Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition”
Lincoln was only twenty-three years old on March 9, 1832, when he declared his intention to run for a seat in the Illinois state legislature. The frontier state had not yet developed party machinery to officially nominate candidates. Persons desiring to run simply put forward their own names on a handbill expressing their views on local affairs.
“Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition,” Lincoln began. “I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition is yet to be developed. I am young and unknown to many of you.”
For many ambitious young men in the nineteenth century, politics proved the chosen arena for advancement. While Lincoln’s ambition was
as central to his makeup as his backbone, it was, almost from the start, two-fold. It was not simply for himself; it was for the people he hoped to lead. He wanted to distinguish himself in their eyes. The sense of community was central to the master dream of his life—the desire to accomplish deeds that would gain the lasting respect of his fellow men.
He asked for the opportunity to render himself worthy: “
I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relations to recommend me. 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.”
Where did this ambition come from, his “
strong conviction,” as one friend described it, “that he was born for better things than seemed likely or even possible”?
When asked later to shed light on his beginnings, Lincoln claimed his story could be “
condensed into a single sentence: The short and simple annals of the poor.” His father, Thomas, had never learned to read, and, according to his son, never did “
more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own name.” Trapped in an exitless poverty, Thomas cleared only sufficient land for survival and moved from one dirt farm to another in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. While traces of the life of Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks, are sketchy, those who knew her agreed “
she was superior to her husband in Every way.” She was described as “
keen—shrewd—smart,” endowed with a strong memory and quick perception. “
All that I am or hope ever to be I get from my mother,” Lincoln later said.
When Abraham was nine, Nancy Hanks died from what was known as
milk sickness, a disease transmitted by way of cows that had eaten poisonous plants. After her burial, Thomas abandoned his young son and his twelve-year-old daughter, Sarah, for a period of seven months while he returned to Kentucky to find a new wife. They were left on their own in what Lincoln described as “
a wild region,” a nightmarish place where “
the panther’s scream filled the night with fear and bears preyed on the swine.” When Abraham’s new stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston, returned with Thomas, she found the children living like animals—“
wild—ragged & dirty.” She was stunned to find that the floorless cabin lacked even a door. Inside, there were few furnishings, no beds, and scant bedding. From the store of goods she had brought with her in the wagon, the industrious Sarah created a “
snug and comfortable” home. A floor was laid, door and windows hung, and she provided clothing for the children. How, within the confines of this desolation, did Lincoln
develop and sustain a grand, visionary ambition, a belief that he was meant for higher and better things?
The springboard to the development of Lincoln’s ambition can be traced to his recognition, even as a young boy, that he was gifted with an exceptionally intelligent, clear, and inquisitive mind. Schoolmates in the ABC school in rural Kentucky where he was taught to read and write at the age of seven recalled that he was able to learn more swiftly and understand more deeply than others. Though he was able to attend school only sporadically, when his father didn’t require his labor on their hardscrabble farm, he stood without peer at the top of every class. “
He was the learned boy among us unlearned folks,” one classmate recalled. “
He carried away from his brief schooling,” his biographer David Herbert Donald observes, “the self-confidence of a man who has never met his intellectual equal.” A dream that he might someday be in a situation to make the most of his talents began to take hold.
In the age-old debate about whether leadership traits are innate or developed, memory—the ease and capacity with which the mind stores information—is generally considered an inborn trait. From his earliest days in school, Lincoln’s comrades remarked upon his phenomenal memory, “
the best,” the most “
marvelously retentive,” they had ever encountered. His mind seemed “
a wonder,” a friend told him, “impressions were easily made upon it and never effaced.” Lincoln told his friend he was mistaken. What appeared a gift, he argued, was, in his case, a developed talent. “I am slow to learn,” he explained, “and slow to forget what I have learned. My mind is like a piece of steel—very hard to scratch anything on it, and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out.” His stepmother, who came to love him as if he were her own son, observed the arduous process by which he engraved things into his memory. “
When he came upon a passage that Struck him, he would write it down on boards if he had no paper & keep it there until he did get paper,” she recalled, “and then he would rewrite it” and keep it in a scrapbook so that he could preserve it.
