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Biography of Abraham Lincoln


Home > Social Studies > Holidays > Presidents Day > Abraham Lincoln > The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln > Congressman Abe Lincoln

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Lawyer Lincoln The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - The Champion of Freedom

Chapter IV. Congressman Abe Lincoln

Hopeful and cheerful as he ordinarily seemed, there was in Abe Lincoln's disposition a strain of deep melancholy. This was not peculiar to him alone, for the pioneers as a race were somber rather than gay. Their lives had been passed for generations under the most trying physical conditions, near malaria-infested streams, and where they breathed the poison of decaying vegetation. Insufficient shelter, storms, the cold of winter, savage enemies, and the cruel labor that killed off all but the hardiest of them, had at the same time killed the happy-go-lucky gaiety of an easier form of life. They were thoughtful, watchful, wary; capable indeed of wild merriment: but it has been said that although a pioneer might laugh, he could not easily be made to smile. Abraham Lincoln's mind was unusually sound and sane and normal. He had a cheerful, wholesome, sunny nature, yet he had inherited the strongest traits of the pioneers, and there was in him, moreover, much of the poet, with a poet's great capacity for joy and pain. It is not strange that as he developed into manhood, especially when his deeper nature began to feel the stirrings of ambition and of love, these seasons of depression and gloom came upon him with overwhelming force.

During his childhood he had known few women, save his mother, and that kind, God-fearing woman his stepmother, who did so much to make his childhood hopeful and happy. No man ever honored women more truly than did Abraham Lincoln; while all the qualities that caused men to like him - his strength, his ambition, his kindliness - served equally to make him a favorite with them. In the years of his young manhood three women greatly occupied his thoughts. The first was the slender, fair-haired Ann Rutledge, whom he very likely saw for the first time as she stood with the group of mocking people on the river-bank, near her father's mill, the day Lincoln's flatboat stuck on the dam at New Salem. It was her death, two years before he went to live at Springfield, that brought on the first attack of melancholy of which we know, causing him such deep grief that for a time his friends feared his sorrow might drive him insane.

Another friend was Mary Owens, a Kentucky girl, very different from the gentle, blue-eyed Ann Rutledge, but worthy in every way of a man's affections. She had visited her sister in New Salem several years before, and Lincoln remembered her as a tall, handsome, well-educated young woman, who could be serious as well as gay, and who was considered wealthy. In the autumn of 1836, her sister, Mrs. Able, then about to start on a visit to Kentucky, jokingly offered to bring Mary back if Lincoln would promise to marry her. He, also in jest, agreed to do so. Much to his astonishment, he learned, a few months later, that she had actually returned with Mrs. Able, and his sensitive conscience made him feel that the jest had turned into real earnest, and that he was in duty bound to keep his promise if she wished him to do so. They had both changed since they last met; neither proved quite pleasing to the other, yet an odd sort of courtship was kept up, until, some time after Lincoln went to live in Springfield, Miss Owens put an end to the affair by refusing him courteously but firmly. Meantime he lived through much unhappiness and uncertainty of spirit, and made up his mind "never again to think of marrying": a resolution which he kept-- until another Kentucky girl drove it from his thoughts.

Springfield had by this time become very lively and enterprising. There was a deal of "flourishing around in carriages," as Lincoln wrote Miss Owens, and business and politics and society all played an active part in the life of the little town. The meetings of the legislature brought to the new capital a group of young men of unusual talent and ability. There was friendly rivalry between them, and party disputes ran high, but social good-humor prevailed, and the presence of these brilliant young people, later to become famous as Presidential candidates, cabinet ministers, senators, congressmen, orators, and battle heroes, lent to the social gatherings of Springfield a zest rarely found in larger places.

