he Illinois prairies were thrusting forth new life in early April, 1854, as
Abraham Lincoln hitched "Old Buck" to his buggy and prepared to set forth on
his customary round of the Eighth Judicial circuit. Bidding good-by to his wife
and their three boys--Robert, aged ten; Willie, three; and "Tad," the baby,
born just a year before --Lincoln tossed a threadbare carpetbag containing
shirts, underwear, a homemade yellow flannel nightgown, and other necessities
into the buggy, swung his long body after it, "cluck-clucked" to his horse, and
turned northward through Springfield's more prosperous residential section
toward the open country. Ahead of him lay a journey of some four hundred miles
that would keep him away from home almost ten weeks, with stops for court
sessions at seven county towns.
Lincoln loved the life of the circuit--the excitement of court week in the
small country towns, the camaraderie of judge and lawyers, the speechmaking and
sociability in the evenings, and the esteem in which the simple country people
held the members of the bar. He had not expected to follow the circuit this
long, however; and if his thoughts turned inward on this first leg of his
journey, he could look back on a quick rise in life followed by a
disillusionment that held him to circuit practice. For Lincoln, pulling himself
loose from the poverty and aimlessness that marked his background, had learned
to use his brain instead of brawn as a means of livelihood; then, employing the
law as a springboard, he had rapidly advanced in politics. After serving four
terms in the state legislature, he had aspired to go to Congress. Whig party
rivalries stood in his way at first; but after he had waited for two other
zealous young Whigs to satisfy a similar ambition, his turn had come at last.
In December, 1847, he had stepped forth on the national stage.
Thus, in Lincoln's early manhood, while the law provided bread and butter,
politics became his life. For fifteen years he had spent hour after hour
attending caucuses, conventions, and legislative sessions, writing party
circulars and delivering party speeches, formulating party policy and directing
party strategy. Then, during his term in Congress, had come discomfiture: he
lost step with the people of his district by opposing the Mexican War.
When war with Mexico began, during Lincoln's campaign for Congress, a fervid
martial spirit swept the prairies; and if he harbored any feelings that his
country might be wrong he had kept them to himself. By the time he reached
Washington, the fighting had stopped. But peace terms were yet to be agreed on,
and he found that his fellow Whigs in Congress, looking to the election of
1848, were intent upon making political capital by accusing President Polk of
bringing on an unjust war against a feeble neighbor.
Lincoln fell in with this policy and joined the clamor against Polk. He
introduced a series of resolutions designed to convict Polk of falsehood in his
claim that Mexico had started hostilities by "invading our territory and
shedding American blood on American soil." This was not so, Lincoln asserted;
Mexico, not the United States, exercised jurisdiction over the "spot" where the
first blood had been shed. Three weeks later Lincoln took the floor to amplify
his charges and challenge Polk to answer them. Throughout the session he voted
consistently with the Whig minority on all matters designed to put the
President in the wrong. And when the Democrats introduced a resolution of
thanks to General Zachary Taylor for his victory at Buena Vista, Lincoln joined
with other Whigs in amending it to read, "in a war unconstitutionally and
unjustly begun by the President."
The letters in which Lincoln tried to justify his actions to his law partner,
William H. Herndon, are forthright with conviction, notwithstanding Lincoln's
silence on the subject before he left for Washington. But Lincoln, the young
Whig politician, had been reared to party discipline; and thrown among the
national stalwarts of his party as a freshman congressman, he may have been
convinced with undue ease.
In any event the outcome proved ruinous for Lincoln. Back home, where people's
patriotism and land hunger overrode any moral qualms they may have felt about
the war, he was blasted throughout his district as a disgrace to his state.
Democratic newspapers dubbed him "Spotty" Lincoln, and one even labeled him "a
modern Benedict Arnold."
