The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7


iSpeech

Thus he won a neighborhood reputation as a clever young man,
which he increased by his performances as a speaker, not seldom
drawing upon himself the dissatisfaction of his employers by
mounting a stump in the field, and keeping the farm hands from
their work by little speeches in a jocose and sometimes also a
serious vein. At the rude social frolics of the settlement he
became an important person, telling funny, stories, mimicking the
itinerant preachers who had happened to pass by, and making his
mark at wrestling matches, too; for at the age of seventeen he
had attained his full height, six feet four inches in his
stockings, if he had any, and a terribly muscular clodhopper he
was. But he was known never to use his extraordinary strength to
the injury or humiliation of others; rather to do them a kindly
turn, or to enforce justice and fair dealing between them. All
this made him a favorite in backwoods society, although in some
things he appeared a little odd, to his friends. Far more than
any of them, he was given not only to reading, but to fits of
abstraction, to quiet musing with himself, and also to strange
spells of melancholy, from which he often would pass in a moment
to rollicking outbursts of droll humor. But on the whole he was
one of the people among whom he lived; in appearance perhaps even
a little more uncouth than most of them,--a very tall, rawboned
youth, with large features, dark, shrivelled skin, and rebellious
hair; his arms and legs long, out of proportion; clad in deerskin
trousers, which from frequent exposure to the rain had shrunk so
as to sit tightly on his limbs, leaving several inches of bluish
shin exposed between their lower end and the heavy tan-colored
shoes; the nether garment held usually by only one suspender,
that was strung over a coarse homemade shirt; the head covered in
winter with a coonskin cap, in summer with a rough straw hat of
uncertain shape, without a band.

It is doubtful whether he felt himself much superior to his
surroundings, although he confessed to a yearning for some
knowledge of the world outside of the circle in which he lived.
This wish was gratified; but how? At the age of nineteen he went
down the Mississippi to New Orleans as a flatboat hand,
temporarily joining a trade many members of which at that time
still took pride in being called "half horse and half alligator."
After his return he worked and lived in the old way until the
spring of 1830, when his father "moved again," this time to
Illinois; and on the journey of fifteen days "Abe" had to drive
the ox wagon which carried the household goods. Another log
cabin was built, and then, fencing a field, Abraham Lincoln split
those historic rails which were destined to play so picturesque a
part in the Presidential campaign twenty-eight years later.

Having come of age, Lincoln left the family, and "struck out for
himself." He had to "take jobs whenever he could get them." The
first of these carried him again as a flatboat hand to New
Orleans. There something happened that made a lasting impression
upon his soul: he witnessed a slave auction. "His heart bled,"
wrote one of his companions; "said nothing much; was silent;
looked bad. I can say, knowing it, that it was on this trip that
he formed his opinion on slavery. It run its iron in him then
and there, May, 1831. I have heard him say so often." Then he
lived several years at New Salem, in Illinois, a small mushroom
village, with a mill, some "stores" and whiskey shops, that rose
quickly, and soon disappeared again. It was a desolate,
disjointed, half-working and half-loitering life, without any
other aim than to gain food and shelter from day to day. He
served as pilot on a steamboat trip, then as clerk in a store and
a mill; business failing, he was adrift for some time. Being
compelled to measure his strength with the chief bully of the
neighborhood, and overcoming him, he became a noted person in
that muscular community, and won the esteem and friendship of the
ruling gang of ruffians to such a degree that, when the Black
Hawk war broke out, they elected him, a young man of twenty-
three, captain of a volunteer company, composed mainly of roughs
of their kind. He took the field, and his most noteworthy deed
of valor consisted, not in killing an Indian, but in protecting
against his own men, at the peril of his own life, the life of an
old savage who had strayed into his camp.

The Black Hawk war over, he turned to politics. The step from
the captaincy of a volunteer company to a candidacy for a seat in
the Legislature seemed a natural one. But his popularity,
although great in New Salem, had not spread far enough over the
district, and he was defeated. Then the wretched hand-to-mouth
struggle began again. He "set up in store-business" with a
dissolute partner, who drank whiskey while Lincoln was reading
books. The result was a disastrous failure and a load of debt.
Thereupon he became a deputy surveyor, and was appointed
postmaster of New Salem, the business of the post-office being so
small that he could carry the incoming and outgoing mail in his
hat. All this could not lift him from poverty, and his surveying
instruments and horse and saddle were sold by the sheriff for
debt.

But while all this misery was upon him his ambition rose to
higher aims. He walked many miles to borrow from a schoolmaster
a grammar with which to improve his language. A lawyer lent him
a copy of Blackstone, and he began to study law.