Into the midst of this gaiety came Mary Todd of Kentucky, twenty-one years old, handsome, accomplished and witty--a dashing and fascinating figure in dress and conversation. She was the sister of Mrs. Ninian W. Edwards, whose husband was a prominent Whig member of the legislature--one of the "Long Nine," as these men were known. Their added height was said to be fifty-five feet, and they easily made up in influence what they lacked in numbers. Lincoln was the "tallest" of them all in body and in mind, and although as poor as a church mouse, was quite as welcome anywhere as the men who wore ruffled shirts and could carry gold watches. Miss Todd soon singled out and held the admiration of such of the Springfield beaux as pleased her somewhat wilful fancy, and Lincoln, being much at the Edwards house, found himself, almost before he knew it, entangled in a new love-affair. In the course of a twelvemonth he was engaged to marry her, but something, nobody knows what or how, happened to break the engagement, and to plunge him again in a very sea of wretchedness. Nor is it necessary that we should know about it further than that a great trouble came upon him, which he bore nobly, after his kind. Few men have had his stern sense of duty, his tenderness of heart, his conscience, so easy toward others, so merciless toward himself. The trouble preyed upon his mind until he could think of nothing else. He became unable to attend to business, or to take any part in the life around him. Fearing for his reason as well as for his health if this continued, his good friend Joshua F. Speed carried him off, whether he wished or no, for a visit to his own home in Kentucky. Here they stayed for some time, and Lincoln grew much better, returning to Springfield about midsummer, almost his old self, though far from happy.

An affair that helped to bring the lovers together again is so out of keeping with the rest of his life, that it would deserve mention "for that reason, if for no other. This is nothing less than Lincoln's first and only duel. It happened that James Shields, afterward a general in two wars and a senator from two States, was at that time auditor of the State of Illinois, with his office at Springfield. He was a Democrat, and an Irishman by birth, with an Irishman's quick temper and readiness to take offense. He had given orders about collecting certain taxes which displeased the Whigs, and shortly after Lincoln came back from Kentucky a series of humorous letters ridiculing the auditor and his order appeared in the Springfield paper, to the great amusement of the townspeople and the fury of Shields. These letters were dated from the "Lost Townships," and were supposed to be written by a farmer's widow signing herself "Aunt Rebecca." The real writers were Miss Todd and a clever friend, who undertook them more for the purpose of poking fun at Shields than for party effect. In framing the political part of their attack, they had found it necessary to consult Lincoln, and he obligingly set them a pattern by writing the first letter himself.

Shields sent to the editor of the paper to find out the name of the real "Rebecca." The editor, as in duty bound, consulted Lincoln, and was told to give Lincoln's name, but not to mention the ladies. Shields then sent Lincoln an angry challenge; and Lincoln, who considered the whole affair ridiculous, and would willingly have explained his part in it if Shields had made a gentlemanly inquiry, chose as weapons "broadswords of the largest size," and named as conditions of the duel that a plank ten feet long be firmly fixed on edge in the ground, as a line over which neither combatant was to pass his foot upon forfeit of his life. Next, lines were to be drawn upon the ground on each side of the plank, parallel with it, at the distance of the whole length of the sword and three feet additional. The passing of his own line by either man was to be deemed a surrender of the fight.

It is easy to see from these conditions that Lincoln refused to consider the matter seriously, and determined to treat it as absurdly as it deserved. He and Shields, and their respective seconds, with the broadswords, hurried away to an island in the Mississippi River, opposite Alton; but long before the plank was set up, or swords were drawn, mutual friends took the matter out of the hands of the seconds, and declared a settlement of the difficulty.

The affair created much talk and merriment in Springfield, but Lincoln found in it more than comedy. By means of it he and Miss Todd were again brought together in friendly interviews, and on November 4, they were married at the house of Mr. Edwards. Four children were born of this marriage: Robert Todd Lincoln, August 1, 1843; Edward Baker Lincoln, March 10, 1846; William Wallace Lincoln, December 21, 1850; and Thomas Lincoln, April 4, 1853. Edward died while a baby; William, in the White House, February 20, 1862; Thomas in Chicago, July 15, 1871; and the mother, Mary Lincoln, in Springfield, July 16, 1882. Robert Lincoln was graduated from Harvard during the Civil War, serving afterward on the staff of General Grant. He has since been Secretary of War and Minister to England, and has held many other important positions of trust.

His wedding over, Lincoln took up again the practical routine of daily life. He and his bride were so poor that they could not make the visit to Kentucky that both would so much have enjoyed. They could not even set up a little home of their own. "We are not keeping house," he wrote to a friend, "but boarding at the Globe Tavern," where, he added, their room and board only cost them four dollars a week. His "National Debt" of the old New Salem days was not yet all paid off, and patiently and resolutely he went on practising the economy he had learned in the hard school of experience.

