It would be a great mistake to think that Abraham Lincoln won success easily.
Looking back over the lives of great men, one is apt to think "How fortune helped them;" "What astonishing luck they must have had;" when one knows the end, it seems certain from the beginning. But when you know more about any one really great man, you are sure to find that he has risen only by endless hard work, and by knowing from the beginning what by what he wanted to be and do, and thinking only of that.
Success is never easy, and for Lincoln the path to it was a hard and uphill way. You have seen in what difficulties his life began: how he taught himself everything he learned, and made for himself every penny that he possessed. His first effort to get into Parliament, like his first efforts to make a living, seemed a failure. But this did not make him despair. Other people had risen, and he was going to rise. He was sure of one thing, that there is always plenty of room at the top, and he meant to reach the top. There is always a place for a man of strong purpose, who is honest, and who can think for himself. If a man really wants to serve his country, nothing need prevent him from doing it. And Lincoln saw that the first step to serving your country well is to be a good workman, a good friend, and a good citizen of your own town.
When the next election came he stood again, and this time he was elected; and after his two years of service came to an end, he was elected again. For eight years he was a member of the Parliament of his own State of Illinois; then, after four years away from politics, he was made member of Congress—that is, of the American Parliament, to which the States send representatives.
To be in Parliament was to be in touch with the big world; to have a share in the settlement of big questions. In the Illinois Parliament, Lincoln met a great many clever men; men who rose to important posts later. Few of them suspected that this tall, awkward, country-looking young lawyer, who did not speak much, but could tell such extraordinarily funny stories when he chose, was going to rise to be American President, to prove himself greater than any American of their time. Most of the members were small lawyers like himself. They were sent to Parliament because they were men in whom their fellow-citizens had confidence. They were honest men, but few of them had any more knowledge of politics that Lincoln himself.
The State of Illinois was very new, and its affairs had not yet become complicated. Lincoln soon learnt the ins and outs of parliamentary business; and he only found one man who was a better speaker than himself. This was a man with whom he was to have a great deal to do all his life; a man already well known in politics, and followed by a large party.
His name was Stephen Arnold Douglas. He was two years younger than Lincoln; like him he had been brought up in the rough surroundings of the West where he had gone as a boy. His father was poor, but he was a gentleman. Well-educated himself, he had given his son a good education of a sort.
When he was twenty-one Douglas became a lawyer. Very soon he became the foremost barrister in North Illinois, and soon entered the State Parliament. In the year of Lincoln's election he had been made Secretary of State; he was therefore a person of importance. Douglas was extremely clever; as a boy he learnt things quickly, and remembered them easily, unlike Lincoln, who learnt very slowly; he had a wonderful power of speech: he was ready and able to speak on any subject, and, even if he really knew very little about it, he always gave people the impression that he knew everything. He used to tell people what they wanted to hear, whereas Lincoln had a way of speaking the truth whether it was pleasant or not.
Douglas was very popular: he understood how to rule men, and he was intensely ambitious. Ambition was the strongest feeling in his hear; and his ambition was for himself: he dreamed already of being President of the United States. He was a short, thickly-built man; but it was the smallness of his mind, his selfish aims, that made Lincoln say that Douglas was the least man that he had ever met: he seemed to "Honest Abe" to care not at all for what he said or did, so long as his own success was safe; success was his one object.
It was an ambition very different from Lincoln's. Indeed Lincoln was unlike any of the members whom he met: his aims were quite different from theirs. He looked to a future beyond himself. He did not think of his own success. What he wanted to attain by success was the power to help his country. Patriotism was his first and strongest feeling, and his patriotism was of the truest kind. He did not want to make America great because she ruled over a vast extent of territory: such greatness did not appeal to him at all. He wanted her to be great in the sense that she really lived up to the ideal set before her for ever in the Declaration of Independence—the ideal of a union of free men governing themselves well.
