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Chapter 2.

  • Flatboat
  • -- New Salem -- election clerk -- store and mill -- Kirkham's “grammar” --“Sangamo Journal” -- the Talisman -- Lincoln's address, March 9, 1832 -- Black Hawk War -- Lincoln elected Captain -- mustered out May 27, 1832 -- reenlisted in Independent Spy Battalion -- finally mustered out, June 16, 1832 -- defeated for the legislature -- blacksmith or lawyer? -- the Lincoln -- Berry store -- appointed Postmaster, May 7, 1833 -- national politics
    The life of Abraham Lincoln, or that part of it which will interest readers for all future time, properly begins in March, 1831, after the winter of the “deep snow.” According to frontier custom, being then twenty-one years old, he left his father's cabin to make his own fortune in the world. A man named Denton Offutt, one of a class of local traders and speculators usually found about early Western settlements, had probably heard something of young Lincoln's Indiana history, particularly that he had made a voyage on a flatboat from Indiana to New Orleans, and that he was strong, active, honest, and generally, as would be expressed. in Western phrase, “a smart young fellow.” He was therefore just the sort of man Offutt needed for one of his trading enterprises, and Mr. Lincoln himself relates somewhat in detail how Offutt engaged him and the beginning of the venture:

    Abraham, together with his stepmother's son, John [22] D. Johnston, and John Hanks, yet residing in Macon County, hired themselves to Denton Offutt to take a flatboat from Beardstown, Illinois [on the Illinois River], to New Orleans; and for that purpose were to join him-Offutt-at Springfield, Illinois, so soon as the snow should go off. When it did go off, which was about the first of March, 1831, the county was so, flooded as to make traveling by land impracticable, to obviate which difficulty they purchased a large canoe, and came down the Sangamon River in it. This is the time and the manner of Abraham's first entrance into Sangamon County. They found Offutt at Springfield, but learned from him that he had failed in getting a boat at Beardstown. This led to their hiring themselves to him for twelve dollars per month each, and getting the timber out of the trees and building a boat at Old Sangamon town on the Sangamon River, seven miles northwest of Springfield, which boat they took to New Orleans, substantially upon the old contract.

    It needs here to be recalled that Lincoln's father was a carpenter, and that Abraham had no doubt acquired considerable skill in the use of tools during his boyhood, and a practical knowledge of the construction of flatboats during his previous New Orleans trip, sufficient to enable him with confidence to undertake this task in shipbuilding. From the after history of both Johnston and Hanks, we know that neither of them was gifted with skill or industry, and it becomes clear that Lincoln was from the first leader of the party, master of construction, and captain of the craft.

    It took some time to build the boat, and before it was finished the Sangamon River had fallen so that the new craft stuck midway across the dam at Rutledge's Mill, at New Salem, a village of fifteen or twenty houses. The inhabitants came down to the [23] bank, and exhibited great interest in the fate of the boat, which, with its bow in the air and its stern under water, was half bird and half fish, and they probably jestingly inquired of the young captain whether he expected to dive or to fly to New Orleans. He was, however, equal to the occasion. He bored a hole in the bottom of the boat at the bow, and rigged some sort of lever or derrick to lift the stern, so that the water she had taken in behind ran out in front, enabling her to float over the partly submerged dam; and this feat, in turn, caused great wonderment in the crowd at the novel expedient of bailing a boat by boring a hole in her bottom.

    This exploit of naval engineering fully established Lincoln's fame at New Salem, and grounded him so firmly in the esteem of his employer Offutt that the latter, already looking forward to his future usefulness, at once engaged him to come back to New Salem, after his New Orleans voyage, to act as his clerk in a store.

