Abraham Lincoln - Part 2 - Lincoln Enters National Politics
Lincoln was not just a small time lawyer who came out of nowhere to run for President in 1860. He was a politician for most of his life. He served in the Illinois State Legislature for eight years, starting at the age of 23. In 1840, when he was 31 years old, he started his national political career by embarking on a speaking campaign in support of the Whig Presidential Candidate, William Henry Harrison, of Tippecanoe fame. Politics was rough then and Lincoln was no stranger to aggressive tactics. In one speech he successfully imitated and mocked an opponent’s speaking style and appearance. The opponent was reduced to tears and this incident became known as ‘the skinning of Thomas.’
Lincoln decided to run for U.S. Congress in 1843. Lincoln and two others vied for the Whig party nomination. At the Whig convention, Lincoln was out maneuvered, lost the nomination and ended up as chair of the delegation supporting his opponent. Lincoln described it this way: “…I shall be fixed a good deal like a fellow who is made a groomsman to a man who has cut him out and is marrying his own dear gal.” However, the party did agree to rotate the seat among the three candidates, each serving for one term. There was no secret ballot at the time - perhaps in a fit of pique, Lincoln declined to vote for any Whig candidate in 1843.
In 1844, Lincoln gave speeches in support of the Whig’s Presidential candidate, Henry Clay. Included in his travels was a trip back to his former homestead in Indiana. Nostalgia inspired the poet in Lincoln, the first verse as follows:
My Childhood home I see again,
And Saddened with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain
There’s pleasure in it to.
Lincoln’s turn to run for Congressman on the Whig ticket came in 1846. He was accused of being anti-religion because he did not belong to any Church. Lincoln published a handbill: “That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures…I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of…religion.” Lincoln easily won election to Congress.
By the time Lincoln took office in 1847, the Mexican-American war had become partisan. Whigs opposed it while Democrats supported the war appealing to ‘Manifest Destiny’ and the chance to expand slavery into additional territories.
President Polk’s annual message to Congress in late 1847 supported annexation of some Mexican territory. Just a few weeks later, as a freshman Congressman, Lincoln introduced eight resolutions challenging President Polk. The war had started when Mexico attacked U.S. troops on what Polk labeled as American soil in Texas. However, at the time, the territory was disputed between the U.S and Mexico. Lincoln’s resolution started: “The House desires to…establish whether the particular spot of soil on which the blood of our citizens was so shed was, or was not, our own soil…” He repeated the word ‘spot’ several times in the resolution, eventually causing him to be known as ‘Spotty Lincoln’.
In early 1848 the House passed a resolution stating that the war had been ‘unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States.’ Lincoln voted in favor of that resolution. Again, showing the ‘gentlemanly’ nature of politics in those days, Lincoln called Polk “…a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man.”
Lincoln’s positions were not popular back in Illinois. It was a nationalistic time; the U.S had won the war with Mexico, and Lincoln’s opposition sounded unpatriotic. Lincoln gave a subsequent speech explaining the difference between supporting the troops and supporting war. It was a challenging position to defend. Referring back to ‘Spotty Lincoln’, one newspaper predicted the end of his political career, saying that Lincoln had “Died of Spotted Fever.”
Polk made the argument that the war started when Mexico had invaded the U.S., requiring the country to respond by invading Mexico. Lincoln made this counterargument: “Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he my choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose – and you allow him to make war at pleasure.” Recent disputes over the wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Libya show that the issue of the President’s war making powers still exists today.
1848 found Lincoln giving speeches in support of General Zachary Taylor, the Whig candidate. The Democrats nominated Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan in part trying to benefit from Cass’s War of 1812 military experience. Lincoln mocked Cass’s military career, which was limited. Comparing Cass to his own minimal military experience Lincoln stated: “If he [Cass] saw any live, fighting Indians, it was more than I did; but I had a good many bloody struggles with musquetoes.[sp].” Lincoln’s speeches and humor were generating positive press around the country.
Lincoln traveled to Worcester, Boston and several other cities in Massachusetts to speak in favor of Taylor, continuing to receive favorable reactions to his speeches. A reporter described Lincoln’s presentation: “Argument and anecdote, wit and wisdom, hymns and prophecies…came flying before the audience like wild game before the fierce hunter of the prairie…the responses of the audience were frequent and vigorous.”
On his way home from Boston, Lincoln stopped at Niagara falls. The steamboat from Buffalo to Chicago became stranded on a sandbar. Passengers help lift the boat so it could continue. Lincoln later developed a buoyant device for helping boats to clear sandbars or other obstacles. He received a patent, the only President to do so. However, the device did not experience any commercial success.
When Lincoln returned to Springfield from his speech-making trip, reaction from his constituents was mixed as opposition to Polk and the war was not popular. Lincoln did not run for re-election in 1848 and sought a patronage job from the incoming Whig administration. He lobbied for an Illinois-based position in the land office but did not get it. He was offered the governorship of Oregon but turned it down, wanting to stay in Illinois.
Lincoln decided to leave politics behind and focus on his law practice. To be continued…
(To read part 1 of this series - click here)