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Biography of Abraham Lincoln


Home > Social Studies > Holidays > Presidents Day > Abraham Lincoln > The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln > The Champion of Freedom

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Congressman Lincoln The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - The new President

Chapter V. The Champion of Freedom

For four or five years after his return from Congress, Lincoln remained in Springfield, working industriously at his profession. He was offered a law partnership in Chicago, but declined on the ground that his health would not stand the confinement of a great city. His business increased in volume and importance as the months went by; and it was during this time that he engaged in what is perhaps the most dramatic as well as the best known of all his law cases--his defense of Jack Armstrong's son on a charge of murder. A knot of young men had quarreled one night on the outskirts of a camp-meeting, one was killed, and suspicion pointed strongly toward young Armstrong as the murderer. Lincoln, for old friendship's sake, offered to defend him--an offer most gratefully accepted by his family. The principal witness swore that he had seen young Armstrong strike the fatal blow--had seen him distinctly by the light of a bright moon. Lincoln made him repeat the statement until it seemed as if he were sealing the death-warrant of the prisoner. Then Lincoln began his address to the jury. He was not there as a hired attorney, he told them, but because of friendship. He told of his old relations with Jack Armstrong, of the kindness the prisoner's mother had shown him in New Salem, how he had himself rocked the prisoner to sleep when the latter was a little child. Then he reviewed the testimony, pointing out how completely everything depended on the statements of this one witness; and ended by proving beyond question that his testimony was false, since, according to the almanac, which he produced in court and showed to judge and jury, THERE WAS NO MOON IN THE SKY THAT NIGHT at the hour the murder was committed. The jury brought in a verdict of "Not guilty," and the prisoner was discharged.

Lincoln was always strong with a jury. He knew how to handle men, and he had a direct way of going to the heart of things. He had, moreover, unusual powers of mental discipline. It was after his return from Congress, when he had long been acknowledged one of the foremost lawyers of the State, that he made up his mind he lacked the power of close and sustained reasoning, and set himself like a schoolboy to study works of logic and mathematics to remedy the defect. At this time he committed to memory six books of the propositions of Euclid; and, as always, he was an eager reader on many subjects, striving in this way to make up for the lack of education he had had as a boy. He was always interested in mechanical principles and their workings, and in May, 1849, patented a device for lifting vessels over shoals, which had evidently been dormant in his mind since the days of his early Mississippi River experiences. The little model of a boat, whittled out with his own hand, that he sent to the Patent Office when he filed his application, is still shown to visitors, though the invention itself failed to bring about any change in steamboat architecture.

In work and study time slipped away. He was the same cheery companion as of old, much sought after by his friends, but now more often to be found in his office surrounded by law-books and papers than had been the case before his term in Congress. His interest in politics seemed almost to have ceased when, in 1854, something happened to rouse that and his sense of right and justice as they had never been roused before. This was the repeal of the "Missouri Compromise," a law passed by Congress in the year 1820, allowing Missouri to enter the Union as a slave State, but positively forbidding slavery in all other territory of the United States lying north of latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes, which was the southern boundary-line of Missouri.

Up to that time the Southern States, where slavery was lawful, had been as wealthy and quite as powerful in politics as the Northern or free States. The great unoccupied territory lying to the west, which, in years to come, was sure to be filled with people and made into new States, lay, however, mostly north of 36 degrees 30 minutes; and it was easy to see that as new free States came one after the other into the Union the importance of the South must grow less and less, because there was little or no territory left out of which slave States could be made to offset them. The South therefore had been anxious to have the Missouri Compromise repealed.

The people of the North, on the other hand, were not all wise or disinterested in their way of attacking slavery. As always happens, self-interest and moral purpose mingled on both sides; but, as a whole, it may be said that they wished to get rid of slavery because they felt it to be wrong, and totally out of place in a country devoted to freedom and liberty. The quarrel between them was as old as the nation, and it had been gaining steadily in intensity. At first only a few persons in each section had been really interested. By the year 1850 it had come to be a question of much greater moment, and during the ten years that followed was to increase in bitterness until it absorbed the thoughts of the entire people, and plunged the country into a terrible civil war.