    Once over the dam and her cargo reloaded, partly there and partly at Beardstown, the boat safely made the remainder of her voyage to New Orleans; and, returning by steamer to St. Louis, Lincoln and Johnston (Hanks had turned back from St. Louis) continued on foot to Illinois, Johnston remaining at the family home, which had meanwhile been removed from Macon to Coles County, and Lincoln going to his employer and friends at New Salem. This was in July or August, 1831. Neither Offutt nor his goods had yet arrived, and during his waiting he had a chance to show the New Salemites another accomplishment. An election was to be held, and one of the clerks was sick and failed to come. Scribes were not plenty on the frontier, and Mentor Graham, the clerk who was present, [24] looking around for a properly qualified colleague, noticed Lincoln, and asked him if he could write, to which he answered, in local idiom, that he “could make a few rabbit tracks,” and was thereupon immediately inducted into his first office. He performed his duties not only to the general satisfaction, but so as to interest Graham, who was a schoolmaster, and afterward made himself very useful to Lincoln.

    Offutt finally arrived with a miscellaneous lot of goods, which Lincoln opened and put in order in a room that a former New Salem storekeeper was just ready to vacate, and whose remnant stock Offutt also purchased. Trade was evidently not brisk at New Salem, for the commercial zeal of Offutt led him to increase his venture by renting the Rutledge and Cameron mill, on whose historic dam the flatboat had stuck. For a while the charge of the mill was added to Lincoln's duties, until another clerk was engaged to help him. There is likewise good evidence that in addition to his duties at the store and the mill, Lincoln made himself generally useful — that he cut down trees and split rails enough to make a large hog-pen adjoining the mill, a proceeding quite natural when we remember that his hitherto active life and still growing muscles imperatively demanded the exercise which measuring calico or weighing out sugar and coffee failed to supply.

    We know from other incidents that he was possessed of ample bodily strength. In frontier life it is not only needed for useful labor of many kinds, but is also called upon to aid in popular amusement. There was a settlement in the neighborhood of New Salem called Clary's Grove, where lived a group of restless, rollicking backwoodsmen with a strong liking for various forms of frontier athletics and rough practical jokes. [25] In the progress of American settlement there has always been a time, whether the frontier was in New England or Pennsylvania or Kentucky, or on the banks of the Mississippi, when the champion wrestler held some fraction of the public consideration accorded to the victor in the Olympic games of Greece. Until Lincoln came, Jack Armstrong was the champion wrestler of Clary's Grove and New Salem, and picturesque stories are told how the neighborhood talk, inflamed by Offutt's fulsome laudation of his clerk, made Jack Armstrong feel that his fame was in danger. Lincoln put off the encounter as long as he could, and when the wrestling match finally came off neither could throw the other. The bystanders became satisfied that they were equally matched in strength and skill, and the cool courage which Lincoln manifested throughout the ordeal prevented the usual close of such incidents with a fight. Instead of becoming chronic enemies and leaders of a neighborhood feud, Lincoln's self-possession and good temper turned the contest into the beginning of a warm and lasting friendship.

    If Lincoln's muscles were at times hungry for work, not less so was his mind. He was already instinctively feeling his way to his destiny when, in conversation with Mentor Graham, the schoolmaster, he indicated his desire to use some of his spare moments to increase his education, and confided to him his “notion to study English grammar.” It was entirely in the nature of things that Graham should encourage this mental craving, and tell him: “If you expect to go before the public in any capacity, I think it the best thing you can do.” Lincoln said that if he had a grammar he would begin at once. Graham was obliged to confess that there was no such book at New Salem, but remembered that there was one at Vaner's, six [26] miles away. Promptly after breakfast the next morning Lincoln walked to Vaner's and procured the precious volume, and, probably with Graham's occasional help, found no great difficulty in mastering its contents. While tradition does not mention any other study begun at that time, we may fairly infer that, slight as may have been Graham's education, he must have had other books from which, together with his friendly advice, Lincoln's intellectual hunger derived further stimulus and nourishment.

    In his duties at the store and his work at the mill, in his study of Kirkham's “Grammar,” and educational conversations with Mentor Graham, in the somewhat rude but frank and hearty companionship of the citizens of New Salem and the exuberant boys of Clary's Grove, Lincoln's life for the second half of the year 1831 appears not to have been eventful, but was doubtless more comfortable and as interesting as had been his flatboat building and New Orleans voyage during the first half. He was busy in useful labor, and, though he had few chances to pick up scraps of schooling, was beginning to read deeply in that book of human nature, the profound knowledge of which rendered him such immense service in after years.