People would look wonderingly at the grotesque figure lying in
the grass, "with his feet up a tree," or sitting on a fence, as,
absorbed in a book, he learned to construct correct sentences and
made himself a jurist. At once he gained a little practice,
pettifogging before a justice of the peace for friends, without
expecting a fee. Judicial functions, too, were thrust upon him,
but only at horse-races or wrestling matches, where his
acknowledged honesty and fairness gave his verdicts undisputed
authority. His popularity grew apace, and soon he could be a
candidate for the Legislature again. Although he called himself
a Whig, an ardent admirer of Henry Clay, his clever stump
speeches won him the election in the strongly Democratic
district. Then for the first time, perhaps, he thought seriously
of his outward appearance. So far he had been content with a
garb of "Kentucky jeans," not seldom ragged, usually patched, and
always shabby. Now, he borrowed some money from a friend to buy
a new suit of clothes--"store clothes" fit for a Sangamon County
statesman; and thus adorned he set out for the state capital,
Vandalia, to take his seat among the lawmakers.

His legislative career, which stretched over several sessions--
for he was thrice re-elected, in 1836, 1838, and 1840--was not
remarkably brilliant. He did, indeed, not lack ambition. He
dreamed even of making himself "the De Witt Clinton of Illinois,"
and he actually distinguished himself by zealous and effective
work in those "log-rolling" operations by which the young State
received "a general system of internal improvements" in the shape
of railroads, canals, and banks,--a reckless policy, burdening
the State with debt, and producing the usual crop of political
demoralization, but a policy characteristic of the time and the
impatiently enterprising spirit of the Western people. Lincoln,
no doubt with the best intentions, but with little knowledge of
the subject, simply followed the popular current. The
achievement in which, perhaps, he gloried most was the removal of
the State government from Vandalia to Springfield; one of those
triumphs of political management which are apt to be the pride of
the small politician's statesmanship. One thing, however, he did
in which his true nature asserted itself, and which gave distinct
promise of the future pursuit of high aims. Against an
overwhelming preponderance of sentiment in the Legislature,
followed by only one other member, he recorded his protest
against a proslavery resolution,--that protest declaring "the
institution of slavery to be founded on both injustice and bad
policy." This was not only the irrepressible voice of his
conscience; it was true moral valor, too; for at that time, in
many parts of the West, an abolitionist was regarded as little
better than a horse-thief, and even "Abe Lincoln" would hardly
have been forgiven his antislavery principles, had he not been
known as such an "uncommon good fellow." But here, in obedience
to the great conviction of his life, he manifested his courage to
stand alone, that courage which is the first requisite of
leadership in a great cause.

Together with his reputation and influence as a politician grew
his law practice, especially after he had removed from New Salem
to Springfield, and associated himself with a practitioner of
good standing. He had now at last won a fixed position in
society. He became a successful lawyer, less, indeed, by his
learning as a jurist than by his effectiveness as an advocate and
by the striking uprightness of his character; and it may truly be
said that his vivid sense of truth and justice had much to do
with his effectiveness as an advocate. He would refuse to act as
the attorney even of personal friends when he saw the right on
the other side. He would abandon cases, even during trial, when
the testimony convinced him that his client was in the wrong. He
would dissuade those who sought his service from pursuing an
obtainable advantage when their claims seemed to him unfair.
Presenting his very first case in the United States Circuit
Court, the only question being one of authority, he declared
that, upon careful examination, he found all the authorities on
the other side, and none on his. Persons accused of crime, when
he thought them guilty, he would not defend at all, or,
attempting their defence, he was unable to put forth his powers.
One notable exception is on record, when his personal sympathies
had been strongly aroused. But when he felt himself to be the
protector of innocence, the defender of justice, or the
prosecutor of wrong, he frequently disclosed such unexpected
resources of reasoning, such depth of feeling, and rose to such
fervor of appeal as to astonish and overwhelm his hearers, and
make him fairly irresistible. Even an ordinary law argument,
coming from him, seldom failed to produce the impression that he
was profoundly convinced of the soundness of his position. It is
not surprising that the mere appearance of so conscientious an
attorney in any case should have carried, not only to juries, but
even to judges, almost a presumption of right on his side, and
that the people began to call him, sincerely meaning it, "honest
Abe Lincoln."

In the meantime he had private sorrows and trials of a painfully
afflicting nature. He had loved and been loved by a fair and
estimable girl, Ann Rutledge, who died in the flower of her youth
and beauty, and he mourned her loss with such intensity of grief
that his friends feared for his reason. Recovering from his
morbid depression, he bestowed what he thought a new affection
upon another lady, who refused him. And finally, moderately
prosperous in his worldly affairs, and having prospects of
political distinction before him, he paid his addresses to Mary
Todd, of Kentucky, and was accepted. But then tormenting doubts
of the genuineness of his own affection for her, of the
compatibility of their characters, and of their future happiness
came upon him. His distress was so great that he felt himself in
danger of suicide, and feared to carry a pocket-knife with him;
and he gave mortal offence to his bride by not appearing on the
appointed wedding day. Now the torturing consciousness of the
wrong he had done her grew unendurable. He won back her
affection, ended the agony by marrying her, and became a faithful
and patient husband and a good father. But it was no secret to
those who knew the family well that his domestic life was full of
trials. The erratic temper of his wife not seldom put the
gentleness of his nature to the severest tests; and these
troubles and struggles, which accompanied him through all the
vicissitudes of his life from the modest home in Springfield to
the White House at Washington, adding untold private heart-
burnings to his public cares, and sometimes precipitating upon
him incredible embarrassments in the discharge of his public
duties, form one of the most pathetic features of his career.