Abraham Lincoln had grown to manhood while the question was gaining in importance. As a youth, during his flatboat voyages to New Orleans he had seen negroes chained and beaten, and the injustice of slavery had been stamped upon his soul. The uprightness of his mind abhorred a system that kept men in bondage merely because they happened to be black. The intensity of his feeling on the subject had made him a Whig when, as a friendless boy, he lived in a town where Whig ideas were much in disfavor. The same feeling, growing stronger as he grew older, had inspired the Lincoln-Stone protest and the bill to free the slaves in the District of Columbia, and had caused him to vote at least forty times against slavery in one form or another during his short term in Congress. The repeal of the Missouri Compromise, throwing open once more to slavery a vast amount of territory from which it had been shut out, could not fail to move him deeply. His sense of justice and his strong powers of reasoning were equally stirred, and from that time until slavery came to its end through his own act, he gave his time and all his energies to the cause of freedom.

Two points served to make the repeal of the Missouri Compromise of special interest to Lincoln. The first was personal, in that the man who championed the measure, and whose influence in Congress alone made it possible, was Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who had been his neighbor in Illinois for many years.

The second was deeper. He realized that the struggle meant much more than the freedom or bondage of a few million black men: that it was in reality a struggle for the central idea of our American republic--the statement in our Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." He made no public speeches until autumn, but in the meantime studied the question with great care, both as to its past history and present state. When he did speak it was with a force and power that startled Douglas and, it is said, brought him privately to Lincoln with the proposition that neither of them should address a public meeting again until after the next election.

Douglas was a man of great ambition as well as of unusual political skill. Until recently he had been heartily in favor of keeping slavery out of the Northwest Territory; but he had set his heart upon being President of the United States, and he thought that he saw a chance of this if he helped the South to repeal the Missouri Compromise, and thus gained its gratitude and its votes. Without hesitation he plunged into the work and labored successfully to overthrow this law of more than thirty years' standing.

Lincoln's speech against the repeal had made a deep impression in Illinois, where he was at once recognized as the people's spokesman in the cause of freedom. His statements were so clear, his language so eloquent, the stand he took so just, that all had to acknowledge his power. He did not then, nor for many years afterward, say that the slaves ought to be immediately set free. What he did insist upon was that slavery was wrong, and that it must not be allowed to spread into territory already free; but that, gradually, in ways lawful and just to masters and slaves alike, the country should strive to get rid of it in places where it already existed. He never let his hearers lose sight of the great. underlying moral fact. "Slavery," he said, "is founded in the selfishness of man's nature; opposition to it in his love of justice." Even Senator Douglas was not prepared to admit that slavery was right. He knew that if he said that he could never be President, for the whole North would rise against him. He wished to please both sides, so he argued that it was not a question for him or for the Federal Government to decide, but one which each State and Territory must settle for itself. In answer to this plea of his that it was not a matter of morals, but of "State rights"--a mere matter of local self-government--Mr. Lincoln replied, "When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government--that is despotism."

It was on these opposing grounds that the two men took their stand for the battle of argument and principle that was to continue for years, to outgrow the bounds of the State, to focus the attention of the whole country upon them, and, in the end, to have far-reaching consequences of which neither at that time dreamed. At first the field appeared much narrower, though even then the reward was a large one. Lincoln had entered the contest with no thought of political gain; but it happened that a new United States senator from Illinois had to be chosen about that time. Senators are not voted for by the people, but by the legislatures of their respective States and as a first result of all this discussion about the right or wrong of slavery it was found that the Illinois legislature, instead of having its usual large Democratic majority, was almost evenly divided. Lincoln seemed the most likely candidate; and he would have undoubtedly been chosen senator, had not five men, whose votes were absolutely necessary, stoutly refused to vote for a Whig, no matter what his views upon slavery might be. Keeping stubbornly aloof, they cast their ballots time after time for Lyman Trumbull, who was a Democrat, although as strongly opposed to slavery as Lincoln himself.

A term of six years in the United States Senate must have seemed a large prize to Lincoln just then--possibly the largest he might ever hope to gain; and it must have been a hard trial to feel it so near and then see it slipping away from him. He did what few men would have had the courage or the unselfishness to do. Putting aside all personal considerations, and intent only on making sure of an added vote against slavery in the Senate, he begged his friends to cease voting for him and to unite with those five Democrats to elect Trumbull.

"I regret my defeat moderately," he wrote to a sympathizing friend, "but I am not nervous about it." Yet it must have been particularly trying to know that with forty-five votes in his favor, and only five men standing between him and success, he had been forced to give up his own chances and help elect the very man who had defeated him.

