Table of Contents

Entering Politics

Lincoln’s duties at New Salem, as clerk, storekeeper, and postmaster, had resulted in an intimate acquaintance with the people of that general locality. His duties as surveyor took him into the outlying districts. His social instincts won for him friends wherever he was known, while his sterling character gave him an influence unusual, both in kind and in measure, for a young man of his years. He had always possessed an interest in public, even national, questions, and his fondness for debate and speech-making increased this interest. Moreover he had lived month by month going from one job to another, and had not yet found his permanent calling.

When this combination of facts is recalled, it is a foregone conclusion that he would sooner or later enter politics. This he did at the age of twenty-three, in 1832.

According to the custom of the day he announced in the spring his candidacy. After this was done the Black Hawk war called him off the ground and he did not get back until about ten days before the election, so that he had almost no time to attend to the canvass. One incident of this campaign is preserved which is interesting, partly because it concerns the first known speech Lincoln ever made in his own behalf, and chiefly because it was an exhibition of his character.

He was speaking at a place called Cappsville when two men in the audience got into a scuffle.

Lincoln proceeded in his speech until it became evident that his friend was getting the worst of the scuffle, when he descended from the platform, seized the antagonist and threw him ten or twelve feet away on the ground, and then remounted the platform and took up his speech where he had left off without a break in the logic.

The methods of electioneering are given by Miss Tarbell in the following words:

“Wherever he saw a crowd of men he joined them, and he never failed to adapt himself to their point of view in asking for votes. If the degree of physical strength was the test for a candidate, he was ready to lift a weight, or wrestle with the countryside champion; if the amount of grain a man could cut would recommend him, he seized the cradle and showed the swath he could cut” (I. 109).

The ten days devoted to the canvass were not enough, and he was defeated. The vote against him was chiefly in the outlying region where he was little known. It must have been gratifying to him that in his own precinct, where he was so well known, he received the almost unanimous vote of all parties. Biographers differ as to the precise number of votes in the New Salem precinct, but by Nicolay and Hay it is given as 277 for, and three against. Of this election Lincoln himself (speaking in the third person) said: “This was the only time Abraham was ever defeated on the direct vote of the people.”

His next political experience was a candidacy for the legislature 1834. At this time, as before, he announced his own candidacy. But not as before, he at this time made a diligent canvass of the district. When the election came off he was not only successful but he ran ahead of his ticket. He usually did run ahead of his ticket excepting when running for the presidency, and then it was from the nature of the case impossible. Though Lincoln probably did not realize it, this, his first election, put an end forever to his drifting, desultory, frontier life. Up to this point he was always looking for a job. From this time on he was not passing from one thing to another. In this country politics and law are closely allied. This two-fold pursuit, politics, for the sake of law, and law for the sake of politics, constituted Lincoln’s vocation for the rest of his life.

The capital of Illinois was Vandalia, a village said to be named after the Vandals by innocent citizens who were pleased with the euphony of the word hut did not know who the Vandals were. Outwardly the village was crude and forbidding, and many of the Solons were attired in coon- skin caps and other startling apparel. The fashionable clothing, the one which came to be generally adopted as men grew to be “genteel,” was blue jeans. Even “store clothes,” as they came to be called, were as yet comparatively unknown.

But one must not be misled by appearances in a frontier town. The frontier life has a marvelous influence in developing brains. It is as hard for some people in the centers of culture to believe in the possible intelligence of the frontier, as it was in 1776 for the cultured Englishmen to believe in the intelligence of the colonial patriots. In that collection of men at Vandalia were more than a few who afterwards came to have national influence and reputation.

Apart from Lincoln himself, the most prominent member of the legislature was his lifelong antagonist, Stephen A. Douglas. Whatever may be said of this man’s political principles, there can be no question as to the shrewdness of his political methods. It is the opinion of the present writer that in the entire history of our political system no man has ever surpassed him in astuteness. Even to- day all parties are using the methods which he either devised or introduced. The trouble with him was that he was on the wrong side. He did not count sufficiently on the conscience of the nation.

Lincoln was re-elected to the legislature as often as he was willing to be a candidate, and served continuously for eight years. One session is much like another, and in this eight years of legislative experience only two prominent facts will be narrated. One was the removal of the capital to Springfield. To Lincoln was entrusted the difficult task– difficult, because there were almost as many applications for the honor of being the capital city as there were towns and villages in the central part of the state. He was entirely successful, and thenceforward he was inseparably connected with Springfield. It was his home as long as he lived, and there his remains were buried.

