Builders of our Country Vol. II - G. Southworth

Abraham Lincoln Before 1861


On the roughly built bed over in the corner two little children lie asleep. Before the open fireplace the mother and father talk together in low tones.

It is winter, and outside a storm is raging. From time to time the wind beats with added fury against the lonely Kentucky log cabin. As its icy breath comes through the cracks between the logs, the mother shivers; and crossing to the bed she tucks the patchwork quilt closer about her children and spreads an extra deerskin over them.

A smaller skin, which is the only cover for the window, is flapping, letting in the cold. This then must be fastened better; and while she is about it, the mother looks to see if the doorway is covered as tightly as it can be. Sure that all is now secure she comes back to the fire and sits down on one of the wooden blocks that serve as chairs.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth


To a stranger this might seem a poor little place, with only the hard earth for a floor and only one room to hold the bed, the board table, the wooden bench, the shelf for dishes, and even the old Dutch oven. But to Thomas and Nancy Lincoln it is house and they are happy in it. Suppose it is cold on a winter's night—summer will soon come again. bringing warmth, sunshine, and a free out-of-door life. Suppose their bread is made from corn meal, and potatoes are about the only vegetable they have—there is always plenty of venison and other game, or fish, to be boiled in the great iron pot, or broiled over the hot ashes.

Things might be much worse. The Lincolns' life is the life of those about them, and they are content in their little log cabin, the birthplace of their boy Abraham.


Abraham was four years old on the 12th of February, 1813. Within a few months after that date, his father sold the farm where the boy was born and moved to another about fifteen miles away. This second home was a log cabin much like the old one.

Naturally the neighbors were interested to learn something about the new family. They found Thomas Lincoln a cheerful, happy-go-lucky man. He was a carpenter by trade, a farmer by circumstance, and a do-nothing by choice.

Nancy Lincoln was a handsome young woman with far more energy than her husband. She was considered very well educated because she could read and write, things which few of her neighbors could do. She was a good housekeeper. She could spin and weave, could use a hoe or an ax as well as Thomas, and was as good a shot. Best of all she was a devoted wife and mother.

Then there was their daughter Sarah and the boy Abraham. Abraham was an awkward, homely child. He wore a rough homespun shirt, deerskin trousers and leggings, homemade shoes, and a coonskin cap.

There were no regular schools or churches near the Lincolns' new home. All the schooling these out-of-the-way settlers had was the few weeks' instruction they bargained for when a wandering teacher came along.

Soon after the Lincolns moved to their second farm such a teacher came to their neighborhood. One settler offered to give him board, another to lodge him, a third to mend and wash his clothes, while a fourth gave the use of an old log cabin in which to hold his school.

His scholars included, besides the two little Lincolns, some boys and girls almost grown up, many of whom did not even know their letters.

Traveling schoolmaster


As it was with schooling, so it was with preaching. Except for the occasional visits of traveling preachers, the settlers heard no sermons. One of the traveling preachers was David Elkin. He was a good friend to the Lincolns, and Abraham liked nothing better than to hear him speak to the people. How much the child understood it is hard to say.

The Lincolns lived on their second Kentucky farm until the fall of 1516. Then the spirit of unrest tempted Thomas Lincoln to move again. This time he took his family to the timber lands of Indiana. The journey ended in a piece of lonely forest.

At once the father and son fell to with their axes, chopping trees, cutting poles and boughs. With these they built a "half-face" camp fourteen feet square. A "half-face" camp is practically a shed with three walls, the fourth side being open and entirely unprotected. In front of this open side the Lincolns kept a fire burning to shut out the cold. Here they spent their first winter—in fact, their first year in Indiana.

By another fall they had cleared a patch of ground, had planted it with corn, and had built a new log cabin. A happy year in the new home went quickly by, and then a great sorrow came. A sickness had broken out in the neighborhood, and Nancy Lincoln took it and died. When her husband had built her a board coffin, her family and neighbors carried her a little distance from her home and buried her. All was silence and grief. No minister was there to read a service over the grave.

The two children followed their father back to the desolate house, where the little girl made shift to do her mother's work.

Mrs. Lincoln had taught her boy to read the Bible and to believe in God. He knew what all this had meant to his mother, and it was a dreadful thing to him that she had been buried without prayer or service. If only some preacher had been there! If only some preacher would come even now!

