Abraham Lincoln, Vol. I.
by John T. Morse
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American Statesmen








The fifth and final group of biographies in the American Statesmen series deals with the Period of the Civil War. The statesmen whose lives are included in this group are Abraham Lincoln, William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Charles Francis Adams, Charles Sumner, and Thaddeus Stevens.

The years of the civil war constitute an episode rather than an independent period in our national history. They were interposed between two eras; and if they are to be integrally connected with either of these, it is with the era which preceded them rather than with that which followed them. They were the result, the closing act, of the quarter-century of the anti-slavery crusade. When the war came to an end the country made a new start under new conditions. Yet it is proper to treat the years of the war by themselves, not only because they were filled by the clearly defined and abnormal condition of warfare, but because a distinct group of statesmen is peculiarly associated with them. The men whose lives are found in this group had been struggling for recognition during the years which preceded the war, but they only arrived at the control of affairs after that event became assured. Soon after its close their work was substantially done.

For a long while before hostilities actually broke out, it was evident that a civil war would be a natural result of the antagonism between the South and the North; it is now obvious enough that it was more than a natural, that it was an absolutely inevitable result. Looking backward, we can only be surprised that wise men ever fancied that a conflict could be avoided; but, as usual, the strenuous hope became father to an anxious belief. Abraham Lincoln, in the first year when he gave indication of his political clear-sightedness, said truly that the country could not continue half slave and half free. That truth involved war. There was no other possible way to settle the question between the two halves; talk of freeing the slaves by purchase, or by gradual emancipation and colonization, was simple nonsense, the forlorn schemes of men who would fain have escaped out of the track of inexorable destiny. Yet the vast majority of the nation, appalled at the vision of the great fact which lay right athwart their road, was obstinate in the delusive expectation of flanking it, as though there were side paths whereby mankind can circumvent fate and walk around that which must be, just as if it were not. Thus it came to pass that when the South seceded, as every intelligent man ought to have been perfectly sure would be the case, a confusion fell for a time upon the North. In that section of the country there was for a few months a spectacle which has no parallel in history. There was paralysis, there was disintegration; worse than either, there was an utter lack of straight sense and clear thought. There were politicians, editors, writers, agitators, reformers in multitudes whose reiteration of their moral convictions, whose intense addresses and uncompromising articles, had for years been bringing about precisely this event; yet when it came, it appeared that no one of them had contemplated it with any realizing appreciation, no one of them was ready for it, no one of them had any sensible, practical course of action to recommend. There was no union among them, no cohesion of opinion or of purpose, no agreement of forecast; each had his own individual notion as to what could be done, what should be done, what would be the train of events. Politically speaking, society was a mere parcel of units, with topical proximity, but with no other element of aggregation. The immensity of the crisis seemed to shake men's minds; the enigma of duty involved such possibilities, in case of a wrong solution, that the wisest leaders, becoming dazed and overawed, uttered the grossest follies. Men who had been energetic and vigorous before, when they were pursuing a purpose, who became so again afterward, when the distinct issue had taken shape, now lost for a time their intellectual self-possession. The picture of the country during three or four months, or rather an observant study of the prominent men of the country, is sufficiently interesting historically, but is vastly more so psychologically. I know of no other period in history in which this peculiar element of interest exists to anywhere near an equal degree. It is the study of human nature which for a brief time absorbs us, much more than the study of events.

But this condition was, by its nature, transitory. Events moved, and soon created defined and clean-cut issues, in relation to which individuals were compelled to find their positions,—positions where they could establish a belief, whether that belief should prove at last to be right or wrong; positions wherein they were willing to abide to the end, be that end victory or ruin. Primarily everything depended upon Abraham Lincoln. If he should prove to be a weak man, like his predecessor, or if he should prove to be a man of merely ordinary capacity and character like the presidents who had followed Van Buren, then all was over for the North. With what anxiety, with how much doubt, the people of the Northern States scanned their singular and untried choice can never be fully appreciated by persons who cannot remember those wearisome, overladen days. He was an unknown quantity in the awful problem. In his debates with Douglas he had given some indication of what was in him, but outside of Illinois not one man in a hundred was familiar with those debates. Nor did even they furnish conclusive proof of his administrative capacity, especially in these days of novel and mortal stress. For a time he seemed to wait, to drift; until the day of his inauguration he gave no sign; then in his speech the people, whose hearts were standing still in their eagerness to hear, found reassuring sentences. Yet nothing seemed to follow during many anxious weeks; the suns rose and the suns set, and still the leader raised no standard around which the people could rally, uttered no inspiring word of command which could unite the dissevered political cliques. What was in his mind all this while can never be known, though no knowledge could be more interesting. Was he in a simple attitude of expectancy, awaiting the march of events, watchful for some one of them to give him the cue as well as the opportunity for action? Many believe that this was the case; and if it was, no other course could have been more intelligent. In due time events came which brought decision with them, the crisis shaped itself, and he was ready with clear and prompt action. When it was known what he would do, matters were settled. The people, once assured that the fight would be made, entered upon it with such a temper and in possession of such resources that, in spite of those trying fluctuations which any wise man could have foreseen, they were sure in the end to win.

It would be out of place in these prefatory paragraphs, to attempt any skeleton picture of the momentous struggle. I believe that the story is told very completely in the lives which compose this group. The statesmen who controlled events during the war were a new group; they were not young men, neither were they unknown or untried in public affairs; but they were for the first time in control. In their younger days they had been under the shadow and predominance of the old school of statesmen, whose object had been to prevent, or at least to defer indefinitely, precisely that crisis which was now present. They themselves, on the other hand, had been strenuously advocating the policies which had at last brought that crisis into existence. But the election of Abraham Lincoln was their first, and as yet their only triumph. In all previous trials of strength they had been defeated. Their present success was like the bursting of a torrent through a dam. At the instant when they attained it they found themselves involved in a political swirl and clash of momentous difficulties. It was a tremendous test to which they were being subjected. The part which Lincoln played, at their head, I have endeavored to depict in his life. The manner in which he controlled without commanding, his rare combination of confidence in his own judgment with entire absence of self-assertion, his instinctive appreciation of the meaning and bearing of facts, his capacity to recognize the precise time until which action should be postponed and then to know that action must be taken, suggesting the idea of prescience, his long-suffering and tolerance towards impolitic, obstructive, or over-rash individuals, his marvelous gift of keeping in touch with the people, form a group of qualities which, united in the President of the United States at that mortal juncture, are as strong evidence as anything which this generation has seen to corroborate a faith in an overruling Providence. Conceive what might have happened if it had been some other of our presidents who had happened to have his term begin in 1861! Yet, after all the study that can be made of him, there are unexplainable elements in Lincoln's character which will leave him forever an enigma. If the world ever settles down to the acceptance of any definite, accurate picture of him, it will surely be a false picture. There must always be vague, indefinable uncertainties in any presentation of him which shall be truly made.

Of the men who labored with him, I have left myself room to say little, nor need much be said here. Their lives tell their stories. Taken together, these biographies contain the history, upon the civil side, of the war period. Seward represents the policy of the administration as a whole, for all civil business centred in the office of the secretary of state. He was a man of extraordinary ability. It is true that he made a strange blunder or two, at the outset, odd episodes in his intelligent, clear-sighted, cool-headed career,—psychologically interesting, as has been suggested; but he immediately recovered himself and settled down to that course of wise statesmanship which was justly to be expected of him.

Chase handled the finances of the country with brilliant success. People have criticised him, especially have said that his legal-tender scheme was a needless and mischievous measure. But his task was immeasurably difficult, and he had to act with great promptitude, having little time for consideration, obliged to provide instantly for immediate exigencies, forced to respect the present state of feeling among the moneyed classes, though it might be transitory, and to be controlled by the possibilities of the passing moment. He met the gigantic daily outlay without even a temporary interruption, and the country grew rich, not only nominally in an inflated currency, but actually in a great development of material resources, beneath his management of the treasury. To find fault with him, and to talk of the "might have been" seems unworthy; also unsatisfactory, since the consequences of a different policy are wholly matter of supposition.

Charles Sumner, the preacher of the crusade, stands for the moral element. Possibly his most important work came before the war. But the prestige which he had gained made him a man to be reckoned with, and he had a following of fervent and resolute men in the country so numerous that his support was essential and his opinions had to be treated with respect.

