The Life of Abraham Lincoln (Holland)/Chapter III
Thomas Lincoln had raised his little family; and the children of his wife were also grown to woman's and man's estate. There had indeed been three weddings in the family. Sarah Lincoln, the daughter, was married to Aaron Grigsby, a young man living in the vicinity, and two of Mrs. Lincoln's daughters had left the Lincoln cabin for new homes. The sister of Abraham had been married but a year, however, when she died, and thus a new grief was inflicted upon the sensitive heart of her brother. Her marriage occurred in 1822; and as she was born in 1808, she could have been only fourteen years old when she became a wife. It is not remarkable that the child found an early grave.
During the last two years of their residence in Indiana, a general discontent had seized upon the family concerning their location. The region at that day was an unhealthy one, and there could be no progress in agricultural pursuits without a great outlay of labor in clearing away the heavy timber which burdened all the fertile soil. At the same time, reports were rife of the superior qualities of the prairie lands of Illinois. There, by the sides of the water-courses, and in the edges of the timber, were almost illimitable farms that called for nothing but the plough and hoe to make them immediately productive. Dennis Hanks, a relative of the first Mrs. Lincoln, was sent to the new region to reconnoiter, and returned with a glowing account of the new country. It is probable that if Thomas Lincoln had been alone he would have remained at the old home, but there was young life to be taken into the account. The new sons-in-law of Mrs. Lincoln, as well as Abraham, were doubtless averse to repeating the severe experiences of the father, and with fresh life and enterprise desired a new and more inviting field of operations.
Mr. Lincoln sold out his squatter's claim in Indiana, and, on the first of March, 1830, less than a month after Abraham had completed his twenty-first year, he started for the land of promise in company with his family and the sons-in-law and two daughters of his wife. Their journey was difficult and tedious in the extreme. They found the riven swollen by the spring rains, and through such mud as only the rich soil of the West can produce, the ox-teams dragged the wagons, loaded with the entire personal effects of the emigrants. One of these teams was driven by Abraham. Taking a northwesterly course, they struck diagonally across the southern part of Indiana, making toward the central portion of Illinois. After a journey of two hundred miles, which they made in fifteen days, they entered Macon County in that state, and there halted. The elder Lincoln selected a spot on the north side of the Sangamon River, at the junction of the timber land and prairie, about ten miles westerly of Decatur. Here, Abraham assisted his father in building a log cabin, and in getting the family into a condition for comfortable life. The cabin, which still stands, was made of hewed timber, and near it were built a smoke-house and stable. All the tools they had to work with were a common ax, a broad ax, a hand-saw, and a "drawer knife." The doors and floor were made of puncheons and the gable ends of the structure boarded up with plank "rived" by Abraham's hand out of oak timber. The nails used--and they were very few--were all brought from their old home in Indiana. When the cabin and outbuildings were completed, Abraham set to work and helped to split rails enough to fence in a lot of ten acres, and built the fence. After breaking up the piece of inclosed prairie, and seeing it planted with corn, he turned over the new home to his father, and announced his intention to seek or make his own fortune. He did not leave the region immediately, however, but worked for hire among the neighboring farmers, picking up enough to keep himself clothed, and looking for better chances. It is remembered that during this time he broke up fifty acres of prairie with four yoke of oxen, and that he spent most of the winter following in splitting rai1s and chopping wood. No one seems to know who Mr. Lincoln worked for during this first summer, but a little incident in the pastoral labors of Rev. A. Hale of Springfield, Illinois, will perhaps indicate his employer. There seems to be no room for the incident afterwards in his life, and it is undoubtedly associated with his first summer in Illinois. Mr. Hale, in May, 1861, went out about seven miles from his home to visit a sick lady, and found there a Mrs. Brown who had come in as a neighbor. Mr. Lincoln's name having been mentioned, Mrs. Brown said: "Well, I remember Mr. Linken. He worked with my old man thirty-four year ago, and made a crap. We lived on the same farm where we live now, and he worked all the season, and made a crap of corn, and the next winter they hauled the crap all the way to Galena, and sold it for two dollars and a half a bushel. At that time there was no public houses, and travelers were obliged to stay at any house along the road that could take them in. One evening a right smart looking man rode up to the fence, and asked my old man if he could get to stay over night. 'Well,' said Mr. Brown, 'we can feed your crittur, and give you something to eat, but we can't lodge you unless you can sleep on the same bed with the hired man.' The man hesitated, and asked 'Where is he?' 'Well,' said Mr. Brown, 'you can come and see him.' So the man got down from his crittur, and Mr. Brown took him around to where, in the shade of the house, Mr. Lincoln lay his full length on the ground, with an open book before him. 'There,' said Mr. Brown, pointing at him, 'he is.' The stranger looked at him a minute, and said, 'Well, I think he'll do,' and he staid and slept with the President of the United States."
