Return to the Law, 1850-1853

By R.D. Monroe

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 Union.

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."