Heretofore Lincoln's district had been accounted such a Whig stronghold that
the Whig nomination was tantamount to election. By reason of an understanding
among certain Whig leaders of the district that they would take a "turn about"
in Congress, he did not stand for re-election. But his course had so
discredited the party that Stephen T. Logan, the Whig candidate to succeed him,
lost to Thomas L. Harris, Democrat. The powerful Whig organization managed to
keep the vote extremely close--7201 for Harris to 7095 for Logan; and Lincoln
tried to explain the defeat on the ground of Logan's unpopularity and Harris's
excellent war record. But the Illinois State Register came nearer to the truth
when it complained: "This will not do, gentlemen, you must put the saddle on
the right horse....Besides his own dead weight, Logan had to carry the votes of
the Whig party, including Lincoln, that the war was unconstitutional and
This congressional election took place in August, 1848, and by the time of the
presidential election, in November, the Whigs, with General Zachary Taylor, a
military hero as their candidate, succeeded in bringing the district
right-side-up again. Lincoln, intent on proving that his course had caused no
change of sentiment in the district, worked harder in this contest than he had
ever worked before, and claimed the chief credit for this local victory. He had
also labored zealously for Taylor's nomination, even at the cost of abandoning
his political idol, Henry Clay. Now, with the Whigs in control of the federal
government, Lincoln, jobless and reluctant to return to the less eventful life
of Springfield, sought the politician's reward.
He asked for the commissionership of the General Land Office in Washington, but
it went to a Chicagoan, an indication of the increasing political importance of
the booming city on the lake; and the most that the administration Would offer
him was the governorship or secretaryship of far-off Oregon Territory. Lincoln
had also thought that he and Edward D. Baker, who would be the sole Illinois
Whig in the next Congress, should control the federal patronage in Illinois.
But their recommendations for office were consistently ignored. It was as
though the door to a political future had been slammed shut in Lincoln's face.
By the summer of 1849 he had no choice but to return to Springfield and settle
once again into the routine of a country lawyer.
So every spring and fall for the past four years, he had started out on the
circuit, as he was doing now, leaving home and family for nine or ten weeks at
a time, driving over muddy or dusty roads, now under a hot sun and again
through pelting showers or all-day rain, putting up with the scanty comforts
and monotonous fare of cheap hotels and boarding houses, where the lawyers
slept two in a bed and six or eight in a room, and spending long hours in court
for the ten, twenty, or fifty dollar fees, occasionally supplemented by larger
ones, which, along with the more substantial fees he earned in the State
Supreme Court and the Federal Courts in Springfield and the interest he
received from a few notes and mortgages, added up to an annual income of some
Many lawyers settled down into contented mediocrity in such a way of life, but
Lincoln, with the avenue of political advancement seemingly closed to him,
resolved to make himself a better lawyer and more enlightened man. So, as "Old
Luck" plodded on from one town to another along the familiar prairie roads,
Lincoln often lolled back in his buggy, his long legs over the dashboard, with
an open book in hand: Robert Burns or Shakespeare, those favorites of his young
manhood, or perhaps some scientific textbook having learned the value of
mathematics as a mental discipline, he mastered the first six books of Euclid;
and he also studied astronomy.
Thus Lincoln's ambition, which Herndon, without fully comprehending, compared
to a little engine that knew no rest, and which Lincoln, in his first campaign
for public office, described as a desire "of being truly esteemed of my fellow
men by rendering myself worthy of their esteem," carried over into these years
of political retirement and induced him to continue that process of
self-teaching that had distinguished his earlier years.
Though Lincoln appreciated the knowledge to be gained from books, observation
and experience remained his chief instructors, as they had always been. A
fellow lawyer remembered how, when Lincoln encountered a new piece of farm
machinery on his circuit travels, he should examine it in all its parts, first
closely, then at a distance, and finally, coming back to it, he would shake it,
lift it, push it, "sight" it to see whether it was straight or warped, and
stoop, or even lie down if necessary, to look under it in order to ascertain
its every quality and utility. In the lawyers' evening discussions, which
"ranged through the universe of thought and experience," he learned to apply
the same careful process to propositions and ideas.
A man of deep emotions, Lincoln craved the power to put his feelings into
words. Of a commonplace poem he had once declared: "I would give all I am worth
and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is"; and,
unsatisfied with the clarity and fluency that are the lawyer's tools, he had
attempted to write poems of his own.
Some notes for a law lecture, which Lincoln drew up at this season of his life
but never used, reveal not only his attitude toward his profession but also
something of the man himself. "I am not an accomplished lawyer," he wrote. "I
find quite as much material for a lecture in those points wherein I have
failed, as in those wherein I have been moderately successful. The leading rule
for the lawyer, as for the man in every other calling, is diligence. Leaving
nothing for tomorrow which can be done today. Never let your correspondence
fall behind. Whatever piece of business you have in hand, before stopping, do
all the labor pertaining to it which can then be done....Extemporaneous
speaking should be practiced and cultivated. It is the lawyer's avenue to the
"There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest....Let
no young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular
belief--resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you
cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose
some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in
advance, consent to be a knave."