And Lincoln's ideals were real to him: in every question he was guided by his patriotism. He did not mind saying what he though, whether people like him for it or not: they must like him for what he was and not for what he said, and unless they loved what was right, their liking was not worth having. When, after long thinking, he came to see what he thought the truth on any subject, he spoke out so that every one who heard must understand: he never said one thing and meant another, as Douglas did: he was as honest in his thoughts as in his actions.
Now in American politics there was one great question, more important than every other, the question of slavery. Cautious politicians, men with an eye to their own success, thought that this question had better be left alone. Really thoughtful men, men like Lincoln, saw that this question could not be left alone for ever. Some day, and the sooner the better, it must be settled. Anyhow, it was every honest man's duty to say what he thought. It is difficult now to realise quite what slavery meant. Perhaps you have read or heard of a book called "Uncle Tom's Cabin." It was written about this time by an American lady, who wanted to make all Americans see what slavery did mean—how terrible it could be.
If you drew a line across America just south of Lincoln's State of Illinois, slavery did not exist in the Northern States; it did exist in all the Southern States. Whenever the question was discussed, most people from the North thought it rather a bad thing, some thought it a very bad thing; people from the South all thought it was a good, or at least, a necessary, thing. They all agreed as a rule in thinking that, whether it was a good thing or a bad thing, there it was, and there was no good discussing it.
The real wrong lay far back in the past. Centuries ago, merchants had brought negroes over from Africa, and sold them in America as slaves.
As is always the case, when once the wrong had been brought in, when the evil had begun, it was almost impossible to get rid of it when people had grown used to it. When people could buy slaves who did not cost very much to do work for them, they did not want to do it themselves, especially if the work was disagreeable. They began to believe that black men were intended by nature to do all the disagreeable things. English merchants made great fortunes by bringing slaves to America; and the English Government supported them. And when, after the war, America was a free country, the Union of States which made it so was half composed of States that held slaves. These slaves were most valuable property. The men who drew up the Constitution, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, declared in it, "All men are free and equal: all men possess rights, which no one can take away from them." The Northern States gave up their slaves, and decided that slavery was illegal: the Southern States did not. They refused to join the Union unless they were allowed to keep their slaves. Now of course it was absurd to call a country free where slavery existed, or to say that all men have rights when millions of black men had no rights at all.
To the Southerner a black man was not a man, but a piece of property.
But it would not be quite fair to think that the Northerners who gave up slaves had always more lofty ideas than the Southerners. You must remember that slaves were much more useful in the South than in the North. The climate of the North was cold, and the work not of the sort that could be well done by untrained negroes. In the South it was so hot that it was difficult for white men to work, and work on the plantations needed no special skill.
At the time when the Declaration of Independence was drawn up and signed, one thing seemed to every American more important than anything else: that the country should be united in one whole. North and South must join together; no difference could outweigh a common nationality. The Southerners would not join the Union unless they were allowed to keep their slaves: therefore the Northerners left slavery in the South. They hoped, however, that it would gradually die out; and therefore a law was passed which declared that after twenty years no more slaves were to be brought from Africa.
When Southerners declared, as they very often did, that slaves were very well treated, that they were much happier and more comfortable than if they were free, this was true to a certain extent. Those slaves who were employed in the houses and gardens of their masters, those who were used as servants, were often very well treated. But however well they were treated, it is wrong for a man to have other men entirely in his power; wrong for him, and wrong for them. And although some masters did not abuse their power, some did—and all could; if ever they wanted to—without feeling that they were doing anything wrong. A white gentleman could beat his black slave to death if he chose; he would not be punished any more than if he beat a dog to death, and his friends would still think him a gentleman. Moreover, far the greater number of the slaves were not used as servants, but used as labourers on the cotton plantations. Here they were under the charge of an overseer. His one idea was to get as much work out of them as possible. They worked all day, and at night were often herded together in any sort of shed.
