New Salem Years

Life on his own began for Lincoln when he settled in New Salem. He lived there almost 6 years, from July 1831 until the Spring of 1837. The village consisted of log cabins clustered around a mill, a barrel maker’s shop, a wool-carding machines and a few general stores. The villagers helped Lincoln in many ways. The older women mended his clothes, and often gave him meals. Jack Kelso, the village philosopher, introduced him to the writings of the English dramatist William Shakespeare and the Scottish poet Robert Burns. These works, and the Bible, became his favorite reading. Lincoln arrived in New Salem, as he said “a place of floating drift wood”. He earned little, and slept in a room at the rear of Offutt’s Store. Within a few months the business failed. Lincoln would have been out of a job if the Black Hawk war hadn’t begun in 1832.

The Black Hawk War

In 1831, the federal government had moved the Sawk and Fox Indian’s from Illinois to Iowa. In the Spring of 1832, Chief Black Hawk led a band of several hundred Indians bank across the Mississippi River to try to regain their lands near Rock Island.

The governor called out the militia, and Lincoln volunteered for service. Lincoln’s company consisted of men from the New Salem area. The men promptly elected him captain.

This was only nine months after he had settled in the village. Even after he had been nominated for President, Lincoln said this honor “gave me more pleasure than any I have had since’. It provided the first significant indication of his gift for leadership. Lincoln’s comrades liked his friendless, his honesty, and his skill at storytelling.

They also admired his great strength and his sportsmanship in wrestling matches and other contests.

Lincoln’s term of service ended after 30 days, but he reenlisted, this time as a private.

A month later, he enlisted again. He served a total of 90 days, but saw no fighting.

He later described his militia experiences as “bloody struggles with mosquitoes” and “changes upon the wild onions”.

Search for a Career

Before his military service, many of Lincoln’s friends had encouraged him to become a candidate for the state legislature, spurred by their faith, he announced his candidacy in March 1832. The Black Hawk War prevented him from making much of a campaign. He arrived home in July, only two weeks before the election. Lincoln was defeated in the election, but the people in his own precinct gave him 277 of their 300 votes. Lincoln faced the problem of making a living.

He thought of studying law, but decided he couldn’t succeed without a better education. Just then, he had a chance to buy a New Salem store on credit, in partnership with William F. Berry. Lincoln later recalled that the partnership did nothing but get deeper and deeper in debt. The store failed after a few months. In May 1833, Lincoln was appointed postmaster of New Salem. Soon afterward, the county survey or offered to make him a deputy. Lincoln knew nothing about surveying, but he prepared for the work by had study. Odd jobs and fees from his two public offices earned him a living.

Berry died in 1835, leaving Lincoln liable for the debts of the partnership, about $1,100. It took Lincoln several years to pay these debts, but he finally did it. His integrity helped him earn the nickname “Honest Abe”. In New Salem, Lincoln knew a girl named Ann Rutledge. When she died in the summer of 1835, he grieved deeply. His sorrow gave rise to a belief that he and Ann had planned to be married. Careful study has reduced their supposed love affair to a myth. This conclusion is supported by the fact that Lincoln proposed marriage to a Kentucky girl, Mary Owens, less than 18 months later. He met while she was visiting her sister in New Salem. The affair wasn’t ardent on either side, and Miss Owens rejected him.

Success in Politics

In 1834, Lincoln again ran for the legislature. He had become better known by this time, and won election as a Whig. He saved four successive two-year terms in the lower house of the Illinois General Assembly. During his first term, he met a young Democratic legislator, Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln quickly came to the front in the legislature. He was witty and ready in debate. His skill in party management enabled him to become the Whig floor leader at the beginning of his second term. He took leading parts in the establishment of the Bank of Illinois and in the adoption of a plan for a system of railroads and canals. This plan broke down after the Panic of 1837.

Lincoln also led a successful campaign for moving the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield. While in the legislature, Lincoln made his first public statement on slavery. In 1837, the legislature passed by an overwhelming majority resolution condemning abolition society. These societies urged freedom for slaves. Lincoln and another legislator, Dan Stone, filed a protest. They admitted that Congress had no power to interfere with slavery in the States where it existed. They believed “the promulgation of abolition doctrines tend rather to increase than abate its evils”. Their protest arose from the legislature’s failure to call slavery an evil practice. Lincoln and stone declare that “the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy”. Slavery had become a much greater issue 23 years later, when Lincoln was nominated for President. He said then that his protest in the Illinois legislature still expressed his position on slavery.

