Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

Lincoln's Personal Life

Part 1 out of 8

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.9 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

Lincoln; An Account of His Personal Life, Especially of Its
Springs of Action as Revealed and Deepened by the Ordeal of War


Authority for all important statements of facts in the
following pages may be found in the notes; the condensed
references are expanded in the bibliography. A few
controversial matters are discussed in the notes.

I am very grateful to Mr. William Roscoe Thayer for enabling me
to use the manuscript diary of John Hay. Miss Helen Nicolay
has graciously confirmed some of the implications of the
official biography. Lincoln's only surviving secretary,
Colonel W. O. Stoddard, has given considerate aid. The
curious incident of Lincoln as counsel in an action to recover
slaves was mentioned to me by Professor Henry Johnson, through
whose good offices it was confirmed and amplified by Judge John
H. Marshall. Mr. Henry W. Raymond has been very tolerant of
a stranger's inquiries with regard to his distinguished father.
A futile attempt to discover documentary remains of the
Republican National Committee of 1864 has made it possible,
through the courtesy of Mr. Clarence B. Miller, at least to
assert that there is nothing of importance in possession of the
present Committee. A search for new light on Chandler drew
forth generous assistance from Professor Ulrich B. Phillips,
Mr. Floyd B. Streeter and Mr. G. B. Krum. The latter caused
to be examined, for this particular purpose, the Blair
manuscripts in the Burton Historical Collection. Much
illumination arose out of a systematic resurvey of the
Congressional Globe, for the war period, in which I had the
stimulating companionship of Professor John L. Hill,
reinforced by many conversations with Professor Dixon Ryan Fox
and Professor David Saville Muzzey. At the heart of the matter
is the resolute criticism of Mrs. Stephenson and of a long
enduring friend, President Harrison Randolph. The temper of
the historical fraternity is such that any worker in any field
is always under a host of incidental obligations. There is
especial propriety in my acknowledging the kindness of
Professor Albert Bushnell Hart, Professor James A. Woodburn,
Professor Herman V. Ames, Professor St. George L. Sioussat and
Professor Allen Johnson.










The author and publisher make grateful acknowledgement to Ginn
and Company, Boston, for the photograph of St. Gaudens' Statue;
to The Century Company of New York for the Earliest Portrait of
Lincoln, which is from an engraving by Johnson after a
daguerreotype in the possession of the Honorable Robert T.
Lincoln; and for Lincoln and Tad, which is from the famous
photograph by Brady; to The Macmillan Company of New York for
the portrait of Mrs. Lincoln and also for The Review of the
Army of the Potomac, both of which were originally reproduced
in Ida M. Tarbell's Life of Abraham Lincoln. For the rare and
interesting portrait entitled The Last Phase of Lincoln
acknowledgment is made to Robert Bruce, Esquire, Clinton,
Oneida County, New York. This photograph was taken by
Alexander Gardner, April 9, 1865, the glass plate of which is
now in Mr. Bruce's collection.


Of first importance in the making of the American people is
that great forest which once extended its mysterious labyrinth
from tide-water to the prairies when the earliest colonists
entered warily its sea-worn edges a portion of the European
race came again under a spell it had forgotten centuries
before, the spell of that untamed nature which created
primitive man. All the dim memories that lay deep in
subconsciousness; all the vague shadows hovering at the back of
the civilized mind; the sense of encompassing natural power,
the need to struggle single-handed against it; the danger
lurking in the darkness of the forest; the brilliant treachery
of the forest sunshine glinted through leafy secrecies; the
Strange voices in its illimitable murmur; the ghostly shimmer
of its glades at night; the lovely beauty of the great gold
moon; all the thousand wondering dreams that evolved the elder
gods, Pan, Cybele, Thor; all this waked again in the soul of
the Anglo-Saxon penetrating the great forest. And it was
intensified by the way he came,--singly, or with but wife and
child, or at best in very small company, a mere handful. And
the surrounding presences were not only of the spiritual world.
Human enemies who were soon as well armed as he, quicker of
foot and eye, more perfectly noiseless in their tread even than
the wild beasts of the shadowy coverts, the ruthless Indians
whom he came to expel, these invisible presences were watching
him, in a fierce silence he knew not whence. Like as not the
first signs of that menace which was everywhere would be the
hiss of the Indian arrow, or the crack of the Indian rifle, and
sharp and sudden death.

Under these conditions he learned much and forgot much. His
deadly need made him both more and less individual than he had
been, released him from the dictation of his fellows in daily
life while it enforced relentlessly a uniform method of
self-preservation. Though the unseen world became more and
more real, the understanding of it faded. It became chiefly a
matter of emotional perception, scarcely at all a matter of
philosophy. The morals of the forest Americans were those of
audacious, visionary beings loosely hound together by a
comradeship in peril. Courage, cautiousness, swiftness,
endurance, faithfulness, secrecy,--these were the forest
virtues. Dreaming, companionship, humor,--these were the forest

From the first, all sorts and conditions were ensnared by that
silent land, where the trails they followed, their rifles in
their hands, had been trodden hard generation after generation
by the feet of the Indian warriors. The best and the worst of
England went into that illimitable resolvent, lost themselves,
found themselves, and issued from its shadows, or their
children did, changed both for good and ill, Americans.
Meanwhile the great forest, during two hundred years, was
slowly vanishing. This parent of a new people gave its life to
its offspring and passed away. In the early nineteenth century
it had withered backward far from the coast; had lost its
identity all along the north end of the eastern mountains; had
frayed out toward the sunset into lingering tentacles, into
broken minor forests, into shreds and patches.

Curiously, by a queer sort of natural selection, its people had
congregated into life communities not all of one pattern.
There were places as early as the beginning of the century
where distinction had appeared. At other places life was as
rude and rough as could be imagined. There were innumerable
farms that were still mere "clearings," walled by the forest.
But there were other regions where for many a mile the timber
had been hewn away, had given place to a ragged continuity of
farmland. In such regions especially if the poorer elements of
the forest, spiritually speaking, had drifted thither--the
straggling villages which had appeared were but groups of log
cabins huddled along a few neglected lanes. In central
Kentucky, a poor new village was Elizabethtown, unkempt,
chokingly dusty in the dry weather, with muddy streams instead
of streets during the rains, a stench of pig-sties at the back
of its cabins, but everywhere looking outward glimpses of a
lovely meadow land.

At Elizabethtown in 1806 lived Joseph Hanks, a carpenter, also
his niece Nancy Hanks. Poor people they were, of the sort that
had been sucked into the forest in their weakness, or had been
pushed into it by a social pressure they could not resist; not
the sort that had grimly adventured its perils or gaily courted
its lure. Their source was Virginia. They were of a
thriftless, unstable class; that vagrant peasantry which had
drifted westward to avoid competition with slave labor. The
niece, Nancy, has been reputed illegitimate. And though
tradition derives her from the predatory amour of an
aristocrat, there is nothing to sustain the tale except her own
appearance. She had a bearing, a cast of feature, a tone, that
seemed to hint at higher social origins than those of her Hanks
relatives. She had a little schooling; was of a pious and
emotional turn of mind; enjoyed those amazing "revivals" which
now and then gave an outlet to the pent-up religiosity of the
village; and she was almost handsome.[1]

History has preserved no clue why this girl who was rather the
best of her sort chose to marry an illiterate apprentice of her
uncle's, Thomas Lincoln, whose name in the forest was spelled
"Linkhorn." He was a shiftless fellow, never succeeding at
anything, who could neither read nor write. At the time of his
birth, twenty-eight years before, his parents--drifting, roaming
people, struggling with poverty--were dwellers in the Virginia
mountains. As a mere lad, he had shot an Indian--one of the few
positive acts attributed to him--and his father had been killed
by Indians. There was a "vague tradition" that his grandfather
had been a Pennsylvania Quaker who had wandered southward
through the forest mountains. The tradition angered him.
Though he appears to have had little enough--at least in later
years--of the fierce independence of the forest, he resented a
Quaker ancestry as an insult. He had no suspicion that in
after years the zeal of genealogists would track his descent
until they had linked him with a lost member of a distinguished
Puritan family, a certain Mordecai Lincoln who removed to New
Jersey, whose descendants became wanderers of the forest and
sank speedily to the bottom of the social scale, retaining not
the slightest memory of their New England origin.[2] Even in the
worst of the forest villages, few couples started married life
in less auspicious circumstances than did Nancy and Thomas.
Their home in one of the alleys of Elizabethtown was a shanty
fourteen feet square.[3] Very soon after marriage, shiftless
Thomas gave up carpentering and took to farming. Land could be
had almost anywhere for almost nothing those days, and Thomas
got a farm on credit near where now stands Hodgenville. Today,
it is a famous place, for there, February 12, 1809, Abraham
Lincoln, second child, but first son of Nancy and Thomas, was

During most of eight years, Abraham lived in Kentucky. His
father, always adrift in heart, tried two farms before
abandoning Kentucky altogether. A shadowy figure, this Thomas;
the few memories of him suggest a superstitious nature in a
superstitious community. He used to see visions in the forest.
Once, it is said, he came home, all excitement, to tell his
wife he had seen a giant riding on a lion, tearing up trees by
the roots; and thereupon, he took to his bed and kept it for
several days.

His son Abraham told this story of the giant on the lion to a
playmate of his, and the two boys gravely discussed the
existence of ghosts. Abraham thought his father "didn't
exactly believe in them," and seems to have been in about the
same state of mind himself. He was quite sure he was "not
much" afraid of the dark. This was due chiefly to the simple
wisdom of a good woman, a neighbor, who had taught him to think
of the night as a great room that God had darkened even as his
friend darkened a room in her house by hanging something over
the window.[5]

The eight years of his childhood in Kentucky had few incidents.
A hard, patient, uncomplaining life both for old and young.
The men found their one deep joy in the hunt. In lesser
degree, they enjoyed the revivals which gave to the women their
one escape out of themselves. A strange, almost terrible
recovery of the primitive, were those religious furies of the
days before the great forest had disappeared. What other
figures in our history are quite so remarkable as the itinerant
frontier priests, the circuit-riders as they are now called,
who lived as Elijah did, whose temper was very much the temper
of Elijah, in whose exalted narrowness of devotion, all that
was stern, dark, foreboding--the very brood of the forest's
innermost heart--had found a voice. Their religion was ecstasy
in homespun, a glory of violent singing, the release of a
frantic emotion, formless but immeasurable, which at all other
times, in the severity of the forest routine, gave no sign of
its existence.

A visitor remembered long afterward a handsome young woman who
he thought was Nancy Hanks, singing wildly, whirling about as
may once have done the ecstatic women of the woods of Thrace,
making her way among equally passionate worshipers, to the foot
of the rude altar, and there casting herself into the arms of
the man she was to marry.[6] So did thousands of forest women in
those seasons when their communion with a mystic loneliness was
confessed, when they gave tongue as simply as wild creatures to
the nameless stirrings and promptings of that secret woodland
where Pan was still the lord. And the day following the
revival, they were again the silent, expressionless, much
enduring, long-suffering forest wives, mothers of many
children, toilers of the cabins, who cooked and swept and
carried fuel by sunlight, and by firelight sewed and spun.

