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The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln by Helen Nicolay

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The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln

by Helen Nicolay


Abraham Lincoln's forefathers were pioneers--men who left their
homes to open up the wilderness and make the way plain for others
to follow them. For one hundred and seventy years, ever since the
first American Lincoln came from England to Massachusetts in
1638, they had been moving slowly westward as new settlements
were made in the forest. They faced solitude, privation, and all
the dangers and hardships that beset men who take up their homes
where only beasts and wild men have had homes before; but they
continued to press steadily forward, though they lost fortune and
sometimes even life itself, in their westward progress. Back in
Pennsylvania and New Jersey some of the Lincolns had been men of
wealth and influence. In Kentucky, where the future President was
born on February 12, 1809, his parents lived in deep poverty
Their home was a small log cabin of the rudest kind, and nothing
seemed more unlikely than that their child, coming into the world
in such humble surroundings, was destined to be the greatest man
of his time. True to his race, he also was to be a pioneer--not
indeed, like his ancestors, a leader into new woods and
unexplored fields, but a pioneer of a nobler and grander sort,
directing the thoughts of men ever toward the right, and leading
the American people, through difficulties and dangers and a
mighty war, to peace and freedom.

The story of this wonderful man begins and ends with a tragedy,
for his grandfather, also named Abraham, was killed by a shot
from an Indian's rifle while peaceably at work with his three
sons on the edge of their frontier clearing. Eighty-one years
later the President himself met death by an assassin's bullet.
The murderer of one was a savage of the forest; the murderer of
the other that far more cruel thing, a savage of civilization.

When the Indian's shot laid the pioneer farmer low, his second
son, Josiah, ran to a neighboring fort for help, and Mordecai,
the eldest, hurried to the cabin for his rifle. Thomas, a child
of six years, was left alone beside the dead body of his father;
and as Mordecai snatched the gun from its resting-place over the
door of the cabin, he saw, to his horror, an Indian in his
war-paint, just stooping to seize the child. Taking quick aim at
a medal on the breast of the savage, he fired, and the Indian
fell dead. The little boy, thus released, ran to the house, where
Mordecai, firing through the loopholes, kept the Indians at bay
until help arrived from the fort.

It was this child Thomas who grew up to be the father of
President Abraham Lincoln. After the murder of his father the
fortunes of the little family grew rapidly worse, and doubtless
because of poverty, as well as by reason of the marriage of his
older brothers and sisters, their home was broken up, and Thomas
found himself, long before he was grown, a wandering laboring
boy. He lived for a time with an uncle as his hired servant, and
later he learned the trade of carpenter. He grew to manhood
entirely without education, and when he was twenty-eight years
old could neither read nor write. At that time he married Nancy
Hanks, a good-looking young woman of twenty-three, as poor as
himself, but so much better off as to learning that she was able
to teach her husband to sign his own name. Neither of them had
any money, but living cost little on the frontier in those days,
and they felt that his trade would suffice to earn all that they
should need. Thomas took his bride to a tiny house in
Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where they lived for about a year, and
where a daughter was born to them.

Then they moved to a small farm thirteen miles from
Elizabethtown, which they bought on credit, the country being yet
so new that there were places to be had for mere promises to pay.
Farms obtained on such terms were usually of very poor quality,
and this one of Thomas Lincoln's was no exception to the rule. A
cabin ready to be occupied stood on it, however; and not far
away, hidden in a pretty clump of trees and bushes, was a fine
spring of water, because of which the place was known as Rock
Spring Farm. In the cabin on this farm the future President of
the United States was born on February 12, 1809, and here the
first four years of his life were spent. Then the Lincolns moved
to a much bigger and better farm on Knob Creek, six miles from
Hodgensville, which Thomas Lincoln bought, again on credit,
selling the larger part of it soon afterward to another
purchaser. Here they remained until Abraham was seven years old.

About this early part of his childhood almost nothing is known.
He never talked of these days, even to his most intimate friends.
To the pioneer child a farm offered much that a town lot could
not give him--space; woods to roam in; Knob Creek with its
running water and its deep, quiet pools for a playfellow; berries
to be hunted for in summer and nuts in autumn; while all the year
round birds and small animals pattered across his path to people
the solitude in place of human companions. The boy had few
comrades. He wandered about playing his lonesome little games,
and when these were finished returned to the small and cheerless
cabin. Once, when asked what he remembered about the War of 1812
with Great Britain, he replied: "Only this: I had been fishing
one day and had caught a little fish, which I was taking home. I
met a soldier in the road, and having always been told at home
that we must be good to soldiers, I gave him my fish." It is only
a glimpse into his life, but it shows the solitary, generous
child and the patriotic household.

It was while living on this farm that Abraham and his sister
Sarah first began going to A-B-C schools. Their earliest teacher
was Zachariah Riney, who taught near the Lincoln cabin; the next
was Caleb Hazel, four miles away.

In spite of the tragedy that darkened his childhood, Thomas
Lincoln seems to have been a cheery, indolent, good-natured man.
By means of a little farming and occasional jobs at his trade, he
managed to supply his family with the absolutely necessary food
and shelter, but he never got on in the world. He found it much
easier to gossip with his friends, or to dream about rich new
lands in the West, than to make a thrifty living in the place
where he happened to be. The blood of the pioneer was in his
veins too--the desire to move westward; and hearing glowing
accounts of the new territory of Indiana, he resolved to go and
see it for himself. His skill as a carpenter made this not only
possible but reasonably cheap, and in the fall of 1816 he built
himself a little flatboat, launched it half a mile from his
cabin, at the mouth of Knob Creek on the waters of the Rolling
Fork, and floated on it down that stream to Salt River, down Salt
River to the Ohio, and down the Ohio to a landing called
Thompson's Ferry on the Indiana shore.

Sixteen miles out from the river, near a small stream known as
Pigeon Creek, he found a spot in the forest that suited him; and
as his boat could not be made to float up-stream, he sold it,
stored his goods with an obliging settler, and trudged back to
Kentucky, all the way on foot, to fetch his wife and children--
Sarah, who was now nine years old, and Abraham, seven. This time
the journey to Indiana was made with two horses, used by the
mother and children for riding, and to carry their little camping
outfit for the night. The distance from their old home was, in a
straight line, little more than fifty miles, but they had to go
double that distance because of the very few roads it was
possible to follow.

Reaching the Ohio River and crossing to the Indiana shore, Thomas
Lincoln hired a wagon which carried his family and their
belongings the remaining sixteen miles through the forest to the
spot he had chosen--a piece of heavily wooded land, one and a
half miles east of what has since become the village of
Gentryville in Spencer County. The lateness of the autumn made it
necessary to put up a shelter as quickly as possible, and he
built what was known on the frontier as a half-faced camp, about
fourteen feet square. This differed from a cabin in that it was
closed on only three sides, being quite open to the weather on
the fourth. A fire was usually made in front of the open side,
and thus the necessity for having a chimney was done away with.
Thomas Lincoln doubtless intended this only for a temporary
shelter, and as such it would have done well enough in pleasant
summer weather; but it was a rude provision against the storms
and winds of an Indiana winter. It shows his want of energy that
the family remained housed in this poor camp for nearly a whole
year; but, after all, he must not be too hastily blamed. He was
far from idle. A cabin was doubtless begun, and there was the
very heavy work of clearing away the timber--cutting down large
trees, chopping them into suitable lengths, and rolling them
together into great heaps to be burned, or of splitting them into
rails to fence the small field upon which he managed to raise a
patch of corn and other things during the following summer.

Though only seven years old, Abraham was unusually large and
strong for his age, and he helped his father in all this heavy
labor of clearing the farm. In after years, Mr. Lincoln said that
an ax "was put into his hands at once, and from that till within
his twenty-third year he was almost constantly handling that most
useful instrument--less, of course, in ploughing and harvesting
seasons." At first the Lincolns and their seven or eight
neighbors lived in the unbroken forest. They had only the tools
and household goods they brought with them, or such things as
they could fashion with their own hands. There was no sawmill to
saw lumber. The village of Gentryville was not even begun.
Breadstuff could be had only by sending young Abraham seven miles
on horseback with a bag of corn to be ground in a hand

About the time the new cabin was ready relatives and friends
followed from Kentucky, and some of these in turn occupied the
half-faced camp. During the autumn a severe and mysterious
sickness broke out in their little settlement, and a number of
people died, among them the mother of young Abraham. There was no
help to be had beyond what the neighbors could give each other.
The nearest doctor lived fully thirty miles away. There was not
even a minister to conduct the funerals. Thomas Lincoln made the
coffins for the dead out of green lumber cut from the forest
trees with a whip-saw, and they were laid to rest in a clearing
in the woods. Months afterward, largely through the efforts of
the sorrowing boy, a preacher who chanced to come that way was
induced to hold a service and preach a sermon over the grave of
Mrs. Lincoln.

Her death was indeed a serious blow to her husband and children.
Abraham's sister, Sarah, was only eleven years old, and the tasks
and cares of the little household were altogether too heavy for
her years and experience. Nevertheless they struggled bravely
through the winter and following summer; then in the autumn of
1819 Thomas Lincoln went back to Kentucky and married Sarah Bush
Johnston, whom he had known, and it is said courted, when she was
only Sally Bush. She had married about the time Lincoln married
Nancy Hanks, and her husband had died, leaving her with three
children. She came of a better station in life than Thomas, and
was a woman with an excellent mind as well as a warm and generous
heart. The household goods that she brought with her to the
Lincoln home filled a four-horse wagon, and not only were her own
children well clothed and cared for, but she was able at once to
provide little Abraham and Sarah with comforts to which they had
been strangers during the whole of their young lives. Under her
wise management all jealousy was avoided between the two sets of
children; urged on by her stirring example, Thomas Lincoln
supplied the yet unfinished cabin with floor, door, and windows,
and life became more comfortable for all its inmates, contentment
if not happiness reigning in the little home.

The new stepmother quickly became very fond of Abraham, and
encouraged him in every way in her power to study and improve
himself. The chances for this were few enough. Mr. Lincoln has
left us a vivid picture of the situation. "It was," he once
wrote, "a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals
still in the woods. There I grew up. There were some schools,
so-called, but no qualification was ever required of a teacher
beyond "readin', writin', and cipherin'" to the Rule of Three. If
a straggler supposed to understand Latin happened to sojourn in
the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard."

The school-house was a low cabin of round logs, with split logs
or "puncheons" for a floor, split logs roughly leveled with an ax
and set up on legs for benches, and holes cut out in the logs and
the space filled in with squares of greased paper for
window-panes. The main light came in through the open door. Very
often Webster's "Elementary Spelling-book" was the only
text-book. This was the kind of school most common in the middle
West during Mr. Lincoln's boyhood, though already in some places
there were schools of a more pretentious character. Indeed, back
in Kentucky, at the very time that Abraham, a child of six, was
learning his letters from Zachariah Riney, a boy only a year
older was attending a Catholic seminary in the very next county.
It is doubtful if they ever met, but the destinies of the two
were strangely interwoven, for the older boy was Jefferson Davis,
who became head of the Confederate government shortly after
Lincoln was elected President of the United States.

