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Chapter 3.

  • Appointed deputy surveyor
  • -- elected to legislature in 1834- -- campaign issues -- begins study of law -- internal improvement system -- the Lincoln-Stone protest -- candidate for Speaker in 1838 and 1840
    When Lincoln was appointed postmaster, in May, 1833, the Lincoln-Berry store had not yet completely “winked out,” to use his own picturesque phrase. When at length he ceased to be a merchant, he yet remained a government official, a man of consideration and authority, who still had a responsible occupation and definite home, where he could read, write, and study. The proceeds of his office were doubtless very meager, but in that day, when the rate of postage on letters was still twenty-five cents, a little change now and then came into his hands, which, in the scarcity of money prevailing on the frontier, had an importance difficult for us to appreciate. His positions as candidate for the legislature and as postmaster probably had much to do in bringing him another piece of good fortune. In the rapid settlement of Illinois and Sangamon County, and the obtaining titles to farms by purchase or preemption, as well as in the locating and opening of new roads, the county surveyor had more work on his hands than he could perform throughout a county extending forty miles east and west and fifty north and south, and was compelled to appoint deputies to assist him. The name of the county surveyor was John Calhoun, recognized by all his contemporaries [40] in Sangamon as a man of education and talent and an aspiring Democratic politician. It was not an easy matter for Calhoun to find properly qualified deputies, and when he became acquainted with Lincoln, and learned his attainments and aptitudes, and the estimation in which he was held by the people of New Salem, he wisely concluded to utilize his talents and standing, notwithstanding their difference in politics. The incident is thus recorded by Lincoln:

    The surveyor of Sangamon offered to depute to Abraham that portion of his work which was within his part of the county. He accepted, procured a compass and chain, studied Flint and Gibson a little, and went at it. This procured bread, and kept soul and body together.

    Tradition has it that Calhoun not only gave him the appointment, but lent him the book in which to study the art, which he accomplished in a period of six weeks, aided by the schoolmaster, Mentor Graham. The exact period of this increase in knowledge and business capacity is not recorded, but it must have taken place in the summer of 1833, as there exists a certificate of survey in Lincoln's handwriting signed, “J. Calhoun, S. S. C., by A. Lincoln,” dated January 14, 1834. Before June of that year he had surveyed and located a public road from “Musick's Ferry on Salt Creek, via New Salem, to the county line in the direction to Jacksonville,” twenty-six miles and seventy chains in length, the exact course of which survey, with detailed bearings and distances, was drawn on common white letter-paper pasted in a long slip, to a scale of two inches to the mile, in ordinary yet clear and distinct penmanship. The compensation he received for this service was three dollars per day for five days, and two dollars and fifty cents for making the plat and report. [41] An advertisement in the “Journal” shows that the regular fees of another deputy were “two dollars per day, or one dollar per lot of eight acres or less, and fifty cents for a single line, with ten cents per mile for traveling.”

    While this class of work and his post-office, with its emoluments, probably amply supplied his board, lodging, and clothing, it left him no surplus with which to pay his debts, for it was in the latter part of that same year (1834) that Van Bergen caused his horse and surveying instruments to be sold under the hammer, as already related. Meanwhile, amid these fluctuations of good and bad luck, Lincoln maintained his equanimity, his steady, persevering industry, and his hopeful ambition and confidence in the future. Through all his misfortunes and his failures, he preserved his self-respect and his determination to succeed.

    Two years had nearly elapsed since he was defeated for the legislature, and, having received so flattering a vote on that occasion, it was entirely natural that he should determine to try a second chance. Four new representatives were to be chosen at the August election of 1834, and near the end of April Lincoln published his announcement that he would again be a candidate. He could certainly view his expectations in every way in a more hopeful light. H-is knowledge had increased, his experience broadened, his acquaintanceship greatly increased. His talents were acknowledged, his ability recognized. He was postmaster and deputy surveyor. He had become a public character whose services were in demand. As compared with the majority of his neighbors, he was a man of learning who had seen the world. Greater, however, than all these advantages, his sympathetic kindness of heart, his sincere, open frankness, his sturdy, unshrinking [42] honesty, and that inborn sense of justice that yielded to no influence, made up a nobility of character and bearing that impressed the rude frontiersmen as much as, if not more quickly and deeply than, it would have done the most polished and erudite society.

