Lincoln the Lawyer
Two years after Lincoln entered the Illinois Parliament, its meetings, which had been held at Vandalia, were transferred to Springfield. In Springfield Lincoln lived for the next five-and-twenty years, until he left it to go to Washington as President of the United States. Springfield was a country town, which thought itself rather important. The people paid a good deal of attention to dress; they gave evening parties of a quiet sort, where they played cards and talked politics. The business of the most prominent persons in the town was law. Almost all the members of Parliament were lawyers.
Lincoln found that his surveying did not occupy his time, or bring in a very large income; he had studied law-books, and knew very nearly as much as most of the young barristers of Springfield. Major Stuart, under whom he had served in the war against Black Hawk, took him into partnership. The partnership was not very successful. Lincoln was rather ignorant, and Stuart was too much occupied with his duties as member of Congress—the American Parliament—to teach him much.
After four years Lincoln left Stuart and joined another friend, judge Stephen D. Logan. Logan had made Lincoln's acquaintance at the time of his first unsuccessful candidature for the Illinois Parliament. He had then greatly admired the young man's pluck and good sense, and the cheerful way in which he accepted his defeat. Later, he had been struck by the sound reasoning of his political speeches. Logan himself was not only a first-rate lawyer, he was a man of wide education and culture: Abraham learned more than law from him. Even after Lincoln left the partnership, and set up an office of his own, the two men remained close friends.
Although busy during the winter in Parliament, Lincoln worked very hard at his business. He knew that no one can succeed in anything without hard work, and he saw that to become a really good lawyer would help him in politics, and make him a more useful citizen of the State. Moreover, he understood, more clearly than most men have done, that every deed in life is connected to every other; no man can escape the consequences of what he is and does. Every act and every speech is important.
Lincoln was four times elected to the Illinois Parliament—that is, he sat in it for eight years. For four years—between 1845-49—he was member for Illinois in Congress. In Congress he spoke and voted against the war that was being waged against Mexico. The aim of the war was the conquest of Texas and California. The South urged this because they wanted the number of slave-owning States to be equal to the number of free States. They were always afraid that new States would be created out of the undeveloped territory in the North-West; and, if this were to happen, the slave States would be in a minority in Congress. If Texas were added as a slave State, the slave States would have a majority of one: there would be fourteen free and fifteen slave States. The Northern members, for the most part, did not see the point; they did not unite against the Southern demands; and consequently the South succeeded. In the war Mexico was defeated, and Texas was added to the Union.
At the end of his last year of membership, 1849, Lincoln applied for a post in the Government office. Why he did so it is difficult to understand, for it would have put an end to his political career, as officials may not sit in the House. Fortunately his request was refused.
He returned to his home in Springfield, where he lived in a big, plain house, painted a dirty yellow, with a big piece of untidy garden behind, and a small field at the side. He had married seven years before, and had now three sons. He was devoted to these boys, and used to play all sorts of games with them, as they grew bigger.
For the next five years he devoted himself mainly to his work as a lawyer. He was now forty years of age. In Springfield and everywhere in Illinois he was admired, respected, and loved. But the high opinion of other people never made him easily satisfied with himself. To the end of his life he never stopped working and learning. He now resolved to become a really good lawyer. He knew that in law he could learn the art of persuading people, and of expressing clearly what he wanted to say. To help in this he took up the study of mathematics with extraordinary energy. Examining his own speeches, he seemed to find in them some confusion of thought. To make his own ideas clear, and to be sure that he expressed them clearly and truly, and never conveyed to others an impression that was not true, he bought a textbook of Euclid. The first six books of this he learnt by heart. He said "I wanted to know what was the meaning of the word 'demonstrate.' Euclid taught me what demonstration was."
After a year or two Lincoln was regarded as the equal of any lawyer in Springfield. He had one weakness, however. If he did not believe in the justice of his case, or if he thought the man for whom he had to speak was not quite honest, he did not defend well. His friend Judge Davis says, "A wrong cause was poorly defended by him."
A story is told of a man who came to Lincoln's office and asked his help in getting six hundred dollars from a poor widow. Lincoln listened to the man and then said, "Yes, there is no reasonable doubt but I can gain your case for you. I can set a whole neighbourhood at loggerheads. I can distress a widowed mother and her six fatherless children, and thereby get for you six hundred dollars which rightfully belong, as it appears to me, as much to them as it does to you. I advise you to try your hand at making six hundred dollars some other way."
Every one in Springfield valued "Honest Abe's" opinion. All sorts of people brought their troubles to him. His sympathy and his tenderness of heart made them trust him. He was one of the people; he never felt himself above them. To the end of his life he did not grow proud, and he was never ashamed of his early poverty. When he was President he told some of his friends of a dream he had had, which might very well have been true. He dreamt that at some big public meeting he was walking through the hall up to the platform, from which he was going to speak. As he passed, a lady sitting at the end of one of the rows of seats said to another sitting next her, so loudly that he could hear: "Is that Mr. Lincoln? Why, he looks a very common sort of person!" "I thought to myself in my dream," said Lincoln, "that it was true, but that God Almighty seemed to prefer common people, for He had made so many of them."
Nothing in Lincoln is more truly great than his power of seeing the value of common things and common people. He knew that the things which appeal to men as men, which are common to humanity, are the most valuable of all. He counted on this when he abolished slavery. Freedom is a right common to all men; and there is somewhere in every one an instinct which knows that it is wrong to make other people do things which are too disagreeable to do yourself.
