The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7

Shortly after his return from this his first excursion into the
outer world, his father, tired of failure in Indiana, packed his
family and all his worldly goods into a single wagon drawn by two
yoke of oxen, and after a fourteen days’ tramp through the
wilderness, pitched his camp once more, in Illinois. Here
Abraham, having come of age and being now his own master,
rendered the last service of his minority by ploughing the
fifteen-acre lot and splitting from the tall walnut trees of the
primeval forest enough rails to surround the little clearing with
a fence. Such was the meagre outfit of this coming leader of
men, at the age when the future British Prime Minister or
statesman emerges from the university as a double first or senior
wrangler, with every advantage that high training and broad
culture and association with the wisest and the best of men and
women can give, and enters upon some form of public service on
the road to usefulness and honor, the University course being
only the first stage of the public training. So Lincoln, at
twenty-one, had just begun his preparation for the public life to
which he soon began to aspire. For some years yet he must
continue to earn his daily bread by the sweat of his brow, having
absolutely no means, no home, no friend to consult. More farm
work as a hired hand, a clerkship in a village store, the running
of a mill, another trip to New Orleans on a flatboat of his own
contriving, a pilot’s berth on the river–these were the means by
which he subsisted until, in the summer of 1832, when he was
twenty-three years of age, an event occurred which gave him
public recognition.

The Black Hawk war broke out, and, the Governor of Illinois
calling for volunteers to repel the band of savages whose leader
bore that name, Lincoln enlisted and was elected captain by his
comrades, among whom he had already established his supremacy by
signal feats of strength and more than one successful single
combat. During the brief hostilities he was engaged in no battle
and won no military glory, but his local leadership was
established. The same year he offered himself as a candidate for
the Legislature of Illinois, but failed at the polls. Yet his
vast popularity with those who knew him was manifest. The
district consisted of several counties, but the unanimous vote of
the people of his own county was for Lincoln. Another
unsuccessful attempt at store-keeping was followed by better luck
at surveying, until his horse and instruments were levied upon
under execution for the debts of his business adventure.

I have been thus detailed in sketching his early years because
upon these strange foundations the structure of his great fame
and service was built. In the place of a school and university
training fortune substituted these trials, hardships, and
struggles as a preparation for the great work which he had to do.
It turned out to be exactly what the emergency required. Ten
years instead at the public school and the university certainly
never could have fitted this man for the unique work which was to
be thrown upon him. Some other Moses would have had to lead us
to our Jordan, to the sight of our promised land of liberty.

At the age of twenty-five he became a member of the Legislature
of Illinois, and so continued for eight years, and, in the
meantime, qualified himself by reading such law books as he could
borrow at random–for he was too poor to buy any to be called to
the Bar. For his second quarter of a century–during which a
single term in Congress introduced him into the arena of national
questions–he gave himself up to law and politics. In spite of
his soaring ambition, his two years in Congress gave him no
premonition of the great destiny that awaited him,–and at its
close, in 1849, we find him an unsuccessful applicant to the
President for appointment as Commissioner of the General Land
Office–a purely administrative bureau; a fortunate escape for
himself and for his country. Year by year his knowledge and
power, his experience and reputation extended, and his mental
faculties seemed to grow by what they fed on. His power of
persuasion, which had always been marked, was developed to an
extraordinary degree, now that he became engaged in congenial
questions and subjects. Little by little he rose to prominence
at the Bar, and became the most effective public speaker in the
West. Not that he possessed any of the graces of the orator; but
his logic was invincible, and his clearness and force of
statement impressed upon his hearers the convictions of his
honest mind, while his broad sympathies and sparkling and genial
humor made him a universal favorite as far and as fast as his
acquaintance extended.

These twenty years that elapsed from the time of his
establishment as a lawyer and legislator in Springfield, the new
capital of Illinois, furnished a fitting theatre for the
development and display of his great faculties, and, with his new
and enlarged opportunities, he obviously grew in mental stature
in this second period of his career, as if to compensate for the
absolute lack of advantages under which he had suffered in youth.
As his powers enlarged, his reputation extended, for he was
always before the people, felt a warm sympathy with all that
concerned them, took a zealous part in the discussion of every
public question, and made his personal influence ever more widely
and deeply felt.