It can easily be understood how these women, as a rule, exerted
little influence on their sons. Their imaginative side was too
deeply hidden, the nature of their pleasures too secret, too
mysterious. Male youth, following its obvious pleasure, went
with the men to the hunt The women remained outsiders. The boy
who chose to do likewise, was the incredible exception. In him
had come to a head the deepest things in the forest life: the
darkly feminine things, its silence, its mysticism, its
secretiveness, its tragic patience. Abraham was such a boy.
It is said that he astounded his father by refusing to own a
gun. He earned terrible whippings by releasing animals caught
in traps. Though he had in fullest measure the forest passion
for listening to stories, the ever-popular tales of Indian
warfare disgusted him. But let the tale take on any glint of
the mystery of the human soul--as of Robinson Crusoe alone on
his island, or of the lordliness of action, as in Columbus or
Washington--and he was quick with interest. The stories of
talking animals out of Aesop fascinated him.

In this thrilled curiosity about the animals was the side of
him least intelligible to men like his father. It lives in
many anecdotes: of his friendship with a poor dog he had which
he called "Honey"; of pursuing a snake through difficult
thickets to prevent its swallowing a frog; of loitering on
errands at the risk of whippings to watch the squirrels in the
tree-tops; of the crowning offense of his childhood, which
earned him a mighty beating, the saving of a fawn's life by
scaring it off just as a hunter's gun was leveled. And by way
of comment on all this, there is the remark preserved in the
memory of another boy to whom at the time it appeared most
singular, "God might think as much of that little fawn as of
some people." Of him as of another gentle soul it might have
been said that all the animals were his brothers and sisters.[7]

One might easily imagine this peculiar boy who chose to remain
at home while the men went out to slay, as the mere translation
into masculinity of his mother, and of her mothers, of all the
converging processions of forest women, who had passed from one
to another the secret of their mysticism, coloring it many ways
in the dark vessels of their suppressed lives, till it reached
at last their concluding child. But this would only in part
explain him. Their mysticism, as after-time was to show, he
had undoubtedly inherited. So, too, from them, it may be, came
another characteristic--that instinct to endure, to wait, to
abide the issue of circumstance, which in the days of his power
made him to the politicians as unintelligible as once he had
been to the forest huntsmen. Nevertheless, the most
distinctive part of those primitive women, the sealed
passionateness of their spirits, he never from childhood to the
end revealed. In the grown man appeared a quietude, a sort of
tranced calm, that was appalling. From what part of his
heredity did this derive? Was it the male gift of the forest?
Did progenitors worthier than Thomas somehow cast through him
to his alien son that peace they had found in the utter heart
of danger, that apparent selflessness which is born of being
ever unfailingly on guard?

It is plain that from the first he was a natural stoic, taking
his whippings, of which there appear to have been plenty, in
silence, without anger. It was all in the day's round.
Whippings, like other things, came and went. What did it
matter? And the daily round, though monotonous, had even for
the child a complement of labor. Especially there was much
patient journeying back and forth with meal bags between his
father's cabin and the local mill. There was a little
schooling, very little, partly from Nancy Lincoln, partly from
another good woman, the miller's kind old mother, partly at the
crudest of wayside schools maintained very briefly by a
wandering teacher who soon wandered on; but out of this
schooling very little result beyond the mastery of the A B C.[8]
And even at this age, a pathetic eagerness to learn, to invade
the wonder of the printed book! Also a marked keenness of
observation. He observed things which his elders overlooked.
He had a better sense of direction, as when he corrected his
father and others who were taking the wrong short-cut to a
burning house. Cool, unexcitable, he was capable of presence
of mind. Once at night when the door of the cabin was suddenly
thrown open and a monster appeared on the threshold, a spectral
thing in the darkness, furry, with the head of an ox, Thomas
Lincoln shrank back aghast; little Abraham, quicker-sighted and
quicker-witted, slipped behind the creature, pulled at its
furry mantle, and revealed a forest Diana, a bold girl who
amused herself playing demon among the shadows of the moon.

Seven years passed and his eighth birthday approached. All
this while Thomas Lincoln had somehow kept his family in food,
but never had he money in his pocket. His successive farms,
bought on credit, were never paid for. An incurable vagrant,
he came at last to the psychological moment when he could no
longer impose himself on his community. He must take to the
road in a hazard of new fortune. Indiana appeared to him the
land of promise. Most of his property--such as it was--except
his carpenter's tools, he traded for whisky, four hundred
gallons. Somehow he obtained a rattletrap wagon and two

The family appear to have been loath to go. Nancy Lincoln had
long been ailing and in low spirits, thinking much of what
might happen to her children after her death. Abraham loved
the country-side, and he had good friends in the miller and his
kind old mother. But the vagrant Thomas would have his way.
In the brilliancy of the Western autumn, with the ruined woods
flaming scarlet and gold, these poor people took their last
look at the cabin that had been their wretched shelter, and set
forth into the world.[9]


Vagrants, or little better than vagrants, were Thomas Lincoln
and his family making their way to Indiana. For a year after
they arrived they were squatters, their home an "open-faced
camp," that is, a shanty with one wall missing, and instead of
chimney, a fire built on the open side. In that mere pretense
of a house, Nancy Lincoln and her children spent the winter of
1816-1817. Then Thomas resorted to his familiar practice of
taking land on credit. The Lincolns were now part of a
"settlement" of seven or eight families strung along a little
stream known as Pigeon Creek. Here Thomas entered a quarter-
section of fair land, and in the course of the next eleven
years succeeded--wonderful to relate--in paying down sufficient
money to give him title to about half.

Meanwhile, poor fading Nancy went to her place. Pigeon Creek
was an out-of-the-way nook in the still unsettled West, and
Nancy during the two years she lived there could not have
enjoyed much of the consolation of her religion. Perhaps now
and then she had ghostly council of some stray circuit-rider.
But for her the days of the ecstasies had gone by; no great
revival broke the seals of the spirit, stirred its deep waters,
along Pigeon Creek. There was no religious service when she
was laid to rest in a coffin made of green lumber and fashioned
by her husband. Months passed, the snow lay deep, before a
passing circuit-rider held a burial service over her grave.
Tradition has it that the boy Abraham brought this about very
likely, at ten years old, he felt that her troubled spirit
could not have peace till this was done. Shadowy as she is,
ghostlike across the page of history, it is plain that she was
a reality to her son. He not only loved her but revered her.
He believed that from her he had inherited the better part of
his genius. Many years after her death he said, "God bless my
mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her."

Nancy was not long without a successor. Thomas Lincoln, the
next year, journeyed back to Kentucky and returned in triumph
to Indiana, bringing as his wife, an old flame of his who had
married, had been widowed, and was of a mind for further
adventures. This Sarah Bush Lincoln, of less distinction than
Nancy, appears to have been steadier-minded and
stronger-willed. Even before this, Thomas had left the
half-faced camp and moved into a cabin. But such a cabin! It
had neither door, nor window, nor floor. Sally Lincoln
required her husband to make of it a proper house--by the
standards of Pigeon Creek. She had brought with her as her
dowry a wagonload of furniture. These comforts together with
her strong will began a new era of relative comfort in the
Lincoln cabin.[1]

Sally Lincoln was a kind stepmother to Abraham who became
strongly attached to her. In the rough and nondescript
community of Pigeon Creek, a world of weedy farms, of miserable
mud roads, of log farm-houses, the family life that was at
least tolerable. The sordid misery described during her regime
emerged from wretchedness to a state of by all the recorders of
Lincoln's early days seems to have ended about his twelfth
year. At least, the vagrant suggestion disappeared. Though
the life that succeeded was void of luxury, though it was
rough, even brutal, dominated by a coarse, peasant-like view of
things, it was scarcely by peasant standards a life of
hardship. There was food sufficient, if not very good;
protection from wind and weather; fire in the winter time;
steady labor; and social acceptance by the community of the
creekside. That the labor was hard and long, went without
saying. But as to that--as of the whippings in Kentucky--what
else, from the peasant point of view, would you expect?
Abraham took it all with the same stoicism with which he had
once taken the whippings. By the unwritten law of the
creekside he was his father's property, and so was his labor,
until he came of age. Thomas used him as a servant or hired
him out to other farmers. Stray recollections show us young
Abraham working as a farm-hand for twenty-five cents the day,
probably with "keep" in addition; we glimpse him slaughtering
hogs skilfully at thirty-one cents a day, for this was "rough
work." He became noted as an axman.

In the crevices, so to speak, of his career as a farm-hand,
Abraham got a few months of schooling, less than a year in all.
A story that has been repeated a thousand times shows the raw
youth by the cabin fire at night doing sums on the back of a
wooden shovel, and shaving off its surface repeatedly to get a
fresh page. He devoured every book that came his way, only a
few to be sure, but generally great ones--the Bible, of course,
and Aesop, Crusoe, Pilgrim's Progress, and a few histories,
these last unfortunately of the poorer sort. He early
displayed a bent for composition, scribbling verses that were
very poor, and writing burlesque tales about his acquaintances
in what passed for a Biblical style.[2]

One great experience broke the monotony of the life on Pigeon
Creek. He made a trip to New Orleans as a "hand" on a
flatboat. Of this trip little is known though much may be
surmised. To his deeply poetic nature what an experience it
must have been: the majesty of the vast river; the pageant of
its immense travel; the steamers heavily laden; the fleets of
barges; the many towns; the nights of stars over wide sweeps of
water; the stately plantation houses along the banks; the old
French city with its crowds, its bells, the shipping, the
strange faces and the foreign speech; all the bewildering
evidence that there were other worlds besides Pigeon Creek!

What seed of new thinking was sown in his imagination by this
Odyssey we shall never know. The obvious effect in the ten
years of his life in Indiana was produced at Pigeon Creek. The
"settlement" was within fifteen miles of the Ohio. It lay in
that southerly fringe of Indiana which received early in the
century many families of much the same estate, character and
origin as the Lincolns,--poor whites of the edges of the great
forest working outward toward the prairies. Located on good
land not far from a great highway, the Ohio, it illustrated in
its rude prosperity a transformation that went on unobserved in
many such settlements, the transformation of the wandering
forester of the lower class into a peasant farmer. Its life
was of the earth, earthy; though it retained the religious
traditions of the forest, their significance was evaporating;
mysticism was fading into emotionalism; the camp-meeting was
degenerating into a picnic. The supreme social event, the
wedding, was attended by festivities that filled twenty-four
hours: a race of male guests in the forenoon with a bottle of
whisky for a prize; an Homeric dinner at midday; "an afternoon
of rough games and outrageous practical jokes; a supper and dance
at night interrupted by the successive withdrawals of the bride
and groom, attended by ceremonies and jests of more than
Rabelaisian crudeness; and a noisy dispersal next day."[3] The
intensities of the forest survived in hard drinking, in the fury
of the fun-making, and in the hunt. The forest passion for
storytelling had in no way decreased.

