Indian Fighting and Politics in New Salem, 1831-1836

by R.D. Monroe

After the Lincoln family's 1830 departure from Indiana, Abraham Lincoln helped clear timber for his father's latest farm in Macon County, Illinois, near Decatur. He was increasingly restless and ready to be on his own. An early demonstration of Lincoln's desire for independence from parental guidance, and of his interest in politics, came in 1830 when he gave an impromptu speech in favor of improving the Sangamon River that flowed through Springfield. He also traveled to New Orleans twice by flatboat, in 1828 and 1831, carrying farm products to market, and he may have witnessed the indignities of slavery on the trips.

Lincoln broke forever free from his father in 1831 when he moved to New Salem, Illinois. Clad in primitive homespun clothing and rudely educated, Lincoln seemed an unlikely prospect for success. He clerked at a general store and did various odd jobs to earn his keep. His humble origins aside, Lincoln began to stand out because he possessed two qualities highly prized on the frontier: immense strength and a gift for wit and humorous storytelling. Lincoln demonstrated the former trait in a famous wrestling match with a local tough and the latter around the general store. He continued what would be a lifelong process of self-education, taking grammar lessons and reading Shakespeare.

In 1832 Lincoln put his popularity in his adopted hometown to the test, running for the Illinois General Assembly. He declared his candidacy in a March 1832 statement in which he pledged to support internal improvements and education. The young Lincoln proclaimed that his ambition was to be "truly esteemed of my fellow men," and he closed on a characteristically lugubrious note. Lincoln pledged to do his utmost to repay the voters' favor if they conferred it upon him, "But if the good people in their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined."

A bit of the elusive popular favor came to Lincoln in April when Illinois Governor John Reynolds called out the militia, heralding the advent of the Black Hawk War. Lincoln was elected captain of the New Salem militia company, and he recalled in 1859 that this honor "gave me more pleasure than any I have had since."

Black HawkThe Black Hawk War was a disgraceful episode that began when Black Hawk, leader of a band of some 500 Sac and Fox Indians, crossed the Mississippi River from Iowa and returned to ancestral lands near Rock Island, Illinois. The band had earlier been forced across the river by violent land squatters, and was compelled to return by hunger and the desire to plant corn on tribal lands in Illinois. Its appearance led to skirmishes, a general panic, and the militia call-up.

The Indians had little chance. They were driven into Wisconsin, cornered, and many slaughtered in an unequal conflict called the Battle of Bad Axe. Lincoln never saw action, and he mustered out in July, in time to return for the August elections in New Salem. Lincoln was defeated in that contest, placing eighth out of thirteen contestants vying for four seats.

Lincoln tried his hand as a merchant, briefly co-owning a general store in New Salem, only to see the venture fail. Friends secured his appointment as town postmaster, and as deputy surveyor of Sangamon County. Lincoln kept himself barely solvent, and in 1834 he again declared for the state legislature. He had made a deep enough impression on his district to win this time around.

Wearing a new suit that was the best item of clothing he had ever owned, Lincoln arrived in the state capital of Vandalia on a blustery November day in 1834. The twenty-five year old freshman representative proved himself a solid Whig, voting for a state bank and in favor of the massive Illinois and Michigan Canal project. He became a consistent supporter of such internal improvements, a Whig article of faith.

Lincoln soon demonstrated his wit and humor again. When the legislature mistakenly appointed a man to a surveyor post that was filled, Lincoln suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that the redundant appointment stand so that no action would be necessary should the incumbent surveyor conclude to die. He became a favorite for his agile mind, though he was more follower than leader at this stage of his political career. Appointed to twelve special committees, Lincoln drafted bills and resolutions for his fellow Whigs, and was elected to a second term in 1836.

John T. Stuart, a fellow Whig, encouraged Lincoln to study law. At first intimidated at this prospect, witnessing crude court and legislative proceedings convinced Lincoln that his imperfect education was not a bar to the profession. He embarked on a legal career, vigorously studying the standard texts of the era like Blackstone's Commentaries, and rejecting the subsistence farming his father pursued.

Life on the farm held no attraction for Lincoln. Politically, too, he had rejected the Jeffersonian vision of an ever-expanding agrarian idyll composed of virtuous subsistence farmers. He believed, like many Whigs, in the prospect of developing the country's existing space, its industry and its transportation network, rather than continuing to acquire new territory.