Gateway to the Classics: A First Book in American History by Edward Eggleston
A First Book in American History by  Edward Eggleston

Lincoln in Public Life

In 1832, when there was an Indian war in Illinois, known as the Blackhawk War, Lincoln volunteered to fight against the chief Blackhawk and his Indians. Lincoln was chosen captain of the company. But he did not happen to be in any battle during the war. He used to say, jokingly, that he "fought, bled, and came away."

When "Captain" Lincoln got home from the Blackhawk War, he bought a country store in New Salem, when he lived. He had a worthless young man for a partner, and Lincoln himself was a better student than merchant. Many bad debts were made, and, after a while, as Lincoln expressed it, the store "winked out." This failure left him in debt. For six years afterwards he lived very savingly, until he had paid every cent of his debts. After he ceased to keep store he was postmaster. In a country post office he could borrow and read his neighbor's papers before they were called for. He used to carry letters about in the crown of his hat, and distribute the mail in that way.

Next he became a surveyor. He studied surveying alone, as he did other things. His strict honesty and his charming good-nature, as well as his bright speeches, amusing stories, and witty sayings, made him a favorite among the people. In 1834 he was elected to the Illinois Legislature. In a suit of homespun he walked a hundred miles to attend the Legislature. When the session was over he came home and went to surveying again. Whenever he had a little money he applied himself to studying law. When his money gave out he took up his compass and went back to surveying.


Lincoln Surveying

In 1837 he went to Springfield, and began life as a lawyer. The lawyers of that day rode from county to county to attend the courts. Lincoln "rode the circuit," as it was called, with the others, and he was soon a successful lawyer. He would not take a case which would put him on the unjust side of a quarrel. Nor would he take pay from people whom he knew to be poor, so he did not become a rich man.

Lincoln was always remarkable for his kindness of heart. While riding along the road one day he saw a pig fast in a mudhole. As he had on a new suit of clothes he did not like to touch the muddy pig, and so he rode on, leaving piggy to get out if he could. But he could not get the pig out of his thoughts, so, when he had gone two miles, he turned his horse back and helped the floundering pig out of his distress. He said he did this to "take a pain out of his own mind."

Once a poor widow, who had been kind to him many years before, asked him to defend her son, who was on trial for murder. It was proved in court by a witness that in a drunken row this widow's son had struck the blow that killed the man. Everybody thought the young man would be hanged. When questioned by Lincoln, the witness said that he had seen the murder by moonlight. Then Lincoln took a little almanac out of his pocket, and showed the court that at the time the man was killed the moon had not risen. The young man was declared "not guilty," but Lincoln would not take any pay from the mother.

In 1846 Abraham Lincoln was elected a member of Congress. This was during the war with Mexico. In that day the Southern States allowed negroes to be held as slaves. The Northern States had abolished slavery, so that part of the States were called free States and part slave States. There came up, about this time, a great debate as to whether slavery should be allowed in the new Territories. Lincoln strongly opposed the holding of slaves in the Territories, and he soon became known as a speaker on that side of the question. His fame reached to the East, and Abraham Lincoln, who had come up from the poverty of a half-faced camp, was invited to address a large meeting in the great hall of Cooper Institute, in New York. You see, the boy who had tried to think everything out clearly, and to put every subject into just the right words, had got such a knack of saying things well, that multitudes of educated people were delighted to listen to his clear and witty speeches.

When, in 1860, the antislavery men came to nominate a President, many of the Western people wanted Lincoln, whom they had come to call "Old Abe," and "Honest Old Abe." When the convention that was to nominate a President met, the friends of Lincoln carried in two of the fence rails he had split when he was a young man, and thousands of people cheered them. Lincoln was nominated, and, as the other party split into two parts, he was elected.

This election was followed by the great civil war. The war made President Lincoln's place a very trying one, for people blamed him for all defeats and failures. But during all the four years of war he was patient and kindly, and by his honesty and wisdom he won the affections of the people and the soldiers. People thought of him at first as only a man who had happened to get elected President. But during these long years he showed himself a great man, and when the war was ended he was respected over all the world.

When the terrible war was over and the soldiers were coming home, Lincoln was shot by an assassin as he sat in the theater, on the 14th of April, 1865. His death was lamented not only over all this country, but throughout Europe, for his goodness of heart made him as much loved as his greatness of mind made him admired.

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