In this atmosphere, about eighteen and nineteen, Abraham shot
up suddenly from a slender boy to a huge, raw-honed, ungainly
man, six feet four inches tall, of unusual muscular strength.
His strength was one of the fixed conditions of his
development. It delivered him from all fear of his fellows.
He had plenty of peculiarities. He was ugly, awkward; he
lacked the wanton appetites of the average sensual man. And
these peculiarities without his great strength as his warrant
might have brought him into ridicule. As it was, whatever his
peculiarities, in a society like that of Pigeon Creek, the man
who could beat all competitors, wrestling or boxing, was free
from molestation. But Lincoln instinctively had another aim in
life than mere freedom to be himself. Two characteristics that
were so significant in his childhood continued with growing
vitality in his young manhood: his placidity and his intense
sense of comradeship. The latter, however, had undergone a
change. It was no longer the comradeship of the wild
creatures. That spurt of physical expansion, the swift rank
growth to his tremendous stature, swept him apparently across a
dim dividing line, out of the world of birds and beasts and
into the world of men. He took the new world with the same
unfailing but also unexcitable curiosity with which he had
taken the other, the world of squirrels, flowers, fawns.

Here as there, the difference from his mother, deep though
their similarities may have been, was sharply evident. Had he
been wholly at one with her religiously, the gift of telling
speech which he now began to display might have led him into a
course that would have rejoiced her heart, might have made him
a boy preacher, and later, a great revivalist. His father and
elder sister while on Pigeon Creek joined the local Baptist
Church. But Abraham did not follow them. Nor is there a
single anecdote linking him in any way with the fervors of camp
meeting. On the contrary, what little is remembered, is of a
cool aloofness.[4] The inscrutability of the forest was his--what
it gave to the stealthy, cautious men who were too intent on
observing, too suspiciously watchful, to give vent to their
feelings. Therefore, in Lincoln there was always a double
life, outer and inner, the outer quietly companionable, the
inner, solitary, mysterious.

It was the outer life that assumed its first definite phase in
the years on Pigeon Creek. During those years, Lincoln
discovered his gift of story-telling. He also discovered
humor. In the employment of both talents, he accepted as a
matter of course the tone of the young ruffians among whom he
dwelt. Very soon this powerful fellow, who could throw any of
them in a wrestle, won the central position among them by a
surer title, by the power to delight. And any one who knows
how peasant schools of art arise--for that matter, all schools
of art that are vital--knows how he did it. In this connection,
his famous biographers, Nicolay and Hay, reveal a certain
externality by objecting that a story attributed to him is
ancient. All stories are ancient. Not the tale, but the
telling, as the proverb says, is the thing. In later years,
Lincoln wrote down every good story that he heard, and filed
it.[5] When it reappeared it had become his own. Who can doubt
that this deliberate assimilation, the typical artistic
process, began on Pigeon Creek? Lincoln never would have
captured as he did his plowboy audience, set them roaring with
laughter in the intervals of labor, had he not given them back
their own tales done over into new forms brilliantly beyond
their powers of conception. That these tales were gross, even
ribald, might have been taken for granted, even had we not
positive evidence of the fact. Otherwise none of that
uproarious laughter which we may be sure sounded often across
shimmering harvest fields while stalwart young pagans, ever
ready to pause, leaned, bellowing, on the handles of their
scythes, Abe Lincoln having just then finished a story.

Though the humor of these stories was Falstaffian, to say the
least, though Lincoln was cock of the walk among the plowboys
of Pigeon Creek, a significant fact with regard to him here
comes into view. Not an anecdote survives that in any way
suggests personal licentiousness. Scrupulous men who in
after-time were offended by his coarseness of speech--for more
or less of the artist of Pigeon Creek stuck to him almost to
the end; he talked in fables, often in gross fables--these men,
despite their annoyance, felt no impulse to attribute to him
personal habits in harmony with his tales. On the other hand,
they were puzzled by their own impression, never wavering, that
he was "pureminded." The clue which they did not have lay in
the nature of his double life. That part of him which, in our
modern jargon, we call his "reactions" obeyed a curious law.
They dwelt in his outer life without penetrating to the inner;
but all his impulses of personal action were securely seated
deep within. Even at nineteen, for any one attuned to
spiritual meaning, he would have struck the note of mystery,
faintly, perhaps, but certainly. To be sure, no hint of this
reached the minds of his rollicking comrades of the harvest
field. It was not for such as they to perceive the problem of
his character, to suspect that he was a genius, or to guess
that a time would come when sincere men would form impressions
of him as dissimilar as black and white. And so far as it went
the observation of the plowboys was correct. The man they saw
was indeed a reflection of themselves. But it was a reflection
only. Their influence entered into the real man no more than
the image in a mirror has entered into the glass.


Though placid, this early Lincoln was not resigned. He
differed from the boors of Pigeon Creek in wanting some other
sort of life. What it was he wanted, he did not know. His
reading had not as yet given him definite ambitions. It may
well be that New Orleans was the clue to such stirring in him
as there was of that discontent which fanciful people have
called divine. Remembering New Orleans, could any imaginative
youth be content with Pigeon Creek?

In the spring of 1830, shortly after he came of age, he agreed
for once with his father whose chronic vagrancy had reasserted
itself. The whole family set out again on their wanderings and
made their way in an oxcart to a new halting place on the
Sangamon River in Illinois. There Abraham helped his father
clear another piece of land for another illusive "start" in
life. The following spring he parted with his family and
struck out for himself.[1] His next adventure was a second trip
as a boatman to New Orleans. Can one help suspecting there was
vague hope in his heart that he might be adventuring to the
land of hearts' desire? If there was, the yokels who were his
fellow boatmen never suspected it. One of them long afterward
asserted that Lincoln returned from New Orleans fiercely
rebellious against its central institution, slavery, and
determined to "hit that thing" whenever he could.

The legend centers in his witnessing a slave auction and giving
voice to his horror in a style quite unlike any of his
authentic utterances. The authority for all this is doubtful.[2]
Furthermore, the Lincoln of 1831 was not yet awakened. That
inner life in which such a reaction might take place was still
largely dormant. The outer life, the life of the harvest
clown, was still a thick insulation. Apparently, the waking of
the inner life, the termination of its dormant stage, was
reserved for an incident far more personal that fell upon him
in desolating force a few years later.

Following the New Orleans venture, came a period as storekeeper
for a man named Denton Offut, in perhaps the least desirable
town in Illinois--a dreary little huddle of houses gathered
around Rutledge's Mill on the Sangamon River and called New
Salem.[3] Though a few of its people were of a better sort than
any Lincoln had yet known except, perhaps, the miller's family
in the old days in Kentucky--and still a smaller few were of
fine quality, the community for the most part was hopeless. A
fatality for unpromising neighborhoods overhangs like a doom
the early part of this strange life. All accounts of New Salem
represent it as predominantly a congregation of the worthless,
flung together by unaccountable accident at a spot where there
was no genuine reason for a town's existence. A casual town,
created by drifters, and void of settled purpose. Small wonder
that ere long it vanished from the map; that after a few years
its drifting congregation dispersed to every corner of the
horizon, and was no more. But during its brief existence it
staged an episode in the development of Lincoln's character.
However, this did not take place at once. And before it
happened, came another turn of his soul's highway scarcely less
important. He discovered, or thought he discovered, what he
wanted. His vague ambition took shape. He decided to try to
be a politician. At twenty-three, after living in New Salem
less than a year, this audacious, not to say impertinent, young
man offered himself to the voters of Sangamon County as a
candidate for the Legislature. At this time that humility
which was eventually his characteristic had not appeared. It
may be dated as subsequent to New Salem--a further evidence that
the deep spiritual experience which closed this chapter formed
a crisis. Before then, at New Salem as at Pigeon Creek, he was
but a variant, singularly decent, of the boisterous,
frolicking, impertinent type that instinctively sought the
laxer neighborhoods of the frontier. An echo of Pigeon Creek
informed the young storekeeper's first state paper, the
announcement of his candidacy, in the year 1832. His first
political speech was in a curious vein, glib, intimate and
fantastic: "Fellow citizens, I presume you all know who I am.
I am humble Abraham Lincoln. I have been solicited by many
friends to become a candidate for the Legislature. My politics
are short and sweet like the old woman's dance. I am in favor
of a national bank. I am in favor of the internal improvement
system and a high protective tariff. These are my sentiments
and political principles. If elected, I shall be thankful; if
not it will be all the same."[4]

However, this bold throw of the dice of fortune was not quite
so impertinent as it seems. During the months when he was in
charge of Offut's grocery store he had made a conquest of New
Salem. The village grocery in those days was the village club.
It had its constant gathering of loafers all of whom were
endowed with votes. It was the one place through which passed
the whole population, in and out, one time or another. To a
clever storekeeper it gave a chance to establish a following.
Had he, as Lincoln had, the gift of story-telling, the gift of
humor, he was a made man. Pigeon Creek over again! Lincoln's
wealth of funny stories gave Offut's grocery somewhat the role
of a vaudeville theater and made the storekeeper as popular a
man as there was in New Salem.

In another way he repeated his conquest of Pigeon Creek. New
Salem had its local Alsatia known as Clary's Grove whose
insolent young toughs led by their chief, Jack Armstrong, were
the terror of the neighborhood. The groceries paid them
tribute in free drinks. Any luckless storekeeper who incurred
their displeasure found his store some fine morning a total
wreck. Lincoln challenged Jack Armstrong to a duel with fists.
It was formally arranged. A ring was formed; the whole village
was audience; and Lincoln thrashed him to a finish. But this
was only a small part of his triumph. His physical prowess,
joined with his humor and his companionableness; entirely
captivated Clary's Grove. Thereafter, it was storekeeper
Lincoln's pocket borough; its ruffians were his body-guard.
Woe to any one who made trouble for their hero.

There were still other causes for his quick rise to the
position of village leader. His unfailing kindness was one;
his honesty was another. Tales were related of his scrupulous
dealings, such as walking a distance of miles in order to
correct a trifling error he had made, in selling a poor woman
less than the proper weight of tea. Then, too, by New Salem
standards, he was educated. Long practice on the shovel at
Pigeon Creek had given him a good handwriting, and one of the
first things he did at New Salem was to volunteer to be clerk
of elections. And there was a distinct moral superiority.
Little as this would have signified unbacked by his giant
strength since it had that authority behind it his morality set
him apart from his followers, different, imposing. He seldom,
if ever, drank whisky. Sobriety was already the rule of his
life, both outward and inward. At the same time he was not
censorious. He accepted the devotion of Clary's Grove without
the slightest attempt to make over its bravoes in his own
image. He sympathized with its ideas of sport. For all his
kindliness to humans of every sort much of his sensitiveness
for animals had passed away. He was not averse to cock
fighting; he enjoyed a horse race.[5] Altogether, in his outer
life, before the catastrophe that revealed him to himself, he
was quite as much in the tone of New Salem as ever in that of
Pigeon Creek. When the election came he got every vote in New
Salem except three.[6]

But the village was a small part of Sangamon County. Though
Lincoln received a respectable number of votes elsewhere, his
total was well down in the running. He remained an
inconspicuous minority candidate.