While his mind was neither quick nor facile, young Lincoln possessed singular powers of reasoning and comprehension, unflagging curiosity, and a fierce, almost irresistible, compulsion to understand the meaning of what he heard, read, or was taught. “
When a mere child,” Lincoln later said, “I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand. I do not think I ever got angry at anything else in my life.” When he “got on a hunt for an idea” he could not sleep until he
“caught it,” and even then was not able to rest until he had “bounded it north and bounded it south, and bounded it east and bounded it west.”
Early on, Abraham revealed a keystone attribute essential to success in any field—the motivation and willpower to develop every talent he possessed to the fullest. “
The ambition of the man soared above us,” his childhood friend Nathaniel Grigsby recalled. “He read and thoroughly read his books whilst we played.” When he first learned how to print the letters of the alphabet, he was so excited that he formed “
letters, words and sentences wherever he found suitable material. He scrawled them in charcoal, he scored them in the dust, in the sand, in the snow—anywhere and everywhere that lines could be drawn.” He soon became “
the best penman in the neighborhood.”
Sharing his knowledge with his schoolmates at every turn, he soon became “
their guide and leader.” A friend recalled the “
great pains” he took to explain to her “the movements of the heavenly bodies,” patiently telling her that the moon was not really sinking, as she initially thought; it was the earth that was moving, not the moon. “
When he appeared in Company,” another friend recalled, “the boys would gather & cluster around him to hear him talk.” With kindness, playfulness, wit, and wisdom, he would explain “things hard for us to understand by stories—maxims—tales and figures. He would almost always point his lesson or idea by some story that was plain and near as that we might instantly see the force & bearing of what he said.” He understood early on that concrete examples and stories provided the best vehicles for teaching.
He had developed his talent for storytelling, in part, from watching his father. Though Thomas Lincoln was unable to read or write, he possessed wit, a talent for mimicry, and an uncanny memory for exceptional stories. Night after night, Thomas would exchange tales with farmers, carpenters, and peddlers as they passed along the old Cumberland Trail. Young Lincoln sat spellbound in the corner. After listening to the adults chatter through the evening, Abraham would spend “
no small part of the night walking up and down,” attempting to figure out what they were saying. No small part of his motivation was to entertain his friends the next day with a simplified and riotous version of the arcane adult world.
He thrived when holding forth on a tree stump or log captivating the appreciative attention of his young audience, and before long had built a repertoire of stories and great storytelling skills. At the age of ten, a relative recalled, Abraham learned to mimic “
the Style & tone” of the itinerant Baptist preachers who appeared irregularly in the region. To
the delight of his friends, he could reproduce their rip-roaring sermons almost word for word, complete with gestures of head and hand to emphasize emotion. Then, as he got older, he found
additional material for his storytelling by walking fifteen miles to the nearest courthouse, where he soaked up the narratives of criminal trials, contract disputes, and contested wills and then retold the cases in lurid detail.
His stories often had a point—a moral along the lines of one of his favorite books, Aesop’s Fables—but sometimes they were simply funny tales that he had heard and would retell with animation. When he began to speak, his face, the natural contours of which gave off a sorrowful aspect, would light up with a transforming “
winning smile.” And when he reached the end of his story, he would laugh with such heartiness that soon everyone was laughing with him.
Not all his humorous gifts were filled with gentle hilarity, and he would learn to muzzle his more caustic and mocking rejoinders. An early case in point was one Josiah Crawford who had lent Lincoln his copy of Parson Weems’s Life of Washington. During a severe rainstorm, the book was damaged. Crawford demanded that Lincoln repay the value of the book by working two full days pulling corn. Lincoln considered this unfair, but nonetheless set to work until “
there was not a corn blade left on a stalk.” Later, however, he wrote a verse lampooning Crawford’s unusually large, ugly nose, reciting “
Josiah blowing his bugle” for the entertainment of his friends.
If he was the hub of his young circle’s entertainment, he was also their foremost contrarian, willing to face their disapproval rather than abandon what he considered right. The boys in the neighborhood, one schoolmate recollected, liked to play a game of catching turtles and putting hot coals on their backs to see them wriggle. Abe not only told them “
it was wrong,” he wrote a short essay in school against “cruelty to animals.” Nor did Lincoln feel compelled to share in the folkways of the frontier—a harsh culture in which children learned, for survival and for sport, to shoot and kill birds and animals. After killing a wild turkey with his father’s rifle when he was eight years old, he never again “
pulled a trigger on any larger game.”
