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Life of Lincoln.


July/August 1860

From The Missouri Democrat, Friday, July 6, 1860.


We make a few extracts, as follows, from Howell’s Life of Lincoln, a work just published:


The Lincolns continued to live in Spencer county, until 1820, nothing interrupting the even tenor of Abraham’s life, except in his nineteenth year, a flat-boat trip to New Orleans. He and a son of the owner composed the crew, and without other assistance, voyaged

“Down the beautiful river,
Past the Ohio shore, and past the mouth of the Wabash,
Into the golden stream of the broad and swift Mississippi.”

Trafficking here and there, in their course, with the inhabitants, and catching glimpses of the great world so long shut out by the woods. One night, having tied up their “cumbrous boat,” near a solitary plantation on the sugar coast, they were attacked and boarded by seven stalwart negroes; but Lincoln and his comrade, after a severe contest in which both were hurt, succeeded in beating their assailants and driving hem from the boat. After which, they weighed what anchor they had, as speedily as possible, and gave themselves to the middle current again. With this sole adventure, Lincoln resumed his quiet backwoods life in Indiana.


Four years afterward, on the first of March, 1830, his father determined to emigrate once more, and the family abandoned the cabin that had been their home so long, and set out for Illinois. The emigrant company was made up by Thomas Lincoln’s family, and the families of Mrs. Lincoln’s two sons in law. Their means of progress were ox wagons, one of which Abraham Lincoln drove. Before the month was elapsed they had arrived at Macon county, Illinois, where they remained a sort time, and Lincoln’s family “located” on some new land, about ten miles northwest of Decatur on the Sangamon river, at a junction of forest and prairie land. Here the father and son built a log cabin, and split rails enough to fence in their land. It is supposed that these are the rails which have since become historic, though by no means the only ones which the robust young backwoodsman made. Indeed, there are other particular rails which dispute a celebrity somewhat indifferent to the sincere admirer of Mr. Lincoln. The work done was in the course of farm labor, and went to the development of Mr. Lincoln’s muscle. Otherwise it is difficult to perceive how it has affected his career.


Mr. George Close, the partner of Lincoln in the rail splitting business, says that Lincoln was at that time a farm laborer, working from day to day for different people, chopping wood, mauling rails, or doing whatever was to be done. The country was poor, and hard work was the common lot; the heaviest share falling to young unmarried men, with whom it was a continual struggle to earn a livelihood. Lincoln and Mr. Close mad about one thousand rails together for James Haws and William Miller, receiving their pay in homespun clothing. Lincoln’s bargain with Miller’s wife was, that he should have one yard of brown jeans, (richly dyed with walnut bark,) for every four thousand rails made, until he should have enough for a pair of trowsers. As Lincoln was already of great altitude, the number of rails that went to the acquirement of his pantaloons was necessarily immense.

On his return to Illinois, Lincoln found that his father had, in pursuance of a previous intention, removed from Macon, and was now living in Coles county. His relative rejoined his family there; but New Salem, on the Sangamon river, became the home of Lincoln, whose “location” there was accidental rather than otherwise. He was descending the river with another flatboat for Offutt, and near New Salem grounded on a dam. An old friend and ardent admirer, who made his acquaintance on the occasion, says that Lincoln was standing in the water on the dam, when he first caught sight of him devoting all his energies to the release of the boat. His dress at this time consisted of a pair of blue jeans trowsers, indefinitely rolled up, a cotton shirt, striped white and blue (of the sort known in song and tradition as hickory,) and a buckeye chip hat, for which a demand of twelve and a half cents would have been exorbitant.

The future President failed to dislodge his boat, though he did adopt the ingenious expedient of lightening it by boring a hole in the end that hung over the dam, and letting out the water-an incident which Mr. Douglas humorously turned to account in one of his speeches. The boat stuck there stubborn, immovable.

Offutt, as has been seen, was a man of resource and decision. He came ashore from his flatboat, and resolutely rented the very mill of which the dam had caused his disaster, together with an old storeroom, which he filled with a stock of goods and gave in the clerkly charge of Abraham Lincoln, with the munificent salary of $15 a month.