There was his mother's old friend, David Elkin. Would he come if he knew about it all? It was worth trying. So Abraham wrote a letter to David Elkin in far-away Kentucky and begged him to visit Indiana and hold a service for Nancy Lincoln.

A long hard journey lay between David Elkin's home and the Lincoln farm. But the good preacher made it, and one spring day several months after Mrs. Lincoln's death he rode up to the cabin door. The funeral service at last was held over his mother's grave, and Abraham Lincoln was content.

His mother's influence lasted all his life. And when he had come to be a man he still said, "all that I am or hope to be I owe to my angel mother."

Before long the influence of another good woman came into Abraham's life. Late in 1819 Thomas Lincoln married a Kentucky widow and brought her to Indiana. With her very arrival the dreariness of the last lonely months disappeared, and at once Abraham and his stepmother were good friends. She was a sensible, happy, thrifty Woman; and the boy loved and respected her.

Sarah Bush Lincoln


Years later she said of him. "Abe never gave me a cross word or look and never refused in fact or appearance to do anything I requested of him. Abe was the best boy I ever saw."

Had it not been for her, Abraham would have been far less happy. He loved to study and read and went to school whenever a teacher came along to make this possible. His father, uneducated himself, did not approve of the boy's reading so much, or going to school when he might be working. But the stepmother insisted on letting Abraham have his way, and even encouraged him in his study.

Most of his reading was done at night when the day's work was finished. Then the boy would curl up near the fireplace and read by the light of the flames. "Robinson Crusoe," "Pilgrim's Progress," "AEsop's Fables," a history of the United States. and the Bible, he read over and over. These were his favorites.

Once he borrowed Weems's "Life of Washington" and began to read it on his way home. It fascinated him, and all that evening and far into the night he read. When finally he closed the book, he tucked it into a crevice between the logs where he could reach it and read again as soon as daylight carne.

During the night there was a heavy storm; and when Abraham reached for his treasure in the morning, his hand found a very wet and badly soaked book. With a heavy heart he carried it back to its owner. "If you work three days for me, you will pay me for the book, and you may keep it," the man declared. So for three days Abraham worked, and then went off with his book a proud and happy boy. He had paid for it with his labor, and it was his own—the first that he had bought.

From the time Abraham was ten years old he was kept busy. When not needed at home, he was hired out to the neighbors at twenty-five cents a day, which was paid to his father. Young Lincoln was very obliging, very capable, and, as he grew older, very powerful. He could and would do any sort of work there was to be done. It was not that he really liked to work. He didn't. But he accepted it as part of life and did his duty the best he knew how.

And so with plenty of hard work, many jolly times with his comrades, a little schooling, and all the reading and studying he could find time for, the years passed by, and the boy grew up and became a man.


One summer Thomas Lincoln hired his son out as ferryman to take passengers across the Ohio. It was before the days of railroads, when the farmers of the new western states shipped all their salable goods by water to New Orleans, the great business city of the West. The Ohio and Mississippi rivers were the highways to this market and were filled with craft of every sort.

Abraham saw the busy river life and wanted to try a hand at it himself, and before long his wish was gratified. A Mr. Gentry sent his son and the nineteen-year-old Abraham down the river on a flatboat to New Orleans with a load of provisions. Abraham's pay was eight dollars a month and his passage home on a steamer. What a trip it must have been for a forest-bred boy! It was his first glimpse of the outside world, and the wonders he saw he never forgot.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth


In February, 1830, Abraham Lincoln became of age. Now he was free to use his time as he liked and to keep the money he earned. But that very month saw a great stir in the Lincoln household. Once more the family were packing up, saying good-by to friends and neighbors, and making ready for another move farther west. They had resolved to leave Indiana, through fear of the dread disease that had killed Nancy Lincoln. And because of the glowing reports sent from Illinois, they had chosen that state for their future home.

By the beginning of March the start was made. All their possessions were piled into large wagons, which were drawn by oxen. Two weeks they traveled before they reached the place where they were to build their new cabin. In a short time the cabin was done. And then such a chopping as went on before the men had made rails enough to fence in ten acres of ground! They must have worked fast indeed, because they not only split the rails but put up the fence, broke the ground, and raised a crop of corn on it that same year.

At this time Lincoln had no respectable clothes. But within a few miles of his father's cabin there lived a woman who could weave a material called jeans. Lincoln went to her and made a bargain to split four hundred rails for each yard of brown jeans necessary to make him a pair of trousers.