There are some mistakes in this story. Mr. Lincoln worked for Mr. Taylor, who owned the farm, and boarded with Mr. Brown. There is an evident mistake in the date of the incident, for it puts Mr. Lincoln into Illinois three years or more before he removed from Indiana. Of the fact that he worked a summer, or part of a summer, on this farm, there is no doubt; and it is strongly probable that it was the first summer he spent in Illinois.
The expectation of the family to find a more healthy location than the one they had left was sadly disappointed. In the autumn of that year, all were afflicted with fever and ague. This was a new enemy, and they were much discouraged; but no steps for relief or removal could be taken then. They determined, however, to leave the county at the first opportunity. In the meantime, the winter descended, and it proved to be the severest season that had been known in the new state. It is still remembered for the enormous amount of snow that fell. In the following spring, the father left the Sangamon for a better locality in Coles County, where he lived long enough to see his son one of the foremost men of the new state, to receive from him many testimonials of filial affection, and to complete his seventy-third year. He died on the 17th day of January, 1851.
A man who used to work with Abraham occasionally during his first year in Illinois, says that at that time he was the roughest looking person be ever saw. He was tall, angular and ungainly, and wore trousers made of flax and tow, cut tight at the ankle, and out at both knees. He was known to be very poor, but he was a welcome guest in every house in the neighborhood. This informant speaks of splitting rails with Abraham, and reveals some interesting facts concerning wages. Money was a commodity never reckoned upon. Abraham split rails to get clothing, and he made a bargain with Mrs. Nancy Miller to split four hundred rails for every yard of brown jeans, dyed with white walnut bark, that would be necessary to make him a pair of trousers. In these days he used to walk five, six and seven miles to his work.
He left home before his father removed to Coles County, but he did not cut entirely loose from the family until this removal. Then he was ready for any opening to business, and it soon came. During the winter of the deep snow, one Denton Offutt, a trader, who belonged in Lexington, Kentucky, applied to him, John D. Johnston, his stepmother's son, and John Hanks, a relative of his own mother, to take a flat-boat to New Orleans. Abraham had already made the trip, and was regarded as a desirable man for the service. A bargain was made, and the three men agreed to join Offutt at Springfield, the present capital of the state, as soon as the snow should be gone. The snow melted about the first of March, but the accumulation had been so great that the low country was heavily flooded. Finding they could not make the journey on foot, they purchased a large canoe, and proceeded along the Sangamon River in it. They found Offutt at Springfield, but learned that he had failed to buy a boat at Beardstown, as he had expected. As all were disappointed, they finally settled upon an arrangement by which young Lincoln, Hanks and Johnston were to build a boat on Sangamon River, at Sangamon town, about seven miles north-west of Springfield. For this work they were to receive twelve dollars a month each. When the boat was finished, (and every plank of it was sawed by hand with a whip-saw,) it was launched on the Sangamon, and floated to a point below New Salem, in Menard (then Sangamon) County, where a drove of hogs was to be taken on board. At this time, the hogs of the region ran wild, as they do now in portions of the border states. Some of them were savage, and all, after the manner of swine, were difficult to manage. They had, however, been gathered and penned, but not an inch could they be made to move toward the boat. All the ordinary resources were exhausted in the attempts to get them on board. There was but one alternative, and this Abraham adopted. He actually carried them on board, one by one. His long arms and great strength enabled him to grasp them as in a vise, and to transfer them rapidly from the shore to the boat. They then took the boat to New Orleans substantially on the original contract, though Hanks, finding that he would be obliged to be absent from his family longer than he expected, left the boat at St. Louis, and came back.