Lincoln's law partnership with John T. Stuart had lasted four years. Then Stuart was elected to Congress, and another one was formed with Judge Stephen T. Logan. It was a well-timed and important change. Stuart had always cared more for politics than for law. With Logan law was the main object, and under his guidance and encouragement Lincoln entered upon the study and practical work of his profession in a more serious spirit than ever before. His interest in politics continued, however, and in truth his practice at that time was so small as to leave ample time for both. Stuart had been twice elected to Congress, and very naturally Lincoln, who served his party quite as faithfully, and was fully as well known, hoped for a similar honor. He had profited greatly by the companionship and friendly rivalry of the talented young men of Springfield, but their talent made the prize he wished the harder to gain. Twice he was disappointed, the nomination going to other men; but in May, 1846, he was nominated, and in August of the same year elected, to the Thirtieth Congress. He had the distinction of being the only Whig member from his State, the other Illinois congressmen at that time all being Democrats; but he proved no exception to the general rule that a man rarely comes into notice during his first term in the National House of Representatives. A new member has much to learn, even when, like Lincoln, long service in a State legislature has taught him how the business of making laws is carried on. He must find out what has been done and is likely to be done on a multitude of subjects new to him, must make the acquaintance of his fellow-members, must visit the departments of government almost daily to look after the interests of people from his State and congressional district. Legally he is elected for a term of two years. Practically a session of five or six months during the first year, and of three months during the second, further reduce his opportunities more than one-half.

Lincoln did not attempt to shine forth in debate, either by a stinging retort, or burst of inspired eloquence. He went about his task quietly and earnestly, performing his share of duty with industry and a hearty admiration for the ability of better-known members. "I just take my pen," he wrote enthusiastically to a friend after listening to a speech which pleased him much, "to say that Mr. Stephens, of Georgia, is a little slim, pale-faced consumptive man, with a voice like Logan's, has just concluded the very best speech of an hour's length I ever heard. My old withered, dry eyes are full of tears yet."

During the first session of his term Lincoln made three long speeches, carefully prepared and written out beforehand. He was neither elated nor dismayed at the result. "As to speech-making," he wrote William H. Herndon, who had now become his law partner, "I find speaking here and elsewhere about the same thing. I was about as badly scared, and no worse, as I am when I speak in court."

The next year he made no set speeches, but in addition to the usual work of a congressman occupied himself with a bill that had for its object the purchase and freeing of all slaves in the District of Columbia. Slavery was not only lawful at the national capital at that time: there was, to quote Mr. Lincoln's own graphic words, "in view from the windows of the Capitol a sort of negro livery-stable, where droves of negroes were collected, temporarily kept, and finally taken to Southern markets, precisely like droves of horses."

To Lincoln and to other people who disapproved of slavery, the idea of human beings held in bondage under the very shadow of the dome of the Capitol seemed indeed a bitter mockery. As has already been stated, he did not then believe Congress had the right to interfere with slavery in States that chose to have it; but in the District of Columbia the power of Congress was supreme, and the matter was entirely different. His bill provided that the Federal Government should pay full value to the slave-holders of the District for all slaves in their possession, and should at once free the older ones. The younger ones were to be apprenticed for a term of years, in order to make them self-supporting, after which they also were to receive their freedom. The bill was very carefully thought out, and had the approval of residents of the District who held the most varied views upon slavery; but good as it was, the measure was never allowed to come to a vote, and Lincoln went back to Springfield, at the end of his term, feeling doubtless that his efforts in behalf of the slaves had been all in vain.

While in Washington he lived very simply and quietly, taking little part in the social life of the city, though cordially liked by all who made his acquaintance. An inmate of the modest boarding-house where he had rooms has told of the cheery atmosphere he seemed to bring with him into the common dining-room, where political arguments were apt to run high. He never appeared anxious to insist upon his own views; and when others, less considerate, forced matters until the talk threatened to become too furious, he would interrupt with an anecdote or a story that cleared the air and ended the discussion in a general laugh. Sometimes for exercise he would go into a bowling-alley close by, entering into the game with great zest, and accepting defeat and victory with equal good-nature. By the time he had finished a little circle would be gathered around him, enjoying his enjoyment, and laughing at his quaint expressions and sallies of wit.