Now that he had helped his father move and settle, Lincoln decided to start out for himself. When he left home, he left empty-handed. He had nothing at all to take with him. Even his looks were not prepossessing. He was six feet four inches tall, his hands and feet were large, his legs and arms long and loose-jointed. But his muscles were like iron, his endurance remarkable, and his courage beyond question.

In the spring of 1831 Lincoln made a second trip to New Orleans. This time he went on a flatboat belonging to a Mr. Offutt. For a month he stayed in New Orleans seeing life as he had never seen it before.

One phase of life in the great city sickened Lincoln. This was the horrors of slave trade. For the first time he now saw men and women sold like animals in a public market. He saw them in chains, saw them whipped; and the cruelty of it all raised in him a hatred of slavery, which lasted all his life.

When the New Orleans trip was over, Lincoln went to New Salem, Illinois, to be a cleric in Mr. Offutt's store. New Salem was a little town of about fifteen houses and a hundred people. Its women came to the store for supplies; its men came to lounge, tell stories, and talk politics. With all of them Lincoln was soon in favor; for was he not the kindest, the most amusing, the most honest man that had ever come to New Salem?

He walked several miles one evening after the store was closed to return six cents to a woman who had over-paid him. Once a customer came in for half a pound of tea just at closing time. In the dim light Lincoln weighed out the tea. Next morning he found that he had taken a wrong weight and so had given this customer too little by half. So shutting up shop he carried another quarter of a pound to the belated buyer. For such things New Salem named him "Honest Abe."

Although New Salem was a promising town, keeping store there could hardly take all one's time. Lincoln could now begin to study again. He was becoming interested in politics and resolved to study grammar so that the speeches he meant to make might be correct.

But where could he get a text-book? The village schoolmaster knew of one which belonged to a man living six miles away. Before night Lincoln had found time to walk the twelve miles to bring back the book. For weeks he studied it, learning the rules, reciting them to his fellow-clerk, and practicing them in his talk.

In the spring of 1832 there was an Indian uprising, known as the Black Hawk War. The frontier settlers were in terror, and the Governor called for volunteers to repel the savages. Lincoln was chosen captain of the company from his neighborhood, and marched off to war. In about three months the war was over, and Lincoln was back in New Salem without having fought in a single battle.

By this time Mr. Offutt's store had proved a failure and was closed. Lincoln now used his time for political work; for before he went away he had become a candidate for the General Assembly of Illinois.

The election was at hand. All the country round was Democratic, while Lincoln was a stanch Henry Clay man. But just because it was Lincoln, the Democrats of New Salem worked for him as hard as if he had belonged to their own party. However, when the ballots from Springfield and other towns of the district were counted, it was found that he had been defeated.

The election over, Lincoln looked about for work. Everything considered, keeping store suited him best. As none of the three grocers of New Salem needed a clerk, he and a young man named Berry decided to buy one of the stores. Before they got through with it, they had bought all three—or at least they had taken the stock of all three and had promised to pay for it when they could.

The partnership was not a fortunate one. Lincoln wanted so to read and study that he left the management of the store largely to Berry and Berry was unreliable and worthless. Business was slack, and Lincoln gladly accepted the position of postmaster when it was offered him the next spring.

The duties of postmaster at New Salem were not very heavy. The mail usually consisted of a dozen or fifteen letters and a few newspapers. The letters Lincoln carried about in his hat until he saw the people to whom they were addressed. The newspapers he opened and read through before he handed them over.

One day soon after Lincoln and Berry opened their store a man drove up. He had in his wagon a barrel, which he asked Lincoln to buy. On dumping it to see what it held, Lincoln discovered a book which proved to be a standard authority on law. He had often wished that he could study law; so he wasted no time in getting to work on this book, which good fortune had tossed in his way.

People were now beginning to flock into Illinois. This meant that much land must be surveyed. The county surveyor needed all the help he could get; and he offered to make Lincoln a deputy surveyor if he would learn to do the necessary work. In six weeks Lincoln reported that he was ready to begin.

Although his surveying brought him in more money than any other work he had tried, he did not get ahead very fast. His father was still poor, and his family needed help. Then there was the store with its heavy debt. Under Berry's management, conditions here grew worse and worse, until the partners were so discouraged that it was given up. A few months later Berry died, leaving on Lincoln's shoulders the responsibility of paying off their debt of eleven hundred dollars. "That debt," said Lincoln, "was the greatest obstacle I ever met in my life. There was however but one way. I went to the creditors and told them that if they would let me alone, I would give them all I could earn over my living as fast as I could earn it." Fifteen years later he was still sending money to Illinois to apply on this debt. But "Honest Abe" at last paid every cent.