Honesty became Lincoln's best-known attribute around the circuit, and next to
that his gift of storytelling. "Lord, wasn't he funny," one friend later wrote;
while another with the free-wheeling exaggeration of the frontiersman recalled:
"In the role of story teller I never knew his equal. His power of mimicry was
very great. He could perfectly mimic a Dutchman, Irishman or Negro....I have
heard men say that they had laughed at his stories until they had almost shaken
their ribs loose." Lincoln's humor often served a useful purpose. Abstruse
points became clear to the slowest minds on a jury when Lincoln explained them
with a story; and his quick perception of the ludicrous and the ridiculous
enabled him to unmask pretense and vanity and hold things in true
Notwithstanding Lincoln's geniality he was a lonely man; for there was a
remoteness and innate dignity about him that kept acquaintances at arm's
length. Most people addressed him as "Mr. Lincoln" or ''Lincoln.'' Not even
stout, jovial Judge David Davis or any of his other intimates felt sufficiently
free and easy with him to call him "Abe."
He neither smoked nor drank, and seldom swore; yet he never moralized of those
who did, and he had jokingly applied to himself the saying that a man with no
vices is likely also to lack virtues.
Something of Lincoln's life struggle might be discerned in his face. The early
death of his mother in the Indiana wilderness, a rude upbringing verging on the
uncouth, the batterings of rough-and-tumble frontier politics, a mental
breakdown resulting from uncertainty about love, the hurts of a not altogether
happy marriage, the loss of an infant son--all these had added their tracings
to the toil marks that seamed his features. Yet his face was kindly for all
that: for the buffetings of life had sensitized instead of hardening him, and
patience, tolerance, forbearance, and forgiveness were becoming the very
texture of his heart.
Also a part of Lincoln's very being was a faith in the worth and fundamental
goodness of plain people, like those whom he grew up with, those at the little
village of New Salem who helped him get a start in life, and those he knew now
on the circuit. Still vivid in his memory was a time when, as a boy in
backwoods Indiana, he had lain at full length on the cabin floor before the
open fire, reading Parson Weems's life of George Washington. But what moved
him, even more than the deeds and character of Washington, was the heroism of
the Revolutionary soldiers, and he could remember thinking, "boy even though I
was, that there must have been something more than common that those men
And as he overcame the obstacles of poverty and grew in mind and character, the
story of America took on rich meaning for him. In no other country of the
world, he thought, were ordinary people so much the masters of their destiny.
Nowhere else were they offered such a chance to rise through their own efforts.
As he carved out his own career in law and politics, all about him, at home and
on the circuit, he saw men who, starting life as laborers, mechanics, mill
hands, and flatboatmen, or in other lowly walks of life, had become lawyers,
merchants, doctors, farmers, editors, successful politicians. And he saw these
people come together in equality and mutual respect, not only in the state
legislature and in Congress, but also at the grass-roots level, in private
homes and crossroads meetinghouses, to make their own decisions and work out
their own problems under a political system "conducing more essentially to
civil and religious liberty," he thought, "than any of which the history of
former times tells us." As the years passed, he had arrived at the conviction
that the Founding Fathers of the new republic had embodied its true meaning in
the document that gave it birth, and that in the assertion of the Declaration
of Independence that all men are created equal and are alike entitled to life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was a promise "not only to the people of
this country, but hope for the world to all future time."
Religion and the Bible had been important in Lincoln's upbringing but he had
known skepticism too. During his campaign for Congress, when pressed to define
his faith, he had declared: "That I am not a member of any Christian church is
true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures." This is not the
same as saying that he accepted the Scriptures fully; and, having trained his
mind to demand proof, he had not yet gained that broader understanding of how
the incomprehensible may still be true. Yet his very goodness bespoke a latent
spirituality, which, if awakened and motivated, might widen his horizon and
make his life more purposeful. Those who failed to penetrate his surface
qualities saw only the old melancholy that could change so quickly to
boisterous laughter, the rustic mannerisms that had clung to him since boyhood,
and the shambling gait of the man whose feet have been accustomed to plowed
ground. The tall hat with the well-rubbed nap, the long coat bulging at the
elbows, the ill-fitting trousers and unblacked boots might have passed for the
same toggery he first wore around the circuit.