His gift for jest and story-telling has become traditional. Indeed, almost every good story that has been invented within a hundred years has been laid at his door. As a matter of fact, though he was fond of telling "them, and told them well, he told comparatively few of the number that have been credited to him. He had a wonderful memory, and a fine power of making his hearers see the scene he wished to depict; but the final charm of his stories lay in their aptness, and in the kindly humor that left no sting behind it.

During his term in Congress the Presidential campaign of 1848 came on. Lincoln took an active part in the nomination and election of General Zachary Taylor--"Old Rough and Ready," as he was called--making speeches in Maryland and Massachusetts, as well as in his own home district of Illinois. Two letters that he wrote during this campaign have special interest for young readers, for they show the sympathetic encouragement he gave to young men anxious to make a place and a name for themselves in American politics.

"Now as to the young men, he wrote. "You must not wait to be brought forward by the older men. For instance, do you suppose that I should ever have got into notice if I had waited to be hunted up and pushed forward by older men? You young men get together and form a 'Rough and Ready' club, and have regular meetings and speeches. . . . Let every one play the part he can play best--some speak, some sing, and all 'holler.' Your meetings will be of evenings; the older men, and the women, will go to hear you; so that it will not only contribute to the election of 'Old Zach,' but will be an interesting pastime, and improving to the intellectual faculties of all engaged."

In another letter, answering a young friend who complained of being neglected, he said:

"Nothing could afford me more satisfaction than to learn that you and others of my young friends at home are doing battle in the contest and taking a stand far above any I have ever been able to reach. . . . I cannot conceive that other old men feel differently. Of course I cannot demonstrate what I say; but I was young once, and I am sure I was never ungenerously thrust back. I hardly know what to say. The way for a young man to rise is to improve himself every way he can, never suspecting that anybody wishes to hinder him. Allow me to assure you that suspicion and jealousy never did help any man in any situation. There may sometimes be ungenerous attempts to keep a young man down; and they will succeed, too, if he allows his mind to be diverted from its true channel to brood over the attempted injury. Cast about and see if this feeling has not injured every person you have ever known to fall into it."

He was about forty years old when he wrote this letter. By some people that is not considered a very great age; but he doubtless felt himself immensely older, as he was infinitely wiser, than his petulant young correspondent.

General Taylor was triumphantly elected, and it then became Lincoln's duty, as Whig member of Congress from Illinois, to recommend certain persons to fill government offices in that State. He did this after he returned to Springfield, for his term in Congress ended on March 4, 1849, the day that General Taylor became President. The letters that he sent to Washington when forwarding the papers and applications of people who wished appointment were both characteristic and amusing; for in his desire not to mislead or to do injustice to any man, they were very apt to say more in favor of the men he did not wish to see appointed than in recommendation of his own particular candidates.

This absolute and impartial fairness to friend and foe alike was one of his strongest traits, governing every action of his life. If it had not been for this, he might possibly have enjoyed another term in Congress, for there had been talk of reelecting him. In spite of his confession to Speed that "being elected to Congress, though I am very grateful to our friends for having done it, has not pleased me as much as I expected," this must have been flattering. But there were many able young men in Springfield who coveted the honor, and they had entered into an agreement among themselves that each would be content with a single term. Lincoln of course remained faithful to this promise. His strict keeping of promises caused him also to lose an appointment from President Taylor as Commissioner of the General Land Office, which might easily have been his, but for which he had agreed to recommend some other Illinois man. A few weeks later the President offered to make him governor of the new Territory of Oregon. This attracted him much more than the other office had done, but he declined because his wife was unwilling to live in a place so far away.

His career in Congress, while adding little to his fame at the time, proved of great advantage to him in after life, for it gave him a close knowledge of the workings of the Federal Government, and brought him into contact with political leaders from all parts of the Union.

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Lawyer Lincoln The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - The Champion of Freedom

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The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln


A President's Childhood

Captain Lincoln

Lawyer Lincoln

Congressman Lincoln

The Champion of Freedom

The New President

Lincoln and the War

Unsuccessful Generals

Freedom for the Slaves

The Man Who Was President

The Turning Point of the War

The Conqueror of a Great Rebellion

The Fourteenth of April

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The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A Biography

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