The summer of 1834 was a busy one for Lincoln. His surveying took him much about the country. Everywhere he met new acquaintances and won many friends. And the kindness shown him encouraged him to try once more for a place in the Legislature. This time he won. Hardly was the campaign over when he began to study law again. He was urged to do this by John T. Stuart, and many a trip did Lincoln make over the twenty miles between New Salem and Springfield to borrow law books from his friend. He threw himself into the work heart and soul. Before long he was able to write deeds and other legal papers for his neighbors.

That winter and the next he spent in the Legislature, coming back to New Salem for the summer between—the summer of 1835—to go on with his law study and surveying.

In September, 1836, he was admitted to the bar. Another winter was given to the Legislature. And then in the spring of 1837 Lincoln. moved to Springfield to accept a partnership with John T. Stuart.

He rode into town "on a borrowed horse, with no earthly property save a pair of saddlebags containing a few clothes." Being asked to room with a friend, he climbed the stairs, put his saddlebags on the floor, and announced, "Well, I'm moved."

Now came the years of building up a practice, riding the circuit and making a legal reputation.

Building in Springfield


What does riding the circuit mean? In Lincoln's time it was the custom to divide the counties into groups, assigning a judge to each group. Twice a year this judge visited the county seat of each county, to hear whatever cases people cared to bring before him. There were no railroads, so the judge and the lawyers who followed him rode on horseback from place to place. This was called "riding the circuit." Although Lincoln worked hard and had many clients during his first years in Springfield, he was not destined to become rich through the law. This was probably because he was too kind-hearted when it came to charging for his work. If his client was rather poor, he charged very little; if the client was very poor, he charged nothing. And all the while he was sending money home and slowly paying off his big debt.

In a social way Lincoln went about among the best people of Springfield. When he had been a while in the town a certain Miss Mary Todd came there to live with her married sister. She and Lincoln met. fell in love, and in 1842 were married.

For a while they lived at the Globe Tavern, paying four dollars a week for both. Then Lincoln bought a modest frame house, and he and his wife set up housekeeping.

Lincoln's House in Springfield



For four terms Abraham Lincoln served in the Illinois Legislature. For one term he was a member of the National Congress. The term ended in the spring of 1849. He came home with the intention of dropping out of politics, and devoting his time to his law practice and his children. But these were the days of the great disputes over the spread of slavery. And how could a man be indifferent who had seen only the awful side of slavery, first in the New Orleans slave market and then in the slave market at Washington?

For a time it seemed that Henry Clay's compromises had settled the question of slavery in America's western lands. According to the Missouri compromise, Missouri had come into the Union as a slave state on the condition that all the states which should be formed from the land north and west of Missouri's southern boundary should be free forever.

Clay's second compromise admitted California as a free state, leaving the people on the rest of the land obtained from Mexico to decide for themselves whether their states should be free or slave.

This was all well and good and apparently gratified North and South alike. However, four short years after Clay's second compromise was adopted, both sides were all excitement again.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth

In 1854 Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois brought up in Congress a bill to make two territories of the lands beyond Missouri and the Missouri River. The northern of these territories was to be called Nebraska; the southern one, Kansas. And Mr. Douglas wanted the people of Kansas and Nebraska to be allowed to choose for themselves whether or not they should have slaves.

The North protested loudly against Douglas's bill. But in spite of the protest, Congress passed it, thus repealing the Missouri compromise.

And now would the new territories be for or against slavery? The South was anxious that they should adopt. The slave system. The North was determined that they should be free.

"So the matter is to be decried by the settlers. Then the settlers shall be from our side," said both North and South. And a wild race for possession began. Slave holders from Missouri rushed over into Kansas, staked out farms, and commenced to build a town. About forty miles to the southwest of this town a band of settlers from the North built another town, which they called Lawrence. All were well armed, and both sides made use of their weapons. They burned each other's houses, shot each other without warning, and fought each other so furiously that the new territory was soon called "Bleeding Kansas." In the end the antislavery party won the victory; and when Kansas finally came into the Union, she came in as a free state.

One of the northern men who moved to Kansas was John Brown. When a boy John Brown had seen a young slave cruelly beaten, and from that time he had vowed to fight slavery. In Kansas he certainly had a good chance to fulfill his vow. At least he found ample opportunity to fight the upholders of slavery, and several of them were killed in attacks which he led.