These attitudes were not merely moral postures. The young boy possessed a profound sense of empathy—the ability to put himself in the place of others, to imagine their situations and identify with their feelings. One winter night, a friend remembered, he and Abraham were walking home when they saw something lying in a mud hole. “
It was a man, he
was dead drunk,” and “nearly frozen.” Abe picked him up and carried him all the way to his cousin’s house, where he built a fire to warm him up. On another occasion, when Lincoln was walking with a group of friends, he passed a
pig caught in a stretch of boggy ground. The group continued on for half a mile when Lincoln suddenly stopped. He insisted on turning back to rescue the pig. He couldn’t bear the pain he felt in his own mind when he thought of the pig.
Lincoln’s size and strength bolstered his authority with his peers. From an early age, he was more athletic than most of the boys in the neighborhood, “
ready to out-run, out-jump and out-wrestle or out-lift anybody.” As a young man, one friend reported, he “
could carry what 3 ordinary men would grunt & sweat at.” Blessed with uncommon strength, he was also favored with robust health. Relatives recalled that he was never sick. Lincoln’s physical dominance proved a double-edged sword, however, for he was expected, from the age of eight to the age of twenty-one, to accompany his father into the fields, wielding an axe, felling trees, digging up stumps, splitting rails, plowing, and planting. His father considered that bones and muscles were “
sufficient to make a man” and that time in school was “doubly wasted.” In rural areas, the only schools were subscription schools, so it not only cost a family money to give a child an education, but the classroom took the child away from manual labor. Accordingly, when Lincoln reached the age of nine or ten, his own formal education was cut short.
Left on his own, Abraham had to educate himself. He had to take the initiative, assume responsibility for securing books, decide what to study, become his own teacher. He made things happen instead of waiting for them to happen. Gaining access to reading material proved nearly insurmountable. Relatives and neighbors recalled that Lincoln scoured the countryside to borrow books and read every volume “
he could lay his hands on.” A book was his steadfast companion. Every respite from the daily manual tasks was a time to read a page or two from Pilgrim’s Progress or Aesop’s Fables, pausing while resting his horse at the end of a long row of planting.
Some leaders learn by writing, others by reading, still others by listening. Lincoln preferred reading aloud in the presence of others. “
When I read aloud,” Lincoln later explained, “two senses catch the idea: first, I see what I read; second, I hear it, and therefore I remember it better.” Early on, he possessed a vivid sensibility for the music and rhythm of poetry and drama; he recited long stanzas and passages from memory. When the time came to return the borrowed books, he had made them his
own. As he explored literature and the history of the country, the young Lincoln, already conscious of his own powers, began to imagine ways of living beyond those of his family and neighbors.
father found his son in the field reading a book or, worse still, distracting fellow workers with tales or passages from one of his books, he would angrily break up the performance so work might continue. On occasion, he would go so far as to destroy Abraham’s books and whip him for neglecting his labors. To Thomas, Abraham’s chronic reading was tantamount to dereliction, a mark of laziness. He thought his son was deceiving himself with his quest for education. “
I tried to stop it, but he has got that fool idea into his head, and it can’t be got out,” Thomas told a friend.
At times, when the tensions with his father seemed unbearable, when the gap between his lofty ambitions and the reality of his circumstances seemed too great to bridge, Lincoln was engulfed by sadness, revealing a pensive, melancholy side to his temperament that became more pronounced as time went by. “
His melancholy dript from him as he walked,” said his junior law partner William Herndon, an observation echoed by dozens of others. “
No element of Mr. Lincoln’s character was so marked,” recalled his friend Henry Clay Whitney, “as his mysterious and profound melancholy.” Yet, if melancholy was part of his nature, so, too, was the life-affirming humor that allowed him to perceive what was funny or ludicrous in life, lightening his despair and fortifying his will. Both Lincoln’s storytelling and his humor, friends believed, were “
necessary to his very existence”; they were intended “
to whistle off sadness.”