My, brethren of the legal profession will naturally ask me, how
could this rough backwoodsman, whose youth had been spent in the
forest or on the farm and the flatboat, without culture or
training, education or study, by the random reading, on the wing,
of a few miscellaneous law books, become a learned and
accomplished lawyer? Well, he never did. He never would have
earned his salt as a ‘Writer’ for the ‘Signet’, nor have won a
place as advocate in the Court of Session, where the technique of
the profession has reached its highest perfection, and centuries
of learning and precedent are involved in the equipment of a
lawyer. Dr. Holmes, when asked by an anxious young mother, “When
should the education of a child begin?” replied, “Madam, at least
two centuries before it is born!” and so I am sure it is with the
Scots lawyer.

But not so in Illinois in 1840. Between i83o and x88o its
population increased twenty-fold, and when Lincoln began
practising law in Springfield in 1837, life in Illinois was very
crude and simple, and so were the courts and the administration
of justice. Books and libraries were scarce. But the people
loved justice, upheld the law, and followed the courts, and soon
found their favorites among the advocates. The fundamental
principles of the common law, as set forth by Blackstone and
Chitty, were not so difficult to acquire; and brains, common
sense, force of character, tenacity of purpose, ready wit and
power of speech did the rest, and supplied all the deficiencies
of learning.

The lawsuits of those days were extremely simple, and the
principles of natural justice were mainly relied on to dispose of
them at the Bar and on the Bench, without resort to technical
learning. Railroads, corporations absorbing the chief business
of the community, combined and inherited wealth, with all the
subtle and intricate questions they breed, had not yet come in–
and so the professional agents and the equipment which they
require were not needed. But there were many highly educated and
powerful men at the Bar of Illinois, even in those early days,
whom the spirit of enterprise had carried there in search of fame
and fortune. It was by constant contact and conflict with these
that Lincoln acquired professional strength and skill. Every
community and every age creates its own Bar, entirely adequate
for its present uses and necessities. So in Illinois, as the
population and wealth of the State kept on doubling and
quadrupling, its Bar presented a growing abundance of learning
and science and technical skill. The early practitioners grew
with its growth and mastered the requisite knowledge. Chicago
soon grew to be one of the largest and richest and certainly the
most intensely active city on the continent, and if any of my
professional friends here had gone there in Lincoln’s later
years, to try or argue a cause, or transact other business, with
any idea that Edinburgh or London had a monopoly of legal
learning, science, or subtlety, they would certainly have found
their mistake.

In those early days in the West, every lawyer, especially every
court lawyer, was necessarily a politician, constantly engaged in
the public discussion of the many questions evolved from the
rapid development of town, county, State, and Federal affairs.
Then and there, in this regard, public discussion supplied the
place which the universal activity of the press has since
monopolized, and the public speaker who, by clearness, force,
earnestness, and wit; could make himself felt on the questions of
the day would rapidly come to the front. In the absence of that
immense variety of popular entertainments which now feed the
public taste and appetite, the people found their chief amusement
in frequenting the courts and public and political assemblies.
In either place, he who impressed, entertained, and amused them
most was the hero of the hour. They did not discriminate very
carefully between the eloquence of the forum and the eloquence of
the hustings. Human nature ruled in both alike, and he who was
the most effective speaker in a political harangue was often
retained as most likely to win in a cause to be tried or argued.
And I have no doubt in this way many retainers came to Lincoln.
Fees, money in any form, had no charms for him–in his eager
pursuit of fame he could not afford to make money. He was
ambitious to distinguish himself by some great service to
mankind, and this ambition for fame and real public service left
no room for avarice in his composition. However much he earned,
he seems to have ended every year hardly richer than he began it,
and yet, as the years passed, fees came to him freely. One of
L 1,000 is recorded–a very large professional fee at that time,
even in any part of America, the paradise of lawyers. I lay
great stress on Lincoln’s career as a lawyer–much more than his
biographers do because in America a state of things exists wholly
different from that which prevails in Great Britain. The
profession of the law always has been and is to this day the
principal avenue to public life; and I am sure that his training
and experience in the courts had much to do with the development
of those forces of intellect and character which he soon
displayed on a broader arena.