Lincoln had already made his first speech. Gen. W. L. D. Ewing, and a politician named Posey, who afterward achieved notoriety in the Black Hawk war, had addressed the freemen of Macon the year previous, “on the issues of the day.” Mr. Posey had, however, in violation of venerable precedent and sacred etiquette, failed to invite the sovereigns to drink something. They were justly indignant, and persuaded Lincoln to reply, in the expectation that he would possibly make himself offensive to Posey. Lincoln, however, took the stump with characteristic modesty, and begging his friends not to laugh if he broke down, treated very courteously the two speakers who had preceded him, discussed questions of politics, and in his pe[r]oration eloquently pictured the future of Illinois. There was a sense and reason in his arguments, and his imaginative flight tickled the State pride of the Illinoians [sic]. It was declared that Lincoln had made the best speech of the day; and he, to his great astonishment, found himself a prophet among those of his own household, while his titled fellow orator cordially complimented his performance.


Defeated, but far from dismayed, Lincoln once more turned his attention to business. He was still poor, for though thrifty enough, he never could withstand the appeals of distress, nor sometimes refuse to become security for those who asked the use of his name. His first surveying had been done with a grape-vine instead of a chain, and having indorsed a note which was not paid, his compass was seized and sold. One James Short bought it and returned it to Lincoln. The surveyor of Sangamon county, John Calhoun (since notorious for his candle-box concealment of the election returns in Kansas,) deputed to Lincoln that part of the county in which he resided, and he now assumed the active practice of surveying, and continued to live upon the slender fees of his office until 1834, when he was elected to the Legislature by the largest vote cast for any candidate.

Before this election Lincoln had engaged and failed in merchandising on his own account.

It is supposed that it was at New Salem that Lincoln, while a “clerk” in Offutt’s store, first saw Stephen A. Douglas, and, probably, the acquaintance was renewed during Lincoln’s proprietorship of the store, which he afterwards bought in the same place.*

One Reuben Radford was Lincoln’s predecessor. He had fallen, by some means, into disfavor with Clary’s Grove Boys, who one evening took occasion to break in the windows of his establishment. Reuben was discouraged. Perhaps it would not be going too far to allude to his situation as discouraging. At any rate, he told a young farmer† who came to trade with him the next day, that he was going to close out his business. What would Mr. Green give him for his stock? Mr. Green looked about him and replied, only half in earnest, four hundred dollars. The offer was instantly accepted, and the business transferred to Mr. Green. On the following day Lincoln chanced to come in, and, being informed of the transaction, proposed that he and Green should invoice the stock and see how much he had made. They found that it was worth about six hundred dollars and Lincoln gave Mr. Green a hundred and twenty-five dollars for his bargain, while Green indorsed the notes of Lincoln and one Berry, to Radford, for the remaining four hundred. Berry was a thriftless soul, it seems, and after a while the store fell into a chronic decay, and, in the idiom of the region, finally winked out.

Lincoln was moneyless, having previously invested his whole fortune in a surveyor’s compass and books, and Berry was uncertain. Young Green was compelled to pay the notes given to Radford. He afterward removed to Tennessee, where he married, and was living in forgetfulness of his transaction with Lincoln, when he one day received a letter from that person, stating he was now able to pay back to Green the amount for which he had indorsed. Lincoln was by this time in the practice of law, and it was with the first earnings of his profession that he discharged this debt, principal and interest.

* * * * * * * *


He bought an old copy of Blackstone, one day, at auction, in Springfield, and on his return to New Salem, attacked the work with characteristic energy. His favorite place of study was a wooded knoll near New Salem, where he threw himself under a wide spreading oak, and expansively made a reading desk of the hillside. Here he would pore over Blackstone day after day, shifting his position as the sun rose and sank, so as to keep in the shade, and utterly unconscious of everything but the principles of common law. People went by, and he took no account of them; the salutations of acquaintances were returned with silence, or a vacant stare; and altogether the manner of the absorbed student was not unlike that of one distraught.

Since that day his habits of study have changed somewhat, but his ardor remains unabated, and he is now regarded as one of the best informed, as he is certainly the ablest, man in Illinois.

When practicing law, before his election to Congress, a copy of Burns was his inseparable companion on the circuit; and this he perused so constantly, that it is said he has now by heart every line of his favorite poet. He is also a diligent student of Shakespeare, “to know whom is a liberal education.”

The bent of his mind, however, is mathematical and metaphysical, and he is therefore pleased with the absolute and logical method of Poe’s tales and sketches, in which the problem of mystery is given, and wrought out into everyday facts by processes of cunning analysis. It is said that he suffers no year to pass without the perusal of this author.