In the end, the unending strain with his father enhanced, rather than diminished, young Lincoln’s ambition. Year after year, as he persevered in defiance of his father’s wishes, managing his negative emotions and exercising his will to slowly master one subject after another, he developed an increasing belief in his own strengths and powers. He came to trust “
that he was going to be something,” his cousin Sophie Hanks related, slowly creating what one leadership scholar calls “
a vision of an alternative future.” He told a neighbor he did not “
intend to delve, grub, shuck corn, split rails and the like. I’ll study and get ready, and then the chance will come.”
Opportunity arrived the moment he reached twenty-one, the age of majority, releasing him from his near-indentured lot in his father’s home. “
Seeing no prospect of betterment in his condition, so long as his fortune
was interwoven with that of his father,” one friend recalled him saying, “he at last endeavored to strike out into the broad world.” Bundling his sparse possessions on his shoulders, he headed west, walking more than one hundred miles to reach New Salem, where he had been promised a job as a clerk and bookkeeper in a general store. A bustling small town, recently sprung up along the Sangamon River, New Salem boasted a gristmill that “
supplied a large section of the county with its meal, flour and lumber.” The entire settlement consisted of a few hundred people, fifteen log cabins, a tavern, a church, a blacksmith, a schoolmaster, a preacher, and a general store.
To the villagers of
New Salem, the tall young stranger struck them as odd and unappealing. “
Gawky and rough-looking,” with dark weathered skin, great ears, high cheekbones, and black quill-like hair, he was dressed in “
the most ludicrous character. His long arms protruded through the sleeves of a coat,” and his pantaloons were “far better adapted for a man of much less height, which left exposed a pair of socks.”
From this unprepossessing start, how was Lincoln able to establish himself so quickly in the minds of the residents that within eight months they encouraged him to run for a seat in the state legislature? The answer, one local man explained, lay in Lincoln’s sociability, his “
open—candid—obliging & honest” good nature. “Everybody loved him.” He would help travelers whose carriages were mired in mud; he volunteered to chop wood for widows; he was ever ready to lend a “
spontaneous, unobtrusive” hand. Almost anyone who had contact with him in the little community spoke of his kindness, generosity, intelligence, humor, humility, and his striking, original character. Rather than golden mythmaking tales spun in the wake of Lincoln’s historic presidency, these stories, told by the score, join into a chorus of the New Salem community to form an authentic portrait of a singular young man.
Working as a clerk in New Salem’s general store provided Lincoln with an ideal foundation upon which to build his political career. The general store “
filled a unique place” on the frontier. Beyond the sale of groceries, hardware, cloth, and bonnets, the village store provided “a kind of intellectual and social center,” a place where villagers gathered to read the newspaper, discuss the local sporting contests, and, mainly, argue about politics in an era when politics was a consuming, almost universal concern. For the farmers, who might ride fifty miles to grind grain into flour at the village gristmill, the store offered a common meeting place to unwind, exchange opinions, share stories.
Within weeks, a fellow clerk recalled, Lincoln’s gregarious nature and cornucopia of funny stories had made him “
a Center of attraction.” The townspeople regarded him as “
among the best clerks” they had ever seen. “He was attentive to his business,” one villager remembered, “was kind and considerate to his customers & friends and always treated them with great tenderness.” At the same time, his “
unabashed eagerness to learn” deeply impressed the people of New Salem. A volume of poetry or book of prose was always kept behind the counter so he could read during a lull in the
general store’s business. In discussions about politics, he revealed an intimate familiarity with the issues of the day. Clearly, this was no ordinary clerk. The local families were attracted by his reflective, gentle, meditative temperament. They wanted him to prosper. They felt part of his upward climb. They lent him books. The village cooper kept “
a fire of shavings sufficiently bright” so that Lincoln could come into his place at night and read.
When he was ignorant on any subject,” one friend recalled, “no matter how simple it might make him appear he was always willing to acknowledge it.” When he told the schoolmaster he had never studied grammar and wanted to do so, the schoolmaster agreed that if he ever wanted to speak in public this was something he had to learn. While no one in New Salem had a proper grammar text, the schoolmaster knew of a volume in a house six miles away. Lincoln rose from the table and started out on foot to procure the book. Returning with a treasured copy of
Kirkham’s English Grammar, he began at once to sort through the complicated rules governing the structure of sentences and the use of adverbs and adjectives. He worked hard to develop a simple, compact style of speaking and writing, with short, clear sentences that could be “
understood by all classes.”