The voters of Illinois were quick to realize the sacrifice he had made. The five stubborn men became his most devoted personal followers; and his action at this time did much to bring about a great political change in the State. All over the country old party lines were beginning to break up and re-form themselves on this one question of slavery. Keeping its old name, the Democratic party became the party in favor of slavery, while the Northern Whigs and all those Democrats who objected to slavery joined in what became known as the Republican party. It was at a great mass convention held in Bloomington in May, 1856, that the Republican party of Illinois took final shape; and it was here that Lincoln made the wonderful address which has become famous in party history as his "lost speech." There had been much enthusiasm. Favorite speakers had already made stirring addresses that had been listened to with eagerness and heartily applauded; but hardly a man moved from his seat until Lincoln should be heard. It was he who had given up the chance of being senator to help on the cause of freedom. He alone had successfully answered Douglas. Every one felt the fitness of his making the closing speech--and right nobly did he honor the demand. The spell of the hour was visibly upon him. Standing upon the platform before the members of the convention, his tall figure drawn up to its full height, his head thrown back, and his voice ringing with earnestness, he denounced the evil they had to fight in a speech whose force and power carried his hearers by storm, ending with a brilliant appeal to all who loved liberty and justice to

Come as the winds come when forests are rended; Come as the waves come when navies are stranded;

and unite with the Republican party against this great wrong.

The audience rose and answered him with cheer upon cheer. Then, after the excitement had died down, it was found that neither a full report nor even trustworthy notes of his speech had been taken. The sweep and magnetism of his oratory had carried everything before it--even the reporters had forgotten their duty, and their pencils had fallen idle. So it happened that the speech as a whole was lost. Mr. Lincoln himself could never recall what he had said; but the hundreds who heard him never forgot the scene or the lifting inspiration of his words.

Three weeks later the first national convention of the Republican party was held. John C. Fremont was nominated for President, and Lincoln received over a hundred votes for Vice-President, but fortunately, as it proved, was not selected, the honor falling to William L. Dayton of New Jersey. The Democratic candidate for President that year was James Buchanan, "a Northern man with Southern principles," very strongly in favor of slavery. Lincoln took an active part in the campaign against him, making more than fifty speeches in Illinois and the adjoining States. The Democrats triumphed, and Buchanan was elected President; but Lincoln was not discouraged, for the new Republican party had shown unexpected strength throughout the North. Indeed, Lincoln was seldom discouraged. He had an abiding faith that the people would in the long run vote wisely; and the cheerful hope he was able to inspire in his followers was always a strong point in his leadership.

In 1858, two years after this, another election took place in Illinois, on which the choice of a United States senator depended. This time it was the term of Stephen A. Douglas that was drawing to a close. He greatly desired reelection. There was but one man in the State who could hope to rival him, and with a single voice the Republicans of Illinois called upon Lincoln to oppose him. Douglas was indeed an opponent not to be despised. His friends and followers called him the "Little Giant." He was plausible, popular, quick-witted, had winning manners, was most skilful in the use of words, both to convince his hearers and, at times, to hide his real meaning. He and Lincoln were old antagonists. They had first met in the far-away Vandalia days of the Illinois legislature. In Springfield, Douglas had been the leader of the young Democrats, while Lincoln had been leader of the younger Whigs. Their rivalry had not always been confined to politics, for gossip asserted that Douglas had been one of Miss Todd's more favored suitors. Douglas in those days had no great opinion of the tall young lawyer; while Lincoln is said to have described Douglas as "the least man I ever saw"--although that referred to his rival's small stature and boyish figure, not to his mental qualities. Douglas was not only ambitious to be President: he had staked everything on the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and his statement that this question of slavery was one that every State and Territory must settle for itself, but with which the Federal Government had nothing to do. Unfortunately, his own party no longer agreed with him. Since Buchanan had become President the Democrats had advanced their ground. They now claimed that while a State might properly say whether or not it would tolerate slavery, slavery ought to be lawful in all the Territories, no matter whether their people liked it or not.