Meanwhile Offut's grocery had failed. In the midst of the
legislative campaign, Offut's farmer storekeeper volunteered
for the Indian War with Black Hawk, but returned to New Salem
shortly before the election without having once smelled powder.
Since his peers were not of a mind to give him immediate
occupation in governing, he turned again to business. He
formed a partnership with a man named Berry. They bought on
credit the wreck of a grocery that had been sacked by Lincoln's
friends of Clary's Grove, and started business as "General
Merchants," under the style of Berry & Lincoln. There followed
a year of complete unsuccess. Lincoln demonstrated that he was
far more inclined to read any chance book that came his way
than to attend to business, and that he had "no money sense."
The new firm went the way of Offut's grocery, leaving nothing
behind it but debt. The debts did not trouble Berry; Lincoln
assumed them all. They formed a dreadful load which he bore
with his usual patience and little by little discharged.
Fifteen years passed before again he was a free man

A new and powerful influence came into his life during the half
idleness of his unsuccessful storekeeping. It is worth
repeating in his own words, or what seems to be the fairly
accurate recollection of his words: "One day a man who was
migrating to the West, drove up in front of my store with a
wagon which contained his family and household plunder. He
asked me if I would buy an old barrel for which he had no room
in his wagon, and which he said contained nothing of special
value. I did not want it but to oblige him I bought it and
paid him, I think, a half a dollar for it. Without further
examination I put it away in the store and forgot all about it
Sometime after, in overhauling things, I came upon the barrel
and emptying it upon the floor to see what it contained, I
found at the bottom of the rubbish a complete edition of
Blackstone's Commentaries. I began to read those famous works,
and I had plenty of time; for during the long summer days when
the farmers were busy with their crops, my customers were few
and far between. The more I read, the more intensely
interested I became. Never in my whole life was my mind so
thoroughly absorbed. I read until I devoured them."[7]

The majesty of the law at the bottom of a barrel of trash
discovered at a venture and taking instant possession of the
discoverer's mind! Like the genius issuing grandly in the
smoke cloud from the vase drawn up out of the sea by the fisher
in the Arabian tale! But this great book was not the only magic
casket discovered by the idle store-keeper, the broken seals
of which released mighty presences. Both Shakespeare and Burns
were revealed to him in this period. Never after did either
for a moment cease to be his companion. These literary
treasures were found at Springfield twenty miles from New
Salem, whither Lincoln went on foot many a time to borrow

His subsistence, after the failure of Berry & Lincoln, was
derived from the friendliness of the County Surveyor Calhoun,
who was a Democrat, while Lincoln called himself a Whig.
Calhoun offered him the post of assistant. In accepting,
Lincoln again displayed the honesty that was beginning to be
known as his characteristic. He stipulated that he should be
perfectly free to express his opinions, that the office should
not be in any respect, a bribe. This being conceded, he went
to work furiously on a treatise upon surveying, and
astonishingly soon, with the generous help of the schoolmaster
of New Salem, was able to take up his duties. His first fee
was "two buckskins which Hannah Armstrong 'fixed' on his pants
so the briers would not wear them out."[8]

Thus time passed until 1834 when he staked his only wealth, his
popularity, in the gamble of an election. This time he was
successful. During the following winter he sat in the
Legislature of Illinois; a huge, uncouth, mainly silent member,
making apparently no impression whatever, very probably
striking the educated members as a nonentity in homespun.[9]

In the spring of 1835, he was back in New Salem, busy again
with his surveying. Kind friends had secured him the office of
local postmaster. The delivery of letters was now combined
with going to and fro as a surveyor. As the mail came but once
a week, and as whatever he had to deliver could generally be
carried in his hat, and as payment was in proportion to
business done, his revenues continued small. Nevertheless, in
the view of New Salem, he was getting on.

And then suddenly misfortune overtook him. His great
adventure, the first of those spiritual agonies of which he was
destined to endure so many, approached. Hitherto, since
childhood, women had played no part in his story. All the
recollections of his youth are vague in their references to the
feminine. As a boy at Pigeon Creek when old Thomas was hiring
him out, the women of the settlement liked to have him around,
apparently because he was kindly and ever ready to do odd jobs
in addition to his regular work. However, until 1835, his
story is that of a man's man, possibly because there was so
much of the feminine in his own make-up. In 1835 came a
change. A girl of New Salem, a pretty village maiden, the best
the poor place could produce, revealed him to himself. Sweet
Ann Rutledge, the daughter of the tavern-keeper, was his first
love. But destiny was against them. A brief engagement was
terminated by her sudden death late in the summer of 1835. Of
this shadowy love-affair very little is known,--though much
romantic fancy has been woven about it. Its significance for
after-time is in Lincoln's "reaction." There had been much
sickness in New Salem the summer in which Ann died. Lincoln
had given himself freely as nurse--the depth of his
companionableness thus being proved--and was in an overwrought
condition when his sorrow struck him. A last interview with
the dying girl, at which no one was present, left him quite
unmanned. A period of violent agitation followed. For a time
he seemed completely transformed. The sunny Lincoln, the
delight of Clary's Grove, had vanished. In his place was a
desolated soul--a brother to dragons, in the terrible imagery of
Job--a dweller in the dark places of affliction. It was his
mother reborn in him. It was all the shadowiness of his
mother's world; all that frantic reveling in the mysteries of
woe to which, hitherto, her son had been an alien. To the
simple minds of the villagers with their hard-headed, practical
way of keeping all things, especially love and grief, in the
outer layer of consciousness, this revelation of an emotional
terror was past understanding. Some of them, true to their
type, pronounced him insane. He was watched with especial
vigilance during storms, fogs, damp gloomy weather, "for fear
of an accident." Surely, it was only a crazy man, in New Salem
psychology, who was heard to say, "I can never be reconciled to
have the snow, rains and storms beat upon her grave."[10]

In this crucial moment when the real base of his character had
been suddenly revealed--all the passionateness of the forest
shadow, the unfathomable gloom laid so deep at the bottom of
his soul--he was carried through his spiritual eclipse by the
loving comprehension of two fine friends. New Salem was not
all of the sort of Clary's Grove. Near by on a farm, in a
lovely, restful landscape, lived two people who deserve to be
remembered, Bowlin Green and his wife. They drew Lincoln into
the seclusion of their home, and there in the gleaming days of
autumn, when everywhere in the near woods flickered downward,
slowly, idly, the falling leaves golden and scarlet, Lincoln
recovered his equanimity.[11] But the hero of Pigeon Creek, of
Clary's Grove, did not quite come hack. In the outward life,
to be sure, a day came when the sunny story-teller, the victor
of Jack Armstrong, was once more what Jack would have called
his real self. In the inner life where alone was his reality,
the temper which affliction had revealed to him was
established. Ever after, at heart, he was to dwell alone,
facing, silent, those inscrutable things which to the primitive
mind are things of every day. Always, he was to have for his
portion in his real self, the dimness of twilight, or at best,
the night with its stars, "never glad, confident morning


From this time during many years almost all the men who saw
beyond the surface in Lincoln have indicated, in one way or
another, their vision of a constant quality. The observers of
the surface did not see it. That is to say, Lincoln did not at
once cast off any of his previous characteristics. It is
doubtful if he ever did. His experience was tenaciously
cumulative. Everything he once acquired, he retained, both in
the outer life and the inner; and therefore, to those who did
not have the clue to him, he appeared increasingly
contradictory, one thing on the surface, another within.
Clary's Grove and the evolutions from Clary's Grove, continued
to think of him as their leader. On the other hand, men who
had parted with the mere humanism of Clary's Grove, who were a
bit analytical, who thought themselves still more analytical,
seeing somewhat beneath the surface, reached conclusions
similar to those of a shrewd Congressman who long afterward
said that Lincoln was not a leader of men but a manager of
men.[1] This astute distinction was not true of the Lincoln the
Congressman confronted; nevertheless, it betrays much both of
the observer and of the man he tried to observe. In the
Congressman's day, what he thought he saw was in reality the
shadow of a Lincoln that had passed away, passed so slowly, so
imperceptibly that few people knew it had passed. During many
years following 1835, the distinction in the main applied. So
thought the men who, like Lincoln's latest law partner, William
H. Herndon, were not derivatives of Clary's Grove. The
Lincoln of these days was the only one Herndon knew. How
deeply he understood Lincoln is justly a matter of debate; but
this, at least, he understood--that Clary's Grove, in
attributing to Lincoln its own idea of leadership, was
definitely wrong. He saw in Lincoln, in all the larger
matters, a tendency to wait on events, to take the lead
indicated by events, to do what shallow people would have
called mere drifting. To explain this, he labeled him a
fatalist.[2] The label was only approximate, as most labels are.
But Herndon's effort to find one is significant. In these
years, Lincoln took the initiative--when he took it at all--in a
way that most people did not recognize. His spirit was ever
aloof. It was only the every-day, the external Lincoln that
came into practical contact with his fellows.

This is especially true of the growing politician. He served
four consecutive terms in the Legislature without doing
anything that had the stamp of true leadership. He was not
like either of the two types of politicians that generally made
up the legislatures of those days--the men who dealt in ideas
as political counters, and the men who were grafters without in
their naive way knowing that they were grafters. As a member
of the Legislature, Lincoln did not deal in ideas. He was
instinctively incapable of graft A curiously routine
politician, one who had none of the earmarks familiar in such a
person. Aloof, and yet, more than ever companionable, the
power he had in the Legislature--for he had acquired a measure
of power--was wholly personal. Though called a Whig, it was not
as a party man but as a personal friend that he was able to
carry through his legislative triumphs. His most signal
achievement was wholly a matter of personal politics. There
was a general demand for the removal of the capital from its
early seat at Vandalia, and rivalry among other towns was keen.
Sangamon County was bent on winning the prize for its own
Springfield. Lincoln was put in charge of the Springfield
strategy. How he played his cards may be judged from the
recollections of another member who seems to have anticipated
that noble political maxim, "What's the Constitution between
friends?" "Lincoln," he says, "made Webb and me vote for the
removal, though we belonged to the southern end of the state.
We defended our vote before our constituents by saying that
necessity would ultimately force the seat of government to a
central position; but in reality, we gave the vote to Lincoln
because we liked him, because we wanted to oblige our friend,
and because we recognized him as our leader."[3]