The handbill Lincoln published announcing his candidacy stretched to two thousand words. Clearly, he labored over the statement to let people know how he stood on public issues and to declare something of his nature and character. He ran as a member of the Whig Party in a county that was predominantly Democratic. He stood for four central ideas—the creation of a national bank, protective tariffs, governmental support for internal improvements, and an expanded system of public education. A state representative could do little to promote national banking or high tariffs. The call for public education and for infrastructure projects to
improve roads, rivers, harbors, and railways was not simply a matter of Whig boilerplate, however, but an expression of deeply urgent needs involving his own aspirations and those of his little community.
The Sangamon River was New Salem’s lifeline. Upon it, settlers sent their produce to market and received necessary goods. Unless the obstacles to its navigability were surmounted, unless channels could be dredged and drifting logs removed, New Salem would never develop into a full-fledged community. The previous year Lincoln had piloted a flatboat on the river, gaining firsthand knowledge. He spoke with competence and confidence about a subject closely entwined with his own ambitions. If rivers and roads could be improved, if the government could aid in economic growth and development, hundreds of small hamlets like New Salem would thrive. “
If elected,” Lincoln pledged, any law providing dependable roads and navigable streams for “the poorest and most thinly populated” communities “shall receive my support.”
On the topic of education, he declared, “
I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.” He wanted every man to read the history of his country, “to appreciate the value of our free institutions,” to treasure literature and the scriptures. Lincoln spoke of education with the passion of a young man who had made ferocious efforts to educate himself in the hope of building a bridge between “
the humble walks of life” and his dreams of an expansive future. The education he continued to seek for himself was one he wanted available for every man.
In this first foray into politics, Lincoln also pledged that if his opinions on any subject turned out to be erroneous, he stood “
ready to renounce them.” With this commitment, Lincoln revealed early on a quality that would characterize his leadership for the rest of his life—a willingness to acknowledge errors and learn from his mistakes.
The pact Lincoln offered the people—the promise of unremitting labor in return for their support—was for him a covenant. The business of a vote or an election expressed a bond of affection that united people together; it was a question of trust. From the start, the destiny he sought was no simple craving for individual fame and distinction; his ambitions were, first and always, linked with the people.
While uncertain about his prospects in this first election, Lincoln made it clear that failure did not intimidate him. Should he lose, he had said when declaring his intention to run, he had been “
too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.” And yet, he forewarned,
only after being defeated “some 5 or 6 times” would he deem it “a disgrace” and be certain “never to try it again.” So, along with the uncertainty of whether his ambition would be realized was the promise of resilience.
His campaign had scarcely begun when he volunteered to join the Illinois militia to fight against the Sac and Fox Indians during what became known as the Black Hawk War. To his surprise, he later said, he was elected captain of his company. No later “
success in life,” he told a journalist a month after he had been nominated for president, had provided him “so much satisfaction.”
When he returned to New Salem after three months of service, he had only four weeks to campaign before the August election. Traveling by horseback across a sparsely populated county the size of Rhode Island, Lincoln spoke at country stores and small village squares. On Saturdays, he joined his fellow candidates in the largest towns, where
farmers gathered at auctions, “
vandoos”—“to dispose of produce, buy supplies, see their neighbors and get the news.” The speaking would start in mid-morning and last until sunset. Each candidate was given a turn. Lincoln, one contender recalled, “
did not follow the beaten track of other Speakers.” He set himself apart by the candid way in which he approached every question and by his habit of illustrating his arguments with stories based on observations “
drawn from all classes of Society” between men and women in their daily lives. At times, his language was awkward, as were his gestures, but few who heard him speak ever forgot “
either the argument of the Story, the Story itself, or the author.”
When the votes were counted, Lincoln found he had lost the election. His lack of success, however, “
did not dampen his hopes nor sour his ambition,” a friend recalled. On the contrary, he gained confidence from the knowledge that in his own town of New Salem, he had received an overwhelming total of 277 of the 300 votes cast. After the election, Lincoln worked several jobs to procure bread and keep “
body and soul together.” He served as New Salem’s postmaster, and then, after teaching himself the principles of geometry and trigonometry involved in determining boundaries of land parcels, he was appointed deputy surveyor for Sangamon County, a position that allowed him to travel from one village to another. So swiftly did his reputation for storytelling precede him, a friend of Lincoln’s recalled, that no sooner had he arrived in a village than “
and boys gathered from far and near, ready to carry chains, drive stakes, and blaze trees, if they could hear Lincoln’s odd stories and jokes.”