A famous law case, called the Dred Scott case, lately decided by the Supreme Court of the United States, went far toward making this really the law of the land. In its decision the court positively stated that neither Congress nor a territorial legislature had power to keep slavery out of any United States Territory. This decision placed Senator Douglas in a most curious position. It justified him in repealing the Missouri Compromise, but at the same time it absolutely denied his statement that the people of a Territory had a right to settle the slavery question to suit themselves. Being a clever juggler with words, he explained away the difference by saying that a master might have a perfect right to his slave in a Territory, and yet that right could do him no good unless it were protected by laws in force where his slave happened to be. Such laws depended entirely on the will of the people living in the Territory, and so, after all, they had the deciding voice. This reasoning brought upon him the displeasure of President Buchanan and all the Democrats who believed as he did, and Douglas found himself forced either to deny what he had already told the voters of Illinois, or to begin a quarrel with the President. He chose the latter, well knowing that to lose his reelection to the Senate at this time would end his political career. His fame as well as his quarrel with the President served to draw immense crowds to his meetings when he returned to Illinois and began speech-making, and his followers so inspired these meetings with their enthusiasm that for a time it seemed as though all real discussion would be swallowed up in noise and shouting.

Mr. Lincoln, acting on the advice of his leading friends, sent Douglas a challenge to joint debate. Douglas accepted, though not very willingly; and it was agreed that they should address the same meetings at seven towns in the State, on dates extending through August, September, and October. The terms were that one should speak an hour in opening, the other an hour and a half in reply, and the first again have half an hour to close. Douglas was to open the meeting at one place, Lincoln at the next.

It was indeed a memorable contest. Douglas, the most skilled and plausible speaker in the Democratic party, was battling for his political life. He used every art, every resource, at his command. Opposed to him was a veritable giant in stature--a man whose qualities of mind and of body were as different from those of the "Little Giant" -as could well be imagined. Lincoln was direct, forceful, logical, and filled with a purpose as lofty as his sense of right and justice was strong. He cared much for the senatorship, but he cared far more to right the wrong of slavery, and to warn people of the peril that menaced the land. Already in June he had made a speech that greatly impressed his hearers. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," he told them. "I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved, I do not expect the house to fall--but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other"; and he went on to say that there was grave danger it might become all slave. He showed how, little by little, slavery had been gaining ground, until all it lacked now was another Supreme Court decision to make it alike lawful in all the States, North as well as South. The warning came home to the people of the North with startling force, and thereafter all eyes "were fixed upon the senatorial campaign in Illinois.

The battle continued for nearly three months. Besides the seven great joint debates, each man spoke daily, sometimes two or three times a day, at meetings of his own. Once before their audiences, Douglas's dignity as a senator afforded him no advantage, Lincoln's popularity gave him little help. Face to face with the followers of each, gathered in immense numbers and alert with jealous watchfulness, there was no escaping the rigid test of skill in argument and truth in principle. The processions and banners, the music and fireworks, of both parties were stilled and forgotten while the people listened to the three hours' battle of mind against mind.

Northern Illinois had been peopled largely from the free States, and southern Illinois from the slave States; thus the feeling about slavery in the two parts was very different. To take advantage of this, Douglas, in the very first debate, which took place at Ottawa, in northern Illinois, asked Lincoln seven questions, hoping to make him answer in a way that would be unpopular farther south. In the second debate Lincoln replied to these very frankly, and in his turn asked Douglas four questions, the second of which was whether, in Douglas's opinion, the people of any Territory could, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, bar out slavery before that Territory became a State. Mr. Lincoln had long and carefully studied the meaning and effect of this question. If Douglas said, "No," he would please Buchanan and the administration Democrats, but at the cost of denying his own words. If he said, "Yes," he would make enemies of every Democrat in the South. Lincoln's friends all advised against asking the question. They felt sure that Douglas would answer, "Yes," and that this would win him his election. "If you ask it, you can never be senator," they told Lincoln. "Gentlemen," he replied, "I am killing larger game. If Douglas answers he can never be President, and the battle of 1860 is worth a hundred of this."

Both prophecies were fulfilled. Douglas answered as was expected; and though, in actual numbers, the Republicans of Illinois cast more votes than the Democrats, a legislature was chosen that rejected him to the Senate. Two years later, Lincoln, who in 1858 had not the remotest dream of such a thing, found himself the successful candidate of the Republican party for President of the United States.