Though Lincoln's complex and sometimes contradictory personality made him
difficult to understand, his warm human qualities drew people to him, and he
could count a host of friends. In fact, his first stop on this trip around the
circuit would be at Lincoln, the newly founded county seat of Logan County, a
town named in his honor.
These friends could muster an impressive tally if he cared to have another try
at politics; and his experience, his enlarged humanitarianism, and his maturing
wisdom all qualified him for a larger field of usefulness in public service.
But his once compelling political ambition seemed to have simmered out. Two
years before, When friends tried to induce him to run again for the state
legislature, he had declared that his profession demanded all his time. A move
to make him governor died from his own lack of interest. During the
presidential campaign of 1854, when the Whigs again nominated a military hero,
General Winfield Scott, he had served as a national committeeman and delivered
a few speeches. But they flashed little of the old fire. Looking back later on
this period of his life, he stated that "by 1854 his profession had almost
superseded the thought of politics in his mind."
Lincoln might have lost interest entirely except for what was taking place in
Washington. But the news from the nation's capital carried portentous overtones
as Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln's rival of bygone political contests, now a
United States Senator and chairman of the powerful committee on territories,
fostered a policy which, as Lincoln saw it, threatened the very ideals the
nation stood for.
Early in January, Douglas had reported out of his committee a bill to organize
the territory of Nebraska with the stipulation that the people living there
might admit or exclude slavery as they chose--a provision contrary to that
clause of the Missouri Compromise which prohibited slavery in all the area of
the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri and the western extension of its
southern boundary. Political maneuvering sent the bill back to committee; but
Douglas speedily reported it out again, this time in a form which divided the
affected area into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska, and expressly repealed
the slavery interdiction of the Missouri Compromise. The storm of protest that
broke in Congress spread rapidly through the North. Douglas was able to make
his principle of "popular sovereignty" the new Democratic faith, however, and
on March 3, after weeks of heated argument, he had jammed the measure through
With that the battle shifted to the House of Representatives, and now, as
Lincoln made his way from one county town to another, he conned the newspapers
with more than his usual thoroughness. By the time he reached the town of
Lincoln he could read of protest meetings all over northern Illinois. At
Bloomington he learned that Richard Yates, Whig congressman from his district,
had spoken out against "the opening of this dangerous agitation, fraught with
such imminent peril to the existence of the Union itself." His home town Whig
paper, the Illinois State Journal, which came to Bloomington by train, was
condemning "the violation of the plighted faith and compacts of the nation."
Newspapers available to Lincoln at Metamora predicted that Douglas's policy
would "lead to interminable broils." At Pekin, papers from near-by Peoria told
of Illinois congressmen Jesse Norton and Elihu Washburne joining Yates in
denouncing "this great wrong," of Chicago and New England clergymen petitioning
Congress to defeat the measure, and of veteran Senator Thomas Hart Benton of
Missouri, now a member of the House, lashing out at popular sovereignty as "a
bone given to the people to quarrel and fight over at every election and at
every meeting of the legislature until they become a state government." The
Missouri Compromise was intended to be perpetual, Benton had declared; it was
as sacred and inviolable as a human instrument can be. He recalled Douglas's
own assertion of less than four years before, that the Missouri Compromise had
"become canonized in the hearts of the American people as a sacred thing, which
no ruthless hand would ever be reckless enough to disturb."
By the time Lincoln reached Clinton, the administration organs, rallying behind
Douglas's bill, were pursuing Benton in full cry. Fist swinging had been
narrowly averted in the House of Representatives. Papers throughout central
Illinois were condemning Douglas as a more dangerous fomenter of national
strife and hatred than the detested abolitionists. As feeling mounted to this
frenzied pitch, Lincoln's fellow lawyers noticed that he kept more and more to
himself. Often he was still awake when all the others went to bed. Rising early
in the morning, they sometimes found him sitting hunched in thought, staring at
the dead embers in the bedroom fireplace.