In 1834, now twenty-five, he ran for the state legislature once again, making good on his seriocomic warning that he would keep trying a half-dozen times before giving up. Once again, he traversed the district on horseback, delivering speeches, shaking hands, introducing himself, joining in local activities. Seeing thirty men in the field during a harvest, he offered to help, taking hold of the scythe “
with perfect ease,” thereby winning every vote in the crowd. His ungainly appearance initially put people off. “
Can’t the party raise a better candidate than that,” a doctor asked upon first seeing Lincoln. Then, after hearing him talk, he changed his mind: “Why, he knows more than all of them put together.”
This time, having expanded his contacts throughout the county, Lincoln easily won. As he prepared to leave for the capital to take up his seat in the legislature, his friends chipped in to help him buy “
suitable clothing” that would allow him “to maintain his new dignity.” They recognized a leader in their midst just as surely as he had begun to feel the makings of a leader within himself.
The rookie assemblyman was, in the words of his friend William Herndon, “
anything but conspicuous” during the opening session of the state legislature. He remained “quietly in the background,” patiently educating himself about how the Assembly operated, acquainting himself with the intricacies of parliamentary procedure. He carefully monitored debates and discerned the ideological rifts between his fellow Whigs and the Democrats. Aware that he was in the presence of an unusually talented group of legislators
(including two future presidential candidates, six future United States senators, eight future congressmen, and three State Supreme Court justices), Lincoln was neither bashful nor timid. He was simply paying close attention, absorbing, readying to act as soon as he had accumulated sufficient knowledge to do so. A finely developed sense of timing—knowing when to wait and when to act—would remain in Lincoln’s repertoire of leadership skills the rest of his life.
Between legislative sessions, Lincoln began to read law, knowing that a legal education would nourish his political career. An autodidact by necessity, he “
studied with nobody,” he later said, poring over cases and precedents deep into the night after working long days as surveyor and
postal clerk. He borrowed law books, one at a time, from the set of John Stuart, a fellow legislator who had a law practice in Springfield.
After finishing each book, he would hike the twenty miles from New Salem to Springfield to secure another loaner. An unwavering purpose supported him. “
Get the books, and read and study them,” he told a law student seeking advice two decades later. “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing.”
At the commencement of the second session, the transformation of Lincoln’s demeanor and activity was clear. He was suddenly conspicuous, as if something in him had awakened. So thoroughly had he mastered both the legalese required for writing legislation and the intricacies of parliamentary procedure that his colleagues called on him to draft bills and amendments. The clear, legible handwriting he had perfected as a child proved invaluable when public laws and documents were initially written in longhand. More importantly, when he finally rose to speak on the Assembly floor, his colleagues witnessed what the citizens of New Salem had already seen—a young man with a remarkable array of oratorical gifts. “
They say I tell a great many stories,” Lincoln told a friend. “I reckon I do; but I have learned from long experience that plain people, take them as they run, are more easily influenced through the medium of a broad and humorous illustration than any other way.” As people read his speeches in the newspapers or heard about his lively metaphors and analogies through word of mouth, awareness of Lincoln’s signal ability to communicate spread throughout the state.
Heralded for his leadership in moving the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield, Lincoln, the second youngest member of the Assembly, was selected by the full Whig caucus as their minority leader. Their choice signified not only their deference to Lincoln’s language skills and his mastery of parliamentary procedure, but what became known as his “
crowning gift of political diagnosis”—his ability to intuit the feelings and intentions of his fellow Whigs and the opposing Democrats as well. After silently considering his colleagues’ strategy and opinions, he would stand and simply say: “
From your talk, I gather the Democrats will do so and so.” If we want “to checkmate them,” here are the maneuvers we should take in the days that follow. So clear was his recommended course of action that “his listeners wondered why they had not seen it that way themselves.” It was “
his thorough knowledge of human nature,” one fellow legislator observed, that “made him an overmatch for his compeers and for any man that I have ever known.”