As Abraham had been only seven years old when he left Kentucky,
the little beginnings he learned in the schools kept by Riney and
Hazel in that State must have been very slight, probably only his
alphabet, or at most only three or four pages of Webster's
"Elementary Spelling-book." The multiplication-table was still a
mystery to him, and he could read or write only the words he
spelled. His first two years in Indiana seem to have passed
without schooling of any sort, and the school he attended shortly
after coming under the care of his stepmother was of the simplest
kind, for the Pigeon Creek settlement numbered only eight or ten
poor families, and they lived deep in the forest, where, even if
they had had the money for such luxuries, it would have been
impossible to buy books, slates, pens, ink, or paper. It is
worthy of note, however, that in our western country, even under
such difficulties, a school-house was one of the first buildings
to rise in every frontier settlement. Abraham's second school in
Indiana was held when he was fourteen years old, and the third in
his seventeenth year. By that time he had more books and better
teachers, but he had to walk four or five miles to reach them. We
know that he learned to write, and was provided with pen, ink,
and a copy-book, and a very small supply of writing-paper, for
copies have been printed of several scraps on which he carefully
wrote down tables of long measure, land measure, and dry measure,
as well as examples in multiplication and compound division, from
his arithmetic. He was never able to go to school again after
this time, and though the instruction he received from his five
teachers--two in Kentucky and three in Indiana--extended over a
period of nine years, it must be remembered that it made up in
all less than one twelve-month; "that the aggregate of all his
schooling did not amount to one year." The fact that he received
this instruction, as he himself said, "by littles," was doubtless
an advantage. A lazy or indifferent boy would of course have
forgotten what was taught him at one time before he had
opportunity at another; but Abraham was neither indifferent nor
lazy, and these widely separated fragments of instruction were
precious steps to self-help. He pursued his studies with very
unusual purpose and determination not only to understand them at
the moment, but to fix them firmly in his mind. His early
companions all agree that he employed every spare moment in
keeping on with some one of his studies. His stepmother tells us
that "When he came across a passage that struck him, he would
write it down on boards if he had no paper, and keep it there
until he did get paper. Then he would rewrite it, look at it,
repeat it. He had a copy-book, a kind of scrap-book, in which he
put down all things, and thus preserved them." He spent long
evenings doing sums on the fire-shovel. Iron fire-shovels were a
rarity among pioneers. Instead they used a broad, thin clapboard
with one end narrowed to a handle, arranging with this the piles
of coals upon the hearth, over which they set their "skillet" and
"oven" to do their cooking. It was on such a wooden shovel that
Abraham worked his sums by the flickering firelight, making his
figures with a piece of charcoal, and, when the shovel was all
covered, taking a drawing-knife and shaving it off clean again.

The hours that he was able to devote to his penmanship, his
reading, and his arithmetic were by no means many; for, save for
the short time that he was actually in school, he was, during all
these years, laboring hard on his father's farm, or hiring his
youthful strength to neighbors who had need of help in the work
of field or forest. In pursuit of his knowledge he was on an
up-hill path; yet in spite of all obstacles he worked his way to
so much of an education as placed him far ahead of his
schoolmates and quickly abreast of his various teachers. He
borrowed every book in the neighborhood. The list is a short one:
"Robinson Crusoe," "Aesop's Fables," Bunyan's "Pilgrim's
Progress," Weems's "Life of Washington," and a "History of the
United States." When everything else had been read, he resolutely
began on the "Revised Statutes of Indiana," which Dave Turnham,
the constable, had in daily use, but permitted him to come to his
house and read.

Though so fond of his books; it must not be supposed that he
cared only for work and serious study. He was a social,
sunny-tempered lad, as fond of jokes and fun as he was kindly and
industrious. His stepmother said of him: "I can say, what
scarcely one mother in a thousand can say, Abe never gave me a
cross word or look, and never refused . . . to do anything I
asked him. . . . I must say . . that Abe was the best boy I ever
saw or expect to see."

He and John Johnston, his stepmother's son, and John Hanks, a
relative of his own mother's, worked barefoot together in the
fields, grubbing, plowing, hoeing, gathering and shucking corn,
and taking part, when occasion offered, in the practical jokes
and athletic exercises that enlivened the hard work of the
pioneers. For both work and play Abraham had one great advantage.
He was not only a tall, strong country boy: he soon grew to be a
tall, strong, sinewy man. He early reached the unusual height of
six feet four inches, and his long arms gave him a degree of
power as an axman that few were able to rival. He therefore
usually led his fellows in efforts of muscle as well as of mind.
That he could outrun, outlift, outwrestle his boyish companions,
that he could chop faster, split more rails in a day, carry a
heavier log at a "raising," or excel the neighborhood champion in
any feat of frontier athletics, was doubtless a matter of pride
with him; but stronger than all else was his eager craving for
knowledge. He felt instinctively that the power of using the mind
rather than the muscles was the key to success. He wished not
only to wrestle with the best of them, but to be able to talk
like the preacher, spell and cipher like the school-master, argue
like the lawyer, and write like the editor. Yet he was as far as
possible from being a prig. He was helpful, sympathetic,
cheerful. In all the neighborhood gatherings, when settlers of
various ages came together at corn-huskings or house-raisings, or
when mere chance brought half a dozen of them at the same time to
the post-office or the country store, he was able, according to
his years, to add his full share to the gaiety of the company. By
reason of his reading and his excellent memory, he soon became
the best story-teller among his companions; and even the slight
training gained from his studies greatly broadened and
strengthened the strong reasoning faculty with which he had been
gifted by nature. His wit might be mischievous, but it was never
malicious, and his nonsense was never intended to wound or to
hurt the feelings. It is told of him that he added to his fund of
jokes and stories humorous imitations of the sermons of eccentric

Very likely too much is made of all these boyish pranks. He grew
up very like his fellows. In only one particular did he differ
greatly from the frontier boys around him. He never took any
pleasure in hunting. Almost every youth of the backwoods early
became an excellent shot and a confirmed sportsman. The woods
still swarmed with game, and every cabin depended largely upon
this for its supply of food. But to his strength was added a
gentleness which made him shrink from killing or inflicting pain,
and the time the other boys gave to lying in ambush, he preferred
to spend in reading or in efforts at improving his mind.

Only twice during his life in Indiana was the routine of his
employment changed. When he was about sixteen years old he worked
for a time for a man who lived at the mouth of Anderson's Creek,
and here part of his duty was to manage a ferry-boat which
carried passengers across the Ohio River. It was very likely this
experience which, three years later, brought him another. Mr.
Gentry, the chief man of the village of Gentryville that had
grown up a mile or so from his father's cabin, loaded a flatboat
on the Ohio River with the produce his store had collected--corn,
flour, pork, bacon, and other miscellaneous provisions--and
putting it in charge of his son Allen Gentry and of Abraham
Lincoln, sent them with it down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers,
to sell its cargo at the plantations of the lower Mississippi,
where sugar and cotton were the principal crops, and where other
food supplies were needed to feed the slaves. No better proof is
needed of the reputation for strength, skill, honesty, and
intelligence that this tall country boy had already won for
himself, than that he was chosen to navigate the flatboat a
thousand miles to the "sugar-coast" of the Mississippi River,
sell its load, and bring back the money. Allen Gentry was
supposed to be in command, but from the record of his after life
we may be sure that Abraham did his full share both of work and
management. The elder Gentry paid Lincoln eight dollars a month
and his passage home on a steamboat for this service. The voyage
was made successfully, although not without adventure; for one
night, after the boat was tied up to the shore, the boys were
attacked by seven negroes, who came aboard intending to kill and
rob them. There was a lively scrimmage, in which, though slightly
hurt, they managed to beat off their assailants, and then,
hastily cutting their boat adrift, swung out on the stream. The
marauding band little dreamed that they were attacking the man
who in after years was to give their race its freedom; and though
the future was equally hidden from Abraham, it is hard to
estimate the vistas of hope and ambition that this long journey
opened to him. It was his first look into the wide, wide world.


By this time the Lincoln homestead was no longer on the frontier.
During the years that passed while Abraham was growing from a
child, scarcely able to wield the ax placed in his hands, into a
tall, capable youth, the line of frontier settlements had been
gradually but steadily pushing on beyond Gentryville toward the
Mississippi River. Every summer canvas-covered moving wagons
wound their slow way over new roads into still newer country;
while the older settlers, left behind, watched their progress
with longing eyes. It was almost as if a spell had been cast over
these toil-worn pioneers, making them forget, at sight of such
new ventures, all the hardships they had themselves endured in
subduing the wilderness. At last, on March 1, 1830, when Abraham
was just twenty-one years old, the Lincolns, yielding to this
overmastering frontier impulse to "move" westward, left the old
farm in Indiana to make a new home in Illinois. "Their mode of
conveyance was wagons drawn by ox-teams," Mr. Lincoln wrote in
1860; "and Abraham drove one of the teams." They settled in Macon
County on the north side of the Sangamon River, about ten miles
west of Decatur, where they built a cabin, made enough rails to
fence ten acres of ground, fenced and cultivated the ground, and
raised a crop of corn upon it that first season. It was the same
heavy labor over again that they had endured when they went from
Kentucky to Indiana; but this time the strength and energy of
young Abraham were at hand to inspire and aid his father, and
there was no miserable shivering year of waiting in a half-faced
camp before the family could be suitably housed. They were not to
escape hardship, however. They fell victims to fever and ague,
which they had not known in Indiana, and became greatly
discouraged; and the winter after their arrival proved one of
intense cold and suffering for the pioneers, being known in the
history of the State as "the winter of the deep snow." The severe
weather began in the Christmas holidays with a storm of such
fatal suddenness that people who were out of doors had difficulty
in reaching their homes, and not a few perished, their fate
remaining unknown until the melting snows of early spring showed
where they had fallen.

In March, 1831, at the end of this terrible winter, Abraham
Lincoln left his father's cabin to seek his own fortune in the
world. It was the frontier custom for young men to do this when
they reached the age of twenty-one. Abraham was now twenty-two,
but had willingly remained with his people an extra year to give
them the benefit of his labor and strength in making the new

He had become acquainted with a man named Offut, a trader and
speculator, who pretended to great business shrewdness, but whose
chief talent lay in boasting of the magnificent things he meant
to do. Offut engaged Abraham, with his stepmother's son, John D.
Johnston, and John Hanks, to take a flatboat from Beardstown, on
the Illinois River, to New Orleans; and all four arranged to meet
at Springfield as soon as the snow should melt.

In March, when the snow finally melted, the country was flooded
and traveling by land was utterly out of the question. The boys,
therefore, bought a large canoe, and in it floated down the
Sangamon River to keep their appointment with Offut. It was in
this somewhat unusual way that Lincoln made his first entry into
the town whose name was afterward to be linked with his own.

Offut was waiting for them, with the discouraging news that he
had been unable to get a flatboat at Beardstown. The young men
promptly offered to make the flatboat, since one was not to be
bought; and they set to work, felling the trees for it on the
banks of the stream. Abraham's father had been a carpenter, so
the use of tools was no mystery to him; and during his trip to
New Orleans with Allen Gentry he had learned enough about
flatboats to give him confidence in this task of shipbuilding.
Neither Johnston nor Hanks was gifted with skill or industry, and
it is clear that Lincoln was, from the start, leader of the
party, master of construction, and captain of the craft.