For as long as Lincoln could remember he had reasoned, "If slavery is not
wrong, nothing is wrong." Yet, recognizing the virulence of slavery as a
political issue, he had been loath to touch it, believing, as he had declared
in the state legislature, that the promulgation of abolition doctrine tended to
increase rather than abate the evil of it. In this issue, as in so many others,
he had looked for wisdom to the Founding Fathers, and if he correctly
understood their attitude toward slavery, they had sought to restrict it to the
area where it had become engrafted, in the belief that, if so restricted, it
would die for lack of growth. So their policy became Lincoln's policy, too,
even though toleration of human bondage did violence to that concept of America
as the land of freedom and equality that he had cherished since boyhood. But
Douglas would risk opening new areas where slavery might feed anew, and thus
prolong its life. To Lincoln's mind this constituted a rejection of the policy
of ridding the nation of a hypocrisy at the earliest practicable time.
It is not our concern here that Douglas looked at the matter from a drastically
different point of view, and regarded his policy as an application of the
principle of self-government which, by reason of climatic and economic factors,
would restrict slavery no less effectively than would a geographical line. The
important fact for us, and for history, is the energizing impact on Lincoln of
what seemed to him a repudiation of a national ideal. As he drove into Urbana,
far over toward the eastern border of Illinois, he felt oppressed and troubled;
for the struggle in the House of Representatives had reached the crisis stage.
May 23, the second day of the court term, became a fateful day for him. For
sometime during that day the telegraph chattered out the news he had hoped
would never come: the House had passed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill by a majority
of thirteen votes. Where and when Lincoln received the news we do not know, but
we have his own assertion that "it aroused him as he had never been before."
Three months later he was back in politics, campaigning for the state
legislature as a spokesman for the anti-Nebraska forces in Illinois, and his
real career had begun. Unknowingly, he had set his feet in the path to the
presidency. For Lincoln will emerge now as a man of vision, who speaks with a
new authority and a new eloquence born of moral earnestness. That little engine
of ambition will throb more urgently than ever, but hereafter its energy will
be directed to the advancement of a cause. And Lincoln's desire "of being truly
esteemed of my fellow men" will find fulfillment in the revitalization of the
ideals of human freedom and equality in the hearts of his countrymen.
No less compelling than the sunburst which appeared to Saul of Tarsus on the
Damascus road was the seeming renunciation of the national aspiration to
genuine democracy in bringing Abraham Lincoln back into political life, and in
transforming an honest, capable, but essentially self-centered small-town
politician of self-developed but largely unsuspected talents into democracy's
In Lincoln's first major speech after re-entering politics, he pleaded: "Let us
re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it the practices, and
policy, which harmonize with it....If we do this we shall not only have saved
the Union; but we shall have so saved it as to make it, and to keep it, forever
worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions
of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to
the latest generations."
This was the theme that Lincoln stressed in his great debates with Douglas four
years later, and in his speech at Cooper Union early in 1860. And when war came
and he found himself in the very vortex of it, he explained in his first
message to Congress: "This is essentially a people's contest. On the side of
the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance
of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men--to lift
artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit
for all; to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance in the race of
Throughout the war, in state papers, in conversations, in private letters, in
informal talks to soldiers, he restated this idea in variant words. Identifying
the fate of the Union with the fate of world democracy, he defined the cause of
the nation in terms of human betterment throughout the world.
When Lincoln was asked to make "a few appropriate remarks" at the dedication of
the soldiers' cemetery on the battlefield at Gettysburg, it was inevitable that
his thoughts should go back to the Founding Fathers, then forward, into the far
reach of time, and that he should plead for increased devotion to the ideals
the nation's sons were dying for, so that government of the people, by the
people, for the people might not perish from the earth.
A nearer realization of the American dream became the aim of Lincoln's life.
Yet he was no mere dreamer. He realized that the struggle for human freedom is
eternal; he had no illusions of its ending in his lifetime or in ours. He
understood that the antagonisms between man's better nature and his selfishness
endure, and that it would be the fate of every generation of Americans to
defend democracy from its enemies of greed, intolerance, and despotism.
Copyright © 1954 by Benjamin P. Thomas. All rights reserved.
"Abe Lincoln, Country Lawyer," from The Atlantic Monthly, February, 1954, issue.
Vol. 193, No. 2 (p.57-61).