After the Lincoln family's 1830 departure
from Indiana, Abraham Lincoln helped clear timber for his father's latest
farm in Macon County, Illinois, near Decatur. He was increasingly
restless and ready to be on his own. An early demonstration of Lincoln's
desire for independence from parental guidance, and of his interest
in politics, came in 1830 when he gave an impromptu speech in favor of
improving the Sangamon River that flowed through Springfield. He also traveled to New Orleans twice
by flatboat, in 1828 and 1831, carrying farm products to market, and
he may have witnessed the indignities of slavery on the trips.
Lincoln broke forever free from his
father in 1831 when he moved to New Salem, Illinois. Clad in primitive
homespun clothing and rudely educated, Lincoln seemed an unlikely prospect
for success. He clerked at a general store and did various odd jobs
to earn his keep. His humble origins aside, Lincoln began to stand out because
he possessed two qualities highly prized on the frontier: immense strength
and a gift for wit and humorous storytelling. Lincoln demonstrated the
former trait in a famous wrestling match with a local tough and the
latter around the general store. He continued what would be a lifelong
process of self-education, taking grammar lessons and reading Shakespeare.
In 1832 Lincoln put his popularity in
his adopted hometown to the test, running for the Illinois General Assembly.
He declared his candidacy in a March 1832 statement in which he pledged
to support internal improvements and education. The young Lincoln proclaimed that his
ambition was to be "truly esteemed of my fellow men," and
he closed on a characteristically lugubrious note. Lincoln pledged to
do his utmost to repay the voters' favor if they conferred it upon him,
"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."
A bit of the elusive popular favor came
to Lincoln in April when Illinois Governor John Reynolds called out
the militia, heralding the advent of the Black Hawk War. Lincoln was
elected captain of the New Salem militia company, and he recalled in
1859 that this honor "gave me more pleasure than any I have had
The Black Hawk War was a disgraceful
episode that began when Black Hawk, leader of a band of some 500 Sac
and Fox Indians, crossed the Mississippi River from Iowa and returned
to ancestral lands near Rock Island, Illinois. The band had earlier
been forced across the river by violent land squatters, and were compelled
to return by hunger and the desire to plant corn on tribal lands in
Illinois. Their appearance led to skirmishes, a general panic, and the
The Indians had little chance. They
were driven into Wisconsin, cornered, and many slaughtered in an unequal
conflict called the Battle of Bad Axe. Lincoln never saw action, and
he mustered out in July, in time to return for the August elections
in New Salem. Lincoln was defeated in that contest, placing eighth out
of thirteen contestants vying for four seats.
Lincoln tried his hand as a merchant,
briefly co-owning a general store in New Salem, only to see the venture
fail. Friends secured his appointment as town postmaster, and as deputy
surveyor of Sangamon County. Lincoln kept himself barely solvent, and
in 1834 he again declared for the state legislature. He had made a deep
enough impression on his district to win this time around.
Wearing a new suit that was the best
item of clothing he had ever owned, Lincoln arrived in the state capital
of Vandalia on a blustery November day in 1834. The twenty-five year
old freshman representative proved himself a solid Whig, voting for
a state bank and in favor of the massive Illinois and Michigan Canal
project. He became a consistent supporter of such internal improvements,
a Whig article of faith.
Lincoln soon demonstrated his wit and humor again.
When the legislature mistakenly appointed a man to a surveyor post that
was filled, Lincoln suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that the redundant appointment
stand so that no action would be necessary should the incumbent surveyor
conclude to die. He became a favorite for his agile mind, though he
was more follower than leader at this stage of his political career.
Appointed to twelve special committees, Lincoln drafted bills and resolutions
for his fellow Whigs, and was elected to a second term in 1836.
John T. Stuart, a fellow Whig, encouraged
Lincoln to study law. At first intimidated at this prospect, witnessing
crude court and legislative proceedings convinced Lincoln that his imperfect
education was not a bar to the profession. He embarked on a legal career,
vigorously studying the standard texts of the era like Blackstone's
Commentaries, and rejecting the subsistence farming his father
Life on the farm held no attraction for Lincoln. Politically, too,
he had rejected the Jeffersonian vision of an ever-expanding agrarian
idyll composed of virtuous subsistence farmers. He believed, like many
Whigs, in the prospect of developing the country's existing space, its
industry and its transportation network, rather than continuing to acquire
Baringer, William E. Lincoln's Vandalia. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1949.
Black Hawk. An Autobiography. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1955.
Carwardine, Richard J. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Lincoln, Abraham. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Roy P. Basler, Ed., 9 vols. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953.
Pease, Theodore C. The Frontier State, 1818-1848. Originally published 1918; reprint, Urbana; University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Simon, Paul. Lincoln's Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971.
White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.