The floods went down rapidly while the boat was building, and
when they tried to sail their new craft it stuck midway across
the dam of Rutledge's mill at New Salem, a village of fifteen or
twenty houses not many miles from their starting-point. With its
bow high in air, and its stern under water, it looked like some
ungainly fish trying to fly, or some bird making an unsuccessful
attempt to swim. The voyagers appeared to have suffered
irreparable shipwreck at the very outset of their venture, and
men and women came down from their houses to offer advice or to
make fun of the young boatmen as they waded about in the water,
with trousers rolled very high, seeking a way out of their
difficulty. Lincoln's self-control and good humor proved equal to
their banter, while his engineering skill speedily won their
admiration. The amusement of the onlookers changed to gaping
wonder when they saw him deliberately bore a hole in the bottom
of the boat near the bow, after which, fixing up some kind of
derrick, he tipped the boat so that the water she had taken in at
the stern ran out in front, and she floated safely over the dam.
This novel method of bailing a boat by boring a hole in her
bottom fully established his fame at New Salem, and so delighted
the enthusiastic Offut that, on the spot, he engaged its inventor
to come back after the voyage to New Orleans and act as clerk for
him in a store.

The hole plugged up again, and the boat's cargo reloaded, they
made the remainder of the journey in safety. Lincoln returned by
steamer from New Orleans to St. Louis, and from there made his
way to New Salem on foot. He expected to find Offut already
established in the new store, but neither he nor his goods had
arrived. While "loafing about," as the citizens of New Salem
expressed it, waiting for him, the newcomer had a chance to
exhibit another of his accomplishments. An election was to be
held, but one of the clerks, being taken suddenly ill, could not
be present. Penmen were not plenty in the little town, and Mentor
Graham, the other election clerk, looking around in perplexity
for some one to fill the vacant place, asked young Lincoln if he
knew how to write. Lincoln answered, in the lazy speech of the
country, that he "could make a few rabbit tracks," and that being
deemed quite sufficient, was immediately sworn in, and set about
discharging the duties of his first office. The way he performed
these not only gave general satisfaction, but greatly interested
Mentor Graham, who was the village schoolmaster, and from that
time on proved a most helpful friend to him.

Offut finally arrived with a miscellaneous lot of goods, which
Lincoln opened and put in order, and the storekeeping began.
Trade does not seem to have been brisk, for Offut soon increased
his venture by renting the Rutledge and Cameron mill, on whose
historic dam the flatboat had come to grief. For a while the care
of this mill was added to Lincoln's other duties. He made himself
generally useful besides, his old implement, the ax, not being
entirely discarded. We are told that he cut down trees and split
rails enough to make a large hogpen adjoining the mill, a
performance not at all surprising when it is remembered that up
to this time the greater part of his life had been spent in the
open air, and that his still growing muscles must have eagerly
welcomed tasks like this, which gave him once more the exercise
that measuring calico and weighing out groceries failed to
supply. Young Lincoln's bodily vigor stood him in good stead in
many ways. In frontier life strength and athletic skill served as
well for popular amusement as for prosaic toil, and at times,
indeed, they were needed for personal defence. Every community
had its champion wrestler, a man of considerable local
importance, in whose success the neighbors took a becoming
interest. There was, not far from New Salem, a settlement called
Clary's Grove, where lived a set of restless, rollicking young
backwoodsmen with a strong liking for frontier athletics and
rough practical jokes. Jack Armstrong was the leader of these,
and until Lincoln's arrival had been the champion wrestler of
both Clary's Grove and New Salem. He and his friends had not the
slightest personal grudge against Lincoln; but hearing the
neighborhood talk about the newcomer, and especially Offut's
extravagant praise of his clerk, who, according to Offut's
statement, knew more than any one else in the United States, and
could beat the whole county at running, jumping or "wrastling,"
they decided that the time had come to assert themselves, and
strove to bring about a trial of strength between Armstrong and
Lincoln. Lincoln, who disapproved of all this "woolling and
pulling," as he called it, and had no desire to come to blows
with his neighbors, put off the encounter as long as possible. At
length even his good temper was powerless to avert it, and the
wrestling-match took place. Jack Armstrong soon found that he had
tackled a man as strong and skilful as himself; and his friends,
seeing him likely to get the worst of it, swarmed to his
assistance, almost succeeding, by tripping and kicking, in
getting Lincoln down. At the unfairness of this Lincoln became
suddenly and furiously angry, put forth his entire strength,
lifted the pride of Clary's Grove in his arms like a child, and
holding him high in the air, almost choked the life out of him.
It seemed for a moment as though a general fight must follow; but
even while Lincoln's fierce rage compelled their respect, his
quickly returning self-control won their admiration, and the
crisis was safely passed. Instead of becoming enemies and leaders
in a neighborhood feud, as might have been expected, the two grew
to be warm friends, the affection thus strangely begun lasting
through life. They proved useful to each other in various ways,
and years afterward Lincoln made ample amends for his rough
treatment of the other's throat by saving the neck of Jack
Armstrong's son from the halter in a memorable trial for murder.
The Clary's Grove "boys" voted Lincoln "the cleverest fellow that
had ever broke into the settlement," and thereafter took as much
pride in his peaceableness and book-learning as they did in the
rougher and more questionable accomplishments of their
discomfited leader.

Lincoln himself was not so easily satisfied. His mind as well as
his muscles hungered for work, and he confided to Mentor Graham,
possibly with some diffidence, his "notion to study English
grammar." Instead of laughing at him, Graham heartily encouraged
the idea, saying it was the very best thing he could do. With
quickened zeal Lincoln announced that if he had a grammar he
would begin at once at this the schoolmaster was obliged to
confess that he knew of no such book in New Salem. He thought,
however, that there might be one at Vaner's, six miles away.
Promptly after breakfast the next morning Lincoln set out in
search of it. He brought the precious volume home in triumph, and
with Graham's occasional help found no difficulty in mastering
its contents. Indeed, it is very likely that he was astonished,
and even a bit disappointed, to find so little mystery in it. He
is reported to have said that if this was a "science," he thought
he would like to begin on another one. In the eyes of the
townspeople, however, it was no small achievement, and added
greatly to his reputation as a scholar. There is no record of any
other study commenced at this time, but it is certain that he
profited much by helpful talks with Mentor Graham, and that he
borrowed every book the schoolmaster's scanty library was able to

Though outwardly uneventful, this period of his life was both
happy and profitable. He was busy at useful labor, was picking up
scraps of schooling, was making friends and learning to prize
them at their true worth; was, in short, developing rapidly from
a youth into a young man. Already he began to feel stirrings of
ambition which prompted him to look beyond his own daily needs
toward the larger interests of his county and his State. An
election for members of the Illinois legislature was to take
place in August, 1832. Sangamon County was entitled to four
representatives. Residents of the county over twenty-one years of
age were eligible to election, and audacious as it might appear,
Lincoln determined to be a candidate.

The people of New Salem, like those of all other Western towns,
took a keen interest in politics; "politics" meaning, in that
time and place, not only who was to be President or governor, but
concerning itself with questions which came much closer home to
dwellers on the frontier. "Internal improvements," as they were
called--the building of roads and clearing out of streams so that
men and women who lived in remote places might be able to travel
back and forth and carry on trade with the rest of the world--
became a burning question in Illinois. There was great need of
such improvements; and in this need young Lincoln saw his

It was by way of the Sangamon River that he entered politics.
That uncertain watercourse had already twice befriended him. He
had floated on it in flood-time from his father's cabin into
Springfield. A few weeks later its rapidly falling waters landed
him on the dam at Rutledge's mill, introducing him effectively if
unceremoniously to the inhabitants of New Salem. Now it was again
to play a part in his life, starting him on a political career
that ended only in the White House. Surely no insignificant
stream has had a greater influence on the history of a famous
man. It was a winding and sluggish creek, encumbered with
driftwood and choked by sand-bars; but it flowed through a
country already filled with ambitious settlers, where the roads
were atrociously bad, becoming in rainy seasons wide seas of
pasty black mud, and remaining almost impassable for weeks at a
time. After a devious course the Sangamon found its way into the
Illinois River, and that in turn flowed into the Mississippi.
Most of the settlers were too new to the region to know what a
shallow, unprofitable stream the Sangamon really was, for the
deep snows of 183031 and of the following winter had supplied it
with an unusual volume of water. It was natural, therefore, that
they should regard it as the heaven-sent solution of their
problem of travel and traffic with the outside world. If it could
only be freed from driftwood, and its channel straightened a
little, they felt sure it might be used for small steamboats
during a large part of the year.

The candidates for the legislature that summer staked their
chances of success on the zeal they showed for "internal
improvements." Lincoln was only twenty-three. He had been in the
county barely nine months. Sangamon County was then considerably
larger than the whole State of Rhode Island, and he was of course
familiar with only a small part of it or its people; but he felt
that he did know the river. He had sailed on it and been
shipwrecked by it; he had, moreover, been one of a party of men
and boys, armed with long-handled axes, who went out to chop away
obstructions and meet a small steamer that, a few weeks earlier,
had actually forced its way up from the Illinois River.

Following the usual custom, he announced his candidacy in the
local newspaper in a letter dated March 9, addressed "To the
People of Sangamon County." It was a straightforward, manly
statement of his views on questions of the day, written in as
good English as that used by the average college-bred man of his
years. The larger part of it was devoted to arguments for the
improvement of the Sangamon River. Its main interest for us lies
in the frank avowal of his personal ambition that is contained in
the closing paragraph.

"Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition," he wrote.
"Whether it be true or not, I can say, for one, that I have no
other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellowmen by
rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed
in gratifying this ambition is yet to be developed. I am young,
and unknown to many of you. I was born, and have ever remained,
in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular
relations or friends to recommend me. My case is thrown
exclusively upon the independent voters of the county; and if
elected, they will have conferred a favor upon me for which I
shall be unremitting in my labors to compensate. But if the good
people in their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the
background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be
very much chagrined."

He soon had an opportunity of being useful to his fellow-men,
though in a way very different from the one he was seeking. About
four weeks after he had published his letter "To the People of
Sangamon County," news came that Black Hawk, the veteran
war-chief of the Sac Indians, was heading an expedition to cross
the Mississippi River and occupy once more the lands that had
been the home of his people. There was great excitement among the
settlers in Northern Illinois, and the governor called for six
hundred volunteers to take part in a campaign against the
Indians. He met a quick response; and Lincoln, unmindful of what
might become of his campaign for the legislature if he went away,
was among the first to enlist. When his company met on the
village green to choose their officers, three-quarters of the
men, to Lincoln's intense surprise and pleasure, marched over to
the spot where he was standing and grouped themselves around him,
signifying in this way their wish to make him captain. We have
his own word for it that no success of his after life gave him
nearly as much satisfaction. On April 21, two days after the call
for volunteers had been printed, the company was organized. A
week later it was mustered into service, becoming part of the
Fourth Illinois Mounted Volunteers, and started at once for the
hostile frontier.