And yet on the great issues of the day he could not lead them.
In 1837, the movement of the militant abolitionists, still but
a few years old, was beginning to set the Union by the ears.
The illegitimate child of Calvinism and the rights of man, it
damned with one anathema every holder of slaves and also every
opponent of slavery except its own uncompromising adherents.
Its animosity was trained particularly on every suggestion that
designed to uproot slavery without creating an economic crisis,
that would follow England's example, and terminate the
"peculiar institution" by purchase. The religious side of
abolition came out in its fury against such ideas.
Slave-holders were Canaanites. The new cult were God's own
people who were appointed to feel anew the joy of Israel hewing
Agag asunder. Fanatics, terrible, heroic, unashamed, they made
two sorts of enemies--not only the partisans of slavery, but
all those sane reformers who, while hating slavery, hated also
the blood-lust that would make the hewing of Agag a respectable
device of political science. Among the partisans of slavery
were the majority of the Illinois Legislature. Early in 1837,
they passed resolutions condemning abolitionism. Whereupon it
was revealed--not that anybody at the time cared to know the
fact, or took it to heart--that among the other sort of the
enemies of abolition was our good young friend, everybody's
good friend, Abe Lincoln. He drew up a protest against the
Legislature's action; but for all his personal influence in
other affairs, he could persuade only one member to sign with
him. Not his to command at will those who "recognized him as
their leader" in the orthodox political game--so discreet, in
that it left principles for some one else to be troubled about!
Lincoln's protest was quite too far out of the ordinary for
personal politics to endure it. The signers were asked to
proclaim their belief "that the institution of slavery is
founded on both injustice and bad policy; but that the
promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to promote
than to abate its evils."[4]

The singular originality of this position, sweeping aside as
vain both participants in the new political duel, was quite
lost on the little world in which Lincoln lived. For
after-time it has the interest of a bombshell that failed to
explode. It is the dawn of Lincoln's intellect. In his lonely
inner life, this crude youth, this lover of books in a village
where books were curiosities, had begun to think. The stages
of his transition from mere story-telling yokel--intellectual
only as the artist is intellectual, in his methods of
handling--to the man of ideas, are wholly lost. And in this
fact we have a prophecy of all the years to come. Always we
shall seek in vain for the early stages of Lincoln's ideas.
His mind will never reveal itself until the moment at which it
engages the world. No wonder, in later times, his close
associates pronounced him the most secretive of men; that one
of the keenest of his observers said that the more you knew of
Lincoln, the less you knew of him.[5]

Except for the handicap of his surroundings, his intellectual
start would seem belated; even allowing for his handicap, it
was certainly slow. He was now twenty-eight. Pretty well on
to reveal for the first time intellectual power! Another
characteristic here. His mind worked slowly. But it is worth
observing that the ideas of the protest were never abandoned.
Still a third characteristic, mental tenacity. To the end of
his days, he looked askance at the temper of abolitionism,
regarded it ever as one of the chief evils of political
science. And quite as significant was another idea of the
protest which also had developed from within, which also he
never abandoned.

On the question of the power of the national government with
regard to slavery, he took a position not in accord with either
of the political creeds of his day. The Democrats had already
formulated their doctrine that the national government was a
thing of extremely limited powers, the "glorified policeman" of
a certain school of publicists reduced almost to a minus
quantity. The Whigs, though amiably vague on most things
except money-making by state aid, were supposed to stand for a
"strong central government. Abolitionism had forced on both
parties a troublesome question, "What about slavery in the
District of Columbia, where the national government was
supreme?"The Democrats were prompt in their reply: Let the
glorified policeman keep the peace and leave private interests,
such as slave-holding, alone. The Whigs evaded, tried not to
apply their theory of "strong" government; they were fearful
lest they offend one part of their membership if they asserted
that the nation had no right to abolish slavery in the
District, fearful of offending others if they did not.
Lincoln's protest asserted that "the Congress of the United
States has the power, under the Constitution, to abolish
slavery in the District of Columbia but the power ought not to
be exercised, unless at the request of the District." In other
words, Lincoln, when suddenly out of the storm and stress that
followed Ann's death his mentality flashes forth, has an
attitude toward political power that was not a consequence of
his environment, that sets him apart as a type of man rare in
the history of statesmanship. What other American politician
of his day--indeed, very few politicians of any day--would have
dared to assert at once the existence of a power and the moral
obligation not to use it? The instinctive American mode of
limiting power is to deny its existence. Our politicians so
deeply distrust our temperament that whatever they may say for
rhetorical effect, they will not, whenever there is any danger
of their being taken at their word, trust anything to moral
law. Their minds are normally mechanical. The specific,
statutory limitation is the only one that for them has reality.
The truth that temper in politics is as great a factor as law
was no more comprehensible to the politicians of 1837 than, say
Hamlet or The Last Judgment. But just this is what the crude
young Lincoln understood. Somehow he had found it in the
depths of his own nature. The explanation, if any, is to be
found in his heredity. Out of the shadowy parts of him, beyond
the limits of his or any man's conscious vision, dim,
unexplored, but real and insistent as those forest recesses
from which his people came, arise the two ideas: the faith in a
mighty governing power; the equal faith that it should use its
might with infinite tenderness, that it should be slow to
compel results, even the result of righteousness, that it
should be tolerant of human errors, that it should transform
them slowly, gradually, as do the gradual forces of nature, as
do the sun and the rain.

And such was to be the real Lincoln whenever he spoke out, to
the end. His tonic was struck by his first significant
utterance at the age of twenty-eight. How inevitable that it
should have no significance to the congregation of good fellows
who thought of him merely as one of their own sort, who put up
with their friend's vagary, and speedily forgot it.

The moment was a dreary one in Lincoln's fortunes. By dint of
much reading of borrowed books, he had succeeded in obtaining
from the easy-going powers that were in those days, a license
to practise law. In the spring of 1837 he removed to
Springfield. He had scarcely a dollar in his pocket. Riding
into Springfield on a borrowed horse, with all the property he
owned, including his law books, in two saddlebags, he went to
the only cabinet-maker in the town and ordered a single
bedstead. He then went to the store of Joshua F. Speed. The
meeting, an immensely eventful one for Lincoln, as well as a
classic in the history of genius in poverty, is best told in
Speed's words: "He came into my store, set his saddle-bags on
the counter and inquired what the furnishings for a single
bedstead would cost. I took slate and pencil, made a
calculation and found the sum for furnishings complete, would
amount to seventeen dollars in all. Said he: 'It is probably
cheap enough, but I want to say that, cheap as it is, I have
not the money to pay; but if you will credit me until
Christmas, and my experiment here as a lawyer is a success, I
will pay you then. If I fail in that I will probably never pay
you at all.' The tone of his voice was so melancholy that I
felt for him. I looked up at him and I thought then as I think
now that I never saw so gloomy and melancholy a face in my
life. I said to him: 'So small a debt seems to affect you so
deeply, I think I can suggest a plan by which you will be able
to attain your end without incurring any debt. I have a very
large room and a very large double bed in it, which you are
perfectly welcome to share with me if you choose.' 'Where is
your room?' he asked. 'Up-stairs,' said I, pointing to the
stairs leading from the store to my room. Without saying a
word, he took his saddle-bags on his arm, went upstairs, set
them down on the floor, came down again, and with a face
beaming with pleasure and smiles exclaimed, 'Well, Speed, I'm

This was the beginning of a friendship which appears to have
been the only one of its kind Lincoln ever had. Late in life,
with his gifted private secretaries, with one or two brilliant
men whom he did not meet until middle age, he had something
like intimate comradeship. But even they did not break the
prevailing solitude of his inner life. His aloofness of soul
became a fixed condition. The one intruder in that lonely
inner world was Speed. In the great collection of Lincoln's
letters none have the intimate note except the letters to
Speed. And even these are not truly intimate with the
exception of a single group inspired all by the same train of
events. The deep, instinctive reserve of Lincoln's nature was
incurable. The exceptional group of letters involve his final
love-affair. Four years after his removal to Springfield,
Lincoln became engaged to Miss Mary Todd. By that time he had
got a start at the law and was no longer in grinding poverty.
If not yet prosperous, he had acquired "prospects"--the strong
likelihood of better things to come so dear to the buoyant
heart of the early West.

Hospitable Springfield, some of whose best men had known him in
the Legislature, opened its doors to him. His humble origin,
his poor condition, were forgiven. In true Western fashion, he
was frankly put on trial to show what was in him. If he could
"make good" no further questions would be asked. And in
every-day matters, his companionableness rose to the occasion.
Male Springfield was captivated almost as easily as New Salem.

But all this was of the outer life. If the ferment within was
constant between 1835 and 1840, the fact is lost in his
taciturnity. But there is some evidence of a restless
emotional life.

In the rebound after the woe following Ann's death, he had gone
questing after happiness--such a real thing to him, now that he
had discovered the terror of unhappiness--in a foolish
half-hearted courtship of a bouncing, sensible girl named Mary
Owens, who saw that he was not really in earnest, decided that
he was deficient in those "little links that make up a woman's
happiness," and sent him about his business--rather, on the
whole, to his relief.[7] The affair with Miss Todd had a
different tone from the other. The lady was of another world
socially. The West in those days swarmed with younger sons, or
the equivalents of younger sons, seeking their fortunes, whom
sisters and cousins were frequently visiting. Mary Todd was
sister-in-law to a leading citizen of Springfield. Her origin
was of Kentucky and Virginia, with definite claims to
distinction. Though a family genealogy mounts as high as the
sixth century, sober history is content with a grandfather and
great grandfather who were military men of some repute, two
great uncles who were governors, and another who was a cabinet
minister. Rather imposing contrasted with the family tree of
the child of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks! Even more
significant was the lady's education. She had been to a school
where young ladies of similar social pretensions were allowed
to speak only the French language. She was keenly aware of the
role marked out for her by destiny, and quite convinced that
she would always in every way live up to it.

The course of her affair with Lincoln did not run smooth.
There were wide differences of temperament; quarrels of some
sort--just what, gossip to this day has busied itself trying to
discover--and on January 1, 1841, the engagement was broken.
Before the end of the month he wrote to his law partner
apologizing for his inability to be coherent on business
matters. "For not giving you a general summary of news, you
must pardon me; it is not in my power to do so. I am now the
most miserable man living. If what I feel were distributed to
the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on
earth. Whether I shall ever be better, I can not tell. I
awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible.
I must die or be better, it appears to me . . . a change of
scene might help me."

His friend Speed became his salvation. Speed closed out his
business and carried Lincoln off to visit his own relations in
Kentucky. It was the devotion of Bowlin Green and his wife
over again. But the psychology of the event was much more
singular. Lincoln, in the inner life, had progressed a long
way since the death of Ann, and the progress was mainly in the
way of introspection, of self-analysis. He had begun to brood.
As always, the change did not reveal itself until an event in
the outward life called it forth like a rising ghost from the
abyss of his silences. His friends had no suspicion that in
his real self, beneath the thick disguise of his external
sunniness, he was forever brooding, questioning, analyzing,
searching after the hearts of things both within and without..