He continued to "ride the circuit," read books while travelling
in his buggy, told funny stories to his fellow-lawyers in the
tavern, chatted familiarly with his neighbors around the stove in
the store and at the post-office, had his hours of melancholy
brooding as of old, and became more and more widely known and
trusted and beloved among the people of his State for his ability
as a lawyer and politician, for the uprightness of his character
and the overflowing spring of sympathetic kindness in his heart.
His main ambition was confessedly that of political distinction;
but hardly any one would at that time have seen in him the man
destined to lead the nation through the greatest crisis of the
century.

His time had not yet come when, in 1846, he was elected to
Congress. In a clever speech in the House of Representatives he
denounced President Polk for having unjustly forced war upon
Mexico, and he amused the Committee of the Whole by a witty
attack upon General Cass. More important was the expression he
gave to his antislavery impulses by offering a bill looking to
the emancipation of the slaves in the District of Columbia, and
by his repeated votes for the famous Wilmot Proviso, intended to
exclude slavery from the Territories acquired from Mexico. But
when, at the expiration of his term, in March, 1849, he left his
seat, he gloomily despaired of ever seeing the day when the cause
nearest to his heart would be rightly grasped by the people, and
when he would be able to render any service to his country in
solving the great problem. Nor had his career as a member of
Congress in any sense been such as to gratify his ambition.
Indeed, if he ever had any belief in a great destiny for himself,
it must have been weak at that period; for he actually sought to
obtain from the new Whig President, General Taylor, the place of
Commissioner of the General Land Office; willing to bury himself
in one of the administrative bureaus of the government.
Fortunately for the country, he failed; and no less fortunately,
when, later, the territorial governorship of Oregon was offered
to him, Mrs. Lincoln's protest induced him to decline it.
Returning to Springfield, he gave himself with renewed zest to
his law practice, acquiesced in the Compromise of 1850 with
reluctance and a mental reservation, supported in the
Presidential campaign of 1852 the Whig candidate in some
spiritless speeches, and took but a languid interest in the
politics of the day. But just then his time was drawing near.

The peace promised, and apparently inaugurated, by the Compromise
of 1850 was rudely broken by the introduction of the Kansas-
Nebraska Bill in 1854. The repeal of the Missouri Compromise,
opening the Territories of the United States, the heritage of
coming generations, to the invasion of slavery, suddenly revealed
the whole significance of the slavery question to the people of
the free States, and thrust itself into the politics of the
country as the paramount issue. Something like an electric shock
flashed through the North. Men who but a short time before had
been absorbed by their business pursuits, and deprecated all
political agitation, were startled out of their security by a
sudden alarm, and excitedly took sides. That restless trouble of
conscience about slavery, which even in times of apparent repose
had secretly disturbed the souls of Northern people, broke forth
in an utterance louder than ever. The bonds of accustomed party
allegiance gave way. Antislavery Democrats and antislavery Whigs
felt themselves drawn together by a common overpowering
sentiment, and soon they began to rally in a new organization.
The Republican party sprang into being to meet the overruling
call of the hour. Then Abraham Lincoln's time was come. He
rapidly advanced to a position of conspicuous championship in the
struggle. This, however, was not owing to his virtues and
abilities alone. Indeed, the slavery question stirred his soul
in its profoundest depths; it was, as one of his intimate friends
said, "the only one on which he would become excited"; it called
forth all his faculties and energies. Yet there were many others
who, having long and arduously fought the antislavery battle in
the popular assembly, or in the press, or in the halls of
Congress, far surpassed him in prestige, and compared with whom
he was still an obscure and untried man. His reputation,
although highly honorable and well earned, had so far been
essentially local. As a stump-speaker in Whig canvasses outside
of his State he had attracted comparatively little attention; but
in Illinois he had been recognized as one of the foremost men of
the Whig party. Among the opponents of the Nebraska Bill he
occupied in his State so important a position, that in 1856 he
was the choice of a large majority of the "Anti-Nebraska men" in
the Legislature for a seat in the Senate of the United States
which then became vacant; and when he, an old Whig, could not
obtain the votes of the Anti-Nebraska Democrats necessary to make
a majority, he generously urged his friends to transfer their
votes to Lyman Trumbull, who was then elected. Two years later,
in the first national convention of the Republican party, the
delegation from Illinois brought him forward as a candidate for
the vice-presidency, and he received respectable support. Still,
the name of Abraham Lincoln was not widely known beyond the
boundaries of his own State. But now it was this local
prominence in Illinois that put him in a position of peculiar
advantage on the battlefield of national politics. In the
assault on the Missouri Compromise which broke down all legal
barriers to the spread of slavery Stephen Arnold Douglas was the
ostensible leader and central figure; and Douglas was a Senator
from Illinois, Lincoln's State. Douglas's national theatre of
action was the Senate, but in his constituency in Illinois were
the roots of his official position and power. What he did in the
Senate he had to justify before the people of Illinois, in order
to maintain himself in place; and in Illinois all eyes turned to
Lincoln as Douglas's natural antagonist.

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