Lincoln's soldiering lasted about three months. He was in no
battle, but there was plenty of "roughing it," and occasionally
real hardship, as when the men were obliged to go for three days
without food. The volunteers had not enlisted for any definite
length of time, and seeing no prospect of fighting, they soon
became clamorous to return home. Accordingly his and other
companies were mustered out of service on May 27, at the mouth of
Fox River. At the same time the governor, not wishing to weaken
his forces before the arrival of other soldiers to take their
places, called for volunteers to remain twenty days longer.
Lincoln had gone to the frontier to do real service, not for the
glory of being captain. Accordingly, on the day on which he was
mustered out as an officer he re-enlisted, becoming Private
Lincoln in Captain Iles's company of mounted volunteers,
sometimes known as the Independent Spy Battalion. This
organization appears to have been very independent indeed, not
under the control of any regiment or brigade, but receiving
orders directly from the commander-in-chief, and having many
unusual privileges, such as freedom from all camp duties, and
permission to draw rations as much and as often as they pleased.
After laying down his official dignity and joining this band of
privileged warriors, the campaign became much more of a holiday
for the tall volunteer from New Salem. He entered with enthusiasm
into all the games and athletic sports with which the soldiers
beguiled the tedium of camp, and grew in popularity from
beginning to end of his service. When, at length, the Independent
Spy Battalion was mustered out on June 16, 1832, he started on
the journey home with a merry group of his companions. He and his
messmate, George M. Harrison, had the misfortune to have their
horses stolen the very day before, but Harrison's record says:

"I laughed at our fate, and he joked at it, and we all started of
merrily. The generous men of our company walked and rode by turns
with us, and we fared about equal with the rest. But for this
generosity, our legs would have had to do the better work, for in
that day this dreary route furnished no horses to buy or to
steal, and whether on horse or afoot, we always had company, for
many of the horses' backs were too sore for riding."

Lincoln reached New Salem about the first of August, only ten
days before the election. He had lost nothing in popular esteem
by his prompt enlistment to defend the frontier, and his friends
had been doing manful service for him; but there were by this
time thirteen candidates in the field, with a consequent division
of interest. When the votes were counted, Lincoln was found to be
eighth on the list--an excellent showing when we remember that he
was a newcomer in the county, and that he ran as a Whig, which
was the unpopular party. In his own home town of New Salem only
three votes had been cast against him. Flattering as all this
was, the fact remained that he was defeated, and the result of
the election brought him face to face with a very serious
question. He was without means and without employment. Offut had
failed and had gone away. What was he to do next? He thought of
putting his strong muscles to account by learning the blacksmith
trade; thought also of trying to become a lawyer, but feared he
could not succeed at that without a better education. It was the
same problem that has confronted millions of young Americans
before and since. In his case there was no question which he
would rather be--the only question was what success he might
reasonably hope for if he tried to study law.

Before his mind was fully made up, chance served to postpone, and
in the end greatly to increase his difficulty. Offut's successors
in business, two brothers named Herndon, had become discouraged,
and they offered to sell out to Lincoln and an acquaintance of
his named William F. Berry, on credit, taking their promissory
notes in payment. Lincoln and Berry could not foresee that the
town of New Salem had already lived through its best days, and
was destined to dwindle and grow smaller until it almost
disappeared from the face of the earth. Unduly hopeful, they
accepted the offer, and also bought out, on credit, two other
merchants who were anxious to sell. It is clear that the
flattering vote Lincoln had received at the recent election, and
the confidence New Salem felt in his personal character, alone
made these transactions possible, since not a dollar of actual
money changed hands during all this shifting of ownership. In the
long run the people's faith in him was fully justified; but
meantime he suffered years of worry and harassing debt. Berry
proved a worthless partner; the business a sorry failure. Seeing
this, Lincoln and Berry sold out, again on credit, to the Trent
brothers, who soon broke up the store and ran away. Berry also
departed and died; and in the end all the notes came back upon
Lincoln for payment. Of course he had not the money to meet these
obligations. He did the next best thing: he promised to pay as
soon as he could, and remaining where he was, worked hard at
whatever he found to do. Most of his creditors, knowing him to be
a man of his word, patiently bided their time, until, in the
course of long years, he paid, with interest, every cent of what
he used to call, in rueful satire upon his own folly, his
"National Debt."


Unlucky as Lincoln's attempt at storekeeping had been, it served
one good purpose. Indeed, in a way it may be said to have
determined his whole future career. He had had a hard struggle to
decide between becoming a blacksmith or a lawyer; and when chance
seemed to offer a middle course, and he tried to be a merchant,
the wish to study law had certainly not faded from his mind.

There is a story that while cleaning up the store, he came upon a
barrel which contained, among a lot of forgotten rubbish, some
stray volumes of Blackstone's "Commentaries," and that this lucky
find still further quickened his interest in the law. Whether
this tale be true or not it seems certain that during the time
the store was running its downward course from bad to worse, he
devoted a large part of his too abundant leisure to reading and
study of various kinds. People who knew him then have told how he
would lie for hours under a great oak-tree that grew just outside
the store door, poring over his book, and "grinding around with
the shade" as it shifted from north to east.

Lincoln's habit of reading was still further encouraged by his
being appointed postmaster of New Salem on May 7, 1833, an office
he held for about three years--until New Salem grew too small to
have a post-office of its own, and the mail was sent to a
neighboring town. The office was so insignificant that according
to popular fable it had no fixed abiding-place, Lincoln being
supposed to carry it about with him in his hat! It was, however,
large enough to bring him a certain amount of consideration, and,
what pleased him still better, plenty of newspapers to read--
newspapers that just then were full of the exciting debates of
Clay and Webster, and other great men in Congress.

The rate of postage on letters was still twenty-five cents, and
small as the earnings of the office undoubtedly were, a little
change found its way now and then into his hands. In the scarcity
of money on the frontier, this had an importance hard for us to
realize. A portion of this money, of course, belonged to the
government. That he used only what was rightfully his own we
could be very sure, even if a sequel to this post office
experience were not known which shows his scrupulous honesty
where government funds were concerned. Years later, after he had
become a practising lawyer in Springfield, an agent of the
Post-office Department called upon him in his office one day to
collect a balance due from the New Salem post-office, amounting
to about seventeen dollars. A shade of perplexity passed over his
face, and a friend, sitting by, offered to lend him the money if
he did not at the moment have it with him. Without answering,
Lincoln rose, and going to a little trunk that stood by the wall,
opened it and took out the exact sum, carefully done up in a
small package. "I never use any man's money but my own, he
quietly remarked, after the agent had gone.

Soon after he was raised to the dignity of postmaster another
piece of good fortune came in his way. Sangamon County covered a
territory some forty miles long by fifty wide, and almost every
citizen in it seemed intent on buying or selling land, laying out
new roads, or locating some future city. John Calhoun, the county
surveyor, therefore, found himself with far more work than he
could personally attend to, and had to appoint deputies to assist
him. Learning the high esteem in which Lincoln was held by the
people of New Salem, he wisely concluded to make him a deputy,
although they differed in politics. It was a flattering offer,
and Lincoln accepted gladly. Of course he knew almost nothing
about surveying, but he got a compass and chain, and, as he tells
us, "studied Flint and Gibson a little, and went at it." The
surveyor, who was a man of talent and education, not only gave
Lincoln the appointment, but, it is said, lent him the book in
which to study the art. Lincoln carried the book to his friend
Mentor Graham, and "went at it" to such purpose that in six weeks
he was ready to begin the practice of his new profession. Like
Washington, who, it will be remembered, followed the same calling
in his youth, he became an excellent surveyor.

Lincoln's store had by this time "winked out," to use his own
quaint phrase; and although the surveying and his post-office
supplied his daily needs, they left absolutely nothing toward
paying his "National Debt." Some of his creditors began to get
uneasy, and in the latter part of 1834 a man named Van Bergen,
who held one of the Lincoln-Berry notes, refusing to trust him
any longer, had his horse, saddle, and surveying instruments
seized by the sheriff and sold at public auction, thus sweeping
away the means by which, as he said, he "procured bread and kept
soul and body together." Even in this strait his known honesty
proved his salvation. Out of pure friendliness, James Short
bought in the property and gave it back to the young surveyor,
allowing him time to repay.

It took Lincoln seventeen years to get rid of his troublesome
"National Debt," the last instalment not being paid until after
his return from his term of service in Congress at Washington;
but it was these seventeen years of industry, rigid economy, and
unflinching fidelity to his promises that earned for him the
title of "Honest Old Abe," which proved of such inestimable value
to himself and his country.

During all this time of trial and disappointment he never lost
his courage, his steady, persevering industry, or his
determination to succeed. He was not too proud to accept any
honest employment that offered itself. He would go into the
harvest-field and work there when other tasks were not pressing,
or use his clerkly hand to straighten up a neglected ledger; and
his lively humor, as well as his industry, made him a welcome
guest at any farm-house in the county. Whatever he might be
doing, he was never too busy to help a neighbor. His strong arm
was always at the service of the poor and needy.

Two years after his defeat for the legislature there was another
election. His friends and acquaintanceS in the county had
increased, and, since he had received such a flattering vote the
first time, it was but natural that he should wish to try again.
He began his campaign in April, giving himself full three months
for electioneering. It was customary in those days for candidates
to attend all manner of neighborhood gatherings--"raisings" of
new cabins, horseraces, shooting-matches, auctions--anything that
served to call the settlers together; and it was social
popularity, quite as much as ability to discuss political
questions, that carried weight with such assemblies. Lincoln, it
is needless to say, was in his element. He might be called upon
to act as judge in a horse-race, or to make a speech upon the
Constitution! He could do both. As a laughing peacemaker between
two quarrelsome patriots he had no equal; and as contestant in an
impromptu match at quoit-throwing, or lifting heavy weights, his
native tact and strong arm served him equally well. Candidates
also visited farms and outlying settlements, where they were
sometimes unexpectedly called upon to show their mettle and
muscle in more useful labor. One farmer has recorded how Lincoln
"came to my house near Island Grove during harvest. There were
some thirty men in the field. He got his dinner, and went out in
the field where the men were at work. I gave him an introduction,
and the boys said that they could not vote for a man unless he
could make a hand. 'Well, boys,' said he, "if that is all, I am
sure of your votes.' He took hold of the cradle and led the way
all the round with perfect ease. The boys were satisfied, and I
don't think he lost a vote in the crowd."

Sometimes two or more candidates would meet at such places, and
short speeches would be called for and given, the harvesters
throwing down their scythes meanwhile to listen, and enlivening
the occasion with keen criticisms of the method and logic of the
rival orators. Altogether the campaign was more spirited than
that of two years before. Again there were thirteen candidates
for the four places; but this time, when the election was over,
it was found that only one man in the long list had received more
votes than Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln's election to the legislature of Illinois in August,
1834, marks the end of the pioneer period of his life. He was
done now with the wild carelessness of the woods, with the rough
jollity of Clary's Grove, with odd jobs for his daily bread--with
all the details of frontier poverty. He continued for years to be
a very poor man, harassed by debts he was constantly laboring to
pay, and sometimes absolutely without money: but from this time
on he met and worked with men of wider knowledge and
better-trained minds than those he had known in Gentryville and
New Salem, while the simple social life of Vandalia, where he
went to attend the sessions of the legislature, was more elegant
than anything he had yet seen.