Not content with fighting slavery in Kansas, John Brown attempted to carry his raids into Virginia. At the head of a band of not more than twenty men he went to Harper's Ferry, seized the Government arsenal, and made an effort to free the slaves of the neighborhood.

An alarm was given, soldiers turned out, several of Brown's men were killed. And after a hard fight, John Brown himself and six of his men were captured, and put into prison. He was tried, found guilty of treason, and finally hanged. He had paid the price of being unwisely zealous in a great cause.

While the fighting was going on in Kansas, another matter came up which increased the bad feeling between North and South. Some years before, a certain slave holder of Missouri had gone to the free state of Illinois and had taken with him one of his slaves, named Dred Scott. After several years he took Dred Scott back to Missouri and there sold him. Scott said that his master had no right to do this, and claimed that since he had lived for a period of years on free soil he was now a free man and no longer a slave.

His case was carried to the United States Supreme Court; and in 1857 that Court decided that a negro who was descended from slaves was not an American citizen, and therefore could not sue for justice in the United States courts. And the court declared, moreover, that a slave-holder could lawfully take his slaves wherever he wished, just as he could take his horses and his cattle.

The North was dismayed. If a slaveholder could take his slaves where he liked, what was to prevent a Southerner from moving with his negroes to Massachusetts or New York? What was to prevent slavery from being carried into any or all of the free states? Resentment in the North ran high.

But to return to Abraham Lincoln. With the repeal of the Missouri compromise in 1854 his interest in the slave question became so intense that he once more entered politics. And when in the fall of that year Stephen A. Douglas spoke in Springfield, justifying the repeal, it was Lincoln who was called upon to answer his arguments. This was only the first of many public debates on slavery between Lincoln and the "Little Giant," as Douglas was called.

Abraham Lincoln


In his speeches Lincoln voiced his honest opinion of the great question that was uppermost in all men's minds. He held that in the words "all men are created equal," the Declaration of Independence meant to say that black as well as white men were entitled to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." He said that he firmly believed that slavery should not be allowed in new states; and he stoutly asserted that the Government could not go on half slave and half free; that the future would see the whole country united on one policy in regard to the holding of negro slaves.

Most of the debates between Lincoln and Douglas were during the campaign of 1858, when the two men were rival candidates for the office of United States Senator. When the campaign was over, Lincoln was recognized as the abler talker, but Douglas had been elected to the Senate.

Stephen Douglas

Lincoln was disappointed. "I suppose that I feel very much like the overgrown boy who stubbed his toe....He was hurt too bad to laugh, and was too big to cry."

But could Lincoln have looked even a little way into the future, he would have understood that he had no occasion to be disheartened over this defeat.

"Who is this man that is replying to Douglas in your state? Do you realize that no greater speeches have been made on public questions in the history of our country?" wrote a prominent Eastern statesman. And this statesman's letter voiced the reputation which Lincoln's sound logic, his insight into the subject, and his simple direct style were making for him all over the country.

The year 1860 was the time for the election of a new National President. Though this office is the highest honor the country can give, Lincoln's enthusiastic friends felt that he was fitted to receive it. But when the idea was talked over with Lincoln himself, and he was urged to write out a sketch of his life, he replied with characteristic modesty: "I admit that I am ambitious and would like to be President. I am not insensible to the compliinent you pay me and the interest you manifest in the matter; but there is no such good luck in store for me as the Presidency of these United States. Besides, there is nothing in my early history that would interest you or anybody else; and, as Judge Davis says, 'It won't pay.' Good night." And he hurried away.

However, in spite of his demur, Lincoln was nominated the Republican candidate for the Presidency in the spring of 1860.

Election day that year came on the 6th of November. By daylight Springfield was astir. About eight o'clock Mr. Lincoln went as usual to his room in the State House and calmly began to look over his mail. But if Mr. Lincoln was calm, his friends were not. They rushed in and out of his room until some one suggested that it might be well for him to shut them out and rest. No, indeed. Never in his life had he closed his door on his friends, and he did not intend to begin it now. So all day they came and went, until it was time for Lincoln to go home to supper.

A little after seven he was back, and now came the excitement of waiting for news from the different parts of the country. It was nearly morning before the reports were all received, and Lincoln announced that he "Guessed he'd go home now." He had been elected President of the United States.