The prophetic event of his legislative work was what is known as the Lincoln-Stone protest. This looks to-day so harmless that it is not easy to understand the situation in 1837. The pro-slavery feeling was running high, an abolitionist was looked on as a monster and a menace to national law and order. It was in that year that the Reverend Elijah P. Lovejoy was murdered–martyred–at Alton, Ill. The legislature had passed pro-slavery resolutions. There were many in the legislature who did not approve of these, but in the condition of public feeling, it was looked on as political suicide to express opposition openly. There was no politic reason why Lincoln should protest. His protest could do no practical good. To him it was solely a matter of conscience. Slavery was wrong, the resolutions were wrong, and to him it became necessary to enter the protest. He succeeded in getting but one man to join him, and he did so because he was about to withdraw from politics and therefore had nothing to lose. Here is the document as it was spread on the journal:

“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 above resolutions is their reason for entering this protest.”


“Representatives from the county of Sangamon.”

In 1836 Lincoln made an electioneering speech which was fortunately heard by Joshua Speed, and he has given an account of it. Be it remembered that at that time lightning rods were rare and attracted an unreasonable amount of attention. One Forquer, who was Lincoln’s opponent, had recently rodded his house–and every one knew it. This man’s speech consisted partly in ridiculing his opponent, his bigness, his awkwardness, his dress, his youth. Lincoln heard him through without interruption and then took the stand and said:

“The gentleman commenced his speech by saying that this young man would have to be taken down, and he was sorry the task devolved upon him. I am not so young in years as I am in the tricks and trades of a politician; but live long or die young, I would rather die now than, like the gentleman, change my politics and simultaneous with the change receive an office worth three thousand dollars a year, and then have to erect a lightning-rod over my house to protect a guilty conscience from an offended God.”

It need hardly be said that that speech clung to its victim like a burr. Wherever he went, some one would be found to tell about the guilty conscience and the lightning-rod. The house and its lightning- rod were long a center of interest in Springfield. Visitors to the city were taken to see the house and its lightning-rod, while the story was told with great relish.

Having served eight terms in the legislature, Lincoln in 1842 aspired to congress. He was, however, defeated at the primary. His neighbors added insult to injury by making him one of the delegates to the convention and instructing him to vote for his successful rival, Baker. This did not interrupt the friendship which united the two for many years, lasting, indeed, until the death of Colonel Baker on the field of battle.

In 1846 he renewed his candidacy, and this time with flattering success. His opponent was a traveling preacher, Peter Cartwright, who was widely known in the state and had not a little persuasive power. In this contest Cartwright’s “arguments” were two: the first, that Lincoln was an atheist, and the second that he was an aristocrat. These "arguments” were not convincing, and Lincoln was elected by a handsome majority, running far ahead of his ticket. This was, at the time, the height of his ambition, yet he wrote to Mr. Speed: “Being elected to congress, though I am grateful to our friends for having done it, has not pleased me as much as I expected.”

His one term in congress was uneventful. Twice his humor bubbled over. Once was when he satirized the claims that Cass was a military hero, in the speech already mentioned. The other time was his introducing the resolutions known as the “spot resolutions.” The president had sent to congress an inflammatory, buncombe message, in which he insisted that the war had been begun by Mexico, “by invading our territory and shedding the blood of our citizens on our own soil.” The resolutions requested from the president the information:

“First. Whether the spot on which the blood of our citizens was shed, as in his messages declared, was or was not within the territory of Spain, at least after the treaty of 1819, until the Mexican revolution.”

“Second. Whether that spot is or is not within the territory which was wrested from Spain by the revolutionary government of Mexico.”

“Third. Whether the spot is or is not, etc., etc. It is the recurrence of the word spot which gave the name to the resolutions.”

Lincoln had now served eight years in the legislature and one term in congress. He had a good understanding of politics. He was never a time- server, and he had done nothing unwise. He knew how to win votes and he knew what to do with himself when the votes were won. He held the confidence of his constituency. His was a constantly growing popularity. He could do everything but one,–he could not dishonor his conscience. His belief that “slavery was founded on injustice” was the only reason for his protest. He never hesitated to protest against injustice. The Golden Rule had a place in practical politics. The Sermon on the Mount was not an iridescent dream.