The career of Charles Francis Adams in England will be read for the first time in the life which forms a part of this series. It has been written by his son, of course with every possible advantage, and it is one of the most interesting chapters in the history of the civil war. Of him, too, it may be said that he seems to have been specially raised up for precisely the duty which he had to fulfill. A blunder on the part of our envoy to Great Britain would have possibly led to consequences which one trembles to contemplate even in imagination. The services of Franklin in France and the positive good of the French alliance in the Revolution, may be compared with the services of Mr. Adams in England and the negative advantage of non-interference by England on behalf of the South in the civil war. Mr. Adams's coolness, his unerring judgment, and the prestige of his name, in combination, made him the one man in the United States who ought by fitness to have held his post. That he did hold it was, perhaps, one of the two or three essential facts which together made Northern success possible, by the elimination of unfair and extrinsic causes of defeat.

One part only of the picture remains to be drawn, the House of Representatives. It is by no means conducive to a cheerful patriotic pride to contemplate the general throng of the politicians of the country during the war. In plain truth, they did themselves little credit. Amid the excitement of the times they utterly failed to appreciate their true position, their personal and official limitations. They could not let military matters alone; they did not often recognize the boundaries of their own knowledge, and the proper scope of their usefulness. They intermeddled ceaselessly, embroiled everything, and as a consequence they obstructed success in the field almost as much as if they had been another Confederate army. It has been with some difficulty that any one from among them has been found whose life it was desirable to write. But Thaddeus Stevens was really a man of great power and note. Intense and earnest, he exerted a magnificent influence in the way of encouragement and inspiration. He adhered, if not altogether so closely as he ought, yet at least more closely than did many others, to the proper sphere of his duties as a civilian. Influential in oratory, skillful in political management, masterful in temperament, and of unflinching loyalty, he was long the genuine leader of the House. In recalling the several members of that body he stands forth as the one striking and dominant figure. Nor did his activity cease with the war; he continued preeminent in the questions which immediately succeeded it, so that the reconstruction of the country, without which our story would be incomplete, finds its proper place in his biography. Therewith, I think, the series reaches completion.


September, 1898.





From an original, unretouched negative, made in 1864, at the time he commissioned Ulysses S. Grant Lieutenant-General and Commander of all the armies of the Republic. It is said that this negative, with one of General Grant, was made in commemoration of that event.

Autograph from the copy of the Gettysburg Address made by Lincoln for the Soldiers' and Sailors' Fair at Baltimore, in 1864, and now in the possession of Wm. J.A. Bliss, Esq., of that city.

The vignette of Lincoln's early home on Goose-Nest Prairie, near Farmington, Ill., is from a drawing after a photograph. This log cabin was built by Lincoln and his father in 1831.


From a photograph by Brady in the Library of the State Department at Washington.

Autograph from the Brady Register, owned by his nephew, Mr. Levin C. Handy, Washington, D.C.


From a photograph by Brady in the Library of the State Department at Washington.

Autograph from the Chamberlain collection, Boston Public Library.


From a photograph by Brady in the Library of the State Department at Washington.

Autograph from the Chamberlain collection, Boston Public Library.


From the painting by W.F. Halsall in the Capitol at Washington.




Abraham Lincoln knew little concerning his progenitors, and rested well content with the scantiness of his knowledge. The character and condition of his father, of whom alone upon that side of the house he had personal cognizance, did not encourage him to pry into the obscurity behind that luckless rover. He was sensitive on the subject; and when he was applied to for information, a brief paragraph conveyed all that he knew or desired to know. Without doubt he would have been best pleased to have the world take him solely for himself, with no inquiry as to whence he came,—as if he had dropped upon the planet like a meteorite; as, indeed, many did piously hold that he came a direct gift from heaven. The fullest statement which he ever made was given in December, 1859, to Mr. Fell, who had interrogated him with an eye "to the possibilities of his being an available candidate for the presidency in 1860:" "My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families,—second families, perhaps I should say. My mother ... was of a family of the name of Hanks, some of whom now remain in Adams, some others in Macon, counties, Illinois. My paternal grandfather, Abraham Lincoln, emigrated from Rockingham County, Virginia, to Kentucky, about 1781 or 1782.... His ancestors, who were Quakers, went to Virginia from Berks County, Pennsylvania. An effort to identify them with the New England family of the same name ended in nothing more definite than a similarity of Christian names in both families, such as Enoch, Levi, Mordecai, Solomon, Abraham, and the like." This effort to connect the President with the Lincolns of Massachusetts was afterward carried forward by others, who felt an interest greater than his own in establishing the fact. Yet if he had expected the quest to result satisfactorily, he would probably have been less indifferent about it; for it is obvious that, in common with all Americans of the old native stock, he had a strenuous desire to come of "respectable people;" and his very reluctance to have his apparently low extraction investigated is evidence that he would have been glad to learn that he belonged to an ancient and historical family of the old Puritan Commonwealth, settlers not far from Plymouth Rock, and immigrants not long after the arrival of the Mayflower. This descent has at last been traced by the patient genealogist.

So early as 1848 the first useful step was taken by Hon. Solomon Lincoln of Hingham, Massachusetts, who was struck by a speech delivered by Abraham Lincoln in the national House of Representatives, and wrote to ask facts as to his parentage. The response[1] stated substantially what was afterward sent to Mr. Fell, above quoted. Mr. Solomon Lincoln, however, pursued the search farther, and printed the results[2]. Later, Mr. Samuel Shackford of Chicago, Illinois, himself a descendant from the same original stock, pushed the investigation more persistently[3]. The chain, as put together by these two gentlemen, is as follows: Hingham, Massachusetts, was settled in 1635. In 1636 house lots were set off to Thomas Lincoln, the miller, Thomas Lincoln, the weaver, and Thomas Lincoln, the cooper. In 1638 other lots were set off to Thomas Lincoln, the husbandman, and to Stephen, his brother. In 1637 Samuel Lincoln, aged eighteen, came from England to Salem, Massachusetts, and three years later went to Hingham; he also was a weaver, and a brother of Thomas, the weaver. In 1644 there was a Daniel Lincoln in the place. All these Lincolns are believed to have come from the County of Norfolk in England[4], though what kinship existed between them is not known. It is from Samuel that the President appears to have been descended. Samuel's fourth son, Mordecai, a blacksmith, married a daughter of Abraham Jones of Hull;[5] about 1704 he moved to the neighboring town of Scituate, and there set up a furnace for smelting iron ore. This couple had six children, of whom two were named respectively Mordecai and Abraham; and these two are believed to have gone to Monmouth County, New Jersey. There Mordecai seems to have continued in the iron business, and later to have made another move to Chester County, Pennsylvania, still continuing in the same business, until, in 1725, he sold out all his "Mynes & Minerals, Forges, etc."[6] Then, migrating again, he settled in Amity, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, where, at last, death caught up with him. By his will, February 22, 1735-36, he bequeathed his land in New Jersey to John, his eldest son; and gave other property to his sons Mordecai and Thomas. He belied the old motto, for in spite of more than three removes he left a fair estate, and in the probate proceedings he is described as "gentleman."[7] In 1748 John sold all he had in New Jersey, and in 1758 moved into Virginia, settling in that part of Augusta County which was afterward set off as Rockingham County. Though his will has not been found, there is "ample proof," says Mr. Shackford, that he had five sons, named Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Thomas, and John. Of these, Abraham went to North Carolina, there married Mary Shipley, and by her had sons Mordecai, Josiah, and Thomas, who was born in 1778. In 1780 or 1782, as it is variously stated, this family moved to Kentucky. There, one day in 1784, the father, at his labor in the field, was shot by lurking Indians. His oldest son, working hard by, ran to the house for a gun; returning toward the spot where lay his father's body, he saw an Indian in the act of seizing his brother, the little boy named Thomas. He fired, with happy aim; the Indian fell dead, and Thomas escaped to the house. This Thomas it was who afterward became the father of Abraham Lincoln.[8] Of the other sons of Mordecai (great-uncles of the President), Thomas also went to Kentucky, Isaac went to Tennessee, while Jacob and John stayed in Virginia, and begat progeny who became in later times ferocious rebels, and of whom one wrote a very comical blustering letter to his relative the President;[9] and probably another, bearing oddly enough the name of Abraham, was a noted fighter.[10] It is curious to observe of what migratory stock we have here the sketch. Mr. Shackford calls attention to the fact that through six successive generations all save one were "pioneers in the settlement of new countries," thus: 1. Samuel came from England to Hingham, Massachusetts. 2. Mordecai lived and died at Scituate, close by the place of his birth. 3. Mordecai moved, and settled in Pennsylvania, in the neighborhood which afterward became Berks County, while it was still wilderness. 4. John moved into the wilds of Virginia. 5. Abraham went to the backwoods of Kentucky shortly after Boone's settlement. 6. Thomas moved first into the sparsely settled parts of Indiana, and thence went onward to a similar region in Illinois.