It must be frankly admitted that his success at this election was
a most important event in his life. Another failure might have
discouraged even his hopeful spirit, and sent him to the
blacksmith-shop to make wagon-tires and shoe horses for the
balance of his days. With this flattering vote to his credit,
however, he could be very sure that he had made a wise choice
between the forge and the lawyer's desk. At first he did not come
into special notice in the legislature. He wore, according to the
custom of the time, a decent suit of blue jeans, and was known
simply as a rather quiet young man, good-natured and sensible.
Soon people began to realize that he was a man to be reckoned
with in the politics of the county and State. He was reelected in
1836, 1838, and 1840, and thus for eight years had a full share
in shaping the public laws of Illinois. The Illinois legislature
may indeed be called the school wherein he learned that
extraordinary skill and wisdom in statesmanship which he
exhibited in later years. In 1838 and 1840 all the Whig members
of the Illinois House of Representatives gave him their vote for
Speaker, but, the Democrats being in a majority, could not elect

His campaign expenses were small enough to suit the most
exacting. It is recorded that at one time some of the leading
Whigs made up a purse of two hundred dollars to pay his personal
expenses. After the election he returned the sum of $199.25, with
the request that it be given back to the subscribers. "I did not
need the money," he explained. "I made the canvass on my own
horse; my entertainment, being at the houses of friends, cost me
nothing; and my only outlay was seventy-five cents for a barrel
of cider, which some farm-hands insisted I should treat them to."

One act of his while a member of the legislature requires special
mention because of the great events of his after-life. Even at
that early date, nearly a quarter of a century before the
beginning of the Civil War, slavery was proving a cause of much
trouble and ill-will. The "abolitionists," as the people were
called who wished the slaves to be free, and the "pro-slavery"
men, who approved of keeping them in bondage, had already come to
wordy war. Illinois was a free State, but many of its people
preferred slavery, and took every opportunity of making their
wishes known. In 1837 the legislature passed a set of resolutions
"highly disapproving abolition societies." Lincoln and five
others voted against it; but, not content with this, Lincoln also
drew up a paper protesting against the passage of such a
resolution and stating his views on slavery. They were not
extreme views. Though declaring slavery to be an evil, he did not
insist that the black people ought to be set free. But so strong
was the popular feeling against anything approaching
"abolitionism" that only one man out of the five who voted
against the resolution had the courage to sign this protest with
him. Lincoln was young, poor, and in need of all the good-will at
his command. Nobody could have blamed him for leaving it
unwritten; yet he felt the wrong of slavery so keenly that he
could not keep silent merely because the views he held happened
to be unpopular; and this protest, signed by him and Dan Stone,
has come down to us, the first notable public act in the great
career that made his name immortal.

During the eight years that he was in the legislature he had been
working away at the law. Even before his first election his
friend John T. Stuart, who had been major of volunteers in the
Black Hawk War while Lincoln was captain, and who, like Lincoln,
had reenlisted in the Independent Spy Battalion, had given him
hearty encouragement. Stuart was now practising law in.
Springfield. After the campaign was over, Lincoln borrowed the
necessary books of Stuart, and entered upon the study in good
earnest. According to his own statement, "he studied with nobody.
. . . In the autumn of 1836 he obtained a law license, and on
April 15, 1837, removed to Springfield and commenced the
practice, his old friend Stuart taking him into partnership."

Lincoln had already endeared himself to the people of Springfield
by championing a project they had much at heart--the removal of
the State capital from Vandalia to their own town. This was
accomplished, largely through his efforts, about the time he went
to Springfield to live. This change from New Salem, a village of
fifteen or twenty houses, to a "city" of two thousand
inhabitants, placed him once more in striking new relations as to
dress, manners, and society. Yet, as in the case of his removal
from his father's cabin to New Salem six years earlier, the
change was not so startling as would at first appear. In spite of
its larger population and its ambition as the new State capital,
Springfield was at that time in many ways no great improvement
upon New Salem. It had no public buildings, its streets and
sidewalks were still unpaved, and business of all kinds was
laboring under the burden of hard times.

As for himself, although he now owned a license to practise law,
it was still a question how well he would succeed--whether his
rugged mind and firm purpose could win him the livelihood he
desired, or whether, after all, he would be forced to turn his
strong muscles to account in earning his daily bread. Usually so
hopeful, there were times when he was greatly depressed. His
friend William Butler relates how, as they were riding together
on horseback from Vandalia to Springfield at the close of a
session of the legislature, Lincoln, in one of these gloomy
moods, told him of the almost hopeless prospect that lay
immediately before him. The session was over, his salary was all
drawn, the money all spent; he had no work, and did not know
where to turn to earn even a week's board. Butler bade him be of
good cheer, and, kind practical friend that he was, took him and
his belongings to his own home, keeping him there for a time as
his guest. His most intimate friend of those days, Joshua F.
Speed, tells us that soon after riding into the new capital on a
borrowed horse, with all his earthly possessions packed in a pair
of saddle-bags, Lincoln entered the store owned by Speed, the
saddle-bags over his arm, to ask the price of a single bed with
its necessary coverings and pillows. His question being answered,
he remarked that very likely that was cheap enough, but, small as
the price was, he was unable to pay it; adding that if Speed was
willing to credit him until Christmas, and his experiment as a
lawyer proved a success, he would pay then. "If I fail in this,"
he said sadly, "I do not know that I can ever pay you." Speed
thought he had never seen such a sorrowful face. He suggested
instead of going into debt, Lincoln might share his own roomy
quarters over the store, assuring him that if he chose to accept
the offer, he would be very welcome. "Where is your room ?"
Lincoln asked quickly. "Upstairs," and the young merchant pointed
to a flight of winding steps leading from the store to the room

Lincoln picked up the saddle-bags, went upstairs, set them down
on the floor, and reappeared a moment later, beaming with
pleasure. "Well, Speed," he exclaimed, "I am moved!" It is seldom
that heartier, truer friendships come to a man than came to
Lincoln in the course of his life. On the other hand, no one ever
deserved better of his fellow-men than he did; and it is pleasant
to know that such brotherly aid as Butler and Speed were able to
give him, offered in all sincerity and accepted in a spirit that
left no sense of galling obligation on either side, helped the
young lawyer over present difficulties and made it possible for
him to keep on in the career he had marked out for himself.

The lawyer who works his way up from a five-dollar fee in a suit
before a justice of the peace, to a five-thousand-dollar fee
before the Supreme Court of his State, has a long and hard path
to climb. Lincoln climbed this path for twenty-five years, with
industry, perseverance, patience--above all, with that
self-control and keen sense of right and wrong which always
clearly traced the dividing line between his duty to his client
and his duty to society and truth. His perfect frankness of
statement assured him the confidence of judge and jury in every
argument. His habit of fully admitting the weak points in his
case gained him their close attention to his strong ones, and
when clients brought him questionable cases his advice was always
not to bring suit.

"Yes," he once said to a man who offered him such a case; "there
is no reasonable doubt but that I can gain your case for you. I
can set a whole neighborhood at loggerheads; I can distress a
widowed mother and her six fatherless children, and thereby gain
for you six hundred dollars, which rightfully belongs, it appears
to me, as much to them as it does to you. I shall not take your
case, but I will give you a little advice for nothing. You seem a
sprightly, energetic man. I would advise you to try your hand at
making six hundred dollars in some other way.

He would have nothing to do with the "tricks" of the profession,
though he met these readily enough when practised by others. He
never knowingly undertook a case in which justice was on the side
of his opponent. That same inconvenient honesty which prompted
him, in his store-keeping days, to close the shop and go in
search of a woman he had innocently defrauded of a few ounces of
tea while weighing out her groceries, made it impossible for him
to do his best with a poor case. "Swett," he once exclaimed,
turning suddenly to his associate, "the man is guilty; you defend
him--I can't," and gave up his share of a large fee.

After his death some notes were found, written in his own hand,
that had evidently been intended for a little lecture or talk to
law students. They set forth forcibly, in a few words, his idea
of what a lawyer ought to be and to do. He earnestly commends
diligence in study, and, after diligence, promptness in keeping
up the work. "As a general rule, never take your whole fee in
advance," he says, "nor any more than a small retainer. When
fully paid beforehand you are more than a common mortal if you
can feel the same interest in the case as if something were still
in prospect for you as well as for your client." Speech-making
should be practised and cultivated. "It is the lawyer's avenue to
the public. However able and faithful he may be in other
respects, people are slow to bring him business if he cannot make
a speech. And yet, there is not a more fatal error to young
lawyers than relying too much on speech-making. If any one, upon
his rare powers of speaking, shall claim an exemption from the
drudgery of the law, his case is a failure in advance."
Discourage going to law. "Persuade your neighbors to compromise
whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is
often a real loser--in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a
peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good
man. There will still be business enough." "There is a vague
popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest. Let no
young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to
the popular belief. Resolve to be honest at all events; and if,
in your own judgment, you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to
be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation
rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance,
consent to be a knave."

While becoming a lawyer, Lincoln still remained a politician. In
those early days in the West, the two occupations went hand in
hand, almost of necessity. Laws had to be newly made to fit the
needs of the new settlements, and therefore a large proportion of
lawyers was sent to the State legislature. In the summer these
same lawyers went about the State, practising before the circuit
courts, Illinois being divided into what were called judicial
circuits, each taking in several counties, and sometimes covering
territory more than a hundred miles square. Springfield and the
neighboring towns were in the eighth judicial circuit. Twice a
year the circuit judge traveled from one county-seat to another,
the lawyers who had business before the court following also. As
newspapers were neither plentiful nor widely read, members of the
legislature were often called upon, while on these journeys, to
explain the laws they had helped to make during the previous
winter, and thus became the political teachers of the people.
They had to be well informed and watchful. When, like Mr.
Lincoln, they were witty, and had a fund of interesting stories
besides, they were sure of a welcome and a hearing in the
courtroom, or in the social gatherings that roused the various
little towns during "court-week" into a liveliness quite put of
the common. The tavern would be crowded to its utmost--the judge
having the best room, and the lawyers being put in what was left,
late comers being lucky to find even a sleeping-place on the
floor. When not occupied in court, or preparing cases for the
morrow, they would sit in the public room, or carry their chairs
out on the sidewalk in front, exchanging stories and anecdotes,
or pieces of political wisdom, while men from the town and
surrounding farms, dropping in on one pretext or another, found
excuse to linger and join in the talk. At meal-times the judge
presided at the head of the long hotel table, on which the food
was abundant if not always wholesome, and around which lawyers,
jurors, witnesses, prisoners out on bail, and the men who drove
the teams, gathered in friendly equality. Stories of what Mr.
Lincoln did and said on the eighth judicial circuit are still
quoted almost with the force of law; for in this close
companionship men came to know each other thoroughly, and were
judged at their true value professionally, as well as for their
power to entertain.

It was only in worldly wealth that Lincoln was poor. He could
hold his own with the best on the eighth judicial circuit, or
anywhere else in the State. He made friends wherever he went. In
politics, in daily conversation, in his work as a lawyer, his
life was gradually broadening. Slowly but surely, too, his gifts
as an attractive public speaker were becoming known. In 1837 he
wrote and delivered an able address before the Young Men's Lyceum
of Springfield. In December, 1839, Stephen A. Douglas, the most
brilliant of the young Democrats then in Springfield, challenged
the young Whigs of the town to a tournament of political
speech-making, in which Lincoln bore a full and successful share.

The man who could not pay a week's board bill was again elected
to the legislature, was invited to public banquets and toasted by
name, became a popular speaker, moved in the best society of the
new capital, and made, as his friends and neighbors declared, a
brilliant marriage.


