Page images
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]

ters, Lincoln must have had singularly little intercourse either with men versed in great affairs or with men of approved intellectual distinction. But a mind too original to be subdued to its surroundings found much that was stimulating in this time when Illinois was beginning rapidly to fill up. There were plenty of men with shrewd wits and robust character to be met with, and the mental atmosphere which surrounded him was one of keen interest in life. Lincoln eventually stands out as a surprising figure from among the other lawyers and little politicians of Illinois, as any great man does from any crowd, but some tribute is due to the undistinguished and historically uninteresting men whose generous appreciation gave rapid way to the poor, queer youth, and ultimately pushed him into a greater arena as their selected champion.

In 1831, at the age of twenty-two, Lincoln, returning from his New Orleans voyage, settled in New Salem to await the arrival of his patron, Denton Offutt, with the goods for a new store in which Lincoln was to be his assistant. The village itself was three years old. It never got much beyond a population of one hundred, and like many similar little towns of the West it has long since perished off the earth. But it was a busy place for a while, and, contrary to what its name might suggest, it aspired to be rather fast. It was a cock-fighting and whisky-drinking society into which Lincoln was launched. He managed to combine strict abstinence from liquor with keen participation in all its other diversions. One departure from total abstinence stands alleged among the feats of strength for which he became noted. He hoisted a whisky barrel, of unspecified but evidently considerable content, on to his knees in a squatting posture and drank from the bunghole. But this very arduous potation stood alone. Offutt was some time before he arrived with his goods, and Lincoln lived by odd jobs. At the very beginning one Mentor Graham, a schoolmaster officiating in some election, employed him as a clerk, and the clerk seized the occasion to make

[merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

himself well known to New Salem as a story-teller. Then there was a heavy job at rail-splitting, and another job in navigating the Sangamon River.

Offutt's store was at last set up, and for about a year the assistant in this important establishment had valuable opportunities of conversation with all New Salem. He had also leisure for study. He had mentioned to the aforesaid Mentor Graham his “notion to study English grammar," and had been introduced to a work called “Kirkham's Grammar,” which by a walk of some miles he could borrow from a neighbour. This he would read, lying full length on the counter with his head on a parcel of calico. At other odd times he would work away at arithmetic. Offutt's kindly interest procured him distinction in another field. At Clary's Grove, near New Salem, lived a formidable set of young ruffians, over whose somewhat disguised chivalry of temper the staid historian of Lincoln's youth becomes rapturous. They were given to wrecking the store of any New Salem tradesman who offended them; so it shows some spirit in Mr. Denton Offutt that he backed his Abraham Lincoln to beat their Jack Armstrong in a wrestling match. He did beat him; moreover, some charm in the way he bore himself made him thenceforth not hated but beloved of Clary's Grove in general, and the Armstrongs in particular. Hannah Armstrong, Jack's wife, thereafter mended and patched his clothes for him, and, years later, he had the satisfaction, as their unfeed advocate, of securing the acquittal of their son from a charge of murder, of which there is some reason to hope he may not have been guilty. It is, by the way, a relief to tell that there once was a noted wrestling match in which Lincoln was beaten; it is characteristic of the country that his friends were sure there was foul play, and characteristic of him that he indignantly denied it.

Within a year Offutt's store, in the phrase of the time, petered out,” leaving Lincoln shiftless. But the victor of Clary's Grove, with his added mastery of “Kirk

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

ham's Grammar," was now ripe for public life. Moreover, his experience as a waterman gave him ideas on the question, which then agitated his neighbours, whether the Sangamon River could be made navigable. He had a scheme of his own for doing this; and in the spring of 1832 he wrote to the local paper a boyish but modest and sensible statement of his views and ambitions, announcing that he would be a candidate in the autumn elections for the State Legislature.