Thus in time was corroborated what Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1848 in one of the above-mentioned letters to Hon. Solomon Lincoln: "We have a vague tradition that my great-grandfather went from Pennsylvania to Virginia, and that he was a Quaker." It is of little consequence that this "vague tradition" was stoutly contradicted by the President's father, the ignorant Thomas, who indignantly denied that either a Puritan or a Quaker could be found in the line of his forbears, and who certainly seemed to set heredity at defiance if such were the case. But while thus repudiating others, Thomas himself was in some danger of being repudiated; for so pained have some persons been by the necessity of recognizing Thomas Lincoln as the father of the President, that they have welcomed, as a happy escape from this so miserable paternity, a bit of gratuitous and unsupported gossip, published, though perhaps with more of malice than of faith, by Mr. Herndon, to the effect that Abraham Lincoln was the illegitimate son of some person unknown, presumably some tolerably well-to-do Kentuckian, who induced Thomas to assume the role of parent.

Upon the mother's side the ancestral showing is meagre, and fortunately so, since the case seems to be a bad one beyond reasonable hope. Her name was Nancy Hanks. She was born in Virginia, and was the illegitimate child of one Lucy Hanks.[11] Nor was she the only instance of illegitimacy[12] in a family which, by all accounts, seems to have been very low in the social scale. Mr. Herndon calls them by the dread name of "poor whites," and gives an unappetizing sketch of them.[13] Throughout his pages and those of Lamon there is abundant and disagreeable evidence to show the correctness of his estimate. Nancy Hanks herself, who certainly was not to blame for her parentage, and perhaps may have improved matters by an infusion of better blood from her unknown father, is described by some as a very rare flower to have bloomed amid the bed of ugly weeds which surrounded her. These friendly writers make her a gentle, lovely, Christian creature, too delicate long to survive the roughness of frontier life and the fellowship of the shiftless rover to whom she was unfittingly wedded.[14] Whatever she may have been, her picture is exceeding dim, and has been made upon scant and not unquestionable evidence. Mr. Lincoln seems not often to have referred to her; but when he did so it was with expressions of affection for her character and respect for her mental qualities, provided at least that it was really of her, and not of his stepmother, that he was speaking,—a matter not clear from doubt.[15]

On June 10, 1806, Thomas Lincoln gave bond in the "just and full sum of fifty pounds" to marry Nancy Hanks, and two days later, June 12, he did so, in Washington County, Kentucky.[16] She was then twenty-three years old. February 12, 1807, their daughter Sarah was born, who was married and died leaving no issue. February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born; no other children came save a boy who lived only a few days.

The domestic surroundings amid which the babe came into life were wretched in the extreme. All the trustworthy evidence depicts a condition of what civilized people call misery. It is just as well to acknowledge a fact which cannot now be obscured by any amount of euphemism. Yet very many of Lincoln's biographers have been greatly concerned to color this truth, which he himself, with his honest nature, was never willing to misrepresent, however much he resisted efforts to give it a general publicity. He met curious inquiry with reticence, but with no attempt to mislead. Some of his biographers, however, while shunning direct false statements, have used alleviating adjectives with literary skill, and have drawn fanciful pictures of a pious frugal household, of a gallant frontiersman endowed with a long catalogue of noble qualities, and of a mother like a Madonna in the wilderness.[17] Yet all the evidence that there is goes to show that this romantic coloring is purely illusive. Rough, coarse, low, ignorant, and poverty-stricken surroundings were about the child; and though we may gladly avail ourselves of the possibility of believing his mother to have been superior to all the rest of it, yet she could by no means leaven the mass. The father[18] was by calling a carpenter, but not good at his trade, a shiftless migratory squatter by invincible tendency, and a very ignorant man, for a long while able only to form the letters which made his signature, though later he extended his accomplishments a little. He rested not much above the very bottom of existence in the pioneer settlements, apparently without capacity or desire to do better. The family was imbued with the peculiar, intense, but unenlightened form of Christianity, mingled with curious superstition, prevalent in the backwoods, and begotten by the influence of the vast wilderness upon illiterate men of a rude native force. It interests scholars to trace the evolutions of religious faiths, but it might be not less suggestive to study the retrogression of religion into superstition. Thomas was as restless in matters of creed as of residence, and made various changes in both during his life. These were, however, changes without improvement, and, so far as he was concerned, his son Abraham might have grown up to be what he himself was contented to remain.

It was in the second year after his marriage that Thomas Lincoln made his first removal. Four years later he made another. Two or three years afterwards, in the autumn of 1816, he abandoned Kentucky and went into Indiana. Some writers have given to this migration the interesting character of a flight from a slave-cursed society to a land of freedom, but whatever poetic fitness there might be in such a motive, the suggestion is entirely gratuitous and without the slightest foundation.[19] In making this move, Thomas's outfit consisted of a trifling parcel of tools and cooking utensils, with ever so little bedding, and four hundred gallons of whiskey. At his new quarters he built a "half-faced camp" fourteen feet square, that is to say, a covered shed of three sides, the fourth side being left open to the weather. In this, less snug than the winter's cave of a bear, the family dwelt for a year, and then were translated to the luxury of a "cabin," four-walled indeed, but which for a long while had neither floor, door, nor window. Amid this hardship and wretchedness Nancy Lincoln passed away, October 5, 1818, of that dread and mysterious disease, the scourge of those pioneer communities, known as the "milk-sickness."[20] In a rough coffin, fashioned by her husband "out of green lumber cut with a whip-saw," she was laid away in the forest clearing, and a few months afterward an itinerant preacher performed some funeral rites over the poor woman's humble grave.

For a year Thomas Lincoln was a widower. Then he went back to Kentucky, and found there Mrs. Sally Johnston, a widow, whom, when she was the maiden Sarah Bush, he had loved and courted, and by whom he had been refused. He now asked again, and with better success. The marriage was a little inroad of good luck into his career; for the new wife was thrifty and industrious, with the ambition and the capacity to improve the squalid condition of her husband's household. She had, too, worldly possessions of bedding and furniture, enough to fill a four-horse wagon. She made her husband put a floor, a door, and windows to his cabin. From the day of her advent a new spirit made itself felt amid the belongings of the inefficient Thomas. Her immediate effort was to make her new husband's children "look a little more human," and the youthful Abraham began to get crude notions of the simpler comforts and decencies of life. All agree that she was a stepmother to whose credit it is to be said that she manifested an intelligent kindness towards Abraham.

The opportunities for education were scant enough in that day and place. In his childhood in Kentucky Abraham got a few weeks with one teacher, and then a few weeks with another. Later, in Indiana, he studied a few months, in a scattered way. Probably he had instruction at home, for the sum of all the schooling which he had in his whole life was hardly one year;[21] a singular start upon the road to the presidency of the United States! The books which he saw were few, but a little later he laid hands upon them all and read and re-read them till he must have absorbed all their strong juice into his own nature. Nicolay and Hay give the list: The Bible; "Aesop's Fables;" "Robinson Crusoe;" "The Pilgrim's Progress;" a history of the United States; Weems's "Washington." He was doubtless much older when he devoured the Revised Statutes of Indiana in the office of the town constable. Dr. Holland adds Lives of Henry Clay and of Franklin (probably the famous autobiography), and Ramsay's "Washington;" and Arnold names Shakespeare and Burns. It was a small library, but nourishing. He used to write and to do sums in arithmetic on the wooden shovel by the fireside, and to shave off the surface in order to renew the labor.