Hopeful and cheerful as he ordinarily seemed, there was in Mr.
Lincoln's disposition a strain of deep melancholy. This was not
peculiar to him alone, for the pioneers as a race were somber
rather than gay. Their lives had been passed for generations
under the most trying physical conditions, near malaria-infested
streams, and where they breathed the poison of decaying
vegetation. Insufficient shelter, storms, the cold of winter,
savage enemies, and the cruel labor that killed off all but the
hardiest of them, had at the same time killed the happy-go-lucky
gaiety of an easier form of life. They were thoughtful, watchful,
wary; capable indeed of wild merriment: but it has been said that
although a pioneer might laugh, he could not easily be made to
smile. Lincoln's mind was unusually sound and sane and normal. He
had a cheerful, wholesome, sunny nature, yet he had inherited the
strongest traits of the pioneers, and there was in him, moreover,
much of the poet, with a poet's great capacity for joy and pain.
It is not strange that as he developed into manhood, especially
when his deeper nature began to feel the stirrings of ambition
and of love, these seasons of depression and gloom came upon him
with overwhelming force.

During his childhood he had known few women, save his mother, and
that kind, God-fearing woman his stepmother, who did so much to
make his childhood hopeful and happy. No man ever honored women
more truly than did Abraham Lincoln; while all the qualities that
caused men to like him--his strength, his ambition, his
kindliness--served equally to make him a favorite with them. In
the years of his young manhood three women greatly occupied his
thoughts. The first was the slender, fair-haired Ann Rutledge,
whom he very likely saw for the first time as she stood with the
group of mocking people on the river-bank, near her father's
mill, the day Lincoln's flatboat stuck on the dam at New Salem.
It was her death, two years before he went to live at
Springfield, that brought on the first attack of melancholy of
which we know, causing him such deep grief that for a time his
friends feared his sorrow might drive him insane.

Another friend was Mary Owens, a Kentucky girl, very different
from the gentle, blue-eyed Ann Rutledge, but worthy in every way
of a man's affections. She had visited her sister in New Salem
several years before, and Lincoln remembered her as a tall,
handsome, well-educated young woman, who could be serious as well
as gay, and who was considered wealthy. In the autumn of 1836,
her sister, Mrs. Able, then about to start on a visit to
Kentucky, jokingly offered to bring Mary back if Lincoln would
promise to marry her. He, also in jest, agreed to do so. Much to
his astonishment, he learned, a few months later, that she had
actually returned with Mrs. Able, and his sensitive conscience
made him feel that the jest had turned into real earnest, and
that he was in duty bound to keep his promise if she wished him
to do so. They had both changed since they last met; neither
proved quite pleasing to the other, yet an odd sort of courtship
was kept up, until, some time after Lincoln went to live in
Springfield, Miss Owens put an end to the affair by refusing him
courteously but firmly. Meantime he lived through much
unhappiness and uncertainty of spirit, and made up his mind
"never again to think of marrying": a resolution which he kept--
until another Kentucky girl drove it from his thoughts.

Springfield had by this time become very lively and enterprising.
There was a deal of "flourishing around in carriages," as Lincoln
wrote Miss Owens, and business and politics and society all
played an active part in the life of the little town. The
meetings of the legislature brought to the new capital a group of
young men of unusual talent and ability. There was friendly
rivalry between them, and party disputes ran high, but social
good-humor prevailed, and the presence of these brilliant young
people, later to become famous as Presidential candidates,
cabinet ministers, senators, congressmen, orators, and battle
heroes, lent to the social gatherings of Springfield a zest
rarely found in larger places.

Into the midst of this gaiety came Mary Todd of Kentucky,
twenty-one years old, handsome, accomplished and witty--a dashing
and fascinating figure in dress and conversation. She was the
sister of Mrs. Ninian W. Edwards, whose husband was a prominent
Whig member of the legislature--one of the "Long Nine," as these
men were known. Their added height was said to be fifty-five
feet, and they easily made up in influence what they lacked in
numbers. Lincoln was the "tallest" of them all in body and in
mind, and although as poor as a church mouse, was quite as
welcome anywhere as the men who wore ruffled shirts and could
carry gold watches. Miss Todd soon singled out and held the
admiration of such of the Springfield beaux as pleased her
somewhat wilful fancy, and Lincoln, being much at the Edwards
house, found himself, almost before he knew it, entangled in a
new love-affair. In the course of a twelvemonth he was engaged to
marry her, but something, nobody knows what or how, happened to
break the engagement, and to plunge him again in a very sea of
wretchedness. Nor is it necessary that we should know about it
further than that a great trouble came upon him, which he bore
nobly, after his kind. Few men have had his stern sense of duty,
his tenderness of heart, his conscience, so easy toward others,
so merciless toward himself. The trouble preyed upon his mind
until he could think of nothing else. He became unable to attend
to business, or to take any part in the life around him. Fearing
for his reason as well as for his health if this continued, his
good friend Joshua F. Speed carried him off, whether he wished or
no, for a visit to his own home in Kentucky. Here they stayed for
some time, and Lincoln grew much better, returning to Springfield
about midsummer, almost his old self, though far from happy.

An affair that helped to bring the lovers together again is so
out of keeping with the rest of his life, that it would deserve
mention "for that reason, if for no other. This is nothing less
than Lincoln's first and only duel. It happened that James
Shields, afterward a general in two wars and a senator from two
States, was at that time auditor of the State of Illinois, with
his office at Springfield. He was a Democrat, and an Irishman by
birth, with an Irishman's quick temper and readiness to take
offense. He had given orders about collecting certain taxes which
displeased the Whigs, and shortly after Lincoln came back from
Kentucky a series of humorous letters ridiculing the auditor and
his order appeared in the Springfield paper, to the great
amusement of the townspeople and the fury of Shields. These
letters were dated from the "Lost Townships," and were supposed
to be written by a farmer's widow signing herself "Aunt Rebecca."
The real writers were Miss Todd and a clever friend, who
undertook them more for the purpose of poking fun at Shields than
for party effect. In framing the political part of their attack,
they had found it necessary to consult Lincoln, and he obligingly
set them a pattern by writing the first letter himself.

Shields sent to the editor of the paper to find out the name of
the real "Rebecca." The editor, as in duty bound, consulted
Lincoln, and was told to give Lincoln's name, but not to mention
the ladies. Shields then sent Lincoln an angry challenge; and
Lincoln, who considered the whole affair ridiculous, and would
willingly have explained his part in it if Shields had made a
gentlemanly inquiry, chose as weapons "broadswords of the largest
size," and named as conditions of the duel that a plank ten feet
long be firmly fixed on edge in the ground, as a line over which
neither combatant was to pass his foot upon forfeit of his life.
Next, lines were to be drawn upon the ground on each side of the
plank, parallel with it, at the distance of the whole length of
the sword and three feet additional. The passing of his own line
by either man was to be deemed a surrender of the fight.

It is easy to see from these conditions that Lincoln refused to
consider the matter seriously, and determined to treat it as
absurdly as it deserved. He and Shields, and their respective
seconds, with the broadswords, hurried away to an island in the
Mississippi River, opposite Alton; but long before the plank was
set up, or swords were drawn, mutual friends took the matter out
of the hands of the seconds, and declared a settlement of the

The affair created much talk and merriment in Springfield, but
Lincoln found in it more than comedy. By means of it he and Miss
Todd were again brought together in friendly interviews, and on
November 4, they were married at the house of Mr. Edwards. Four
children were born of this marriage: Robert Todd Lincoln, August
1, 1843; Edward Baker Lincoln, March 10, 1846; William Wallace
Lincoln, December 21, 1850; and Thomas Lincoln, April 4, 1853.
Edward died while a baby; William, in the White House, February
20, 1862; Thomas in Chicago, July 15, 1871; and the mother, Mary
Lincoln, in Springfield, July 16, 1882. Robert Lincoln was
graduated from Harvard during the Civil War, serving afterward on
the staff of General Grant. He has since been Secretary of War
and Minister to England, and has held many other important
positions of trust.

His wedding over, Lincoln took up again the practical routine of
daily life. He and his bride were so poor that they could not
make the visit to Kentucky that both would so much have enjoyed.
They could not even set up a little home of their own. "We are
not keeping house," he wrote to a friend, "but boarding at the
Globe Tavern," where, he added, their room and board only cost
them four dollars a week. His "National Debt" of the old New
Salem days was not yet all paid off, and patiently and resolutely
he went on practising the economy he had learned in the hard
school of experience.

Lincoln's law partnership with John T. Stuart had lasted four
years. Then Stuart was elected to Congress, and another one was
formed with Judge Stephen T. Logan. It was a well-timed and
important change. Stuart had always cared more for politics than
for law. With Logan law was the main object, and under his
guidance and encouragement Lincoln entered upon the study and
practical work of his profession in a more serious spirit than
ever before. His interest in politics continued, however, and in
truth his practice at that time was so small as to leave ample
time for both. Stuart had been twice elected to Congress, and
very naturally Lincoln, who served his party quite as faithfully,
and was fully as well known, hoped for a similar honor. He had
profited greatly by the companionship and friendly rivalry of the
talented young men of Springfield, but their talent made the
prize he wished the harder to gain. Twice he was disappointed,
the nomination going to other men; but in May, 1846, he was
nominated, and in August of the same year elected, to the
Thirtieth Congress. He had the distinction of being the only Whig
member from his State, the other Illinois congressmen at that
time all being Democrats; but he proved no exception to the
general rule that a man rarely comes into notice during his first
term in the National House of Representatives. A new member has
much to learn, even when, like Lincoln, long service in a State
legislature has taught him how the business of making laws is
carried on. He must find out what has been done and is likely to
be done on a multitude of subjects new to him, must make the
acquaintance of his fellow-members, must visit the departments of
government almost daily to look after the interests of people
from his State and congressional district. Legally he is elected
for a term of two years. Practically a session of five or six
months during the first year, and of three months during the
second, further reduce his opportunities more than one-half.

Lincoln did not attempt to shine forth in debate, either by a
stinging retort, or burst of inspired eloquence. He went about
his task quietly and earnestly, performing his share of duty with
industry and a hearty admiration for the ability of better-known
members. "I just take my pen," he wrote enthusiastically to a
friend after listening to a speech which pleased him much, "to
say that Mr. Stephens, of Georgia, is a little slim, pale-faced
consumptive man, with a voice like Logan's, has just concluded
the very best speech of an hour's length I ever heard. My old
withered, dry eyes are full of tears yet."

During the first session of his term Lincoln made three long
speeches, carefully prepared and written out beforehand. He was
neither elated nor dismayed at the result. "As to speech-making,"
he wrote William H. Herndon, who had now become his law partner,
"I find speaking here and elsewhere about the same thing. I was
about as badly scared, and no worse, as I am when I speak in

The next year he made no set speeches, but in addition to the
usual work of a congressman occupied himself with a bill that had
for its object the purchase and freeing of all slaves in the
District of Columbia. Slavery was not only lawful at the national
capital at that time: there was, to quote Mr. Lincoln's own
graphic words, "in view from the windows of the Capitol a sort of
negro livery-stable, where droves of negroes were collected,
temporarily kept, and finally taken to Southern markets,
precisely like droves of horses."

