter end.]
But it was even then too late for any expedients to save the moribund
partnership. The tavern was never opened, for about this time Lincoln
and Berry were challenged to sell out to a pair of vagrant brothers
named Trent, who, as they had no idea of paying, were willing to give
their notes to any amount. They soon ran away, and Berry expired,
extinguished in rum. Lincoln was thus left loaded with debts, and with
no assets except worthless notes of Berry and the Trents. It is
greatly to his credit that he never thought of doing by others as
others had done by him. The morality of the frontier was deplorably
loose in such matters, and most of these people would have concluded
that the failure of the business expunged its liabilities. But Lincoln
made no effort even to compromise the claims against him. He promised
to pay when he could, and it took the labor of years to do it; but he
paid at last every farthing of the debt, which seemed to him and his
friends so large that it was called among them "the national debt."

[Illustration: JUDGE STEPHEN T. LOGAN.]

He had already begun to read elementary books of law, borrowed from
Major Stuart and other kindly acquaintances. Indeed, it is quite
possible that Berry and Lincoln might have succeeded better in
business if the junior member of the firm had not spent so much of his
time reading Blackstone and Chitty in the shade of a great oak just
outside the door, while the senior quietly fuddled himself within.
Eye-witnesses still speak of the grotesque youth, habited in homespun
tow, lying on his back with his feet on the trunk of the tree, and
poring over his book by the hour, "grinding around with the shade," as
it shifted from north to east. After his store, to use his own
expression, had "winked out," he applied himself with more continuous
energy to his reading, doing merely what odd jobs came to his hand to
pay his current expenses, which were of course very slight. He
sometimes helped his friend Ellis in his store; sometimes went into
the field and renewed his exploits as a farm-hand, which had gained
him a traditional fame in Indiana; sometimes employed his clerkly hand
in straightening up a neglected ledger. It is probable that he worked
for his board oftener than for any other compensation, and his hearty
friendliness and vivacity, as well as his industry in the field, made
him a welcome guest in any farmhouse in the county. His strong arm was
always at the disposal of the poor and needy; it is said of him, with
a graphic variation of a well-known text, "that he visited the
fatherless and the widow and chopped their wood."

In the spring of this year, 1833, he was appointed Postmaster of New
Salem, and held the office for three years. Its emoluments were
slender and its duties light, but there was in all probability no
citizen of the village who could have made so much of it as he. The
mails were so scanty that he was said to carry them in his hat, and he
is also reported to have read every newspaper that arrived; it is
altogether likely that this formed the leading inducement to his
taking the office. His incumbency lasted until New Salem ceased to be
populous enough for a post-station and the mail went by to Petersburg.
Dr. J. G. Holland relates a sequel to this official experience which
illustrates the quaint honesty of the man. Several years later, when
he was a practicing lawyer, an agent of the Post-office Department
called upon him, and asked for a balance due from the New Salem
office, some seventeen dollars. Lincoln rose, and opening a little
trunk which lay in a corner of the room, took from it a cotton rag in
which was tied up the exact sum required. "I never use any man's money
but my own," he quietly remarked. When we consider the pinching
poverty in which these years had been passed, we may appreciate the
self-denial denial which had kept him from making even a temporary use
of this little sum of government money.


John Calhoun, the Surveyor of Sangamon County, was at this time
overburdened with work. The principal local industry was speculation
in land. Every settler of course wanted his farm surveyed and marked
out for him, and every community had its syndicate of leading citizens
who cherished a scheme of laying out a city somewhere. In many cases
the city was plotted, the sites of the principal buildings, including
a courthouse and a university, were determined, and a sonorous name
was selected out of Plutarch, before its location was even considered.
For this latter office the intervention of an official surveyor was
necessary, and therefore Mr. Calhoun had more business than he could
attend to without assistance. Looking about for a young man of good
character, intelligent enough to learn surveying at short notice, his
attention was soon attracted to Lincoln. He offered young Abraham a
book containing the elements of the art, and told him when he had
mastered it he should have employment. The offer was a flattering one,
and Lincoln, with that steady self-reliance of his, accepted it, and

Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 8 of 31)