As he passed from boyhood to youth his mental development took its characteristics from the popular demand of the neighborhood. He scribbled verses and satirical prose, wherein the coarse wit was adapted to the taste of the comrades whom it was designed to please; and it must be admitted that, after giving due weight to all ameliorating considerations, it is impossible to avoid disappointment at the grossness of the jesting. No thought, no word raised it above the low level of the audience made up of the laborers on the farms and the loungers in the groceries. The biographer who has made public "The First Chronicles of Reuben" deserves to be held in detestation.[22]

A more satisfactory form of intellectual effervescence consisted in writing articles on the American Government, Temperance, etc., and in speech-making to any who were near at the moment of inspiration. There is abundant evidence, also, that already Lincoln was regarded as a witty fellow, a rare mimic, and teller of jokes and stories; and therefore was the champion of the fields and the favorite of all the primitive social gatherings. This sort of life and popularity had its perils, for in that day and region men seldom met without drinking together; but all authorities are agreed that Lincoln, while the greatest talker, was the smallest drinker.

The stories told of his physical strength rival those which decorate the memory of Hercules. Others, which show his kindly and humane nature, are more valuable. Any or all of these may or may not be true, and, though they are not so poetical or marvelous as the myths which lend an antique charm to the heroes of classic and romantic lore, yet they compare fairly well with those which Weems has twined about the figure of the youthful Washington. There is a tale of the rescue of a pig from a quagmire, and another of the saving of a drunken man from freezing. There are many stories of fights; others of the lifting of enormous weights; and even some of the doing of great feats of labor in a day, though for such tasks Lincoln had no love. These are not worth recounting; there is store of such in every village about the popular local hero; and though historians by such folk-lore may throw a glamour about Lincoln's daily life, he himself, at the time, could hardly have seen much that was romantic or poetical in the routine of ill-paid labor and hard living. Until he came of age his "time" belonged to his father, who let him out to the neighbors for any job that offered, making him a man-of-all-work, without-doors and within. In 1825 he was thus earning six dollars a month, presumably besides board and lodging. Sometimes he slaughtered hogs, at thirty-one cents a day; and in this "rough work" he was esteemed especially efficient. Such was the making of a President in the United States in this nineteenth century!

Thomas Lincoln, like most men of his stamp, had the cheerful habit of laying the results of his own worthlessness to the charge of the conditions about him, which, naturally, he constantly sought to change, since it seemed that no change could bring him to a lower level than he had already found. As Abraham approached his "freedom-day," his luckless parent conceived the notion that he might do better in Illinois than he had done in Indiana. So he shuffled off the farm, for which he had never paid, and about the middle of February the family caravan, with their scanty household wares packed in an ox team, began a march which lasted fourteen days and entailed no small measure of hardship. They finally stopped at a bluff on the north bank of the north fork of the Sangamon, a stream which empties into the Ohio. Here Thomas Lincoln renewed the familiar process of "starting in life," and with an axe, a saw, and a knife built a rough cabin of hewed logs, with a smoke-house and "stable." Abraham, aided by John Hanks, cleared ten or fifteen acres of land, split the rails and fenced it, planted it with corn, and made it over to Thomas as a sort of bequest at the close of his term of legal infancy. His subsequent relationship with his parents, especially with his father, seems to have been slight, involving an occasional gift of money, a very rare visit, and finally a commonplace letter of Christian comfort when the old man was on his deathbed.[23]

At first Abraham's coming of age made no especial change in his condition; he continued to find such jobs as he could, as an example of which Is mentioned his bargain with Mrs. Nancy Miller "to split four hundred rails for every yard of brown jeans dyed with white walnut bark that would be necessary to make him a pair of trousers." After many months there arrived in the neighborhood one Denton Offut, one of those scheming, talkative, evanescent busybodies who skim vaguely over new territories. This adventurer had a cargo of hogs, pork, and corn, which he wanted to send to New Orleans, and the engagement fell to Lincoln and two comrades at the wage of fifty cents per day and a bonus of $60 for the three. It has been said that this and a preceding trip down the Mississippi first gave Lincoln a glimpse of slavery in concrete form, and that the spectacle of negroes "in chains, whipped and scourged," and of a slave auction, implanted in his mind an "unconquerable hate" towards the institution, so that he exclaimed: "If ever I get a chance to hit that thing, I'll hit it hard." So the loquacious myth-maker John Hanks asserts;[24] but Lincoln himself refers his first vivid impression to a later trip, made in 1841, when there were "on board ten or a dozen slaves shackled together with irons." Of this subsequent incident he wrote, fourteen years later, to his friend, Joshua Speed: "That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio or any other slave border. It is not fair for you to assume that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable."[25]

Of more immediate consequence was the notion which the rattle-brained Offut conceived of Lincoln's general ability. This lively patron now proposed to build a river steamboat, with "runners for ice and rollers for shoals and dams," of which his redoubtable young employee was to be captain. But this strange scheme gave way to another for opening in New Salem a "general store" of all goods. This small town had been born only a few months before this summer of 1831, and was destined to a brief but riotous life of some seven years' duration. Now it had a dozen or fifteen "houses," of which some had cost only ten dollars for the building; yet to the sanguine Offut it presented a fair field for retail commerce. He accordingly equipped his "store," and being himself engaged in other enterprises, he installed Lincoln as manager. Soon he also gave Lincoln a mill to run.

Besides all this patronage, Offut went about the region bragging in his extravagant way that his clerk "knew more than any man in the United States," would some day be President, and could now throw or thrash any man in those parts. Now it so happened that some three miles out from New Salem lay Clary's Grove, the haunt of a gang of frontier ruffians of the familiar type, among whom one Jack Armstrong was champion bully. Offut's boasting soon rendered an encounter between Lincoln and Armstrong inevitable, though Lincoln did his best to avoid it, and declared his aversion to "this woolling and pulling." The wrestling match was arranged, and the settlers flocked to it like Spaniards to a bull-fight. Battle was joined and Lincoln was getting the better of Armstrong, whereupon the "Clary's Grove boys," with fine chivalry, were about to rush in upon Lincoln and maim him, or worse, when the timely intervention of a prominent citizen possibly saved even the life of the future President.[26] Some of the biographers, borrowing the license of poets, have chosen to tell about the "boys" and the wrestling match with such picturesque epithets that the combat bids fair to appear to posterity as romantic as that of Friar Tuck and Robin Hood. Its consequence was that Armstrong and Lincoln were fast friends ever after. Wherever Lincoln was at work, Armstrong used to "do his loafing," and Lincoln made visits to Clary's Grove, and long afterward did a friendly service to "old Hannah," Armstrong's wife, by saving one of her vicious race from the gallows, which upon that especial occasion he did not happen to deserve. Also Armstrong and his gang gave Lincoln hearty political support, and an assistance at the polls which was very effective, for success generally smiled on that candidate who had as his constituency[27] the "butcher-knife boys," the "barefooted boys," the "half-horse, half-alligator men," and the "huge-pawed boys."

An item less susceptible of a poetic coloring is that about this time Lincoln ransacked the neighborhood in search of an English grammar, and getting trace of one six miles out from the settlement, he walked over to borrow or to buy it. He brought it back in triumph, and studied it exhaustively.

There are also some tales of his honesty which may stand without disgrace beside that of Washington and the cherry-tree, and may be better entitled to credit. It is said that, while he was "keeping shop" for Offut, a woman one day accidentally overpaid him by the sum of fourpence, and that he walked several miles that night to restore the sum to her before he slept. On another occasion, discovering that in selling half a pound of tea he had used too small a weight, he started instantly forth to make good the deficiency. Perhaps this integrity does not so much differentiate Lincoln from his fellows as it may seem to do, for it is said that honesty was the one distinguishing virtue of that queer society. None the less these legends are exponents, which the numerous fighting stories are not, of the genuine nature of the man. His chief trait all his life long was honesty of all kinds and in all things; not only commonplace, material honesty in dealings, but honesty in language, in purpose, in thought; honesty of mind, so that he could never even practice the most tempting of all deceits, a deceit against himself. This pervasive honesty was the trait of his identity, which stayed with him from beginning to end, when other traits seemed to be changing, appearing or disappearing, and bewildering the observer of his career. All the while the universal honesty was there.

It took less than a year for Offut's shop to come to ruin, for the proprietor to wander off into the unknown void from which he had come, and for Lincoln to find himself again without occupation. He won some local reputation by navigating the steamboat Talisman up the Sangamon River to Springfield; but nothing came of it.

