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- The Life of Abraham Lincoln - 6/46 -
Herndons, Radford, Greene, Rutledge, Berry, and the Trents. With one exception, which will be duly narrated, his creditors told him to pay when he was able. He promised to put all of his earnings, in excess of modest living expenses, into the payment of these obligations. It was the burden of many years and he always called it "the national debt." But he kept his word, paying both principal and the high rate of interest until 1848, or after fifteen years, when a member of congress, he paid the last cent. He was still "honest Abe." This narrative ranks the backwoodsman with Sir Walter Scott and Mark Twain, though no dinners were tendered to him and no glowing eulogies were published from ocean to ocean.
His only further experience in navigation was the piloting of a Cincinnati steamboat, the _Talisman_, up the Sangamon River (during the high water in spring time) to show that that stream was navigable. Nothing came of it however, and Springfield was never made "the head of navigation."
It was in the midst of the mercantile experiences above narrated that the Black Hawk war broke out. Black Hawk was chief of the Sac Indians, who, with some neighboring tribes, felt themselves wronged by the whites. Some of them accordingly put on the paint, raised the whoop, and entered the warpath in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. The governor called for soldiers, and Lincoln volunteered with the rest.
The election of captain of the company was according to an original method. The two candidates were placed a short distance apart and the men were invited to line up with one or the other according to their preference. When this had been done it was seen that Lincoln had about three quarters of the men. This testimony to his popularity was gratifying. After he became president of the United States he declared that no success that ever came to him gave him so much solid satisfaction.
Lincoln saw almost nothing of the war. His only casualty came after its close. He had been mustered out and his horse was stolen so that he was compelled to walk most of the way home. After the expiration of his term of enlistment he reenlisted as a private. As he saw no fighting the war was to him almost literally a picnic. But in 1848, when he was in congress, the friends of General Cass were trying to make political capital out of his alleged military services. This brought from Lincoln a speech which showed that he had not lost the power of satire which he possessed while a lad in Indiana.
"Did you know, Mr. Speaker, I am a military hero? In the days of the Black Hawk war I fought, bled, and--came away. I was not at Stillman's defeat, but I was about as near it as General Cass was to Hull's surrender; and, like him, I saw the place very soon afterwards. It is quite certain I did not break my sword, for I had none to break, but I bent my musket pretty bad on one occasion. If General Cass went in advance of me picking whortleberries, I guess I surpassed him in charges on the wild onions. If he saw any live fighting Indians, it was more than I did, but I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes; and although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry. If ever I should conclude to doff whatever our Democratic friends may suppose there is of black-cockade Federalism about me, and thereupon they shall take me up as their candidate for the Presidency, I protest that they shall not make fun of me, as they have of General Cass, by attempting to write me into a military hero."
In 1833 Lincoln was appointed postmaster at New Salem. To him the chief advantage of this position was the fact that it gave him the means of reading the papers. The principal one of these was the Louisville _Journal_, an exceedingly able paper, for it was in charge of George D. Prentice, one of the ablest editors this country has ever produced. The duties of the post-office were few because the mail was light. The occasional letters which came were usually carried around by the postmaster in his hat. When one asked for his mail, he would gravely remove his hat and search through the package of letters.
This office was discontinued in a short time, but no agent of the government came to close up the accounts. Years afterwards, when Lincoln was in Springfield, the officer suddenly appeared and demanded the balance due to the United States, the amount being seventeen dollars and a few cents. A friend who was by, knowing that Lincoln was short of funds, in order to save him from embarrassment, offered to lend him the needful sum. "Hold on a minute and let's see how we come out," said he. He went to his room and returned with an old rag containing money. This he counted out, being the exact sum to a cent. It was all in small denominations of silver and copper, just as it had been received. In all his emergencies of need he had never touched this small fund which he held in trust. To him it was sacred. He was still "honest Abe."
In the early thirties, when the state of Illinois was being settled with great rapidity, the demand for surveyors was greater than the supply. John Calhoun, surveyor for the government, was in urgent need of a deputy, and Lincoln was named as a man likely to be able to fit himself for the duties on short notice. He was appointed. He borrowed the necessary book and went to work in dead earnest to learn the science. Day and night he studied until his friends, noticing the wearing effect on his health, became alarmed. But by the end of six weeks, an almost incredibly brief period of time, he was ready for work.