To see how little Lincoln expected such an outcome it is only necessary to glance at the letters he wrote to friends at the end of his campaign against Douglas. Referring to the election to be held two years later, he said, "In that day I shall fight in the ranks, but I shall be in no one's way for any of the places." To another correspondent he expressed himself even more frankly: "Of course I wished, but I did not much expect, a better result. . . . I am glad I made the late race. It gave me a hearing on the great and durable question of the age, which I could have had in no other way; and though I now sink out of view and shall be forgotten, I believe I have made some marks which will tell for the cause of civil liberty long after I am gone."

But he was not to "sink out of view and be forgotten." Douglas himself contributed not a little toward keeping his name before the public; for shortly after their contest was ended the reelected senator started on a trip through the South to set himself right again with the Southern voters, and in every speech that he made he referred to Lincoln as the champion of "abolitionism." In this way the people were not allowed to forget the stand Lincoln had taken, and during the year 1859 they came to look upon him as the one man who could be relied on at all times to answer Douglas and Douglas's arguments.

In the autumn of that year Lincoln was asked to speak in Ohio, where Douglas was again referring to him by name. In December he was invited to address meetings in various towns in Kansas, and early in 1860 he made a speech in New York that raised him suddenly and unquestionably to the position of a national leader.

It was delivered in the hall of Cooper Institute, on the evening of February 27, 1860, before an audience of men and women remarkable for their culture, wealth and influence.

Mr. Lincoln's name and words had filled so large a space in the Eastern newspapers of late, that his listeners were very eager to see. and hear this rising Western politician. The West, even at that late day, was very imperfectly understood by the East. It was looked upon as a land of bowie-knives and pistols, of steamboat explosions, of mobs, of wild speculation and wilder adventure. What, then, would be the type, the character, the language of this speaker? How would he impress the great editor Horace Greeley, who sat among the invited guests; David Dudley Field, the great lawyer, who escorted him to the platform; William Cullen Bryant, the great poet, who presided over the meeting?

The audience quickly forgot these questioning doubts. They had but time to note Mr. Lincoln's unusual height, his rugged, strongly marked features, the clear ring of his high-pitched voice, the commanding earnestness of his manner. Then they became completely absorbed in what he was saying. He began quietly, soberly, almost as if he were arguing a case before a court. In his entire address he uttered neither an anecdote nor a jest. If any of his hearers came expecting the style or manner of the Western stump-speaker, they met novelty of an unlooked-for kind; for such was the apt choice of words, the simple strength of his reasoning, the fairness of every point he made, the force of every conclusion he drew, that his listeners followed him, spellbound. He spoke on the subject that he had so thoroughly mastered and that was now uppermost in men's minds--the right or wrong of slavery. He laid bare the complaints and demands of the Southern leaders, pointed out the injustice of their threat to break up the Union if their claims were not granted, stated forcibly the stand taken by the Republican party, and brought his speech to a close with the short and telling appeal:

"Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."

The attention with which it was followed, the applause that greeted its telling points, and the enthusiasm of the Republican journals next morning showed that Lincoln's Cooper Institute speech had taken New York by storm. It was printed in full in four of the leading daily papers of the city, and immediately reprinted in pamphlet form. From New York Mr. Lincoln made a tour of speech-making through several of the New England States, where he was given a hearty welcome, and listened to with an eagerness that showed a marked result at the spring elections. The interest of the working-men who heard these addresses was equaled, perhaps excelled, by the pleased surprise of college professors and men of letters when they found that the style and method of this self-taught popular Western orator would stand the test of their most searching professional criticism.

One other audience he had during this trip, if we may trust report, which, while neither as learned as the college professors, nor perhaps as critical as the factory-men, was quite as hard to please, and the winning of whose approval shows another side of this great and many-sided man. A teacher in a Sunday-school in the Five Points district of New York, at that time one of the worst parts of the city, has told how, one morning, a tall, thin, unusual-looking man entered and sat quietly listening to the exercises. His face showed such genuine interest that he was asked if he would like to speak to the children. Accepting the invitation with evident pleasure, he stepped forward and began a simple address that quickly charmed the roomful of youngsters into silence. His language was singularly beautiful, his voice musical with deep feeling. The faces of his little listeners drooped into sad earnestness at his words of warning, and brightened again when he spoke of cheerful promises. "Go on! Oh, do go on!" they begged when at last he tried to stop. As he left the room somebody asked his name. "Abraham Lincoln, from Illinois," was the courteous reply.

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