The foregoing narrative ought to have given some idea of the moral and physical surroundings of Lincoln's early days. Americans need to carry their memories hardly fifty years back, in order to have a lively conception of that peculiar body of men which for many years was pushed out in front of civilization in the West. Waifs and strays from highly civilized communities, these wanderers had not civilization to learn, but rather they had shuffled off much that belonged to civilization, and afterwards they had to acquire it afresh. Among them crudity in thought and uncouthness in habits were intertwined in odd, incongruous crossings with the remnants of the more respectable customs with which they had once been familiar. Much they forgot and much they put away as being no longer useful; many of them—not all—became very ignorant without being stupid, very brutal without being barbarous. Finding life hard, they helped each other with a general kindliness which is impracticable among the complexities of elaborate social organizations. Those who were born on the land, among whom Lincoln belonged, were peculiar in having no reminiscences, no antecedent ideas derived from their own past, whereby to modify the influences of the immediate present. What they should think about men and things they gathered from what they saw and heard around them. Even the modification to be got from reading was of the slightest, for very little reading was possible, even if desired. An important trait of these Western communities was the closeness of personal intercourse in them, and the utter lack of any kind of barriers establishing strata of society. Individuals might differ ever so widely; but the wisest and the dullest, the most worthless and the most enterprising, had to rub shoulder to shoulder in daily life. Yet the variety was considerable: hardy and danger-loving pioneers fulfilling the requirements of romance; shiftless vagrants curiously combining utter inefficiency with a sort of bastard contempt for hardship; ruffians who could only offset against every brutal vice an ignoble physical courage; intelligent men whose observant eyes ranged over the whole region in a shrewd search after enterprise and profit; a few educated men, decent in apparel and bearing, useful in legislation and in preventing the ideal from becoming altogether vulgarized and debased; and others whose energy was chiefly of the tongue, the class imbued with a taste for small politics and the public business. All these and many other varieties were like ingredients cast together into a caldron; they could not keep apart, each with his own kind, to the degree which is customary in old established communities; but they all ceaselessly crossed and mingled and met, and talked, and dealt, and helped and hustled each other, and exerted upon each other that subtle inevitable influence resulting from such constant intercourse; and so they inoculated each other with certain characteristics which became common to all and formed the type of the early settler. Thus was made "the new West," "the great West," which was pushed ever onward, and endured along each successive frontier for about a generation. An eternal movement, a tireless coming and going, pervaded these men; they passed hither and thither without pause, phantasmagorically; they seemed to be forever "moving on," some because they were real pioneers and natural rovers, others because they were mere vagrants generally drifting away from creditors, others because the better chance seemed ever in the newer place, and all because they had struck no roots, gathered no associations, no home ties, no local belongings. The shopkeeper "moved on" when his notes became too pressing; the schoolmaster, after a short stay, left his school to some successor whose accomplishments could hardly be less than his own; clergymen ranged vaguely through the country, to preach, to pray, to bury, to marry, as the case might be; farmers heard of a more fruitful soil, and went to seek it. Men certainly had at times to work hard in order to live at all, yet it was perfectly possible for the natural idler to rove, to loaf, and to be shiftless at intervals, and to become as demoralized as the tramp for whom a shirt and trousers are the sum of worldly possessions. Books were scarce; many teachers hardly had as much book-learning as lads of thirteen years now have among ourselves. Men who could neither read nor write abounded, and a deficiency so common could hardly imply much disgrace or a marked inferiority; many learned these difficult arts only in mature years. Fighting was a common pastime, and when these rough fellows fought, they fought like savages; Lincoln's father bit off his adversary's nose in a fight, and a cousin lost the same feature in the same way; the "gouging" of eyes was a legitimate resource. The necessity of fighting might at any moment come to any one; even the combination of a peaceable disposition with formidable strength did not save Lincoln from numerous personal affrays, of which many are remembered, and not improbably many more have been forgotten. In spite of the picturesque adjectives which have been so decoratively used in describing the ruffian of the frontier, he seems to have been about what his class always is; and when these fellows had forced a fight, or "set up" a match, their chivalry never prevented any unfairness or brutality. A tale illustrative of the times is told of a closely contested election in the legislature for the office of state treasurer. The worsted candidate strode into the hall of the Assembly, and gallantly selecting four of the largest and strongest of those who had voted against him, thrashed them soundly. The other legislators ran away. But before the close of the session this pugilist, who so well understood practical politics, was appointed clerk of the Circuit Court and county recorder.[28]

Corn bread was the chief article of diet; potatoes were a luxury, and were often eaten raw like apples. To the people at large whiskey "straight" seemed the natural drink of man, and whiskey toddy was not distasteful to woman. To refuse to drink was to subject one's self to abuse and suspicion;[29] Lincoln's notorious lack of liking for it passed for an eccentricity, or a physical peculiarity. The customary social gatherings were at horse-racings, at corn-shuckings, at political speech-makings, at weddings, whereat the coarse proceedings would not nowadays bear recital; at log-rollings, where the neighbors gathered to collect the logs of a newly cleared lot for burning; and at house-raisings, where they kindly aided to set up the frame of a cabin for a new-comer; at camp-meetings, where the hysterical excitement of a community whose religion was more than half superstition found clamorous and painful vent;[30] or perchance at a hanging, which, if it met public approbation, would be sanctioned by the gathering of the neighbors within a day's journey of the scene. At dancing-parties men and women danced barefoot; indeed, they could hardly do better, since their foot-wear was apt to be either moccasins, or such boots as they themselves could make from the hides which they themselves had cured. In Lincoln's boyhood the hunting-shirt and leggings made of skins were a sufficiently respectable garb; and buckskin breeches dyed green were enough to captivate the heart of any girl who wished a fashionable lover; but by the time that he had become a young man, most self-respecting men had suits of jeans. The ugly butcher's knife and tomahawk, which had been essential as was the rapier to the costume of gentlemen two centuries earlier, began now to be more rarely seen at the belt about the waist. The women wore linsey-woolsey gowns, of home manufacture, and dyed according to the taste or skill of the wearer in stripes and bars with the brown juice of the butternut. In the towns it was not long before calico was seen, and calfskin shoes; and in such populous centres bonnets decorated the heads of the fair sex. Amid these advances in the art of dress Lincoln was a laggard, being usually one of the worst attired men of the neighborhood; not from affectation, but from a natural indifference to such matters. The sketch is likely to become classical in American history of the appearance which he presented with his scant pair of trousers, "hitched" by a single suspender over his shirt, and so short as to expose, at the lower end, half a dozen inches of "shinbone, sharp, blue, and narrow."

In the clearings the dwellings of these men were the "half-faced camp" open upon one side to the weather, or the doorless, floorless, and windowless cabin which, with prosperity, might be made luxurious by greased paper in the windows, and "puncheon" floors. The furniture was in keeping with this exterior. At a corner the bed was constructed by driving into the ground crotched sticks, whence poles extended to the crevices of the walls; upon these poles were laid boards, and upon these boards were tossed leaves and skins and such other alleviating material as could be found. Three-legged stools and a table were hewed from the felled trees with an axe, which was often the settler's only and invaluable tool, and which he would travel long miles to sharpen. If a woman wanted a looking-glass, she scoured a tin pan, but the temptation to inspect one's self must have been feeble. A very few kitchen utensils completed the outfit. Troughs served for washtubs, when wash tubs were used; and wooden ploughs broke up the virgin soil. The whole was little, if at all, more comfortable than the red man's wigwam. In "towns," so called, there was of course somewhat more of civilization than in the clearings. But one must not be misled by a name; a "town" might signify only a score of houses, and the length of its life was wholly problematical; a few days sufficed to build the wooden huts, which in a few years might be abandoned. In the early days there was almost no money among the people; sometimes barter was resorted to; one lover paid for his marriage license with maple sugar, another with wolf-scalps. More often a promise sufficed; credit was a system well understood, and promissory notes constituted an unquestioned and popular method of payment that would have made a millennium for Mr. Micawber. But however scant might be cash and houses, each town had its grocery, and these famous "stores" were by far the chief influence in shaping the ideas of the Westerner. There all congregated, the idlers all day long, the busy men in the evening; and there, stimulated by the whiskey of the proprietor, they gossiped about everybody's affairs, talked about business and the prospects of the neighborhood, and argued about the politics of the county, the State, and even of the nation. Jokes and stories, often most uncouth and gross, whiled away the time. It was in these groceries, and in the rough crucible of such talk, wherein grotesque imagery and extravagant phrases were used to ridicule pretension and to bring every man to his place, sometimes also to escape taking a hard fact too hardly, that what we now call "American humor," with its peculiar native flavor, was born. To this it is matter of tradition that Lincoln contributed liberally. He liked neighborly chat and discussion; and his fondness for political debate, and his gifts in tale and jest, made him the most popular man in every "store" that he entered. It is commonly believed that the effect of this familiarity with coarse talk did not afterward disappear, so that he never became fastidious in language or in story. But apologists of this habit are doubtless correct in saying that vulgarity in itself had no attraction for him; it simply did not repel him, when with it there was a flavor of humor or a useful point. Apparently it simply meant nothing to him; a mental attitude which is not difficult of comprehension in view of its origin.[31]

