THE BOYS' LIFE OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
by Helen Nicolay
I. A PRESIDENT'S CHILDHOOD
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 grist-mill.
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 preachers.
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.
II. CAPTAIN LINCOLN.
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 home.
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 furnish.
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 opportunity.
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."
III. LAWYER LINCOLN
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 him.
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 that 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 overhead.
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.
IV. CONGRESSMAN LINCOLN
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 difficulty.
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 court."
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.