We followed his lead,”
a Whig colleague recalled, “but he followed nobody’s lead; he hewed the way for us to follow, and we gladly did so. He could grasp and concentrate the matters under discussion, and his clear statement of an intricate or obscure subject was better than an ordinary argument.” Democrats, of course, felt otherwise. How Lincoln responded to attacks directed against him and his party reveals much about his temperament and the character of his developing leadership. Such was the lure of politics in the antebellum era that discussions and debates between Whigs and Democrats regularly attracted the fanatic attention of hundreds of people. Opponents attacked each other in fiery, abusive language, much to the delight of raucous audiences, inciting an atmosphere that could burst into fistfights, even, on occasion, guns being drawn. While Lincoln was as thin-skinned and prickly as most politicians, his retorts were generally full of such good-humored raillery that members of both parties could not help but laugh and relax in the pleasure of his entertaining and well-told stories.
So memorable were several of Lincoln’s counterattacks that citizens could recite them afterward word for word. The “lightning-rod” episode is a case in point. A crowd was beginning to disperse from a spirited rally at which Lincoln had spoken, when George Forquer stood up. A prominent Whig who had recently shifted to the Democratic Party after receiving a lucrative appointment as land register, Forquer had lately built a fancy house, complete with a newfangled lightning rod. Standing on the stage, Forquer declared that it was time for someone to take young Lincoln down, which he attempted to do with ridicule. Though the attack had “
roused the lion within him,” Lincoln remained quiet until Forquer finished, silently preparing his rejoinder. “
The gentleman commenced by saying the young man would have to be taken down,” Lincoln began, drolly admitting, “I desire to live, and I desire place and distinction; but I would rather die now than, like the gentleman, live to see the day I would change my politics for an office worth three thousand dollars a year, and then feel compelled to erect a lightning-rod to protect a guilty conscience from an offended God.” The outburst of laughter provoked from the audience was thunderous.
On certain occasions, however, Herndon recalled, Lincoln’s humor ran amok, his light mockery turning vindictive, even cruel. After Democrat Jesse Thomas had “
indulged in some fun” at Lincoln’s expense, Lincoln displayed an aspect of his great theatrical skill, resorting to mimicry, at which he had no rival. “He imitated Thomas in gesture and voice,
at times caricaturing his walk and the very motion of his body.” As the crowd responded with yells and cheers, Lincoln “gave way to intense and scathing ridicule,” mocking still further the “ludicrous” way Thomas spoke. Seated in the audience, Thomas broke down in tears, and soon the “skinning of Thomas” became “the talk of the town.” Realizing he had badly overstepped, Lincoln went to Thomas and gave him a heartfelt apology, and for years afterward, the memory of that night filled Lincoln “with the deepest chagrin.” Increasingly, though not always, he was able to rein in his impulse to throw a hurtful counterpunch. He was after something more significant than the gratification of an artfully delivered humiliation.
Even early on, Lincoln’s moral courage and convictions outweighed his ferocious ambition. At the age of twenty-six, he made a public statement on slavery that threatened to drastically diminish his support in a state that was then largely settled by southerners. The rise of abolitionism in the Northeast, coupled with the refusal of some northern states to return fugitive slaves, had led legislatures in both South and North to pass resolutions confirming the constitutional right to slavery. The General Assembly in Illinois fell in line. By the disproportionate vote of seventy-seven to six, the assembly resolved that “
we highly disapprove of the formation of abolition societies” and hold “sacred” the “right of property in slaves.” Lincoln was among the six who voted no. Registering a formal protest, he proclaimed that “
the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy.” He had always believed, he later said, that “
if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Lincoln’s protest stopped well short of abolitionism. Until such time as the Constitution empowered Congress to eliminate slavery, he felt that his hands were tied against interfering where slavery was already established. Fearing anarchy above all, he believed it essential to abide by a law until that settled law be lawfully changed. Though carefully worded and “
pruned of any offensive allusions,” the protest was, nonetheless, writer William Stoddard observed, “
a bold thing to do, in a day when to be an antislavery man, even at the North, was to be a sort of social outcast and political pariah.”
