Before we can enter understandingly into the actual story of the courtship of Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, before we can read in the light of knowledge the letters that passed between them, preserved for us through successive generations and never before known to history, we should acquaint ourselves with the general course of Lincoln's life and his means of employment during the years 1832 and 1833. It is a record in itself containing much of struggle and vicissitude, drama and achievement.
Had navigation been established on the Sangamon River when he set up his store at New Salem, James Offutt might have become a very prosperous man. His store and mill, of which Lincoln had active charge, might have earned gratifying profits. But navigation by steamboat was no more than a hope in 1831. It was a hope in which the citizens of Springfield and, of course, New Salem were intensely interested. But it was a hope destined to go glimmering.
Offutt could not even abide the issue of the question. His New Salem project did not thrive. For a town so small, New Salem possessed a disproportionate number of merchants. The trade parceled out among them was meagre, and in less than a year Offutt abandoned his venture. James Rutledge took back the rented mill, and Offutt, in Lincoln's phrase, had 'winked out.'
With Offutt's failure, Lincoln was again without a job. He had lived in New Salem only through the course of a single winter, but this had been time enough for him to become the most popular man in the town. He decided to offer himself as a candidate for the state legislature. Already known as 'Honest Abe,' he possessed in that epithet a political asset not to be despised. His address to the voters of Sangamon County was two thousand words in length. It was not prepared without toil and difficulty, nor without the assistance of such good friends as Mentor Graham, the schoolmaster.
Lincoln's appeal, distributed in the form of a handbill, dealt at length with the navigation of the Sangamon, about which he took a strongly optimistic position. He explained the opportunities he had enjoyed, in his second flatboat voyage to New Orleans and in his work at the Rutledge mill, for observing the flow of water in the river, and asserted his belief in the possibility of developing the channel for practical navigation. His other pronouncements were of a general character, not markedly different from the somewhat noncommittal utterances wise candidates have in all times found it politic to make. His concluding paragraph contained these significant words: —
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.
Soon after the appearance of Lincoln's handbills in March l832, the steamer Talisman reached Beardstown on the Illinois River. The inhabitants of Sangamon County were wild with excitement. Some weeks before, a Captain Vincent Bogue of Springfield had announced that he would bring a steamer from Cincinnati to the Sangamon, and demonstrate conclusively the navigability of the stream.
Expectation became intense, speeches and subscriptions were plentiful, and when the Talisman actually put in its appearance at Beardstown the county prepared for a carnival of congratulation. Lincoln was, of course, among those who met the boat at Beardstown, and he was chosen to pilot it on its course up the Sangamon. He brought the steamer successfully to its landing place near Springfield, toasts, bouquets of flowers, and festivities marking every stage of the voyage. At Springfield, falling water warned the proprietors that the return journey should not be postponed. At the proud rate of four miles a day, the steamer descended the stream again. Lincoln received forty dollars for his part in the exploit, and nothing could have been better calculated to promote his political fortunes than the acclaim accorded him as pilot.
Almost immediately another circumstance occurred to help his candidacy. A rider with a vehement message from Governor Reynolds brought to New Salem the news that Black Hawk, an Indian chief familiar to the people of Illinois as an enemy of settlers and friend of the British, had gone on the warpath. Lincoln at once volunteered for service, and found himself in company with John Calhoun, Billy Greene, and his friends the Clary's Grove boys. The captaincy of the company was determined by election, the men forming groups about the candidates of their choice. Lincoln was one candidate, William Kirkpatrick the other. This was a man who had once done Lincoln an ill turn, and he was not insensible to the opportunity of getting even. Lincoln was naturally pleased when the great majority of the men gathered about him. But his success would hardly have been possible without the allegiance of Jack Armstrong and the other roisterers of Clary's Grove, who were described by another member of the company as the hardest set of men' he had ever seen.
Lincoln's experiences as captain of his often disorderly troop need not be pursued in detail. Norman Hapgood has remarked, 'As Lincoln was not in any engagement of this disgraceful little Indian war, it has little to do with the story of his life.' Suffice it that, after the company disbanded, Lincoln was a second time mustered into service as a volunteer, this time as a private. The officer who enrolled him was Lieutenant Robert Anderson, who thirty years later, as Brigadier General, commanded Fort Sumter. After still a third term of service, Lincoln returned, in July, to New Salem. He entered at once into active electioneering.
Votes depended more upon personal liking and prowess than upon political principles in the campaign in which Lincoln engaged in 1832. Lincoln himself was a devoted supporter of Clay, while most of his friends in Sangamon County were partisans of Jackson. Yet Lincoln found his preference little to his disadvantage, such was his personal popularity. He went about, like other candidates, making speeches wherever groups of people were gathered together, and again the Clary's Grove boys were his attendants and supporters. It might be said that they fought for their candidate both physically and politically, but the distinction would scarcely be necessary. Lincoln himself expressed his prowess in physical as well as mental terms. It is recorded that during his first speech at Pappsville a fight broke out, and Lincoln perceived that one of his friends was having the worst of it. He jumped wholeheartedly into the fracas, threw his friends assailant 'ten or twelve feet,' and resumed his harangue. This feat was undoubtedly of as great use to him as any other argument he employed.
Despite his popularity and the circumstances that worked in his favor, Lincoln awoke on the morning of August 7, 1832, to learn that he had been defeated. In the county as a whole he had made a good showing, however, and in the precinct which included New Salem he received a vote so overwhelmingly in the majority as to be almost unanimous.
Lincoln was again at a loss; no means of maintaining himself in the world seemed to be within sight. It was at this juncture that he entered into partnership with William F. Berry. This was the dissolute son of the worthy Reverend John Berry. An idler and a source of grief to his father, he had bought out the interest of James Herndon in the store owned by the Herndon brothers. With Berry for a partner, Rowan Herndon wished to dispose of his share of the business, and Lincoln offered his note for three hundred dollars, thus becoming a merchant in his own right.