    The restlessness and ambition of the village of New Salem was many times multiplied in the restlessness and ambition of Springfield, fifteen or twenty miles away, which, located approximately near the geographical center of Illinois, was already beginning to crave, if not yet to feel, its future destiny as the capital of the State. In November of the same year that aspiring town produced the first number of its weekly newspaper, the “Sangamo Journal,” and in its columns we begin to find recorded historical data. Situated in a region of alternating spaces of prairie and forest, [27] of attractive natural scenery and rich soil, it was nevertheless at a great disadvantage in the means of commercial transportation. Lying sixty miles from Beardstown, the nearest landing on the Illinois River, the peculiarities of soil, climate, and primitive roads rendered travel and land carriage extremely difficult-often entirely impossible — for nearly half of every year. The very first number of the “Sangamo Journal” sounded its strongest note on the then leading tenet of the Whig party-internal improvements by the general government, and active politics to secure them. In later numbers we learn that a regular Eastern mail had not been received for three weeks. The tide of immigration which was pouring into Illinois is illustrated in a tabular statement on the commerce of the Illinois River, showing that the steamboat arrivals at Beardstown had risen from one each in the years 1828 and 1829, and only four in 1830, to thirty-two during the year 1831. This naturally directed the thoughts of travelers and traders to some better means of reaching the river landing than the frozen or muddy roads and impassable creeks and sloughs of winter and spring. The use of the Sangamon River, flowing within five miles of Springfield and emptying itself into the Illinois ten or fifteen miles from Beardstown, seemed for the present the only solution of the problem, and a public meeting was called to discuss the project. The deep snows of the winter of 1830-31 abundantly filled the channels of that stream, and the winter of 1831-32 substantially repeated its swelling floods. Newcomers in that region were therefore warranted in drawing the inference that it might remain navigable for small craft. Public interest on the topic was greatly heightened when one Captain Bogue, commanding a small steamer then at Cincinnati, printed a letter in the [28] “Journal” of January 26, 1832, saying: “I intend to try to ascend the river [Sangamo] immediately on the breaking up of the ice.” It was well understood that the chief difficulty would be that the short turns in the channels were liable to be obstructed by a gorge of driftwood and the limbs and trunks of overhanging trees. To provide for this, Captain Bogue's letter added: “I should be met at the mouth of the river by ten or twelve men, having axes with long handles under the direction of some experienced man. I shall deliver freight from St. Louis at the landing on the Sangamo River opposite the town of Springfield for thirty-seven and a half cents per hundred pounds.” The “Journal” of February 16 contained an advertisement that the “splendid upper-cabin steamer Talisman” would leave for Springfield, and the paper of March I announced her arrival at St. Louis on the 22d of February with a full cargo. In due time the citizen committee appointed by the public meeting met the Talisman at the mouth of the Sangamon, and the “Journal” of March 29 announced with great flourish that the “steamboat Talisman, of one hundred and fifty tons burden, arrived at the Portland landing opposite this town on Saturday last.” There was great local rejoicing over this demonstration that the Sangamon was really navigable, and the “Journal” proclaimed with exultation that Springfield “could no longer be considered an inland town.”

    President Jackson's first term was nearing its close, and the Democratic party was preparing to reelect him. The Whigs, on their part, had held their first national convention in December, 1831, and nominated Henry Clay to dispute the succession. This nomination, made almost a year in advance of the election, indicates an unusual degree of political activity in the East, and [29] voters in the new State of Illinois were fired with an equal party zeal. During the months of January and February, 1832, no less than six citizens of Sangamon County announced themselves in the “Sangamo Journal” as candidates for the State legislature, the election for which was not to occur until August; and the “Journal” of March 15 printed a long letter, addressed “To the people of Sangamon County,” under date of the ninth, signed A. Lincoln, and beginning:

    Fellow-citizens: Having become a candidate for the honorable office of one of your representatives in the next general assembly of this State, in accordance with an established custom and the principles of true republicanism, it becomes my duty to make known to you, the people whom I propose to represent, my sentiments with regard to local affairs.