"In the winter of 1840 and 1841," writes Speed, "he was unhappy
about the engagement to his wife--not being entirely satisfied
that his heart was going with his hand. How much he suffered
then on that account, none knew so well as myself; he disclosed
his whole heart to me. In the summer of 1841 I became engaged
to my wife. He was here on a visit when I courted her; and
strange to say, something of the same feeling which I regarded
as so foolish in him took possession of me, and kept me very
unhappy from the time of my engagement until I was married.
This will explain the deep interest he manifested in his
letters on my account. . . One thing is plainly discernible;
if I had not been married and happy, far more happy than I ever
expected to be, he would not have married."

Whether or not Speed was entirely right in his final
conclusion, it is plain that he and Lincoln were remarkably
alike in temperament; that whatever had caused the break in
Lincoln's engagement was repeated in his friend's experience
when the latter reached a certain degree of emotional tension;
that this paralleling of Lincoln's own experience in the
experience of the friend so like himself, broke tip for once
the solitude of his inner life and delivered him from some dire
inward terror. Both men were deeply introspective. Each had
that overpowering sense of the emotional responsibilities of
marriage, which is bred in the bone of certain hyper-sensitive
types--at least in the Anglo-Saxon race. But neither realized
this trait in himself until, having blithely pursued his
impulse to the point of committal, his spiritual conscience
suddenly awakened and he asked of his heart, "Do I truly love
her? Am I perfectly sure the emotion is permanent?"

It is on this speculation that the unique group of the intimate
letters to Speed are developed. They were written after
Lincoln's return to Springfield, while Speed was wrestling with
the demon of self-analysis. In the period which they cover,
Lincoln delivered himself from that same demon and recovered
Serenity. Before long he was writing: "I know what the painful
point with you is at all times when you are unhappy; it is an
apprehension that you do not love her as you should. What
nonsense! How came you to court her? Was it because you
thought she deserved it and that you had given her reason to
expect it? If it was for that, why did not the same reason make
you court Ann Todd, and at least twenty others of whom you can
think, to whom it would apply with greater force than to her?
Did you court her for her wealth? Why, you said she had none.
But you say you reasoned yourself into it. What do you mean by
that? Was it not that you found yourself unable to reason
yourself out of it?" And much more of the same shrewd sensible
sort,--a picture unintentionally of his own state of mind no
less than of his friend's.

This strange episode reveals also that amid Lincoln's silences,
while the outward man appeared engrossed in everyday matters,
the inward man had been seeking religion. His failure to
accept the forms of his mother's creed did not rest on any lack
of the spiritual need. Though undefined, his religion glimmers
at intervals through the Speed letters. When Speed's
fiancee fell ill and her tortured lover was in a paroxysm of
remorse and grief, Lincoln wrote: "I hope and believe that your
present anxiety and distress about her health and her life must
and will forever banish those horrid doubts which I know you
sometimes felt as to the truth of your affection for her. If
they can once and forever be removed (and I feel a presentment
that the Almighty has sent your present affliction expressly
for that object) surely nothing can come in their stead to fill
their immeasurable measure of misery. . . Should she, as you
fear, be destined to an early grave, it is indeed a great
consolation to know she is so well prepared to meet it."

Again he wrote: "I was always superstitious. I believe God
made me one of the instruments of bringing you and your Fanny
together, which union I have no doubt lie had foreordained.
Whatever He designs He will do for me yet. 'Stand still and
see the salvation of the Lord' is my text now."

The duality in self-torture of these spiritual brethren endured
in all about a year and a half, and closed with Speed's
marriage. Lincoln was now entirely delivered from his demon.
He wrote Speed a charming letter, serene, affectionate, touched
with gentle banter, valiant though with a hint of disillusion
as to their common type. "I tell you, Speed, our forebodings
(for which you and I are peculiar) are all the worst sort of
nonsense. . You say you much fear that that elysium of which
you have dreamed so much is never to be realized. Well, if it
shall not, I dare swear it will not be the fault of her who is
now your wife. I have no doubt that it is the peculiar
misfortune of both you and me to dream dreams of elysium far
exceeding all that anything earthly can realize."[8]


How Lincoln's engagement was patched up is as delicious an
uncertainty, from gossip's point of view, as how it had been
broken off. Possibly, as many people have asserted, it was
brought about by an event of which, in the irony of fate,
Lincoln ever after felt ashamed.[1] An impulsive, not overwise
politician, James Shields, a man of many peculiarities, was
saucily lampooned in a Springfield paper by some jaunty girls,
one of whom was Miss Todd.

Somehow,--the whole affair is very dim,--Lincoln acted as their
literary adviser. Shields demanded the name of his detractor;
Lincoln assumed the responsibility; a challenge followed.
Lincoln was in a ridiculous position. He extricated himself by
a device which he used more than once thereafter; he gravely
proposed the impossible. He demanded conditions which would
have made the duel a burlesque--a butcher's match with cavalry
broadswords. But Shields, who was flawlessly literal,
insisted. The two met and only on the dueling ground was the
quarrel at last talked into oblivion by the seconds. Whether
this was the cause of the reconciliation with Miss Todd, or a
consequence, or had nothing to do with it, remains for the
lovers of the unimportant to decide. The only sure fact in
this connection is the marriage which took place November 4,

Mrs. Lincoln's character has been much discussed. Gossip,
though with very little to go on, has built up a tradition that
the marriage was unhappy. If one were to believe the half of
what has been put in print, one would have to conclude that the
whole business was a wretched mistake; that Lincoln found
married life intolerable because of the fussily dictatorial
self-importance of his wife. But the authority for all these
tales is meager. Not one is traceable to the parties
themselves. Probably it will never be known till the end of
time what is false in them, what true. About all that can be
disengaged from this cloud of illusive witnesses is that
Springfield wondered why Mary Todd married Lincoln. He was
still poor; so poor that after marriage they lived at the Globe
Tavern on four dollars a week. And the lady had been sought by
prosperous men! The lowliness of Lincoln's origin went ill
with her high notions of her family's importance. She was
downright, high-tempered, dogmatic, but social; he was devious,
slow to wrath, tentative, solitary; his very appearance, then
as afterward, was against him. Though not the hideous man he
was later made out to be--the "gorilla" of enemy
caricaturists--he was rugged of feature, with a lower lip that
tended to protrude. His immense frame was thin and angular;
his arms were inordinately long; hands, feet and eyebrows were
large; skin swarthy; hair coarse, black and generally unkempt.
Only the amazing, dreamful eyes, and a fineness in the texture
of the skin, redeemed the face and gave it distinction.[3] Why
did precise, complacent Miss Todd pick out so strange a man for
her mate? The story that she married him for ambition, divining
what he was to be--like Jane Welsh in the conventional story of
Carlyle--argues too much of the gift of prophecy. Whatever her
motive, it is more than likely that she was what the
commercialism of to-day would call an "asset." She had certain
qualities that her husband lacked. For one, she had that
intuition for the main chance which shallow people confound
with practical judgment. Her soul inhabited the obvious; but
within the horizon of the obvious she was shrewd, courageous
and stubborn. Not any danger that Mary Lincoln would go
wandering after dreams, visions, presences, such as were
drifting ever in a ghostly procession at the back of her
husband's mind. There was a danger in him that was to grow
with the years, a danger that the outer life might be swamped
by the inner, that the ghosts within might carry him away with
them, away from fact--seeking-seeking. That this never
occurred may be fairly credited, or at least very plausibly
credited, to the firm-willed, the utterly matter-of-fact little
person he had married. How far he enjoyed the mode of his
safe-guarding is a fruitless speculation.

Another result that may, perhaps, be due to Mary Lincoln was
the improvement in his fortunes. However, this may have had no
other source than a distinguished lawyer whose keen eyes had
been observing him since his first appearance in politics.
Stephen T. Logan "had that old-fashioned, lawyer-like morality
which was keenly intolerant of any laxity or slovenliness of
mind or character." He had, "as he deserved, the reputation of
being the best nisi prius lawyer in the state."[4] After watching
the gifted but ill-prepared young attorney during several years,
observing the power he had of simplification and convincingness
in statement, taking the measure of his scrupulous
honesty--these were ever Lincoln's strong cards as a
lawyer--Logan made him the surprising offer of a junior
partnership, which was instantly accepted. That was when his
inner horizon was brightening, shortly before his marriage. A
period of great mental energy followed, about the years 1842
and 1843. Lincoln threw himself into the task of becoming a
real lawyer under Logan's direction. However, his zeal flagged
after a time, and when the partnership ended four years later
he had to some extent fallen back into earlier, less strenuous
habits. "He permitted his partner to do all the studying in
the preparation of cases, while he himself trusted to his
general knowledge of the law and the inspiration of the
surroundings to overcome the judge or the jury."[5] Though
Lincoln was to undergo still another stimulation of the
scholarly conscience before finding himself as a lawyer, the
four years with Logan were his true student period. If the
enthusiasm of the first year did not hold out, none the less he
issued from that severe course of study a changed man, one who
knew the difference between the learned lawyer and the
unlearned. His own methods, to he sure, remained what they
always continued to be, unsystematic, not to say slipshod.
Even after he became president his lack of system was at times
the despair of his secretaries.[6] Herndon, who succeeded Logan
as his partner, and who admired both men, has a broad hint that
Logan and Lincoln were not always an harmonious firm. A clash
of political ambitions is part explanation; business methods
another. "Logan was scrupulously exact and used extraordinary
care in the preparation of papers. His words were well chosen,
and his style of composition was stately and formal."[7] He was
industrious and very thrifty, while Lincoln had "no money
sense." It must have annoyed, if it did not exasperate his
learned and formal partner, when Lincoln signed the firm name
to such letters as this: "As to real estate, we can not attend
to it. We are not real estate agents, we are lawyers. We
recommend that you give the charge of it to Mr. Isaac S.
Britton, a trust-worthy man and one whom the Lord made on
purpose for such business."[8]

Superficial observers, then and afterward, drew the conclusion
that Lincoln was an idler. Long before, as a farm-hand, he had
been called "bone idle."[9] And of the outer Lincoln, except
under stress of need, or in spurts of enthusiasm, as in the
earlier years with Logan, this reckless comment had its base of
fact. The mighty energy that was in Lincoln, a tireless,
inexhaustible energy, was inward, of the spirit; it did not
always ramify into the sensibilities and inform his outer life.
The connecting link of the two, his mere intelligence, though
constantly obedient to demands of the outer life, was not
susceptible of great strain except on demand of the spiritual
vision. Hence his attitude toward the study of the law. It
thrilled and entranced him, called into play all his
powers--observation, reflection, intelligence--just so long as
it appeared in his imagination a vast creative effort of the
spiritual powers, of humanity struggling perilously to see
justice done upon earth, to let reason and the will of God
prevail. It lost its hold upon him the instant it became a
thing of technicalities, of mere learning, of statutory