Some of the most picturesque and amusing pages of Ford's "History of Illinois" describe the condition of the bench and bar of these times.[32] "Boys, come in, our John is going to hold court," proclaimed the sheriff; and the "boys" loitered into the barroom of the tavern, or into a log cabin where the judge sat on the bed and thus, really from the woolsack, administered "law" mixed with equity as best he knew it. Usually these magistrates were prudent in guiding the course of practical justice, and rarely summed up the facts lest they should make dangerous enemies, especially in criminal cases; they often refused to state the law, and generally for a very good reason. They liked best to turn the whole matter over to the jurors, who doubtless "understood the case, and would do justice between the parties." The books of the science were scarce, and lawyers who studied them were perhaps scarcer. But probably substantial fairness in decision did not suffer by reason of lack of sheepskin learning.

Politics for a long while were strictly personal; the elections did not turn upon principles or measures, but upon the popular estimate of the candidates individually. Political discussion meant unstinted praise and unbounded vilification. A man might, if he chose, resent a vote against himself as a personal insult, and hence arose much secrecy and the "keep dark" system. Stump-speaking, whiskey, and fighting were the chief elements of a campaign, and the worst class in society furnished the most efficient backing.[33]

Such was the condition of men and things in the neighborhood where Abraham Lincoln was shaping in the days of his youth. Yet it was a condition which did not last long; Illinois herself changed and grew as rapidly as any youngster within her borders. The rate of advance in all that goes to make up what we now regard as a civilized society was astonishing. Between the time when Lincoln was fifteen and when he was twenty-five, the alteration was so great as to be confusing. One hardly became familiar with a condition before it had vanished. Some towns began to acquire an aspect of permanence; clothes and manners became like those prevalent in older communities; many men were settling down in established residence, identifying themselves with the fortunes of their neighborhood. Young persons were growing up and staying where they had been "raised," as the phrase of a farming community had it. Comfortable and presentable two-story houses lent an air of prosperity and stimulated ambition; law-books began to be collected in small numbers; and debts were occasionally paid in money, and could often be collected by legal process. These improvements were largely due to the swelling tide of immigration which brought men of a better type to push their enterprises in a country presumably emerging from its disagreeable stage. But the chief educational influence was to be found in the Anglo-American passion for an argument and a speech. Hand in hand, as has so long been the custom in our country, law and politics moved among the people, who had an inborn, inherited taste for both; these stimulated and educated the settlers in a way that only Americans can appreciate. When Lincoln, as is soon to be seen, turned to them, he turned to what then and there appeared the highest callings which could tempt intellect and ambition.

The preeminently striking feature in Lincoln's nature—not a trait of character, but a characteristic of the man—which is noteworthy in these early days, and grew more so to the very latest, was the extraordinary degree to which he always appeared to be in close and sympathetic touch with the people, that is to say, the people in the mass wherein he was imbedded, the social body amid which he dwelt, which pressed upon him on all sides, which for him formed "the public." First this group or body was only the population of the frontier settlement; then it widened to include the State of Illinois; then it expanded to the population of the entire North; and such had come to be the popular appreciation of this remarkably developed quality that, at the time of his death, his admirers even dared to believe that it would be able to make itself one with all the heterogeneous, discordant, antagonistic elements which then composed the very disunited United States. It is by reason of this quality that it has seemed necessary to depict so far as possible that peculiar, transitory phase of society which surrounded his early days. This quality in him caused him to be exceptionally susceptible to the peculiar influences of the people among whom his lot was cast. This quality for a while prevented his differentiating himself from them, prevented his accepting standards and purposes unlike theirs either in speech or action, prevented his rising rapidly to a higher moral plane than theirs. This quality kept him essentially one of them, until his "people" and his "public" expanded beyond them. It has been the fashion of his admirers to manifest an extreme distaste for a truthful presentation of his earlier days. Some writers have passed very lightly over them; others, stating plain facts with a formal accuracy, have used their skill to give to the picture an untruthful miscoloring; two or three, instinct with the spirit of Zola, have made their sketch with plain unsparing realism in color as well as in lines, and so have brought upon themselves abuse, and perhaps have deserved much of it, by reason of a lack of skill in doing an unwelcome thing, or rather by reason of overdoing it. The feeling which has led to suppression or to a falsely romantic description seems to me unreasonable and wrong. The very quality which made Lincoln, as a young man, not much superior to his coarse surroundings was precisely the same quality which, ripening and expanding rapidly and grandly with maturing years and a greater circle of humanity, made him what he was in later life. It is through this quality that we get continuity in him; without it, we cannot evade the insoluble problem of two men,—two lives,—one following the other with no visible link of connection between them; without it we have physically one creature, morally and mentally two beings. If we reject this trait, we throw away the only key which unlocks the problem of the most singular life, taken from end to end, which has ever been witnessed among men, a life which many have been content to regard as an unsolved enigma. But if we admit and really perceive and feel the full force of this trait, developed in him in a degree probably unequaled in the annals of men, then, besides the enlightenment which it brings, we have the great satisfaction of eliminating much of the disagreeableness attendant upon his youthful days. Even the commonness and painful coarseness of his foolish written expressions become actually an exponent of his chief and crowning quality, his receptiveness and his expression of humanity,—that is to say, of all the humanity he then knew. At first he expressed what he could discern with the limited, inexperienced vision of the ignorant son of a wretched vagrant pioneer; later he gave expression to the humanity of a people engaged in a purpose physically and morally as vast and as grand as any enterprise which the world has seen. Thus, with perfect fairness, without wrenching or misrepresentation or sophistry, the ugliness of his youth ceases to be his own and becomes only the presentation of a curious social condition. In his youth he expressed a low condition, in later life a noble one; at each period he expressed correctly what he found. His day and generation uttered itself through him. With such thoughts, and from this point of view, it is possible to contemplate Lincoln's early days, amid all their degraded surroundings and influences and unmarked by apparent antagonism or obvious superiority on his part, without serious dismay.


[1] Two letters, now in the possession of Mr. Francis H. Lincoln of Boston, Mass.

[2] New England Hist. and Gen. Register, October, 1865.

[3] Ibid. April, 1887, vol. xli. p. 153.

[4] See articles in N.E.H. and G. Reg. above cited. Mr. Lincoln's article states that in Norwich, Norfolk County, Eng., there is a "curious chased copper box with the inscription 'Abraham Lincoln, Norwich, 1731;'" also in St. Andrew's Church in the same place a mural tablet: "In memory of Abraham Lincoln, of this parish, who died July 13, 1798, aged 79 years." Similarities of name are also noted.

[5] A town adjoining Hingham, Mass.

[6] His brother Abraham also resided in Chester County, and died there, April, 1745.

[7] N. and H. i. 3.

[8] A different pedigree, published in the Lancaster Intelligencer, September 24, 1879, by David J. Lincoln of Birdsboro, Berks County, Penn., is refuted by George Lincoln of Hingham, Mass., in the Hingham Journal, October 10, 1879.

[9] N. and H. i. 4 note.

[10] N. and H. i. 4 note.

[11] Herndon, 3.

[12] The unpleasant Dennis Hanks was an illegitimate son of an "aunt of the President's mother." Herndon, 13; and see Lamon, 12.

[13] Herndon, 14.

[14] Holland, 23; Lamon, 11; N. and H. i. 24; Herndon, 13, 28; Raymond, 20; but Raymond is no authority as to Lincoln's youth, and Holland is little more valuable for the same period.

[15] Lamon, 32. But see Herndon, 13.

[16] N. and H. 23; Herndon, 5; but see Lamon, 10.

[17] For instance, see the pages of the first chapter of the Life by Arnold, a book which becomes excellent after the author has got free from the fancied necessities of creating an appropriate background for the origin and childhood of the hero. So, more briefly, Raymond, who gives no authority to support the faith which is in him.

[18] For description of him, see Lamon, 8, 9; Herndon, 11.

