Abraham Lincoln – Part 1 - 1809 (birth) to 1842 (33 years old)
This is the first of a multi-part series on Abraham Lincoln.
While Illinois calls itself the ‘Land of Lincoln’, he was born in 1809 in Kentucky. He moved to Indiana at age seven. He became an Illinois resident at age 21. Perhaps Lincoln’s position on slavery started with his family as he explained the move from Kentucky, a slave state, to Indiana, a free state, like this: “The removal was partly on account of slavery, but chiefly on account of the difficulty in land titles in Kentucky.” Lincoln had virtually no formal education. His 1860 campaign biography, had this explanation: “the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year. He was never in a college or academy as a student, and never inside of a college or academy building…what he has in the way of education he has picked up…he regrets his want of education, and does what he can to supply the want.” In a different campaign profile, he described his education in one word – “defective.”
Lincoln helped his father and neighbors clear the land, build houses, and fences. Again from the 1860 campaign bio: “[Lincoln], though very young, was large of his age, and had an ax put into his hands at once; and from that till within his twenty-third year he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument.”
Lincoln had a variety of adventures. He was kicked unconscious by a horse: “In his tenth year he was kicked by a horse, and apparently killed for a time.” He was hired several times by merchants for float trips down the Mississippi to New Orleans to trade goods. In one, he was attacked, described as follows: “one night they were attacked by seven Negroes with intent to kill and rob them. They were hurt some in the mêlée, but succeeded in driving the Negroes from the boat…” Fortunately for history, this did not turn Lincoln against African-Americans.
The Lincolns moved to Illinois when he was 21. In 1832 a minor military conflict arose with Chief Black Hawk of the Sauk tribe, known as the Black Hawk war. Lincoln volunteered for the militia. His volunteer company elected him captain, an early indicator of his leadership ability. His unit did not participate in any battles. Lincoln was persuaded to run for the Illinois State Legislature in 1832 at the age of 23. His campaign announcement included the following worthy sentiments: “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem” Lincoln continued: I am young and unknown…I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life.” Lincoln’s only electoral loss was that 1832 election.
Lincoln and a partner opened a general store in New Salem, IL. It failed (in Lincoln’s words “The store winked out.”). However, unlike other bankrupt store owners of the time, Lincoln honored and paid his debts over many years, earning the nickname, “Honest Abe.” Over the next two years, he worked as a postmaster and surveyor. Lincoln ran again for Illinois State Legislature in 1834, this time winning. He won re-election in 1836, 1838 and 1840.
Here is a complete transcript of one of Lincoln’s campaign speeches. It is even shorter than the Gettysburg address: “Fellow Citizens, I presume you all know who I am. I am humble Abraham Lincoln. I have been solicited by my friends to become a candidate for the Legislature. My politics are short and sweet, like the old woman’s dance. I am in favor of a national bank. I am in favor of the internal improvement system and a high protective tariff. These are my sentiments and political principles. If elected I shall be thankful; if not it will be all the same.”
In 1836, Lincoln was one of nine legislators elected from central Illinois, all over 6’ tall. They were called the ‘Long Nine.’ Lincoln and the ‘Long Nine’ led the effort to relocate Illinois’s capital from Vandalia to Springfield. It was a tough negotiation, as one legislator voted to relocate it to Purgatory.
By now, Lincoln was a recognized leader. Not yet 30 years old, he was named floor leader of the Whig Party. Lincoln was encouraged to study the law while serving in the State Legislature. He taught himself under the guidance of an experienced lawyer and obtained a law license in 1837.
Lincoln’s anti-slavery feelings continued to evolve. In 1837 the governor of Illinois introduced a resolution opposing abolitionists. It was approved 77 to 6; Lincoln was one of the six opposed. Lincoln introduced a protest against this pro-slavery resolution. A full record of the protest is not available, but the Illinois house journal records the following:
"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.”
(signed Dan Stone and A. Lincoln)
In 1842, when Lincoln completed 8 years in the State Legislature, he was only 33 years old. To be continued…
(to read part 2 of this series, click here)