The restless, inward Lincoln, dwelling deep among spiritual
shadows, found other outlets for his energy during these years
when he was establishing himself at the bar. He continued to
be a voracious reader. And his reading had taken a skeptical
turn. Volney and Paine were now his intimates. The wave of
ultra-rationalism that went over America in the 'forties did
not spare many corners of the land. In Springfield, as in so
many small towns, it had two effects: those who were not
touched by it hardened into jealous watchfulness, and their
religion naturally enough became fiercely combative; those who
responded to the new influence became a little affected
philosophically, a bit effervescent. The young men, when of
serious mind, and all those who were reformers by temperament,
tended to exalt the new, to patronize, if not to ridicule the
old. At Springfield, as at many another frontier town wracked
by its growing pains, a Young Men's Lyceum confessed the world
to be out of joint, and went to work glibly to set it right.
Lincoln had contributed to its achievements. An oration of his
on "Perpetuation of Our Free Institutions,"[10] a mere rhetorical
"stunt" in his worst vein now deservedly forgotten, so
delighted the young men that they asked to have it
printed--quite as the same sort of young men to-day print essays
on cubism, or examples of free verse read to poetry societies.
Just what views he expressed on things in general among the
young men and others; how far he aired his acquaintance with
the skeptics, is imperfectly known.[11] However, a rumor got
abroad that he was an "unbeliever," which was the easy label
for any one who disagreed in religion with the person who
applied it. The rumor was based in part on a passage in an
address on temperance. In 1842, Lincoln, who had always been
abstemious, joined that Washington Society which aimed at a
reformation in the use of alcohol. His address was delivered
at the request of the society. It contained this passage, very
illuminating in its light upon the generosity, the real
humility of the speaker, but scarcely tactful, considering the
religious susceptibility of the hour: "If they [the Christians]
believe as they profess, that Omnipotence condescended to take
on himself the form of sinful man, and as such die an
ignominious death, surely they will not refuse submission to
the infinitely lesser condescension for the temporal and
perhaps eternal salvation of a large, erring and unfortunate
class of their fellow creatures! Nor is the condescension very
great. In my judgment such of us as have never fallen victims
have been spared more from the absence of appetite than from
any mental or moral superiority over those who have. Indeed, I
believe, if we take habitual drunkards as a class, their heads
and their hearts will bear an advantageous comparison with
those of any other class."[12] How like that remark attributed to
another great genius, one whom Lincoln in some respects
resembled, the founder of Methodism, when he said of a passing
drunkard: "There goes John Wesley, except for the Grace of
God." But the frontier zealots of the 'forties were not of the
Wesley type. The stories of Lincoln's skeptical interests, the
insinuations which were promptly read into this temperance
address, the fact that he was not a church-member, all these
were seized upon by a good but very narrow man, a devoted,
illiterate evangelist, Peter Cartwright.

In 1846, this religious issue became a political issue. The
Whigs nominated Lincoln for Congress. It was another instance
of personal politics. The local Whig leaders had made some
sort of private agreement, the details of which appear to be
lost, but according to which Lincoln now became the inevitable
candidate.[13] He was nominated without opposition. The Democrats
nominated Cartwright.

Two charges were brought against Lincoln: that he was an
infidel, and that he was--of all things in the world!--an
aristocrat. On these charges the campaign was fought. The
small matter of what he would do at Washington, or would not
do, was brushed aside. Personal politics with a vengeance! The
second charge Lincoln humorously and abundantly disproved; the
first, he met with silence.

Remembering Lincoln's unfailing truthfulness, remembering also
his restless ambition, only one conclusion can be drawn from
this silence. He could not categorically deny Cartwright's
accusation and at the same time satisfy his own unsparing
conception of honesty. That there was no real truth in the
charge of irreligion, the allusions in the Speed letters
abundantly prove. The tone is too sincere to be doubted;
nevertheless, they give no clue to his theology. And for men
like Cartwright, religion was tied up hand and foot in
theology. Here was where Lincoln had parted company from his
mother's world, and from its derivatives. Though he held
tenaciously to all that was mystical in her bequest to him, he
rejected early its formulations. The evidence of later years
reaffirms this double fact. The sense of a spiritual world
behind, beyond the world of phenomena, grew on him with the
years; the power to explain, to formulate that world was denied
him. He had no bent for dogma. Ethically, mystically, he was
always a Christian; dogmatically he knew not what he was.
Therefore, to the challenge to prove himself a Christian on
purely dogmatic grounds, he had no reply. To attempt to
explain what separated him from his accusers, to show how from
his point of view they were all Christian--although, remembering
their point of view, he hesitated to say so--to draw the line
between mysticism and emotionalism, would have resulted only in
a worse confusion. Lincoln, the tentative mystic, the child of
the starlit forest, was as inexplicable to Cartwright with his
perfectly downright religion, his creed of heaven or hell--take
your choice and be quick about it!--as was Lincoln the spiritual
sufferer to New Salem, or Lincoln the political scientist to
his friends in the Legislature.

But he was not injured by his silence. The faith in him held
by too many people was too well established. Then, as always
thereafter, whatever he said or left unsaid, most thoughtful
persons who came close to him sensed him as a religious man.
That was enough for healthy, generous young Springfield. He
and Cartwright might fight out their religious issues when they
pleased, Abe should have his term in Congress. He was elected
by a good majority.[14]


Lincoln's career as a Congressman, 1847-1849, was just what
might have been expected--his career in the Illinois Legislature
on a larger scale. It was a pleasant, companionable,
unfruitful episode, with no political significance. The
leaders of the party did not take him seriously as a possible
initiate to their ranks. His course was that of a loyal member
of the Whig mass. In the party strategy, during the debates
over the Mexican War and the Wilmot Proviso, he did his full
party duty, voting just as the others did. Only once did he
attempt anything original--a bill to emancipate the slaves of
the District, which was little more than a restatement of his
protest of ten years before--and on this point Congress was as
indifferent as the Legislature had been. The bill was denied a
hearing and never came to a vote before the House.[1]

And yet Lincoln did not fail entirely to make an impression at
Washington. And again it was the Springfield experience
repeated. His companionableness was recognized, his modesty,
his good nature; above all, his story-telling. Men liked him.
Plainly it was his humor, his droll ways, that won them;
together with instant recognition of his sterling integrity.

"During the Christmas holidays," says Ben Perley Poore, "Mr.
Lincoln found his way into the small room used as the Post
Office of the House, where a few genial reconteurs used to meet
almost every morning after the mail had been distributed into
the members' boxes, to exchange such new stories as any of them
might have acquired since they had last met. After modestly
standing at the door for several days, Mr. Lincoln was reminded
of a story, and by New Year's he was recognized as the champion
story-teller of the Capital. His favorite seat was at the left
of the open fireplace, tilted back in his chair with his long
legs reaching over to the chimney jamb."[2]

In the words of another contemporary, "Congressman Lincoln was
very fond of howling and would frequently. . . meet other
members in a match game at the alley of James Casparus. . .
. He was an awkward bowler, but played the game with great
zest and spirit solely for exercise and amusement, and greatly
to the enjoyment and entertainment of the other players, and by
reason of his criticisms and funny illustrations. . . .
When it was known that he was in the alley, there would
assemble numbers of people to witness the fun which was
anticipated by those who knew of his fund of anecdotes and
jokes. When in the alley, surrounded by a crowd of eager
listeners, he indulged with great freedom in the sport of
narrative, some of which were very broad."[3]

Once, at least, he entertained Congress with an exhibition of
his humor, and this, oddly enough, is almost the only display
of it that has come down to us, first hand. Lincoln's humor
has become a tradition. Like everything else in his outward
life, it changed gradually with his slow devious evolution from
the story-teller of Pigeon Creek to the author of the
Gettysburg Oration. It is known chiefly through translation.
The "Lincoln Stories" are stories someone else has told who may
or may not have heard them told by Lincoln. They are like all
translations, they express the translator not the
original--final evidence that Lincoln's appeal as a humorist was
in his manner, his method, not in his substance. "His laugh
was striking. Such awkward gestures belonged to no other man.
They attracted universal attention from the old sedate down to
the schoolboy."[4] He was a famous mimic.

Lincoln is himself the authority that he did not invent his
stories. He picked them up wherever he found them, and clothed
them with the peculiar drollery of his telling. He was a wag
rather than a wit. All that lives in the second-hand
repetitions of his stories is the mere core, the original
appropriated thing from which the inimitable decoration has
fallen off. That is why the collections of his stories are
such dreary reading,--like Carey's Dante, or Bryant's Homer.
And strange to say, there is no humor in his letters. This man
who was famous as a wag writes to his friends almost always in
perfect seriousness, often sadly. The bit of humor that has
been preserved in his one comic speech in Congress,--a burlesque
of the Democratic candidate of 1848, Lewis Cass,--shorn as it is
of his manner, his tricks of speech and gesture, is hardly
worth repeating.[5]

Lincoln was deeply humiliated by his failure to make a serious
impression at Washington.[6] His eyes opened in a startled
realization that there were worlds he could not conquer. The
Washington of the 'forties was far indeed from a great capital;
it was as friendly to conventional types of politician as was
Springfield or Vandalia. The man who could deal in ideas as
political counters, the other man who knew the subtleties of
the art of graft, both these were national as well as local
figures. Personal politics were also as vicious at Washington
as anywhere; nevertheless, there was a difference, and in that
difference lay the secret of Lincoln's failure. He was keen
enough to grasp the difference, to perceive the clue to his
failure. In a thousand ways, large and small, the difference
came home to him. It may all be symbolized by a closing detail
of his stay. An odd bit of incongruity was the inclusion of
his name in the list of managers of the Inaugural Ball of 1849.
Nothing of the sort had hitherto entered into his experience.
As Mrs. Lincoln was not with him he joined "a small party of
mutual friends" who attended the ball together. As one of them
relates, "he was greatly interested in all that was to be seen
and we did not take our departure until three or four o'clock
in the morning."[7] What an ironic picture--this worthy
provincial, the last word for awkwardness, socially as strange
to such a scene as a little child, spending the whole night
gazing intently at everything he could see, at the barbaric
display of wealth, the sumptuous gowns, the brilliant uniforms,
the distinguished foreigners, and the leaders of America, men
like Webster and Clay, with their air of assured power, the men
he had failed to impress. This was his valedictory at
Washington. He went home and told Herndon that he had
committed political suicide.[8] He had met the world and the
world was too strong for him.

And yet, what was wrong? He had been popular at Washington, in
the same way in which he had been popular at Springfield. Why
had the same sort of success inspired him at Springfield and
humiliated him at Washington? The answer was in the difference
between the two worlds. Companionableness, story-telling, at
Springfield, led to influence; at Washington it led only to
applause. At Springfield it was a means; at Washington it was
an end. The narrow circle gave the good fellow an opportunity
to reveal at his leisure everything else that was in him; the
larger circle ruthlessly put him in his place as a good fellow
and nothing more. The truth was that in the Washington of the
'forties, neither the inner nor the outer Lincoln could by
itself find lodgment. Neither the lonely mystical thinker nor
the captivating buffoon could do more than ripple its surface.
As superficial as Springfield, it lacked Springfield's
impulsive generosity. To the long record of its obtuseness it
had added another item. The gods had sent it a great man and
it had no eyes to see. It was destined to repeat the

And so Lincoln came home, disappointed, disillusioned. He had
not succeeded in establishing the slightest claim, either upon
the country or his party. Without such claim he had no ground
for attempting reelection. The frivolity of the Whig machine
in the Sangamon region was evinced by their rotation agreement.
Out of such grossly personal politics Lincoln had gone to
Washington; into this essentially corrupt system he relapsed.
He faced, politically, a blank wall. And he had within him as
yet, no consciousness of any power that might cleave the wall
asunder. What was he to do next?