The voyage was successfully accomplished, and so great was the satisfaction of Lincoln's employer, that he immediately proposed to him a different and higher grade of employment. Offutt had a store at New Salem, and a mill. These he proposed to place in Abraham's care. His previous clerks, during his long absences, had not only cheated him, but, by their insolence and dissipated habits, had driven away his customers. Offutt met Lincoln on the previous winter an entire stranger, but, during a brief intercourse, he had become impressed with his capacity and honesty. So Abraham became a clerk in a pioneer "store." He had not many personal graces to exhibit there, but he at once became a center of attraction. Offutt's old customers came back, new ones were acquired, and all the business of the store was well performed.
It was while performing the duties of this new position that several incidents occurred which illustrated the young man's characteristics. He could not rest for an instant under the consciousness that he had, even unwittingly, defrauded anybody. On one occasion he sold a woman a little bill of goods amounting in value, by the reckoning, to two dollars and six and a quarter cents. He received the money, and the woman went away. On adding the items of the bill again, to make himself sure of correctness, he found that he had taken six and a quarter cents too much. It was night, and closing and locking the store, he started out on foot, a distance of two or three miles, for the house of his defrauded customer, and delivering over to her the sum whose possession had so much troubled him, went home satisfied. On another occasion, just as he was closing the store for the night, a woman entered, and asked for half a pound of tea. The tea was weighed out and paid for, and the store was left for the night. The next morning, Abraham entered to begin the duties of the day, when he discovered a four-ounce weight on the scales. He saw at once that he had made a mistake, and, shutting the store, he took a long walk before breakfast to deliver the remainder of the tea. These are very humble incidents, but they illustrate the man's perfect conscientiousness--his sensitive honesty--better perhaps than they would if they were of greater moment.
Another incident occurred in this store which illustrates other traits of his character. While showing goods to two or three women, a bully came up and began to talk in an offensive manner, using much profanity, and evidently wishing to provoke a quarrel. Lincoln leaned over the counter, and begged him, as ladies were present, not to indulge in such talk. The bully retorted that the opportunity had come for which he had long sought, and he would like to see the man who could hinder him from saying anything he might choose to say. Lincoln, still cool, told him that if he would wait until the ladies retired, he would hear what he had to say, and give him any satisfaction he desired. As soon as the women were gone, the man became furious. Lincoln heard his boasts and his abuse for a time, and finding that he was not to be put off without a fight, said--"Well, if you must be whipped, I suppose I may as well whip you as any other man." This was just what the bully had been seeking, he said, so out of doors they went, and Lincoln made short work with him. He threw him upon the ground, held him there as if he had been a child, and gathering some "smart-weed" which grew upon the spot, rubbed it into his face and eyes, until the fellow bellowed with pain. Lincoln did all this without a particle of anger, and when the job was finished, went immediately for water, washed his victim's face, and did everything he could to alleviate his distress. The upshot of the matter was that the man became his fast and life-long friend, and was a better man from that day. It was impossible then, and it always remained impossible, for Lincoln to cherish resentment or revenge.
There lived at this time, in and around New Salem, a band of rollicking fellows or, more properly, roystering rowdies, known as "The Clary's Grove Boys." The special tie that united them was physical courage and prowess. These fellows, although they embraced in their number many men who have since become respectable and influential, were wild and rough beyond toleration in any community not made up like that which produced them. They pretended to be "regulators," and were the terror of all who did not acknowledge their rule; and their mode of securing allegiance was by flogging every man who failed to acknowledge it. They took it upon themselves to try the mettle of every new comer, and to learn the sort of stuff he was made of. Some one of their number was appointed to fight, wrestle, or run a foot-race, with each incoming stranger. Of course, Abraham Lincoln was obliged to pass the ordeal.