    Beginning his campaign in April, he had three full months before him for electioneering, and he evidently used the time to good advantage. The pursuit of popularity probably consisted mainly of the same methods that in backwoods districts prevail even to our day: personal visits and solicitations, attendance at various kinds of neighborhood gatherings, such as raisings of new cabins, horse-races, shooting-matches, sales of town lots or of personal property under execution, or whatever occasion served to call a dozen or two of the settlers together. One recorded incident illustrates the practical nature of the politician's art at that day:

    He [Lincoln] came to my house, near Island Grove, during harvest; There were some thirty men in the field. He got his dinner and went out in the field where the men were at work. I gave him an introduction, and the boys said that they could not vote for a man unless he could make a hand. ‘Well, boys,’ said he, ‘if that is all, I am sure of your votes.’ He took hold of the cradle, and led the way all the round with perfect ease. The boys were satisfied, and I don't think he lost a vote in the crowd.

    Sometimes two or more candidates would meet at such places, and short speeches be called for and given. Altogether, the campaign was livelier than that of two years before. Thirteen candidates were again contesting for the four seats in the legislature, to say nothing of candidates for governor, for Congress, and for the State Senate. The scope of discussion was enlarged and localized. From the published address of an industrious [43] aspirant who received only ninety-two votes, we learn that the issues now were the construction by the general government of a canal from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River, the improvement of the Sangamon River, the location of the State capital at Springfield, a United States bank, a better road law, and amendments to the estray laws.

    When the election returns came in Lincoln had reason to be satisfied with the efforts he had made. He received the second highest number of votes in the long list of candidates. Those cast .for the representatives chosen stood: Dawson, 1390; Lincoln, 1376; Carpenter, 1170; Stuart, 1164. The location of the State capital had also been submitted to popular vote at this election. Springfield, being much nearer the geographical center of the State, was anxious to deprive Vandalia of that honor, and the activity of the Sangamon politicians proved it to be a dangerous rival. In the course of a month the returns from all parts of the State had come in, and showed that Springfield was third in the race.

    It must be frankly admitted that Lincoln's success at this juncture was one of the most important events of his life. A second defeat might have discouraged his efforts to lift himself to a professional career, and sent him to the anvil to make horseshoes and to iron wagons for the balance of his days. But this handsome popular indorsement assured his standing and confirmed his credit. With this lift in the clouds of his horizon, he could resolutely carry his burden of debt and hopefully look to wider fields of public usefulness. Already, during the progress of the canvass, he had received cheering encouragement and promise of most valuable help. One of the four successful candidates was John T. Stuart, who had been major of volunteers [44] in the Black Hawk War while Lincoln was captain, and who, together with Lincoln, had reenlisted as a private in the Independent Spy Battalion. There is every likelihood that the two had begun a personal friendship during their military service, which was of course strongly cemented by their being fellow-candidates and both belonging to the Whig party. Mr. Lincoln relates:

    Major John T. Stuart, then in full practice of the law [at Springfield], was also elected. During the canvass, in a private conversation he encouraged Abraham to study law. After the election, he borrowed books of Stuart, took them home with him, and went at it in good earnest. He studied with nobody.

    In the autumn of 1836 he obtained a law license, and on April 15, 1837, removed to Springfield and commenced the practice, his old friend Stuart taking him into partnership.

    From and after this election in 1834 as a representative, Lincoln was a permanent factor in the politics and the progress of Sangamon County. At a Springfield meeting in the following November to promote common schools, he was appointed one of eleven delegates to attend a convention at Vandalia called to deliberate on that subject. He was reelected to the legislature in 1836, in 1838, and in 1840, and thus for a period of eight years took a full share in shaping and enacting the public and private laws of Illinois, which in our day has become one of the leading States in the Mississippi valley. Of Lincoln's share in that legislation, it need only be said that it was as intelligent and beneficial to the public interest as that of the best of his colleagues. The most serious error committed by the legislature of Illinois during that period was that it enacted laws setting on foot an extensive system of [45] internal improvements, in the form of railroads and canals, altogether beyond the actual needs of transportation for the then existing population of the State, and the consequent reckless creation of a State debt for money borrowed at extravagant interest and liberal commissions. The State underwent a season of speculative intoxication, in which, by the promised and expected rush of immigration and the swelling currents of its business, its farms were suddenly to become villages, its villages spreading towns, and its towns transformed into great cities, while all its people were to be made rich by the increased value of their land and property. Both parties entered with equal recklessness into this ill-advised internal improvement system, which in the course of about four years brought the State to bankruptcy, with no substantial works to show for the foolishly expended millions.