Meanwhile he had his one experience of soldiering. The Indian chief, Black Hawk, who had agreed to abide west of the Mississippi, broke the treaty and led his warriors back into their former haunts in Northern Illinois. The Governor of the State called for volunteers, and Lincoln became one. He obtained the elective rank of captain of his company, and contrived to maintain some sort of order in that, doubtless brave, but undisciplined body. He saw no fighting, but he could earn his living for some months, and stored up material for effective chaff in Congress long afterwards about the military glory which General Cass's supporters for the Presidency wished to attach to their candidate. His most glorious exploit consisted in saving from his own men a poor old friendly Indian who had fallen among them. A letter of credentials, which the helpless creature produced, was pronounced a forgery and he was about to be hanged as a spy, when Lincoln appeared on the scene, “swarthy with resolution and rage,” and somehow terrified his disorderly company into dropping their prey.

The war ended in time for a brief candidature, and a supporter of his at the time preserved a record of one of his speeches. His last important speech will hereafter be given in full for other reasons; this may be so given too, for it is not a hundred words long: "Fellow Citizens, I presume you all know who I am. I am humble Abraham Lincoln. I have been solicited by many friends to become a candidate for the Legislature. My politics are short and sweet like the old woman's dance. I am in favour of a national bank. I

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

These are amiable personal traits, but they mark the limitations of his capacity as a statesman.

The chief questions which agitated the Illinois Legislature were economic, and so at first were the issues between Whigs and Democrats in Federal policy. Lincoln, though he threw himself into these affairs with youthful fervour, would appear never to have had much grasp of such matters. “In this respect alone,” writes an admirer, "I have always considered Mr. Lincoln a weak man." It is only when (rarely, at first) constitutional or moral issues emerge that his politics become interesting. We can guess the causes which attached him to the Whigs. As the party out of power, and in Illinois quite out of favour, they had doubtless some advantage in character. As we have seen, the greatest minds among American statesmen of that day, Webster and Clay, were Whigs. Lincoln's simple and quite reasonable, if inconclusive, argument for Protection, can be found among his speeches of some years later. And schemes of internal development certainly fired his imagination.

After his failure in business Lincoln subsisted for a while on odd jobs for farmers, but was soon employed as assistant surveyor by John Calhoun, then surveyor of the county. This gentleman, who had been educated as a lawyer but “ taught school in preference," was a keen Democrat, and had to assure Lincoln that office as his assistant would not necessitate his desertion of his principles. He was a clever man, and Lincoln remembered him long after as the most formidable antagonist he ever met in debate. With the help, again, of Mentor Graham, Lincoln soon learned the surveyor's business. He continued at this work till he was able to start as a lawyer, and there is evidence that his surveys of property were done with extreme accuracy. Soon he further obtained the local Postmastership. This, the only position except the Presidency itself which he ever held in the Federal Government, was not onerous, for the mails were in frequent; he “carried the office around in his hat "; we are glad to be told that “his administration

gave satisfaction."

Once calamity threatened him; a creditor distrained on the horse and the instruments necessary to his surveyorship; but Lincoln was reputed to be a helpful fellow, and friends were ready to help him; they bought the horse and instruments back for him. To this time belongs his first acquaintance with some writers of unsettling tendency, Tom Paine, Voltaire, and Volney, who was then recognised as one of the dangerous authors. Cock-fights, strange feats of strength, or of usefulness with axe or hammer or scythe, and a passion for mimicry continue. In 1834 he became a candidate again. “Can't the party raise any better material than that?” asked a bystander before a speech of his; after it, he exclaimed that the speaker knew more than all the other candidates put together. This time he was elected, being then twenty-five, and thereafter he was returned for three further terms of two years. Shortly before his second election in 1836 the State capital was removed to Springfield, in his own county. There in 1837 Lincoln fixed his home. He had long been reading law in his curious, spasmodically concentrated way, and he had practised a little as a “pettifogger," that is, an unlicensed practitioner in the inferior courts. He had now obtained his license and was very shortly taken into partnership by an old friend in Springfield.

2. In the Illinois Legislature. Here his youth may be said to end. Springfield was a different place from New Salem. There were carriage in it, and ladies who studied poetry and the fashions. There were families from Virginia and Kentucky who were conscious of ancestry, while graver, possibly more pushing, people from the North-eastern States, soon to outnumber them, were a little inclined to ridicule what they called their “illusory ascendency." There was a brisk competition of churches, and mutual improvement societies such as the “Young Men's Lyceum" had a rival claim to attention with races and cock-fights.

« PreviousContinue »