Remaining true to his original promise to do everything he could to secure governmental aid for infrastructure improvements, however, was more personal and pressing to Lincoln in these early years of his political career than the issue of slavery. He used the power of his leading position
in the Assembly to mobilize support behind a series of bills authorizing millions of dollars for a spectacular range of projects to widen rivers, build railroads, dig canals, and create roads. From prairie and first-growth forest, from clogged creeks and rivers, from black earth perfect for farming but untenable for road and train beds during the spring melts and fall rains, Lincoln envisioned a massive infrastructure system. Drawn from his firsthand knowledge of the land, his plan would provide the vital connectors to create a circulatory system of people and their products—a living social body necessary to build and sustain a growing economy. His dream, he told a friend, was to be known as the “
DeWitt Clinton of Illinois”—invoking the celebrated governor of New York who had vastly spurred economic development and left a lasting imprint on his state when he secured legislation to support the building of the Erie Canal. In like fashion, Lincoln hoped that with the completion of these projects, markets would develop, bustling towns would spring up, living standards would rise, new settlers would come, greater opportunities would open for more people. Those born in the lower ranks would rise as far as their talents and discipline might take them, and the
promise of the American dream would be realized.
When a sustained recession hit the state in 1837, however, public sentiment began to rear up against such expensive and still unfinished internal improvement projects. As the state debt rose to monumental proportions, Lincoln continued to stoutly defend the infrastructure system against the surge of condemnation, likening the abandonment of the new canal system to stopping a small boat “
in the middle of a river—if it was not going up, it would go down.” To relinquish the program of improvements, he repeatedly warned, would leave behind only failure and debt, resilted canals, obstructed waterways, half-built roads and bridges. Adamantly, he refused to give ground, abiding by his father’s old maxim: “
If you make a bad bargain, hug it the tighter.” His dogged resistance to abandon the policies he had so passionately advocated seemed to some a sign of stubbornness, but he held fast to his vision, as if his innermost hopes, personal dreams, and ambitions were under direct assault. Which was exactly the case.
Six years after first declaring his own “
peculiar ambition” to his new neighbors in New Salem, the twenty-nine-year-old Lincoln elaborated on the nature of ambition and the thirst for distinction in an address to
the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield. He opened his address with a warning that “
something of ill-omen,” was developing among the people—a tendency to substitute violence, murder, and lynching for the rule of law, the courts, and the Constitution. Two months earlier, the entire North had been rocked when a proslavery mob in Alton, Illinois, killed the abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy. In Mississippi, a group of Negroes, suspected of inciting insurrection, were hanged, as were a group of whites suspected of aiding the Negroes. If this moblike spirit continued to spread, Lincoln cautioned, the “good men, men who love tranquility,” would become alienated from a government too weak to protect them. The country would then be vulnerable to the imposition of order from above.
While the ambition of the hallowed framers had been “inseparably linked” with building up a constitutional government allowing the people to govern themselves, he feared that in the chaos of moblike behavior, men of the likes of “an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon” would likely seek distinction by boldly setting themselves “to the task of pulling down.” Such men of “towering” egos, in whom ambition is divorced from the people’s best interests, were not men to lead a democracy; they were despots.
To counter the troublesome ambition of such men, Lincoln called upon his fellow Americans to renew the framers’ values and to embrace the Constitution and its laws. “Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother,” taught in every school, preached in every pulpit. The great bulwark against a potential dictator is an informed people “attached to the government and laws.” This argument takes Lincoln back to his first statement to the people of Sangamon County when he spoke of education as the cornerstone of democracy. Why is education so central? Because, as he said then, every citizen must be able to read history to “appreciate the value of our free institutions.” And reading about the Revolution and the making of the Constitution was more urgent, for time had passed and remembered scenes of the Revolution were fading. Indeed, Lincoln declared that the story of America’s birth should “be read of, and recounted, so long as the bible shall be read.” The founding fathers’ noble experiment—their ambition to show the world that ordinary people could govern themselves—had succeeded, and now, Lincoln concluded, it was up to his generation to preserve this “
proud fabric of freedom.”
Still in his twenties, Abraham Lincoln had already developed a conception of leadership based upon the leader’s shared understanding of his
followers’ needs for liberty, equality, and opportunity. In less than half a dozen years, seemingly from nothing and from nowhere, he had risen to become a respected leader in the state legislature, a central figure in the fight for internal improvements, an instrumental force behind the planting of the new capital, and a practicing lawyer. Given his beginnings, he had traveled an immense distance; yet, given the inordinate nature of his ambition to render himself worthy of his fellow men, he had hardly begun.