    In voting for these measures, Mr. Lincoln represented the public opinion and wish of his county and the whole State; and while he was as blamable, he was at the same time no more so than the wisest of his colleagues. It must be remembered in extenuation that he was just beginning his parliamentary education. From the very first, however, he seems to have become a force in the legislature, and to have rendered special service to his constituents. It is conceded that the one object which Springfield and the most of Sangamon County had at heart was the removal of the capital from Vandalia to that place. This was accomplished in 1836, and the management of the measure appears to have been intrusted mainly to Mr. Lincoln.

    One incident of his legislative career stands out in such prominent relation to the great events of his after life that it deserves special explanation and emphasis. Even at that early date, a quarter of a century before [46] the outbreak of the Civil War, the slavery question was now and then obtruding itself as an irritating and perplexing element into the local legislation of almost every new State. Illinois, though guaranteed its freedom by the Ordinance of 1787, nevertheless underwent a severe political struggle in which, about four years after her admission into the Union, politicians and settlers from the South made a determined effort to change her to a slave State. The legislature of 1822-23, with a two-thirds pro-slavery majority of the State Senate, and a technical, but legally questionable, two-thirds majority in the House, submitted to popular vote an act calling a State convention to change the constitution. It happened, fortunately, that Governor Coles, though a Virginian, was strongly antislavery, and gave the weight of his official influence and his whole four years salary to counteract the dangerous scheme. From the fact that southern Illinois up to that time was mostly peopled from the slave States, the result was seriously in doubt through an active and exciting campaign, and the convention was finally defeated by a majority of eighteen hundred in a total vote of eleven thousand six hundred and twelve. While this result effectually decided that Illinois would remain a free State, the propagandism and reorganization left a deep and tenacious undercurrent of pro-slavery opinion that for many years manifested itself in vehement and intolerant outcries against “abolitionism,” which on one occasion caused the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy for persisting in his right to print an antislavery newspaper at Alton.

    Nearly a year before this tragedy the Illinois legislature had under consideration certain resolutions from the Eastern States on the subject of slavery, and the committee to which they had been referred reported a [47] set of resolves “highly disapproving abolition societies,” holding that “the right of property in slaves is secured to the slaveholding States by the Federal Constitution,” together with other phraseology calculated on the whole to soothe and comfort pro-slavery sentiment. After much irritating discussion, the committee's resolutions were finally passed, with but Lincoln and five others voting in the negative. No record remains whether or not Lincoln joined in the debate; but, to leave no doubt upon his exact position and feeling, he and his colleague, Dan Stone, caused the following protest to be formally entered on the journals of the House:

    Resolutions upon the subject of domestic slavery having passed both branches of the General Assembly at its present session, the undersigned hereby protest against the passage of the same.

    They believe that the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy, but that the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than abate its evils.

    They believe that the Congress of the United States has no power under the Constitution to interfere with the institution of slavery in the different States.

    They believe that the Congress of the United States has the power, under the Constitution, to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, but that the power ought not to be exercised, unless at the request of the people of the District.

    The difference between these opinions and those contained in the said resolutions is their reasons for entering this protest.

    In view of the great scope and quality of Lincoln's public service in after life, it would be a waste of time to trace out in detail his words or his votes upon the [48] multitude of questions on which he acted during this legislative career of eight years. It needs only to be remembered that it formed a varied and thorough school of parliamentary practice and experience that laid the broad foundation of that extraordinary skill and sagacity in statesmanship which he afterward displayed in party controversy and executive direction. The quick proficiency and ready aptitude for leadership evidenced by him in this, as it may be called, his preliminary parliamentary school are strikingly proved by the fact that the Whig members of the Illinois House of Representatives gave him their full party vote for Speaker, both in 1838 and 1840. But being in a minority, they could not, of course, elect him.

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