During these years at Springfield, Abraham read a great deal. Shakespeare and Burns were his favourite poets: he knew Shakespeare better than any other book except the Bible. He read and thought unceasingly about politics, and he talked about them with his friends. The history of America he studied until he knew everything there was to know. Above all, he thought about slavery. Events were taking place made it plain that the question of slavery could not be left where it was. It was no longer possible to act as if the difference between North and South did not exist.
As years went on the difference became more and more plain. The North, which had been poor and barren, only half cultivated by ignorant and uneducated settlers, was growing richer than the prosperous lazy South. Workmen came to the North from all parts of the world: poor men with good brains and strong arms, ready and able to work intelligently, to improve the land, to make wheat grow where stones and bushes had been. None of these men went to the South, for there work was done by slaves so cheaply that no paid worker had a chance. But the difference between the intelligent labour of free men working for themselves, and the mechanical labour of slaves working for their masters, soon began to tell.
In the North schools sprang up everywhere: the people became better and better educated. Men who had grown up in the backwoods, like Abraham Lincoln, taught themselves, and rose to be lawyers and statesmen by their own efforts; others who had had the chance of being taught, did the same. It was possible for any man of brains to rise from the bottom to the top. Inventions were made which enabled all kinds of new work to be done and new wealth produced. The North was rich in material: richer in the men she had to work it, who were helped and encouraged by the freedom which threw every career open to real talent.
In the South all power was in the hands of the aristocratic families, who had had it always. The work was done by slaves: owners did not want to educate their slaves, for then they were afraid that they would want their freedom. The coal mines of the South were not discovered; they could not have been worked by slaves. The South began to be very jealous of the North, and the North began to disapprove of the South. More and more people began to see that slavery was wrong: people were not yet ready to say that slavery ought to cease to be, but they were ready to say that it must not be extended.
At the time of the Mexican war the South had shown that it wanted to extend slavery. This frightened the North. In 1850 an agreement was made, known as the Missouri Compromise. By this a line (36°30'), called Mason and Dixon's line, was drawn across the map of America. North of this line, slavery was never to exist. Speakers on both sides declared that the Missouri Compromise was as fixed as the Constitution itself. Stephen Arnold Douglas was the loudest in expressing this opinion. "It is eternal and fundamental," he declared.
Douglas was a trader of the great party known as the Democrats. He held that the people of every State had a right to decide questions affecting that State, and not the Central American Government.
Douglas had one great aim, which was to him far more important than any question of political right or wrong: he wanted to be made President. To secure this, he saw that he must get the support of the South. To win the support of the South, he took a most dangerous and important step: one which was the immediate cause of the war which broke out six years later. He declared that the people of any state or territory could decide whether or not they would have slavery in their State: they could establish it or prohibit it.
He went further than this. Two new territories had been organised in the northwest—Nebraska and Kansas. They claimed to be admitted to the Union as States. Both States were, of course, north of Mason and Dixon's line, and therefore by the Missouri Compromise they must be free States. But the South was bent on creating new slave States as fast as the North could create free States: they wanted to make Kansas a slave State. Stephen Douglas therefore introduced, in 1854, the famous Kansas-Nebraska Bill. It declared that Kansas might be slave-holding or free, as the people of the territory should decide.
The result of this Bill was for the first time to unite together a strong party in the North in opposition to the Democrats, who were allied to the South. This new party called itself Republican. Lincoln was a spokesman of their views. They declared, firstly, that Congress, which is the Parliament representing all the States which together formed the Union, has the right to decide whether slavery shall be lawful in any particular State or not, and not the people of that State alone. Secondly, they declared that, in the case of Kansas, Congress had already, four years ago, decided that Kansas could not have slavery, because it lay beyond the line, north of which slavery could not exist. Resolutions were passed in many of the Northern State Parliaments against the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. The Parliament of Illinois sent one.
Now it was quite clear to keen-sighted politicians that, while Douglas and his party pretended that they wanted to give the r people of Kansas the choice between owning slaves and not doing so, what they really wanted was to force Kansas to have slaves. Those who supported the Missouri Congress declared that it was illegal to give Kansas the choice however she used it.
Events soon proved that Kansas was not to have any choice at all. Kansas had few inhabitants; but the opinion of the people of the State was against slavery. Next door to Kansas, however, on the east, was the slave-holding State of Missouri. From Missouri bands of armed men came into Kansas in order to vote for slavery at the election and to prevent the real voters from using their votes against it. Free fighting went on in the State. An election was held at which armed men kept away those who would have voted for freedom, and a pro-slavery man was chosen. But few of the people of Kansas had been allowed to vote. The free party met at another place afterwards, and a genuine popular vote elected an anti-slavery man. Civil war went on in Kansas for two years.
Now the importance of these events is this. Up till now most people in the North had believed that slavery ought to be left alone, because it would gradually die out. The Kansas-Nebraska Bill and the Kansas election made it perfectly clear that the South was not going to let slavery die out; on the contrary, they wanted to spread it to strengthen themselves against the North.
Douglas was member for Chicago, in the north of Illinois. He came down to Illinois to win the State to his views, and made a series of speeches there. This at once called Lincoln to the fore. He saw more clearly, perhaps, than any man in America what the Kansas Bill meant. It meant that either North and South must separate, as the Abolitionists—that is, the party which held that slavery ought to cease to be—and some people in the South hoped; or that the North would have to force the South to abandon the attempt to spread slavery. He made a series of great speeches in Illinois, in which he made it quite clear that Douglas and his followers, and the men of the South, might say that they wanted to leave States free to have slavery or not as they chose, but what they really desired was to force them to have slavery whether they chose or not. "This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate: I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself . . . I say that no man is good enough to govern another man without that man's consent. Slavery is founded upon the selfishness of man's nature; opposition to it, on his love of justice."