    He then takes up and discusses in an eminently methodical and practical way the absorbing topic of the moment — the Whig doctrine of internal improvements and its local application, the improvement of the Sangamon River. He mentions that meetings have been held to propose the construction of a railroad, and frankly acknowledges that “no other improvement that reason will justify us in hoping for can equal in utility the railroad,” but contends that its enormous cost precludes any such hope, and that, therefore, “the improvement of the Sangamon River is an object much better suited to our infant resources.” Relating his experience in building and navigating his flatboat, and his observation of the stage of the water since then, he draws the very plausible conclusion that by straightening its channel and clearing away its driftwood the stream can be made navigable “to vessels of from twenty-five to thirty tons burden for at least one half of all common years, and to vessels of much greater burden a part [30] of the time.” His letter very modestly touches a few other points of needed legislation — a law against usury, laws to promote education, and amendments to estray and road laws. The main interest for us, however, is in the frank avowal of his personal ambition.

    “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say, for one, that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow-men by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition is yet to be developed. I am young, and unknown to many of you. I was born, and have ever remained, in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relations or friends to recommend me. My case is thrown exclusively upon the independent voters of the country, and if elected they will have conferred a favor upon me for which I shall be unremitting in my labors to compensate. But if the good people in their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.”

    This written and printed address gives us an accurate measure of the man and the time. When he wrote this document he was twenty-three years old. He had been in the town and county only about nine months of actual time. As Sangamon County covered an estimated area of twenty-one hundred and sixty square miles, he could know but little of either it or its people. How dared a “friendless, uneducated boy, working on a flatboat at twelve dollars a month,” with “no wealthy or popular friends to recommend” him, aspire to the honors and responsibilities of a legislator? The only answer is that he was prompted by that intuition of genius, that consciousness of powers which justify their claims by their achievements. When we scan [31] the circumstances more closely, we find distinct evidence of some reason for his confidence. Relatively speaking, he was neither uneducated nor friendless. His acquirements were already far beyond the simple elements of reading, writing, and ciphering. He wrote a good, clear, serviceable hand; he could talk well and reason cogently. The simple, manly style of his printed address fully equals in literary ability that of the average collegian in the twenties. His migration from Indiana to Illinois and his two voyages to New Orleans had given him a glimpse of the outside world. His natural logic readily grasped the significance of the railroad as a new factor in transportation, although the first American locomotive had been built only one year, and ten to fifteen years were yet to elapse before the first railroad train was to run in Illinois.

    One other motive probably had its influence. He tells us that Offutt's business was failing, and his quick judgment warned him that he would soon be out of a job as clerk. This, however, could be only a secondary reason for announcing himself as a candidate, for the election was not to occur till August, and even if he were elected there would be neither service nor salary till the coming winter. His venture into politics must therefore be ascribed to the feeling which he so frankly announced in his letter, his ambition to become useful to his fellow-men — the impulse that throughout history has singled out the great leaders of mankind.

    In this particular instance a crisis was also at hand, calculated to develop and utilize the impulse. Just about a month after the publication of Lincoln's announcement, the “Sangamo Journal” of April 19 printed an official call from Governor Reynolds, directed to General Neale of the Illinois militia, to organize six hundred volunteers of his brigade for military [32] service in a campaign against the Indians under Black Hawk, the war chief of the Sacs, who, in defiance of treaties and promises, had formed a combination with other tribes during the winter, and had now crossed back from the west to the east side of the Mississippi River with the determination to reoccupy their old homes in the Rock River country toward the northern end of the State.

    In the memoranda which Mr. Lincoln furnished for a campaign biography, he thus relates what followed the call for troops:

    Abraham joined a volunteer company, and, to his own surprise, was elected captain of it. He says he has not since had any success in life which gave him so much satisfaction. He went to the campaign, served near three months, met the ordinary hardships of such an expedition, but was in no battle.