Perceiving that be was a man who would not easily be floored, they selected their champion, Jack Armstrong, and imposed upon him the task of laying Lincoln upon his back. There is no evidence that Lincoln was an unwilling party in the sport, for it was what he had always been accustomed to. The bout was entered upon, but Armstrong soon discovered that he had met with more than his match. The "Boys" were looking on, and, seeing that their champion was likely to get the worst of it, did after the manner of such irresponsible bands. They gathered around Lincoln, struck and disabled him, and then Armstrong, by "legging" him, got him down.
Most men would have been indignant, not to say furiously angry, under such foul treatment as this; but if Lincoln was either, he did not show it. Getting up in perfect good humor, he fell to laughing over his discomfiture, and joking about it. They had all calculated upon making him angry, and then they intended, with the amiable spirit which characterized the "Clary's Grove Boys," to give him a terrible drubbing. They were disappointed, and, in their admiration of him, immediately invited him to become one of the company. Strange as it may seem, this was the turning point, apparently, in Lincoln's life, a fact which will appear as our narrative progresses.
It was while young Lincoln was engaged in the duties of Offutt's store that he commenced the study of English grammar. There was not a text-book to be obtained in the neighborhood, but hearing that there was a copy of Kirkham's grammar in the possession of a person seven or eight miles distant, he walked to his house and succeeded in borrowing it. L.M. Green, a lawyer of Petersburg, in Menard County, says that every time he visited New Salem, at this period, Lincoln took him out upon a hill, and asked him to explain some point in Kirkham that had given him trouble. After having mastered the book, he remarked to a friend, that if that was what they called a science, he thought he could "subdue another." Mr. Green says that Mr. Lincoln's talk at this time showed that he was beginning to think of a great life, and a great destiny. Lincoln said to him, on one occasion, that all his family seemed to have good sense, but, somehow, none had ever become distinguished. He thought that perhaps he might become so. He had talked, he said, with men who had the reputation of being great men, but he could not see that they differed much from others. During this year, he was also much engaged with debating clubs, often walking six or seven miles to attend them. One of these clubs held its meetings at an old store-house in New Salem, and the first speech young Lincoln ever made was made here. He used to call the exercise "practicing polemics." As these clubs were composed principally of men of no education whatever, some of their "polemics" are remembered as the most laughable of farces. His favorite newspaper, at the time, was the Louisville Journal, a paper which he received regularly by mail, and paid for during a number of years when he had not money enough to dress decently. He liked its politics, and was particularly delighted with its wit and humor, of which he had the keenest appreciation. When out of the store, he was always busy in the pursuit of knowledge. One gentleman who met him during this period, says that the first time he saw him he was lying on a trundle-bed, covered with books and papers, and rocking a cradle with his foot. Of the amount of uncovered space between the extremities of his trousers and the top of his socks which this informant observed, there shall be no mention. The whole scene, however, was entirely characteristic--Lincoln reading and studying, and at the same time helping his landlady by quieting her child.
During the year that Lincoln was in Denton Offutt's store, that gentleman, whose business was somewhat widely and unwisely spread about the country, ceased to prosper in his finances, and finally failed. The store was shut up, the mill was closed, and Abraham Lincoln was out of business. The year had been one of great advances, in many respects. He had made new and valuable acquaintances, read many books, mastered the grammar of his own tongue, won multitudes of friends, and become ready for a step still further in advance. Those who could appreciate brains respected him, and those whose highest ideas of a man related to his muscles were devoted to him. Every one trusted him. It was while he was performing the duties of the store that he acquired the soubriquet "Honest Abe"--a characterization that he never dishonored, and an abbreviation that he never outgrew. He was judge, arbitrator, referee, umpire, authority, in all disputes, games and matches of man-flesh and horse-flesh; a pacificator in all quarrels; every body's friend; the best natured, the most sensible, the best informed, the most modest and unassuming, the kindest, gentlest, roughest, strongest, best young fellow in all New Salem and the region round about.
- George Cluse.