It was in political controversy, of course, that he acquired his
wide reputation, and made his deep and lasting impression upon
the people of what had now become the powerful State of Illinois,
and upon the people of the Great West, to whom the political
power and control of the United States were already surely and
swiftly passing from the older Eastern States. It was this
reputation and this impression, and the familiar knowledge of his
character which had come to them from his local leadership, that
happily inspired the people of the West to present him as their
candidate, and to press him upon the Republican convention of
1860 as the fit and necessary leader in the struggle for life
which was before the nation.

That struggle, as you all know, arose out of the terrible
question of slavery–and I must trust to your general knowledge
of the history of that question to make intelligible the attitude
and leadership of Lincoln as the champion of the hosts of freedom
in the final contest. Negro slavery had been firmly established
in the Southern States from an early period of their history. In
1619, the year before the Mayflower landed our Pilgrim Fathers
upon Plymouth Rock, a Dutch ship had discharged a cargo of
African slaves at Jamestown in Virginia: All through the colonial
period their importation had continued. A few had found their
way into the Northern States, but none of them in sufficient
numbers to constitute danger or to afford a basis for political
power. At the time of the adoption of the Federal Constitution,
there is no doubt that the principal members of the convention
not only condemned slavery as a moral, social, and political
evil, but believed that by the suppression of the slave trade it
was in the course of gradual extinction in the South, as it
certainly was in the North. Washington, in his will, provided
for the emancipation of his own slaves, and said to Jefferson
that it “was among his first wishes to see some plan adopted by
which slavery in his country might be abolished.” Jefferson
said, referring to the institution: “I tremble for my country
when I think that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep
forever,”–and Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, and Patrick Henry were
all utterly opposed to it. But it was made the subject of a
fatal compromise in the Federal Constitution, whereby its
existence was recognized in the States as a basis of
representation, the prohibition of the importation of slaves was
postponed for twenty years, and the return of fugitive slaves
provided for. But no imminent danger was apprehended from it
till, by the invention of the cotton gin in 1792, cotton culture
by negro labor became at once and forever the leading industry of
the South, and gave a new impetus to the importation of slaves,
so that in 1808, when the constitutional prohibition took effect,
their numbers had vastly increased. From that time forward
slavery became the basis of a great political power, and the
Southern States, under all circumstances and at every
opportunity, carried on a brave and unrelenting struggle for its
maintenance and extension.

The conscience of the North was slow to rise against it, though
bitter controversies from time to time took place. The Southern
leaders threatened disunion if their demands were not complied
with. To save the Union, compromise after compromise was made,
but each one in the end was broken. The Missouri Compromise,
made in 1820 upon the occasion of the admission of Missouri into
the Union as a slave State, whereby, in consideration of such
admission, slavery was forever excluded from the Northwest
Territory, was ruthlessly repealed in 1854, by a Congress elected
in the interests of the slave power, the intent being to force
slavery into that vast territory which had so long been dedicated
to freedom. This challenge at last aroused the slumbering
conscience and passion of the North, and led to the formation of
the Republican party for the avowed purpose of preventing, by
constitutional methods, the further extension of slavery.

In its first campaign, in 1856, though it failed to elect its
candidates; it received a surprising vote and carried many of the
States. No one could any longer doubt that the North had made up
its mind that no threats of disunion should deter it from
pressing its cherished purpose and performing its long neglected
duty. From the outset, Lincoln was one of the most active and
effective leaders and speakers of the new party, and the great
debates between Lincoln and Douglas in 1858, as the respective
champions of the restriction and extension of slavery, attracted
the attention of the whole country. Lincoln’s powerful arguments
carried conviction everywhere. His moral nature was thoroughly
aroused his conscience was stirred to the quick. Unless slavery
was wrong, nothing was wrong. Was each man, of whatever color,
entitled to the fruits of his own labor, or could one man live in
idle luxury by the sweat of another’s brow, whose skin was
darker? He was an implicit believer in that principle of the
Declaration of Independence that all men are vested with certain
inalienable rights the equal rights to life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness. On this doctrine he staked his case and
carried it. We have time only for one or two sentences in which
he struck the keynote of the contest

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