Books, of all sorts, the eager student devoured with an insatiable appetite; and newspapers were no less precious to him. The first publication for which he ever subscribed was the Louisville Journal, which he paid for when he could secure the intellectual luxury only at the expense of physical comfort.

It was a day of great rejoicing with Lincoln when President Jackson appointed him postmaster at New Salem. He was a Whig, but the office was of so little pecuniary significance, that it was bestowed irrespective of politics. Lincoln, indeed, was the only person in the community whose accomplishments were equal to the task of making out the mail returns for the Department.

An acquaintance says that the Presidency can never make our candidate happier than the post office did then. He foresaw unlimited opportunities for reading newspapers, and of satisfying his appetite for knowledge.

But it was not through reading alone that Lincoln cultivated his intellect. The grave and practical American mind has always found entertainment and profit in disputation, and the debating clubs are what every American youth is su[b]ject to. They are useful in many ways. They safely vent the mental exuberances of youth; those whom destiny intended for the bar and the Senate, they assist; those who have a mistaken vocation to oratory, they mercifully extinguish.

Even in that day, and that rude country, where learning was a marvelous and fearful exception, the debating school flourished, in part as a literary institution, and in part as a rustic frolic.

Lincoln delighted in practicing polemics, as it was called, and used to walk six and seven miles through the woods to attend the disputations in his neighborhood. Of course, many of the debates were infinitely funny, for the disputants were, frequently, men without education. Here, no doubt, Lincoln stored his mind with anecdotes and comic illustration, while he delighted his auditors with his own wit and reason, and added to his growing popularity.

This popularity had been early founded by a stroke of firmness and bravery on Lincoln’s part, when he first came into Sangamon county.

He had returned from that famous voyage made with Offutt’s impromptu flat-boat to New Orleans, and descending the Sangamon river, as has already been related, fixed upon the little village of New Salem, by fortuity rather than intention, as his future home. Nevertheless, he had first to undergo an o[r]deal to which every new comer was subjected, before his residence could be generally acknowledged. Then, when it was more necessary to be equal parts of horse and alligator, and to be able to vanquish one’s weight in wild cats, than now, there flourished in the region of New Salem a band of jolly, roystering blades, calling themselves “Clary’s Grove Boys,” who not only gave the law to the neighborhood, as Regulators, but united judicial to legislative functions, by establishing themselves a tribunal to try the stuff of every one that came into that region. They were, at once, the protectors and the scourge of the whole countryside, and must have been some such company as that of Brom Bones, in Sleepy Hollow, upon whom the “neighbors all looked with a mixture of awe, admiration, and good will.” Their mode of receiving a stranger was to appoint some one of their number to wrestle with him, fight with him, or run a foot race with him, according to their pleasure, and his appearance.

As soon as young Lincoln appeared, the “Clary’s Grove Boys” determined to signalize their prowess anew by a triumph over a stalwart fellow, who stood six feet three inches without stockings. The leader and champion of their band (one Jack Armstrong, who seems himself to have been another Brom Bones) challenged Lincoln to a wrestling match. When the encounter took place, the “Clary’s Grove Boy” found that he had decidedly the worst half of the affair, and the bout would have ended in his ignominious defeat, had not all his fellow boys come to his assistance. Lincoln then refused to continue the unequal struggle. He would wrestle with them fairly, or he would run a foot race, or if any of them desired to fight, he generously offered to thrash that particular individual. He looked every word he said, and none of the boys saw fit to accept his offer. Jack Armstrong was willing to call the affair drawn; and Lincoln’s fearless conduct had already won the hearts of his enemies. He was invited to become one of their company. His popularity was assured. The boys idolized him, and when the Black Hawk war broke out, he was chosen their captain, and remained at their head throughout the campaign. Their favor still pursued him, and, two years afterward, he was elected to the Legislature, through the influence created by his famous wrestling match.

Many of the boys are now distinguished citizens of Illinois, and are among Lincoln’s warmest friends; though they acknowledge that if he had shown signs of cowardice when they came to the rescue of their champion, it would have fared grievously with him.

Indeed, this seems to have been one of the most significant incidents of his early life. It gave him reputation for courage necessary in a new country, and opened a career to him which his great qualities have enabled him to pursue with brilliance and success.