[19] Herndon, 19; Lamon, 16; Holland, 25.

[20] Herndon, 25-28; Lamon, 26-28.

[21] Herndon, 34-37, 41; Lamon, 34-36; Holland, 28.

[22] Mr. Herndon did this ill deed; 50-54. Lamon prefers to say that most of this literature is "too indecent for publication," 63.

[23] Thomas Lincoln died January 17, 1851.

[24] Herndon, 75, 76; Lamon, 82; Arnold, 30; N. and H. i. 72.

[25] N. and H. i. 74.

[26] Lamon, 92, 93, has the best account of this famous encounter.

[27] Ford, Hist. of Illinois, 88.

[28] Ford, Hist. of Illinois, 81.

[29] See anecdote in The Good Old Times in McLean County, 48.

[30] "The jerks" was the graphic name of an attack not uncommon at these religious meetings.

[31] See Herndon, 104, 118; Holland has some singular remarks on this subject, p. 83; N. and H., i. 121, say that Lincoln was "clean of speech,"—an agreeable statement, for which one would like to have some authority.

[32] Ford, Hist. of Illinois, 82-86.

[33] Ford, Hist. of Illinois, 55, 86, 88,104; Herndon, 103; N. and H. i. 107; Lamon, 124, 230.



In Illinois during the years of Lincoln's boyhood the red man was retiring sullenly before the fatal advance of the white man's frontier. Shooting, scalping, and plundering forays still occurred, and in the self-complaisant reminiscences of the old settlers of that day the merciless and mysterious savage is apt to lend to the narrative the lively coloring of mortal danger.[34] In the spring of 1832 a noted chief of the Sacs led a campaign of such importance that it lives in history under the dignified title of "the Black Hawk war." The Indians gathered in numbers so formidable that Governor Reynolds issued a call for volunteers to aid the national forces. Lincoln, left unemployed by the failure of Offut, at once enlisted. The custom then was, so soon as there were enough recruits for a company, to elect a captain by vote. The method was simple: each candidate stood at some point in the field and the men went over to one or another according to their several preferences. Three fourths of the company to which Lincoln belonged ranged themselves with him, and long afterward he used to say that no other success in life had given him such pleasure as did this one.

The company was attached to the Fourth Illinois Regiment, commanded by Colonel Samuel Thompson, in the brigade of General Samuel Whiteside. On April 27 they started for the scene of conflict, and for many days endured much hardship of hunger and rough marching. But thereby they escaped serious danger, for they were too fatigued to go forward on May 12, when the cavalry battalions rode out gallantly, recklessly, perhaps a little stupidly, into ambush and death. It so happened that Lincoln never came nearer to any engagement than he did to this one of "Stillman's Run;" so that in place of military glory he had to be content with the reputation of being the best comrade and story-teller at the camp fire. He had, however, an opportunity to do one honorable act: the brief term of service of the volunteers expired on May 27, and most of them eagerly hastened away from an irksome task, without regard to the fact that their services were still much needed, whereas Lincoln and some other officers reenlisted as privates. They were made the "Independent Spy Battalion" of mounted volunteers, were given many special privileges, but were concerned in no engagement, and erelong were mustered out of service. Lincoln's certificate of discharge was signed by Robert Anderson, who afterward was in command at Fort Sumter at the outbreak of the rebellion. Thus, late in June, Lincoln was again a civilian in New Salem, and was passing from war to politics.

Nomination by caucus had not yet been introduced into Illinois,[35] and any person who wished to be a candidate for an elective office simply made public announcement of the fact and then conducted his campaign as best he could.[36] On March 9, 1832, shortly before his enlistment, Lincoln issued a manifesto "To the People of Sangamon County," in which he informed them that he should run as a candidate for the state legislature at the autumn elections, and told them his political principles.[37] He was in favor of internal improvements, such as opening roads, clearing streams, building a railroad across Sangamon County, and making the Sangamon River straight and navigable. He advocated a usury law, and hazarded the extraordinary argument that "in cases of extreme necessity there could always be means found to cheat the law; while in all other cases it would have its intended effect." A law ameliorated by infractions is no uncommon thing, but this is perhaps the only instance in which a law has been befriended on the ground that it can be circumvented. He believed that every man should "receive at least a moderate education." He deprecated changes in existing laws; for, he said, "considering the great probability that the framers of those laws were wiser than myself, I should prefer not meddling with them." The clumsy phraseology of his closing paragraph coupled not badly a frank avowal of ambition with an ingenuous expression of personal modesty. The principles thus set forth were those of Clay and the Whigs, and at this time the "best people" in Sangamon County belonged to this party. The Democrats, on the other hand, did not much concern themselves with principles, but accepted General Jackson in place thereof, as constituting in himself a party platform. In the rough-and-tumble pioneer community they could not do better, and for many years they had controlled the State; indeed, Lincoln himself had felt no small loyalty towards a President who admirably expressed Western civilization. Now, however, he considered himself "an avowed Clay man,"[38] and besides the internal improvement system he spoke also for a national bank and a high protective tariff; probably he knew very little about either, but his partisanship was perfect, for if there was any distinguishing badge of an anti-Jackson Whig, it certainly was advocacy of a national bank.

After his return from the "war," Lincoln set about electioneering with a good show of energy. He hardly anticipated success, but at least upon this trial trip he expected to make himself known to the people and to gain useful experience. He "stumped" his own county thoroughly, and is said to have made speeches which were blunt, crude, and inartificial, but not displeasing to his audiences. A story goes that once "a general fight" broke out among his hearers, and one of his friends was getting roughly handled, whereupon Lincoln, descending from the rostrum, took a hand in the affray, tossed one of the assailants "ten or twelve feet easily," and then continued his harangue. Yet not even thus could he win, and another was chosen over his head. He had, however, more reason to be gratified than disappointed with the result; for, though in plain fact he was a raw and unknown youngster, he stood third upon a list of eight candidates, receiving 657 votes; and out of 208 votes cast in his own county he scored 205.[39] In this there was ample encouragement for the future.

The political campaign being over, and legislative functions postponed, Lincoln was brought face to face with the pecuniary problem. He contemplated, not without approbation, the calling of the blacksmith; but the chance to obtain a part interest in a grocery "store" tempted him into an occupation for which he was little fitted. He became junior partner in the firm of Berry & Lincoln, which, by executing and delivering sundry notes of hand, absorbed the whole grocery business of the town. But Lincoln was hopelessly inefficient behind the counter, and Berry was a tippler. So in a year's time the store "winked out," leaving as its only important trace those ill-starred scraps of paper by which it had been founded. Berry "moved on" from the inconvenient neighborhood, and soon afterward died, contributing nothing to reduce the indebtedness. Lincoln patiently continued to make payments during several years to come, until he had discharged the whole amount. It was only a few hundred dollars, but to him it seemed so enormous that betwixt jest and earnest he called it "the national debt." So late as in 1848, when he was a member of the House of Representatives at Washington, he applied part of his salary to this old indebtedness.

During this "store"-keeping episode he had begun to study law, and while "keeping shop" he was with greater diligence reading Blackstone and such other elementary classics of the profession as he could borrow. He studied with zeal and became absorbed in his books. Perched upon a woodpile, or lying under a tree with his feet thrust upwards against the trunk and "grinding around with the shade," he caused some neighbors to laugh uproariously, and others to say that he was daft. In fact, he was in grim earnest, and held on his way with much persistence.

May 7, 1833, Lincoln was commissioned as postmaster at New Salem. His method of distributing the scanty mail was to put all the letters in his hat, and to hand them out as he happened to meet the persons to whom they were addressed. The emoluments could hardly have gone far towards the discharge of "the national debt." His incumbency in this office led to a story worth telling. When New Salem, and by necessity also the post-office, like the grocery shop, "winked out," in 1836, there was a trifling balance of sixteen or eighteen dollars due from Lincoln to the government. Several years afterward, when he was practicing law in Springfield, the government agent at last appeared to demand a settlement. Lincoln went to his trunk and drew forth "an old blue sock with a quantity of silver and copper coin tied up in it," the identical bits of money which he had gathered from the people at New Salem, and which, through many days of need in the long intervening period, he had not once touched.

