With the conclusion of his sole term
in the U.S. Congress, Lincoln returned to the practice of law. The historian
Michael Burlingame has argued that Lincoln, who was now in his early
forties, experienced a mid-life crisis at this time, a painful search
for self-identity that resulted in the discovery of his true gifts.
The crisis lasted from 1849 to 1854, a period that Albert Beveridge
described as "five desolate years" crowned with a dramatic
speech condemning the Kansas-Nebraska Act, an effort that resurrected
Lincoln's political career.
Lincoln embraced his law practice with
great earnestness and retired from politics. When a Whig newspaper touted
him for Congress in 1850 he declined the summons. Instead, Lincoln traveled
the fourteen counties of the Eighth Judicial Circuit, scrounging up
cases, small for the most part, land disputes, quarrels over livestock,
debt collections, divorces, and occasional murders. Twice each year
Lincoln left Springfield to spend weeks with Judge David Davis and other
lawyers as they trooped from county seat to county seat. Conditions
were primitive. Roads were little more than game trails, rivers and
streams had to be forded as there were no bridges, and the roving band
often saw deer, quail and even wolves roaming the lush prairie.
Davis, Lincoln and the other attorneys
would arrive in town and settle in at a primitive tavern that doubled
as a hotel. The lodgings were usually crude, the men sometimes shared
beds, and the food was uniformly miserable. "This thing of traveling
in Illinois, and being eaten up by bed bugs and mosquitoes... is not
what it is cracked up to be," complained David Davis. Lincoln was
considered remarkable for his indifference to the hardships of bed and
table. "He never complained of any food - nor beds - nor lodgings
- He once Said at a table - `Well -- in the absence of anything to Eat
I will jump into this Cabbage," Davis remembered.
Lincoln's gift for storytelling and
humor made him a popular and even beloved companion in this exclusively
masculine world. Judge Davis said "In my opinion, Lincoln was happy,
as happy as he could be, when on this circuit - and happy no
other place." He formed lasting friendships with men who became
strong supporters of his political aspirations: David Davis, Leonard
Swett, Ward Hill Lamon.
Lincoln brooded a great deal over what
he thought was his lack of success. At times he withdrew from the conviviality
of his circuit colleagues, drew a chair before the fireplace, and stared
abstractly at the flames for hours. At these times his friends, recognizing
the mood, would leave him to his thoughts. He had hoped for political
success, but that world seemed to have passed him by while rivals like
Stephen A. Douglas had achieved considerable notice. The death of his
son Edward "Eddie" at the age of three in 1850 and the death
of his father Thomas in 1851 added to the gloom. Happily, two more sons
were born in this period, William and Thomas, but Lincoln's long sojourns
on the circuit kept him away from his wife and the boys. He missed them
terribly. "Lincoln speaks very affectionately of his wife and children.
He is a very warm hearted man," David Davis wrote his wife.
While Lincoln retreated to Illinois,
the American political system faced a mounting crisis. The acquisition
of Mexican lands pressed the question of slavery to the forefront of
national politics. Would these lands, once organized as territories
and states, permit slavery? How would their organization affect the
delicate sectional balance in Congress?
Northerners promptly insisted upon slavery's
exclusion from the new West. In 1846 the Pennsylvania Democrat David
Wilmot attached a famous proviso barring the introduction of slavery
in the Mexican Cession into a military appropriations bill. The
Wilmot Proviso split the Congress along sectional lines that often superseded
party affiliations. Each time a bill to organize the western territories
came up, northern representatives attached the Proviso to it, ensuring
its defeat in the southern-controlled Senate. Eventually southerners
led by John C. Calhoun of South Carolina drew up their own program,
which held that slavery could not be excluded anywhere in the American
The Mexican War Hero Zachary Taylor
swept the Whig Party to the presidency in 1848, but Taylor's studied
silence on the sectional question failed to resolve that issue. After
a prolonged deadlock that even prevented the organization of the Congress
(it took three weeks and fifty-nine ballots to elect a Speaker of the
House), the Congress hammered out the Compromise of 1850. After fruitless
appeals by the aged Whigs Henry Clay and Daniel Webster failed to pacify
the South, Illinois' own Stephen Douglas facilitated the passage of
a set of measures that seemed to preserve the sectional balance.
The Compromise admitted California as
a free state and banned the slave trade in the District of Columbia,
both victories for northerners opposed to slavery's expansion. Southerners
celebrated a stronger fugitive slave law that obliged northerners to
return runaways to their southern masters, and a promise that there
would be no congressional prohibition of slavery in the New Mexico and
Utah territories. This last provision turned to the fundamental Democratic
doctrine of popular sovereignty, or passing the responsibility for political
decisions to local electorates.
Americans greeted the Compromise with
enthusiastic celebrations, and many believed that the Union had been
saved. But the Compromise merely evaded the major issues of slavery
in the territories. Northerners and southerners interpreted the Compromise
in different ways, and their interpretations quickly led to renewed
conflict. Did the organization of the Utah and New Mexico territories
without a congressional prohibition of slavery mean that new settlers
could hold slaves there until a state constitution articulated a position
on slavery? Or could residents of a territory exclude slavery even before
they attained statehood?
Back in Illinois, Lincoln continued
his lifelong course of self-study. He took up Euclid, carrying the books
with him as he traveled the circuit. William Herndon recalled that Lincoln
read a great deal, particularly about politics. He had embarked on a
self-motivated course of improvement, of deep thinking on the issues
of the day, bringing his formidable intellect to bear. Douglas Wilson
noted "Perhaps the quality most remarked in his mental makeup by
those who knew him, apart from his melancholy, was the logical cast
of Lincoln's mind." He brought these gifts to bear in the courtroom
and enjoyed marked success. A Danville newspaper characterized Lincoln's
legal gifts in 1851: "He lives but to ponder, reflect and cogitate....
In his examination of witnesses, he displays a masterly ingenuity...
that baffled concealment and defies deceit. And in addressing a jury,
there is no false glitter, no sickly sentimentalism to be discovered...
Bold, forcible and energetic, he forces conviction upon the mind, and
by his clearness and conciseness, stamps it there, not to be erased."
When Lincoln finally emerged from his political hiatus, his course
of self-improvement and innate intellectual abilities enabled him to
construct a vigorous counter-argument to Stephen A. Douglas's doctrine
of popular sovereignty, an argument he proclaimed, in Michael Burlingame's
phrase, "with Euclidian coherence."
Burlingame, Michael. The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994.
Carwardine, Richard J. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Fehrenbacher, Don E. Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962.
Freehling, William W. The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Holt, Michael F. The Political Crisis of the 1850s. New York: Norton, 1978.
King, Willard L. Lincoln's Manager, David Davis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.
Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis 1848-1861. New York: 1976.
Wilson, Douglas L. and Rodney O. Davis, eds., Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements About Abraham Lincoln. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1998.