His characteristics as an advocate, are an earnestness and sincerity of manner, and a directness, conciseness, and strength of style; he appeals, at other times, to the weapons of good-humored ridicule as ably as to the heavier arms of forensic combat. He is strongest in civil cases, but in a criminal case that enlists his sympathies he is also great. It is then that the advocate’s convictions, presented to the jury in terse and forcible, yet eloquent language, sometimes outweigh the charge of the judge. Juries listen to him, and concur in his arguments, and he triumphs. There may be law and evidence against him, but the belief that Lincoln is right, nothing can shake in the minds of these who know the man.

He prepares his cases with infinite care, when he has nothing but technical work before him. The smallest detail of the affair does not escape him. All the parts are perfectly fitted together, and the peculiar powers of his keen, analytic mind are brought into full play. He has not the quickness which characterizes Douglas, and which is so useful to the man who adventures into law or politics. But he is sufficiently alert, and recovers himself in time to achieve success. Lincoln does not grow rich at the law, and has not grown rich to this day, though possessing a decent competence, and owing no man anything. Poor men, who have the misfortune to do with courts, come to Lincoln; who has never been known to exact an exorbitant fee, and whose demands are always proportioned to their property. There is a record of a case which he gained for a young mechanic, after carrying it through three courts, and of his refusal to receive more than a comparative trifle in return.


Meantime in the year 1842, Lincoln married a woman worthy to be the companion of his progress toward honor and distinction. Miss Mary Todd, who became his wife, is the daughter of Robert Todd, of Lexington, Kentucky, a man well known in that State, and formerly the clerk of the lower House of Congress. At the time of her marriage, Miss Todd was the belle of Springfield society-accomplished and intellectual, and possessing all the social graces native to the women of Kentucky.

When in the practice of the law, Mr. Lincoln was never known to undertake a cause which he believed founded in wrong and injustice. “You are not strictly in the right.” he said to a person who once wished him to bring a certain suit, and who now tells the story with profound admiration. “I might give the other parties considerable trouble, and perhaps beat them at law, but there would be no justice in it. I am sorry—I cannot undertake your cause.”

“I never knew Lincoln to do a mean act in his life,” said Stuart, the veteran lawyer, who first encouraged Lincoln to adopt his profession. “God never made a finer man,” exclaimed the old backwoodsman, Close, when applied to for reminiscences of Lincoln. By the testimony of all, and in the memory of every one who has known him, Lincoln is a pure, candid, and upright man, unblemished by those vices which so often disfigure greatness, utterly incapable of falsehood, and without one base or sordid trait.

* * * * * * * *

In 1846, Mr. Lincoln was elected Representative in Congress, from Illinois, and took his seat in December 1847:

In the Senate sat Clay, Calhoun, Benton, Webster, Corwin. In the House were Palfrey, Winthrop, Wilmot, Giddings, Adams.

The new member from Illinois, who had distinguished himself in 1844 as the friend of Clay and the enemy of Texas annexation, took his seat among these great men as representative of the purest Whig principles; he was opposed to the war, as Corwin was; he was anti-slavery, as Clay was; he favored internal improvements, as all the great Whigs did.

And as Abraham Lincoln never sat astride of any fence, unless in his rail splitting days; as water was never carried on both of his square shoulders; as his prayers to Heaven have never been made with a reference to a compromise with other powers; so, throughout his Congressional career, you find him the bold advocate of the principles which he believed to be right. He never dodged a vote. He never minced matters with his opponents. He had not been fifteen days in the House when he made known what manner of man he was.

The speeches of Mr. Lincoln, which follow in Mr. Howell’s biography, are six in number, and are the best of his life.

* Lincoln expressly stated, in reply to some badinage of Douglas, during the debates of 1858, that he never kept a grocery anywhere. Out west, a grocery is understood to be a place where the chief article of commerce is whisky. Lincoln’s establishment was, in the Western sense, a store; that is, he sold tea, coffee, sugar, powder, lead, and other luxuries and necessities of pioneer existence. Very probably his store was not without the “elixir of life,” with which nearly everybody renewed the flower of youth in those days, though this is not a matter of absolute history, nor perhaps of vital consequence.

† Mr. W. T. Green, now one of the most influential and wealthy men of this part of Illinois.