    Official documents furnish some further interesting details. As already said, the call was printed in the Sangamo Journal of April 19. On April 21 the company was organized at Richland, Sangamon County, and on April 28 was inspected and mustered into service at Beardstown and attached to Colonel Samuel Thompson's regiment, the Fourth Illinois Mounted Volunteers. They marched at once to the hostile frontier. As the campaign shaped itself, it probably became evident to the company that they were not likely to meet any serious fighting, and, not having been enlisted for any stated period, they became clamorous to return home. The governor therefore had them and other companies mustered out of service, at the mouth of Fox River, on May 27. Not, however, wishing to weaken his forces before the arrival of new levies already on the way, he called for volunteers to remain twenty days longer. Lincoln had gone to the frontier to perform [33] real service, not merely to enjoy military rank or reap military glory. On the same day, therefore, on which he was mustered out as captain, he reenlisted, and became Private Lincoln in Captain Iles's company of mounted volunteers, organized apparently principally for scouting service, and sometimes called the Independent Spy Battalion. Among the other officers who imitated this patriotic example were General Whiteside and Major John T. Stuart, Lincoln's later law partner. The Independent Spy Battalion, having faithfully performed its new term of service, was finally mustered out on June 16, 1832. Lincoln and his messmate, George M. Harrison, had the misfortune to have their horses stolen the day before, but Harrison relates:

    I laughed at our fate and he joked at it, and we all started off merrily. The generous men of our company walked and rode by turns with us, and we fared about equal with the rest. But for this generosity our legs would have had to do the better work; for in that day this dreary route furnished no horses to buy or to steal, and, whether on horse or afoot, we always had company, for many of the horses' backs were too sore for riding.

    Lincoln must have reached home about August I, for the election was to occur in the second week of that month, and this left him but ten days in which to push his claims for popular indorsement. His friends, however, had been doing manful duty for him during his three months absence, and he lost nothing in public estimation by his prompt enlistment to defend the frontier. Successive announcements in the Journal had by this time swelled the list of candidates to thirteen. But Sangamon County was entitled to only four representatives, and when the returns came in Lincoln was among those defeated. Nevertheless, he made a very [34] respectable showing in the race. The list of successful and unsuccessful aspirants and their votes was as follows:

    E. D. Taylor1127
    John T. Stuart991
    Achilles Morris945
    Peter Cartwright815

    Under the plurality rule, these four had been elected. The unsuccessful candidates were:

    A. G. Herndon806
    W. Carpenter774
    J. Dawson717
    A. Lincoln657
    T. M. Neale571
    R. Quinton485
    Z. Peter214
    E. Robinson169

    The returns show that the total vote of the county was about twenty-one hundred and sixty-eight. Comparing this with the vote cast for Lincoln, we see that he received nearly one third of the total county vote, notwithstanding his absence from the canvass, notwithstanding the fact that his acquaintanceship was limited to the neighborhood of New Salem, notwithtsanding the sharp competition. Indeed, his talent and fitness for active practical politics were demonstrated beyond question by the result in his home precinct of New Salem, which, though he ran as a Whig, gave two hundred and seventy-seven votes for him and only three against him. Three months later it gave one hundred and eighty-five for the Jackson and only seventy for the [35] Clay electors, proving Lincoln's personal popularity. He remembered for the remainder of his life with great pride that this was the only time he was ever beaten on a direct vote of the people.

    The result of the election brought him to one of the serious crises of his life, which he forcibly stated in after years in the following written words:

    He was now without means and out of business, but was anxious to remain with his friends, who had treated him with so much generosity, especially as he had nothing elsewhere to go to. He studied what he should do; thought of learning the blacksmith trade, thought of trying to study law, rather thought he could not succeed at that without a better education.

    The perplexing problem between inclination and means to follow it, the struggle between conscious talent and the restraining fetters of poverty, has come to millions of young Americans before and since, but perhaps to none with a sharper trial of spirit or more resolute patience. Before he had definitely resolved upon either career, chance served not to solve, but to postpone his difficulty, and in the end to greatly increase it.

    New Salem, which apparently never had any good reason for becoming a town, seems already at that time to have entered on the road to rapid decay. Offutt's speculations had failed, and he had disappeared. The brothers Herndon, who had opened a new store, found business dull and unpromising. Becoming tired of their undertaking, they offered to sell out to Lincoln and Berry on credit, and took their promissory notes in payment. The new partners, in that excess of hope which usually attends all new ventures, also bought two other similar establishments that were in extremity, and for these likewise gave their notes. It is evident that the confidence which Lincoln had inspired while he was [36] a clerk in Offutt's store, and the enthusiastic support he had received as a candidate, were the basis of credit that sustained these several commercial transactions.