It is certain that his outfit was of the simplest description, and there is a tradition that at first, instead of a surveyor's chain he used a long, straight, wild-grape vine. Those who understand the conditions and requirements of surveying in early days say that this is not improbable. A more important fact is that Lincoln's surveys have never been called in question, which is something that can be said of few frontier surveyors. Though he learned the science in so short a time, yet here, as always, he was thorough.
It was said in the earlier part of this chapter that to the holders of Lincoln's notes who consented to await his ability to pay, there was one exception. One man, when his note fell due, seized horse and instruments, and put a temporary stop to his surveying. But a neighbor bought these in and returned them to Lincoln. He never forgot the kindness of this man, James Short by name, and thirty years later appointed him Indian agent.
At this point may be mentioned an occurrence which took place a year or two later. It was his first romance of love, his engagement to a beautiful girl, Ann Rutledge, and his bereavement. Her untimely death nearly unsettled his mind. He was afflicted with melancholy to such a degree that his friends dared not leave him alone. For years afterwards the thought of her would shake his whole frame with emotion, and he would sit with his face buried in his hands while the tears trickled through. A friend once begged him to try to forget his sorrow. "I cannot," he said; "the thought of the rain and snow on her grave fills me with indescribable grief."
Somehow, we know not how, the poem "Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?" was in his mind connected with Ann Rutledge. Possibly it may have been a favorite with her. There was certainly some association, and through his whole life he was fond of it and often repeated it. Nor did he forget her. It was late in life that he said: "I really and truly loved the girl and think often of her now." Then, after a pause, "And I have loved the name of Rutledge to this day."
This bereavement took much from Lincoln. Did it give him nothing? Patience, earnestness, tenderness, sympathy--these are sometimes the gifts which are sent by the messenger Sorrow. We are justified in believing that this sad event was one of the means of ripening the character of this great man, and that to it was due a measure of his usefulness in his mature years.
Lincoln's duties at New Salem, as clerk, storekeeper, and postmaster, had resulted in an intimate acquaintance with the people of that general locality. His duties as surveyor took him into the outlying districts. His social instincts won for him friends wherever he was known, while his sterling character gave him an influence unusual, both in kind and in measure, for a young man of his years. He had always possessed an interest in public, even national, questions, and his fondness for debate and speech-making increased this interest. Moreover he had lived month by month going from one job to another, and had not yet found his permanent calling.
When this combination of facts is recalled, it is a foregone conclusion that he would sooner or later enter politics. This he did at the age of twenty-three, in 1832.
According to the custom of the day he announced in the spring his candidacy. After this was done the Black Hawk war called him off the ground and he did not get back until about ten days before the election, so that he had almost no time to attend to the canvass. One incident of this campaign is preserved which is interesting, partly because it concerns the first known speech Lincoln ever made in his own behalf, and chiefly because it was an exhibition of his character.
He was speaking at a place called Cappsville when two men in the audience got into a scuffle.
Lincoln proceeded in his speech until it became evident that his friend was getting the worst of the scuffle, when he descended from the platform, seized the antagonist and threw him ten or twelve feet away on the ground, and then remounted the platform and took up his speech where he had left off without a break in the logic.
The methods of electioneering are given by Miss Tarbell in the following words:
"Wherever he saw a crowd of men he joined them, and he never failed to adapt himself to their point of view in asking for votes. If the degree of physical strength was the test for a candidate, he was ready to lift a weight, or wrestle with the countryside champion; if the amount of grain a man could cut would recommend him, he seized the cradle and showed the swath he could cut" (I. 109).
The ten days devoted to the canvass were not enough, and he was defeated. The vote against him was chiefly in the outlying region where he was little known. It must have been gratifying to him that in his own precinct, where he was so well known, he received the almost unanimous vote of all parties. Biographers differ as to the precise number of votes in the New Salem precinct, but by Nicolay and Hay it is given as 277 for, and three against. Of this election Lincoln himself (speaking in the third person) said: "This was the only time Abraham was ever defeated on the direct vote of the people."
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