To Lincoln and to other people who disapproved of slavery, the
idea of human beings held in bondage under the very shadow of the
dome of the Capitol seemed indeed a bitter mockery. As has
already been stated, he did not then believe Congress had the
right to interfere with slavery in States that chose to have it;
but in the District of Columbia the power of Congress was
supreme, and the matter was entirely different. His bill provided
that the Federal Government should pay full value to the
slave-holders of the District for all slaves in their possession,
and should at once free the older ones. The younger ones were to
be apprenticed for a term of years, in order to make them
self-supporting, after which they also were to receive their
freedom. The bill was very carefully thought out, and had the
approval of residents of the District who held the most varied
views upon slavery; but good as it was, the measure was never
allowed to come to a vote, and Lincoln went back to Springfield,
at the end of his term, feeling doubtless that his efforts in
behalf of the slaves had been all in vain.

While in Washington he lived very simply and quietly, taking
little part in the social life of the city, though cordially
liked by all who made his acquaintance. An inmate of the modest
boarding-house where he had rooms has told of the cheery
atmosphere he seemed to bring with him into the common
dining-room, where political arguments were apt to run high. He
never appeared anxious to insist upon his own views; and when
others, less considerate, forced matters until the talk
threatened to become too furious, he would interrupt with an
anecdote or a story that cleared the air and ended the discussion
in a general laugh. Sometimes for exercise he would go into a
bowling-alley close by, entering into the game with great zest,
and accepting defeat and victory with equal good-nature. By the
time he had finished a little circle would be gathered around
him, enjoying his enjoyment, and laughing at his quaint
expressions and sallies of wit.

His gift for jest and story-telling has become traditional.
Indeed, almost every good story that has been invented within a
hundred years has been laid at his door. As a matter of fact,
though he was fond of telling "them, and told them well, he told
comparatively few of the number that have been credited to him.
He had a wonderful memory, and a fine power of making his hearers
see the scene he wished to depict; but the final charm of his
stories lay in their aptness, and in the kindly humor that left
no sting behind it.

During his term in Congress the Presidential campaign of 1848
came on. Lincoln took an active part in the nomination and
election of General Zachary Taylor--"Old Rough and Ready," as he
was called--making speeches in Maryland and Massachusetts, as
well as in his own home district of Illinois. Two letters that he
wrote during this campaign have special interest for young
readers, for they show the sympathetic encouragement he gave to
young men anxious to make a place and a name for themselves in
American politics.

"Now as to the young men, he wrote. "You must not wait to be
brought forward by the older men. For instance, do you suppose
that I should ever have got into notice if I had waited to be
hunted up and pushed forward by older men? You young men get
together and form a 'Rough and Ready' club, and have regular
meetings and speeches. . . . Let every one play the part he can
play best--some speak, some sing, and all 'holler.' Your meetings
will be of evenings; the older men, and the women, will go to
hear you; so that it will not only contribute to the election of
'Old Zach,' but will be an interesting pastime, and improving to
the intellectual faculties of all engaged."

In another letter, answering a young friend who complained of
being neglected, he said:

"Nothing could afford me more satisfaction than to learn that you
and others of my young friends at home are doing battle in the
contest and taking a stand far above any I have ever been able to
reach. . . . I cannot conceive that other old men feel
differently. Of course I cannot demonstrate what I say; but I was
young once, and I am sure I was never ungenerously thrust back. I
hardly know what to say. The way for a young man to rise is to
improve himself every way he can, never suspecting that anybody
wishes to hinder him. Allow me to assure you that suspicion and
jealousy never did help any man in any situation. There may
sometimes be ungenerous attempts to keep a young man down; and
they will succeed, too, if he allows his mind to be diverted from
its true channel to brood over the attempted injury. Cast about
and see if this feeling has not injured every person you have
ever known to fall into it."

He was about forty years old when he wrote this letter. By some
people that is not considered a very great age; but he doubtless
felt himself immensely older, as he was infinitely wiser, than
his petulant young correspondent.

General Taylor was triumphantly elected, and it then became
Lincoln's duty, as Whig member of Congress from Illinois, to
recommend certain persons to fill government offices in that
State. He did this after he returned to Springfield, for his term
in Congress ended on March 4, 1849, the day that General Taylor
became President. The letters that he sent to Washington when
forwarding the papers and applications of people who wished
appointment were both characteristic and amusing; for in his
desire not to mislead or to do injustice to any man, they were
very apt to say more in favor of the men he did not wish to see
appointed than in recommendation of his own particular

This absolute and impartial fairness to friend and foe alike was
one of his strongest traits, governing every action of his life.
If it had not been for this, he might possibly have enjoyed
another term in Congress, for there had been talk of reelecting
him. In spite of his confession to Speed that "being elected to
Congress, though I am very grateful to our friends for having
done it, has not pleased me as much as I expected," this must
have been flattering. But there were many able young men in
Springfield who coveted the honor, and they had entered into an
agreement among themselves that each would be content with a
single term. Lincoln of course remained faithful to this promise.
His strict keeping of promises caused him also to lose an
appointment from President Taylor as Commissioner of the General
Land Office, which might easily have been his, but for which he
had agreed to recommend some other Illinois man. A few weeks
later the President offered to make him governor of the new
Territory of Oregon. This attracted him much more than the other
office had done, but he declined because his wife was unwilling
to live in a place so far away.

His career in Congress, while adding little to his fame at the
time, proved of great advantage to him in after life, for it gave
him a close knowledge of the workings of the Federal Government,
and brought him into contact with political leaders from all
parts of the Union.


For four or five years after his return from Congress, Lincoln
remained in Springfield, working industriously at his profession.
He was offered a law partnership in Chicago, but declined on the
ground that his health would not stand the confinement of a great
city. His business increased in volume and importance as the
months went by; and it was during this time that he engaged in
what is perhaps the most dramatic as well as the best known of
all his law cases--his defense of Jack Armstrong's son on a
charge of murder. A knot of young men had quarreled one night on
the outskirts of a camp-meeting, one was killed, and suspicion
pointed strongly toward young Armstrong as the murderer. Lincoln,
for old friendship's sake, offered to defend him--an offer most
gratefully accepted by his family. The principal witness swore
that he had seen young Armstrong strike the fatal blow--had seen
him distinctly by the light of a bright moon. Lincoln made him
repeat the statement until it seemed as if he were sealing the
death-warrant of the prisoner. Then Lincoln began his address to
the jury. He was not there as a hired attorney, he told them, but
because of friendship. He told of his old relations with Jack
Armstrong, of the kindness the prisoner's mother had shown him in
New Salem, how he had himself rocked the prisoner to sleep when
the latter was a little child. Then he reviewed the testimony,
pointing out how completely everything depended on the statements
of this one witness; and ended by proving beyond question that
his testimony was false, since, according to the almanac, which
he produced in court and showed to judge and jury, THERE WAS NO
MOON IN THE SKY THAT NIGHT at the hour the murder was committed.
The jury brought in a verdict of "Not guilty," and the prisoner
was discharged.

Lincoln was always strong with a jury. He knew how to handle men,
and he had a direct way of going to the heart of things. He had,
moreover, unusual powers of mental discipline. It was after his
return from Congress, when he had long been acknowledged one of
the foremost lawyers of the State, that he made up his mind he
lacked the power of close and sustained reasoning, and set
himself like a schoolboy to study works of logic and mathematics
to remedy the defect. At this time he committed to memory six
books of the propositions of Euclid; and, as always, he was an
eager reader on many subjects, striving in this way to make up
for the lack of education he had had as a boy. He was always
interested in mechanical principles and their workings, and in
May, 1849, patented a device for lifting vessels over shoals,
which had evidently been dormant in his mind since the days of
his early Mississippi River experiences. The little model of a
boat, whittled out with his own hand, that he sent to the Patent
Office when he filed his application, is still shown to visitors,
though the invention itself failed to bring about any change in
steamboat architecture.

In work and study time slipped away. He was the same cheery
companion as of old, much sought after by his friends, but now
more often to be found in his office surrounded by law-books and
papers than had been the case before his term in Congress. His
interest in politics seemed almost to have ceased when, in 1854,
something happened to rouse that and his sense of right and
justice as they had never been roused before. This was the repeal
of the "Missouri Compromise," a law passed by Congress in the
year 1820, allowing Missouri to enter the Union as a slave State,
but positively forbidding slavery in all other territory of the
United States lying north of latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes,
which was the southern boundary-line of Missouri.

Up to that time the Southern States, where slavery was lawful,
had been as wealthy and quite as powerful in politics as the
Northern or free States. The great unoccupied territory lying to
the west, which, in years to come, was sure to be filled with
people and made into new States, lay, however, mostly north of 36
degrees 30 minutes; and it was easy to see that as new free
States came one after the other into the Union the importance of
the South must grow less and less, because there was little or no
territory left out of which slave States could be made to offset
them. The South therefore had been anxious to have the Missouri
Compromise repealed.

The people of the North, on the other hand, were not all wise or
disinterested in their way of attacking slavery. As always
happens, self-interest and moral purpose mingled on both sides;
but, as a whole, it may be said that they wished to get rid of
slavery because they felt it to be wrong, and totally out of
place in a country devoted to freedom and liberty. The quarrel
between them was as old as the nation, and it had been gaining
steadily in intensity. At first only a few persons in each
section had been really interested. By the year 1850 it had come
to be a question of much greater moment, and during the ten years
that followed was to increase in bitterness until it absorbed the
thoughts of the entire people, and plunged the country into a
terrible civil war.

Abraham Lincoln had grown to manhood while the question was
gaining in importance. As a youth, during his flatboat voyages to
New Orleans he had seen negroes chained and beaten, and the
injustice of slavery had been stamped upon his soul. The
uprightness of his mind abhorred a system that kept men in
bondage merely because they happened to be black. The intensity
of his feeling on the subject had made him a Whig when, as a
friendless boy, he lived in a town where Whig ideas were much in
disfavor. The same feeling, growing stronger as he grew older,
had inspired the Lincoln-Stone protest and the bill to free the
slaves in the District of Columbia, and had caused him to vote at
least forty times against slavery in one form or another during
his short term in Congress. The repeal of the Missouri
Compromise, throwing open once more to slavery a vast amount of
territory from which it had been shut out, could not fail to move
him deeply. His sense of justice and his strong powers of
reasoning were equally stirred, and from that time until slavery
came to its end through his own act, he gave his time and all his
energies to the cause of freedom.

Two points served to make the repeal of the Missouri Compromise
of special interest to Lincoln. The first was personal, in that
the man who championed the measure, and whose influence in
Congress alone made it possible, was Senator Stephen A. Douglas,
who had been his neighbor in Illinois for many years.

The second was deeper. He realized that the struggle meant much
more than the freedom or bondage of a few million black men: that
it was in reality a struggle for the central idea of our American
republic--the statement in our Declaration of Independence that
"all men are created equal." He made no public speeches until
autumn, but in the meantime studied the question with great care,
both as to its past history and present state. When he did speak
it was with a force and power that startled Douglas and, it is
said, brought him privately to Lincoln with the proposition that
neither of them should address a public meeting again until after
the next election.