After Eli Whitney, a young American, invented a machine called the cotton gin, by using which one negro could pick twenty times as much cotton in a day as before, the business of working the cotton plantations with slaves made the Southern land-owners very rich. Slaves were cheap: in a few days they made as much for their masters as they cost them, and their masters could make them work as hard as they liked. They were quite ignorant: their masters taught them nothing; they had no way of escape; they were absolutely at the mercy of the overseer with his whip. The masters came to regard these black fellow-beings simply as property: not so valuable as a horse, rather more useful than a dog; they often forgot that they had any feelings. Children were sold away from their parents; a husband was sent to one plantation, and his wife to another. They were sometimes beaten for the smallest fault. If they tried to escape, bloodhounds were used to hunt them down. Dealers led them about in chains, and sold them in the public market exactly like animals. People who came from the North to the South, as Abraham Lincoln did, on his trip clown the Ohio, and saw how the slaves were treated, were often shocked; but in the South people were used to it.
North of a certain line, slavery did not exist. Slaves used sometimes to run away from their masters and escape across this line; but in every Northern State there was a law that escaped slaves had to be handed back to their master if he claimed them. The masters used to offer a reward to any one who handed back to them the body of their slave, alive or dead. This led to all sorts of difficulties, because in the Northern States a great many free negroes lived. Very often some one who was eager for the reward would capture an innocent free negro and hand him over to the master, declaring that he answered to the description of the missing slave. The question as to whether he was, or not, was decided not in the Northern State where he had been captured, but in the Southern State where the master lived, and no Southern court could be trusted to decide fairly in a case between a white man and a black.
Gradually this injustice roused a small party in the North, which openly declared that slavery was an abominable thing, and ought not to exist in America. The Abolitionists, as they called themselves, said that it was a disgrace to a free country that slavery should exist in it; that as long as it did exist, the Declaration of Independence had no meaning. Slavery ought to be abolished.
When Abraham Lincoln was about twenty-one, a paper called The Liberator began to appear. It was edited by a great man called William Lloyd Garrison. Its object was to rouse people to see the evils of slavery, and to get it made illegal. The Abolitionists were few in number, and very unpopular. They had to suffer for their beliefs in the North as well as in the South. The offices where The Liberator was printed were attacked by mobs of furious people, who burst in at the doors, broke every pane of glass in the windows, destroyed the printing press, and threw the type into the river. In St. Louis, William Lloyd Garrison was dragged round the town with a rope round his waist, while crowds of angry people hooted and hissed, spat at him, and threw rotten eggs and stones at his head. He only just escaped death. Many of his followers were murdered in the open streets. Even in Illinois, an innocent preacher, who had sympathised with them, was thrown into the river and drowned.
The Southern States were roused to fury. In the North, even sensible people who did not like slavery thought it very unwise to say anything against it. Slavery was a fact—it was no good to discuss it. Several Northern States sent petitions to Parliament, declaring their opinion that it was very unwise to discuss Abolition.
In Illinois, this was the view taken by nearly all Lincoln's friends. Lincoln did not agree with them. He thought the Abolitionists very often unwise; nothing, he saw, could be more dangerous than to rouse the feeling of the South: but nothing could make him seem to approve of slavery.
For Lincoln to see that any action was right, and to do it, was the same thing. He and one other man, called Stone, sent in a protest to the Illinois Parliament; in it they declared that they believed slavery to be founded upon injustice and upon bad policy. Lincoln spoke because he must. He had seen what slavery meant, and he hated slavery. But he saw that the South would not allow slavery to be abolished: if the North tried to do it, the country would be divided into two halves. He was not ready to face that. His love for his country came before everything. Everything must be borne, rather than that it should be divided.
The Abolitionists were a small party; and for the next seventeen years, the question of slavery was left as it was, as far as Parliament was concerned. During these seventeen years, Lincoln was perpetually turning it over in his mind; thinking and reading about it, and helping other people to think about it too.