    It turned out in the long run that Lincoln's credit and the popular confidence that supported it were as valuable both to his creditors and himself as if the sums which stood over his signature had been gold coin in a solvent bank. But this transmutation was not attained until he had passed through a very furnace of financial embarrassment. Berry proved a worthless partner, and the business a sorry failure. Seeing this, Lincoln and Berry sold out again on credit — to the Trent brothers, who soon broke up and ran away. Berry also departed and died, and finally all the notes came back upon Lincoln for payment. He was unable to meet these obligations, but he did the next best thing. He remained, promised to pay when he could, and most of his creditors, maintaining their confidence in his integrity, patiently bided their time, till, in the course of long years, he fully justified it by paying, with interest, every cent of what he learned to call, in humorous satire upon his own folly, the “national debt.”

    With one of them he was not so fortunate. Van Bergen, who bought one of the Lincoln-Berry notes, obtained judgment, and, by peremptory sale, swept away the horse, saddle, and surveying instruments with the daily use of which Lincoln “procured bread and kept body and soul together,” to use his own words. But here again Lincoln's recognized honesty was his safety. Out of personal friendship, James Short bought the property and restored it to the young surveyor, giving him time to repay. It was not until his return from Congress, seventeen years after the purchase of the store, that he finally relieved himself of the last instalments of his “national debt.” But by these seventeen [37] years of sober industry, rigid economy, and unflinching faith to his obligations he earned the title of “Honest old Abe,” which proved of greater service to himself and his country than if he had gained the wealth of Croesus.

    Out of this ill-starred commercial speculation, however, Lincoln derived one incidental benefit, and it may be said it became the determining factor in his career. It is evident from his own language that he underwent a severe mental struggle in deciding whether he would become a blacksmith or a lawyer. In taking a middle course, and trying to become a merchant, he probably kept the latter choice strongly in view. It seems well established by local tradition that during the period while the Lincoln-Berry store was running its foredoomed course from bad to worse, Lincoln employed all the time he could spare from his customers (and he probably had many leisure hours) in reading and study of various kinds. This habit was greatly stimulated and assisted by his being appointed, May 7, 1833, postmaster at New Salem, which office he continued to hold until May 30, 1836, when New Salem partially disappeared, and the office was removed to Petersburg. The influences which brought about the selection of Lincoln are not recorded, but it is suggested that he had acted for some time as deputy postmaster under the former incumbent, and thus became the natural successor. Evidently his politics formed no objection, as New Salem precinct had at the August election, when he ran as a Whig, given him its almost solid vote for representative, notwithstanding the fact that it was more than two thirds Democratic. The postmastership increased his public consideration and authority, broadened his business experience, and the newspapers he handled provided him an abundance of reading matter [38] on topics of both local and national importance up to the latest dates.

    Those were stirring times, even on the frontier. The “Sangamo Journal” of December 30, 1832, printed Jackson's nullification proclamation. The same paper, of March 9, 1833, contained an editorial on Clay's compromise, and that of the 16th had a notice of the great nullification debate in Congress. The speeches of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster were published in full during the following month, and Mr. Lincoln could not well help reading them and joining in the feelings and comments they provoked.

    While the town of New Salem was locally dying, the county of Sangamon and the State of Illinois were having what is now called a boom. Other wide-awake newspapers, such as the Missouri Republican and “Louisville Journal,” abounded in notices of the establishment of new stage lines and the general rush of immigration. But the joyous dream of the New Salemites, that the Sangamon River would become a commercial highway, quickly faded. The Talisman was obliged to hurry back down the rapidly falling stream, tearing away a portion of the famous dam to permit her departure. There were rumors that another steamer, the Sylph, would establish regular trips between Springfield and Beardstown, but she never came. The freshets and floods of 1831 and 1832 were succeeded by a series of dry seasons, and the navigation of the Sangamon River was never afterward a telling plank in the county platform of either political party.

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