Fortunately an occupation now offered itself which was more lucrative, and possessed also the valuable quality of leaving niches of leisure for the study of the law. The mania for speculation in land had begun in Illinois; great tracts were being cut up into "town lots," and there was as lively a market for real estate as the world has ever seen. The official surveyor of the county, John Calhoun, had more work than he could do, and offered to appoint Lincoln as a deputy. A little study made him competent for the work, which he performed for some time with admirable accuracy, if the stories are to be believed. But he had not long enjoyed the mild prosperity of this new career ere an untoward interruption came from a creditor of the extinct grocery firm. This man held one of the notes representing "the national debt," and now levied execution upon Lincoln's horse and surveying instruments. Two friends, however, were at hand in this hour of need, and Bolin Greene and James Short are gratefully remembered as the men who generously furnished, in that actual cash which was so scarce in Illinois, the sums of one hundred and twenty-five dollars and one hundred and twenty dollars respectively, to redeem these essential implements of Lincoln's business.

The summer of 1834 found Lincoln again a candidate for the legislature. He ran as a Whig, but he received and accepted offers of aid from the Democrats, and their votes swelled the flattering measure of his success. It has usually been stated that he led the four successful candidates, the poll standing: Lincoln, 1,376; Dawson, 1,370; Carpenter, 1,170; Stuart, 1,164. But Mr. Herndon adduces evidence that Dawson's number was 1,390, whereby Lincoln is relegated to the second place. Holland tells us that he "shouldered his pack and on foot trudged to Vandalia, then the capital of the State, about a hundred miles, to make his entrance into public life." But the correcting pen of the later biographer interferes with this dramatic incident also. For it seems that, after the result of the election was known, Lincoln visited a friend, Coleman Smoot, and said: "Did you vote for me?" "I did," replied Smoot. "Then," said Lincoln, "you must lend me two hundred dollars!" This seemed a peculiar sequitur, for ordinary political logic would have made any money that was to pass between voter and candidate move the other way. Yet Smoot accepted the consequence entailed in part by his own act, and furnished the money, whereby Lincoln was able to purchase a new suit of clothes and to ride in the stage to Vandalia.

The records of this legislature show nothing noteworthy. Lincoln was very inappropriately placed on the Committee on Public Accounts and Expenditures; also it is recorded that he introduced a resolution to obtain for the State a part of the proceeds of the public lands sold within it. What has chiefly interested the chroniclers is, that at this session he first saw Stephen A. Douglas, then a lobbyist, and said of him: "He is the least man I ever saw." Lincoln's part seems to have been rather that of an observer than of an actor. The account given is that he was watching, learning, making acquaintances, prudently preparing for future success, rather than endeavoring to seize it too greedily. In fact, there is reason to believe that his thoughts were intent on far other matter than the shaping of laws and statutes. For to this period belongs the episode of Ann Rutledge. The two biographers whose personal knowledge is the best regard this as the one real romance of Lincoln's life. Heretofore he had held himself shyly aloof from women's society, but this maiden won his heart. She comes before posterity amid a glamour of rhetorical description, which attributes to her every grace of form and feature, every charm of character and intellect. She was but a schoolgirl of seventeen years when two men became her lovers; a year or more afterward she became engaged to one of them, but before they could be married he made a somewhat singular excuse for going to New York on family affairs. His absence was prolonged and his letters became few. People said that the girl had been deceived, and Lincoln began to hope that the way was clearing for him. But under the prolonged strain Miss Rutledge's health broke down, and on August 25, 1835, she died of brain fever. Lincoln was allowed to see her as she lay near her end. The effect upon him was grievous. Many declared him crazy, and his friends feared that he might go so far as to take his own life; they watched him closely, and one of them at last kindly took him away from the scene of his sufferings for a while, and bore him constant and cheering company. In time the cloud passed, but it seems certain that on only one or two other occasions in his life did that deep melancholy, which formed a permanent background to his temperament, take such overmastering, such alarming and merciless possession of him. He was afflicted sorely with a constitutional tendency to gloom, and the evil haunted him all his life long. Like a dark fog-bank it hung, always dull and threatening, on the verge of his horizon, sometimes rolling heavily down upon him, sometimes drawing off into a more or less remote distance, but never wholly disappearing. Every one saw it in his face and often felt it in his manner, and few pictures of him have been made so bad as not in some degree to present it. The access of it which was brought on by this unhappy love affair was somewhat odd and uncouth in its manifestations, but was so genuine and sincere that one feels that he was truly undergoing the baptism of a great sorrow.

At no other point is there more occasion to note this trait of character, which presents a curious and interesting subject for study. Probably no exhaustive solution is possible. One wanders off into the mystery of human nature, loses his way in the dimness of that which can be felt but cannot be expressed, and becomes aware of even dimmer regions beyond in which it is vain to grope. It is well known that the coarse and rough side of life among the pioneers had its reaction in a reserved and at times morose habit, nearly akin to sadness, at least in those who frequented the wilderness; it was the expression of the influence of the vast, desolate, and lonely nature amid which they passed their lives. It is true that Lincoln was never a backwoodsman, and never roved alone for long periods among the shadowy forests and the limit-less prairies, so that their powerful and weird influences, though not altogether remote, never bore upon him in full force; yet their effect was everywhere around him, and through others he imbibed it, for his disposition was sensitive and sympathetic for such purposes. That there was also a simple prosaic physical inducement cannot be denied. Hardship and daily discomfort in all the arrangements of life counted for something, and especially so the bad food, greasy, unwholesome, horribly cooked, enough to afflict an ostrich with the blue devils of dyspepsia. The denizen of the town devoured messes vastly worse than the simple meal of the hunter and trapper, and did not counteract the ill effect by hard exercise in the free, inspiring air. Such facts must be considered, though they diminish the poetry which rhetoricians and sentimentalists have cast over the melancholy of Lincoln's temperament. Yet they fall far short of wholly accounting for a gloom which many have loved to attribute to the mysticism of a great destiny, as though the awful weight of his immense task was making itself felt in his strange, brooding nature long years before any human prophet could have forecast any part of that which was to come. In this apparent vague consciousness of the oppression of a great burden of toil, duty, and responsibility, casting its shadow so far before, there is something so fascinating to the imagination of man that we cannot quite forego it, or accept any explanation which would compel us altogether to part with it. The shuddering awe and terrible sense of fate, which the grandeur of the Greek tragedies so powerfully expresses, come to us when we contemplate this strange cloud which never left Lincoln in any year after his earliest youth, although some traits in his character seemed often incomprehensibly to violate it, and like rebellious spirits to do outrage to it, while, in fact, they only made it the more striking, picturesque, and mysterious. But, after all explanations have been made, the conclusion must be that there is no one and only thread to guide us through the labyrinth to the heart of this singular trait, and each of us must follow that which his own nature renders intelligible or congenial for him. To us, who know the awful closing acts of his life-drama, it seems so appropriate that there should be an impressive unity, and so an inevitable backward influence working from the end towards the beginning, that we cannot avoid, nor would avoid, an instinctive belief that an occult moral and mental condition already existed in the years of Lincoln's life which we are now observing, although the profound cause of that condition lay wholly in the future, in the years which were still far away. There is a charm in the very unreason and mysticism of such a faith, and mankind will never quite fail to fancy, if not actually to believe, that the life which Lincoln had to live in the future wrought in some inexplicable way upon the life which he was living in the present. The explanation is not more strange than the enigma.

Returning now to the narrative, an unpleasant necessity is encountered. It must be confessed that the atmosphere of romance which lingers around this love-tale of the fair and sweet Ann Rutledge, so untimely taken away, is somewhat attenuated by the fact that only some fifteen months rolled by after she was laid in the ground before Lincoln was again intent upon matrimony. In the autumn of 1836 Miss Mary Owens, of Kentucky, appeared in New Salem,—a comely lass, with "large blue eyes," "fine trimmings," and a long and varied list of attractions. Lincoln immediately began to pay court to her, but in an ungainly and morbid fashion. It is impossible to avoid feeling that his mind was not yet in a natural and healthy condition. While offering to marry her, he advised her not to have him. Upon her part she found him "deficient in those little links which make up the chain of woman's happiness." So she would none of him, but wedded another and became the mother of some Confederate soldiers. Lincoln did not suffer on this second occasion as he had done on the first; and in the spring of 1838 he wrote upon the subject one of the most unfortunate epistles ever penned, in which he turned the whole affair into coarse and almost ribald ridicule. In fact he seems as much out of place in dealing with women and with love as he was in place in dealing with politicians and with politics, and it is pleasant to return from the former to the latter topics.[40]

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