Douglas was a man of great ambition as well as of unusual
political skill. Until recently he had been heartily in favor of
keeping slavery out of the Northwest Territory; but he had set
his heart upon being President of the United States, and he
thought that he saw a chance of this if he helped the South to
repeal the Missouri Compromise, and thus gained its gratitude and
its votes. Without hesitation he plunged into the work and
labored successfully to overthrow this law of more than thirty
years' standing.

Lincoln's speech against the repeal had made a deep impression in
Illinois, where he was at once recognized as the people's
spokesman in the cause of freedom. His statements were so clear,
his language so eloquent, the stand he took so just, that all had
to acknowledge his power. He did not then, nor for many years
afterward, say that the slaves ought to be immediately set free.
What he did insist upon was that slavery was wrong, and that it
must not be allowed to spread into territory already free; but
that, gradually, in ways lawful and just to masters and slaves
alike, the country should strive to get rid of it in places where
it already existed. He never let his hearers lose sight of the
great. underlying moral fact. "Slavery," he said, "is founded in
the selfishness of man's nature; opposition to it in his love of
justice." Even Senator Douglas was not prepared to admit that
slavery was right. He knew that if he said that he could never be
President, for the whole North would rise against him. He wished
to please both sides, so he argued that it was not a question for
him or for the Federal Government to decide, but one which each
State and Territory must settle for itself. In answer to this
plea of his that it was not a matter of morals, but of "State
rights"--a mere matter of local self-government--Mr. Lincoln
replied, "When the white man governs himself that is
self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs
another man, that is more than self-government--that is

It was on these opposing grounds that the two men took their
stand for the battle of argument and principle that was to
continue for years, to outgrow the bounds of the State, to focus
the attention of the whole country upon them, and, in the end, to
have far-reaching consequences of which neither at that time
dreamed. At first the field appeared much narrower, though even
then the reward was a large one. Lincoln had entered the contest
with no thought of political gain; but it happened that a new
United States senator from Illinois had to be chosen about that
time. Senators are not voted for by the people, but by the
legislatures of their respective States and as a first result of
all this discussion about the right or wrong of slavery it was
found that the Illinois legislature, instead of having its usual
large Democratic majority, was almost evenly divided. Lincoln
seemed the most likely candidate; and he would have undoubtedly
been chosen senator, had not five men, whose votes were
absolutely necessary, stoutly refused to vote for a Whig, no
matter what his views upon slavery might be. Keeping stubbornly
aloof, they cast their ballots time after time for Lyman
Trumbull, who was a Democrat, although as strongly opposed to
slavery as Lincoln himself.

A term of six years in the United States Senate must have seemed
a large prize to Lincoln just then--possibly the largest he might
ever hope to gain; and it must have been a hard trial to feel it
so near and then see it slipping away from him. He did what few
men would have had the courage or the unselfishness to do.
Putting aside all personal considerations, and intent only on
making sure of an added vote against slavery in the Senate, he
begged his friends to cease voting for him and to unite with
those five Democrats to elect Trumbull.

"I regret my defeat moderately," he wrote to a sympathizing
friend, "but I am not nervous about it." Yet it must have been
particularly trying to know that with forty-five votes in his
favor, and only five men standing between him and success, he had
been forced to give up his own chances and help elect the very
man who had defeated him.

The voters of Illinois were quick to realize the sacrifice he had
made. The five stubborn men became his most devoted personal
followers; and his action at this time did much to bring about a
great political change in the State. All over the country old
party lines were beginning to break up and re-form themselves on
this one question of slavery. Keeping its old name, the
Democratic party became the party in favor of slavery, while the
Northern Whigs and all those Democrats who objected to slavery
joined in what became known as the Republican party. It was at a
great mass convention held in Bloomington in May, 1856, that the
Republican party of Illinois took final shape; and it was here
that Lincoln made the wonderful address which has become famous
in party history as his "lost speech." There had been much
enthusiasm. Favorite speakers had already made stirring addresses
that had been listened to with eagerness and heartily applauded;
but hardly a man moved from his seat until Lincoln should be
heard. It was he who had given up the chance of being senator to
help on the cause of freedom. He alone had successfully answered
Douglas. Every one felt the fitness of his making the closing
speech--and right nobly did he honor the demand. The spell of the
hour was visibly upon him. Standing upon the platform before the
members of the convention, his tall figure drawn up to its full
height, his head thrown back, and his voice ringing with
earnestness, he denounced the evil they had to fight in a speech
whose force and power carried his hearers by storm, ending with a
brilliant appeal to all who loved liberty and justice to

Come as the winds come when forests are rended;
Come as the waves come when navies are stranded;

and unite with the Republican party against this great wrong.

The audience rose and answered him with cheer upon cheer. Then,
after the excitement had died down, it was found that neither a
full report nor even trustworthy notes of his speech had been
taken. The sweep and magnetism of his oratory had carried
everything before it--even the reporters had forgotten their
duty, and their pencils had fallen idle. So it happened that the
speech as a whole was lost. Mr. Lincoln himself could never
recall what he had said; but the hundreds who heard him never
forgot the scene or the lifting inspiration of his words.

Three weeks later the first national convention of the Republican
party was held. John C. Fremont was nominated for President, and
Lincoln received over a hundred votes for Vice-President, but
fortunately, as it proved, was not selected, the honor falling to
William L. Dayton of New Jersey. The Democratic candidate for
President that year was James Buchanan, "a Northern man with
Southern principles," very strongly in favor of slavery. Lincoln
took an active part in the campaign against him, making more than
fifty speeches in Illinois and the adjoining States. The
Democrats triumphed, and Buchanan was elected President; but
Lincoln was not discouraged, for the new Republican party had
shown unexpected strength throughout the North. Indeed, Lincoln
was seldom discouraged. He had an abiding faith that the people
would in the long run vote wisely; and the cheerful hope he was
able to inspire in his followers was always a strong point in his

In 1858, two years after this, another election took place in
Illinois, on which the choice of a United States senator
depended. This time it was the term of Stephen A. Douglas that
was drawing to a close. He greatly desired reelection. There was
but one man in the State who could hope to rival him, and with a
single voice the Republicans of Illinois called upon Lincoln to
oppose him. Douglas was indeed an opponent not to be despised.
His friends and followers called him the "Little Giant." He was
plausible, popular, quick-witted, had winning manners, was most
skilful in the use of words, both to convince his hearers and, at
times, to hide his real meaning. He and Lincoln were old
antagonists. They had first met in the far-away Vandalia days of
the Illinois legislature. In Springfield, Douglas had been the
leader of the young Democrats, while Lincoln had been leader of
the younger Whigs. Their rivalry had not always been confined to
politics, for gossip asserted that Douglas had been one of Miss
Todd's more favored suitors. Douglas in those days had no great
opinion of the tall young lawyer; while Lincoln is said to have
described Douglas as "the least man I ever saw"--although that
referred to his rival's small stature and boyish figure, not to
his mental qualities. Douglas was not only ambitious to be
President: he had staked everything on the repeal of the Missouri
Compromise and his statement that this question of slavery was
one that every State and Territory must settle for itself, but
with which the Federal Government had nothing to do.
Unfortunately, his own party no longer agreed with him. Since
Buchanan had become President the Democrats had advanced their
ground. They now claimed that while a State might properly say
whether or not it would tolerate slavery, slavery ought to be
lawful in all the Territories, no matter whether their people
liked it or not.

A famous law case, called the Dred Scott case, lately decided by
the Supreme Court of the United States, went far toward making
this really the law of the land. In its decision the court
positively stated that neither Congress nor a territorial
legislature had power to keep slavery out of any United States
Territory. This decision placed Senator Douglas in a most curious
position. It justified him in repealing the Missouri Compromise,
but at the same time it absolutely denied his statement that the
people of a Territory had a right to settle the slavery question
to suit themselves. Being a clever juggler with words, he
explained away the difference by saying that a master might have
a perfect right to his slave in a Territory, and yet that right
could do him no good unless it were protected by laws in force
where his slave happened to be. Such laws depended entirely on
the will of the people living in the Territory, and so, after
all, they had the deciding voice. This reasoning brought upon him
the displeasure of President Buchanan and all the Democrats who
believed as he did, and Douglas found himself forced either to
deny what he had already told the voters of Illinois, or to begin
a quarrel with the President. He chose the latter, well knowing
that to lose his reelection to the Senate at this time would end
his political career. His fame as well as his quarrel with the
President served to draw immense crowds to his meetings when he
returned to Illinois and began speech-making, and his followers
so inspired these meetings with their enthusiasm that for a time
it seemed as though all real discussion would be swallowed up in
noise and shouting.

Mr. Lincoln, acting on the advice of his leading friends, sent
Douglas a challenge to joint debate. Douglas accepted, though not
very willingly; and it was agreed that they should address the
same meetings at seven towns in the State, on dates extending
through August, September, and October. The terms were that one
should speak an hour in opening, the other an hour and a half in
reply, and the first again have half an hour to close. Douglas
was to open the meeting at one place, Lincoln at the next.

It was indeed a memorable contest. Douglas, the most skilled and
plausible speaker in the Democratic party, was battling for his
political life. He used every art, every resource, at his
command. Opposed to him was a veritable giant in stature--a man
whose qualities of mind and of body were as different from those
of the "Little Giant" -as could well be imagined. Lincoln was
direct, forceful, logical, and filled with a purpose as lofty as
his sense of right and justice was strong. He cared much for the
senatorship, but he cared far more to right the wrong of slavery,
and to warn people of the peril that menaced the land. Already in
June he had made a speech that greatly impressed his hearers. "A
house divided against itself cannot stand," he told them. "I
believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and
half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved, I do not
expect the house to fall--but I do expect it will cease to be
divided. It will become all one thing or all the other"; and he
went on to say that there was grave danger it might become all
slave. He showed how, little by little, slavery had been gaining
ground, until all it lacked now was another Supreme Court
decision to make it alike lawful in all the States, North as well
as South. The warning came home to the people of the North with
startling force, and thereafter all eyes "were fixed upon the
senatorial campaign in Illinois.

The battle continued for nearly three months. Besides the seven
great joint debates, each man spoke daily, sometimes two or three
times a day, at meetings of his own. Once before their audiences,
Douglas's dignity as a senator afforded him no advantage,
Lincoln's popularity gave him little help. Face to face with the
followers of each, gathered in immense numbers and alert with
jealous watchfulness, there was no escaping the rigid test of
skill in argument and truth in principle. The processions and
banners, the music and fireworks, of both parties were stilled
and forgotten while the people listened to the three hours'
battle of mind against mind.

Northern Illinois had been peopled largely from the free States,
and southern Illinois from the slave States; thus the feeling
about slavery in the two parts was very different. To take
advantage of this, Douglas, in the very first debate, which took
place at Ottawa, in northern Illinois, asked Lincoln seven
questions, hoping to make him answer in a way that would be
unpopular farther south. In the second debate Lincoln replied to
these very frankly, and in his turn asked Douglas four questions,
the second of which was whether, in Douglas's opinion, the people
of any Territory could, in any lawful way, against the wish of
any citizen of the United States, bar out slavery before that
Territory became a State. Mr. Lincoln had long and carefully
studied the meaning and effect of this question. If Douglas said,
"No," he would please Buchanan and the administration Democrats,
but at the cost of denying his own words. If he said, "Yes," he
would make enemies of every Democrat in the South. Lincoln's

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