 Lincoln the Lawyer


In 1834, during Lincoln’s second campaign for the legislature, John T. Stuart had urged him to study law. Stuart was an attorney in Springfield and a leading member of the legislature. Lincoln overcame his doubts about his education. He borrowed law books from Stuart and studied them. He sometimes walked 20 miles from New Salem to Springfield for books. On September 9, 1836, Lincoln received his license to practice law, although his name wasn’t entered on the roll of attorneys until March 1, 1837. The population of New Salem had dropped by that time, and Lincoln decided to move to the new state capital. Carrying all he owned in his saddle bags, he rode into Springfield on April 15, 1837. There he became the junior partner in the law firm of Stuart and Lincoln. In Lincoln’s time, there were few law schools. Most lawyers “read laws” in the office of an attorney.

Early Practice

Lincoln’s partnership with Stuart lasted until the Spring of 1841. Then he became the junior partner of Stephen T. Logen, one of the greatest lawyers who ever practice in Illinois. This partnership ended in the fall of 1844.

Lincoln then asked William H. Herndon to become his partner. Herndon, nine years younger than Lincoln, had just received his license to practice law. Lincoln called him “Billy”, but Heindan always called his partner “Mr. Lincoln”. The two men never dissolved their law firm. More than 16 years later, Lincoln visited his old office on his last day in Springfield, before leaving for Washington to be inaugurated as President, and noticed the firm’s signboard at the foot of the steps and said: “Let it hang there undisturbed. Give Our Clients to understand that the election of a President makes no change in the firm of Lincoln and Heindan”.

The practice of law in Illinois wasn’t specialized in Lincoln’s time. He tried his first case in the circuit court of Sangamon County. He practiced in the Illinois federal courts within two years after his admission to the bar. A year later, he tried the first of many cases in the State Supreme Court. But all the while, he also handled cases before justices of the peace. He also gave advice and opinions on many matters for small fees.

Lincoln’s family

Soon after, Lincoln moved to Springfield, he met Mary Todd (1818-1882), a woman from Kentucky who lived there with a married sister. They had a stormy courtship and at are time broke their engagement. They were married on November 4, 1842, when Lincoln was 33 and Mary was 23.

Mary Todd Lincoln was high-strung and socially ambitious. She tended to be moody and absent-minded.

Their contrasting personalities sometimes caused friction. But she and Lincoln had a loving marriage that lasted until Abraham’s death. She achieved her greatest ambition when her husband was elected President. But her four years as First Lady brought sorrow rather than happiness. Many people suspected her of disloyalty to the Union because she came from the South.

In addition, Mary’s haughty manner made her unpopular among the wives of the government officials. When the shock of her husband’s death left her mental and physical wreck, and the death of her third son William Wallace in 1862 caused her deep grief of sadness and her health which was furthered weakened in 1871 by the death of another son, Thomas.

Her mental depression deepened until her oldest son Robert Todd, committed her to a private Sanitorium in 1875 until she was released later that year. Until she died in the Springfield home of her sister on July 16, 1882. Lincoln and his wife first lived in a Springfield boarding house, where they paid $4 a week. 18 months after his marriage, he bought the plain but comfortable frame house in which the family lived until he became President. By the time he bought the house, his first son, Robert Todd was 9 months old, who later became well-known states man and lawyer, and had served in the Union Army, was the only Lincoln’s surviving son.

The Lincoln’s second son Edward Baker, was born in 1846, but died four years later. William Wallace, called as Willie, was born in 1850, and the favorite of Abraham and Mary, died in the White House at the age of 11 in 1862. Their son, Thomas, usually called Tad, became ill and died in 1871 at the age of 18.

The family lived comfortably. Lincoln became a highly successful lawyer and politician, and wasn’t the poverty-stricken failure sometimes portrayed in legend. He often cared for his own horse and milked the family cow, but so did most of his neighbors. The Lincoln family usually employed a servant to help with the housework.

Riding the Circuit

The State of Illinois was, and still is, divided into circuits for judicial purposes. Each circuit consisted of several countries where court was held in turn. The judge and many lawyers traveled from county to county. They tried such cases as came their way during each them.

Lincoln traveled the circuit for six months each year. He loved this kind of life. The small inns where the lawyers stayed had few comforts, but they offered many opportunities for meeting people. Lively talk and storytelling appealed to Lincoln. He also liked the long rides across the prairies. Lincoln’s circuit at its largest included 15 countries, and covered about 8,000 square miles. Lincoln developed traits as a lawyer that made him well known throughout Illinois. He could argue a case strongly. He sometimes persuaded clients to settle their differences out of court, which meant a smaller fee, or no fee at all, for him. In court, Lincoln could present a case so that 12 jurors, often poorly educated, couldn’t fail to understand it. He could also argue a complicated case before a well-informed judge. He prepared his cases thoroughly, and was very honest.