At this dangerous moment--so plainly the end of a chapter--he was
offered the governorship of the new Territory of Oregon. For
the first time he found himself at a definite parting of the
ways, where a sheer act of will was to decide things; where the
pressure of circumstance was of secondary importance.

In response to this crisis, an overlooked part of him appeared.
The inheritance from his mother, from the forest, had always
been obvious. But, after all, he was the son not only of Nancy
and of the lonely stars, but also of shifty, drifty Thomas the
unstable. If it was not his paternal inheritance that revived
in him at this moment of confessed failure, it was something of
the same sort. Just as Thomas had always by way of extricating
himself from a failure taken to the road, now Abraham, at a
psychological crisis, felt the same wanderlust, and he
threatened to go adrift. Some of his friends urged him to
accept. "You will capture the new community," said they, "and
when Oregon becomes a State, you will go to Washington as its
first Senator." What a glorified application of the true
Thomasian line of thought. Lincoln hesitated--hesitated--

And then the forcible little lady who had married him put her
foot down. Go out to that far-away backwoods, just when they
were beginning to get on in the world; when real prosperity at
Springfield was surely within their grasp; when they were at
last becoming people of importance, who should be able to keep
their own carriage? Not much!

Her husband declined the appointment and resumed the practice
of law in Springfield.[9]


Stung by his failure at Washington, Lincoln for a time put his
whole soul into the study of the law. He explained his failure
to himself as a lack of mental training.[1] There followed a
repetition of his early years with Logan, but with very much
more determination, and with more abiding result.

In those days in Illinois, as once in England, the judges held
court in a succession of towns which formed a circuit. Judge
and lawyers moved from town to town, "rode the circuit" in
company,--sometimes on horseback, sometimes in their own
vehicles, sometimes by stage. Among the reminiscences of
Lincoln on the circuit, are his "poky" old horse and his
"ramshackle" old buggy. Many and many a mile, round and round
the Eighth Judicial Circuit, he traveled in that humble style.
What thoughts he brooded on in his lonely drives, he seldom
told. During this period the cloud over his inner life is
especially dense. The outer life, in a multitude of
reminiscences, is well known. One of its salient details was
the large proportion of time he devoted to study.

"Frequently, I would go out on the circuit with him," writes
Herndon. "We, usually, at the little country inn, occupied the
same bed. In most cases, the beds were too short for him and
his feet would hang over the footboard, thus exposing a limited
expanse of shin bone. Placing his candle at the head of his
bed he would read and study for hours. I have known him to
stay in this position until two o'clock in the morning.
Meanwhile, I and others who chanced to occupy the same room
would be safely and soundly asleep. On the circuit, in this
way, he studied Euclid until he could with ease demonstrate all
the propositions in the six books. How he could maintain his
equilibrium or concentrate his thoughts on an abstract
mathematical problem, while Davis, Logan, Swett, Edwards and I,
so industriously and volubly filled the air with our
interminable snoring, was a problem none of, us--could ever

A well-worn copy of Shakespeare was also his constant

He rose rapidly in the profession; and this in spite of his
incorrigible lack of system. The mechanical side of the
lawyer's task, now, as in the days with Logan, annoyed him; he
left the preparation of papers to his junior partner, as
formerly he left it to his senior partner. But the situation
had changed in a very important way. In Herndon, Lincoln had
for a partner a talented young man who looked up to him, almost
adored him, who was quite willing to be his man Friday.
Fortunately, for all his adoration, Herndon had no desire to
idealize his hero. He was not disturbed by his grotesque or
absurd sides.

"He was proverbially careless as to his habits," Herndon
writes. "In a letter to a fellow lawyer in another town,
apologizing for his failure to answer sooner, he explains:
'First, I have been very busy in the United States Court;
second, when I received the letter, I put it in my old hat, and
buying a new one the next day, the old one was set aside, so
the letter was lost sight of for the time.' This hat of
Lincoln's--a silk plug--was an extraordinary receptacle. It was
his desk and his memorandum book. In it he carried his
bank-book and the bulk of his letters. Whenever in his reading
or researches, he wished to preserve an idea, he jotted it down
on an envelope or stray piece of paper and placed it inside the
lining; afterwards, when the memorandum was needed, there was
only one place to look for it." Herndon makes no bones about
confessing that their office was very dirty. So neglected was
it that a young man of neat habits who entered the office as a
law student under Lincoln could not refrain from cleaning it
up, and the next visitor exclaimed in astonishment, "What's
happened here!"[3]

"The office," says that same law student, "was on the second
floor of a brick building on the public square opposite the
courthouse. You went up a flight of stairs and then passed
along a hallway to the rear office which was a medium sized
room. There was one long table in the center of the room, and
a shorter one running in the opposite direction forming a T and
both were covered with green baize. There were two windows
which looked into the back yard. In one corner was an
old-fashioned secretary with pigeonholes and a drawer; and
here Mr. Lincoln and his partner kept their law papers. There
was also a bookcase containing about two hundred volumes of law
and miscellaneous books." The same authority adds, "There was
no order in the office at all." Lincoln left all the money
matters to Herndon. "He never entered an item on the account
book. If a fee was paid to him and Herndon was not there, he
would divide the money, wrap up one part in paper and place it
in his partner's desk with the inscription, "Case of Roe versus
Doe, Herndon's half." He had an odd habit of reading aloud much
to his partner's annoyance. He talked incessantly; a whole
forenoon would sometimes go by while Lincoln occupied the whole
time telling stories.[4]

On the circuit, his story-telling was an institution. Two
other men, long since forgotten, vied with him as rival artists
in humorous narrative. These three used to hold veritable
tournaments. Herndon has seen "the little country tavern where
these three were wont to meet after an adjournment of court,
crowded almost to suffocation, with an audience of men who had
gathered to witness the contest among the members of the
strange triumvirate. The physicians of the town, all the
lawyers, and not infrequently a preacher, could be found in the
crowd that filled the doors and windows. The yarns they spun
and the stories they told would not bear repetition here, but
many of them had morals which, while exposing the weakness of
mankind, stung like a whiplash. Some were, no doubt, a
thousand years old, with just enough of verbal varnish and
alterations of names and date to make them new and crisp. By
virtue of the last named application, Lincoln was enabled to
draw from Balzac a 'droll story' and locating it 'in Egypt'
[Southern Illinois] or in Indiana, pass it off for a purely
original conception. . . I have seen Judge Treat, who was
the very impersonation of gravity itself, sit up till the last
and laugh until, as he often expressed it, 'he almost shook his
ribs loose.' The next day he would ascend the bench and listen
to Lincoln in a murder trial with all the seeming severity of
an English judge in wig and gown."[5]

Lincoln enjoyed the life on the circuit. It was not that he
was always in a gale of spirits; a great deal of the time he
brooded. His Homeric nonsense alternated with fits of gloom.
In spite of his late hours, whether of study or of
story-telling, he was an early riser. "He would sit by the
fire having uncovered the coals, and muse and ponder and
soliloquize."[6] Besides his favorite Shakespeare, he had a
fondness for poetry of a very different sort--Byron, for
example. And he never tired of a set of stanzas in the minor
key beginning: "Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?"[7]

The hilarity of the circuit was not by any means the whole of
its charm for him. Part of that charm must have been the
contrast with his recent failure at Washington. This world he
could master. Here his humor increased his influence; and his
influence grew rapidly. He was a favorite of judges, jury and
the bar. Then, too, it was a man's world. Though Lincoln had
a profound respect for women, he seems generally to have been
ill at ease in their company. In what his friends would have
called "general society" he did not shine. He was too awkward,
too downright, too lacking in the niceties. At home, though he
now owned a house and was making what seemed to him plenty of
money, he was undoubtedly a trial to Mrs. Lincoln's sense of
propriety. He could not rise with his wife, socially. He was
still what he had become so long before, the favorite of all
the men--good old Abe Lincoln that you could tie to though it
rained cats and dogs. But as to the ladies! Fashionable
people calling on Mrs. Lincoln, had been received by her
husband in his shirt-sleeves, and he totally unabashed, as
oblivious of discrepancy as if he were a nobleman and not a
nobody.[8] The dreadful tradition persists that he had been
known at table to put his own knife into the butter.

How safe to assume that many things were said commiserating
poor Mrs. Lincoln who had a bear for a husband. And some
people noticed that Lincoln did not come home at week-ends
during term-time as often as he might. Perhaps it meant
something; perhaps it did not. But there could be no doubt
that the jovial itinerant life of the circuit was the life for
him--at least in the early 'fifties. That it was, and also that
he was becoming known as a lawyer, is evinced by his refusal of
a flattering invitation to enter a prosperous firm in Chicago.

Out of all this came a deepening of his power to reach and
impress men through words. The tournament of the story-tellers
was a lawyers' tournament. The central figure was reading,
studying, thinking, as never in his life before. Though his
fables remained as broad as ever, the merely boisterous
character ceased to predominate. The ethical bent of his mind
came to the surface. His friends were agreed that what they
remembered chiefly of his stories was not the broad part of
them, but the moral that was in them.[9] And they had no
squeamishness as critics of the art of fable-making.

His ethical sense of things, his companionableness, the utterly
non- censorious cast of his mind, his power to evolve yarns
into parables--all these made him irresistible with a jury. It
was a saying of his: "If I can divest this case of
technicalities and swing it to the jury, I'll win it."[10]

But there was not a trace in him of that unscrupulousness
usually attributed to the "jury lawyer." Few things show more
plainly the central unmovableness of his character than his
immunity to the lures of jury speaking. To use his power over
an audience for his own enjoyment, for an interested purpose,
for any purpose except to afford pleasure, or to see justice
done, was for him constitutionally impossible. Such a
performance was beyond the reach of his will. In a way, his
nature, mysterious as it was, was also the last word for
simplicity, a terrible simplicity. The exercise of his
singular powers was irrevocably conditioned on his own faith in
the moral justification of what he was doing. He had no
patience with any conception of the lawyer's function that did
not make him the devoted instrument of justice. For the law as
a game, for legal strategy, he felt contempt. Never under any
conditions would he attempt to get for a client more than he
was convinced the client in justice ought to have. The first
step in securing his services was always to persuade him that
one's cause was just He sometimes threw up a case in open court
because the course of it had revealed deception on the part of
the client. At times he expressed his disdain of the law's
mere commercialism in a stinging irony.

"In a closely contested civil suit," writes his associate, Ward
Hill Lamon, "Lincoln proved an account for his client, who was,
though he did not know it at the time, a very slippery fellow.

Book of the day: