Springfield, the Law, and the Whig Party, 1837-1843

by R.D. Monroe

In this period Lincoln reinforced his place in politics and society. He won re-election to the Illinois legislature in August, 1836, and was granted his law license in September of that year.

Abraham Lincoln portrait- standingThe Sangamon County delegation to the 1836-37 legislative session became known as the "Long Nine" because of their pronounced height. They shared a commitment to moving the state capital from its present location in Vandalia to Springfield. With the population of northern and central Illinois growing, many wished for a less remote seat of state government. While Lincoln and the Sangamon delegation were primarily occupied with anointing Springfield as the next state capital, an internal improvements craze gripped the state, that is, a desire for state-sponsored canals, railroads, and bridges. Internal improvement conventions were held that summer in the counties, and they passed resolutions demanding improvements, and sent delegates to a state convention that met in Vandalia as the legislature opened. The assembled representatives got the message. They approved a massive internal improvements package, totaling some $10 million, a spectacular amount for developing Illinois.

Lincoln led the effort to move the capital. He proposed shrewd amendments to the bill that relocated the capital, including one that required the designated city to contribute $50,000 and two acres to the state, a stipulation that eliminated small communities from contention. When the bill seemed lost, Lincoln gathered his colleagues together and sent them out to lobby wavering members. The bill revived, and in the end Springfield supplanted Vandalia as the Illinois capital.

Lincoln also backed internal improvements, but he was not a principal mover of the Whig bills. Indeed, it was Stephen A. Douglas, a Morgan County representative and rising Democratic star, who introduced resolutions calling for railroads that crisscrossed Illinois and other internal improvements. Lincoln and the Sangamon delegation were later accused of trading votes for internal improvements in exchange for votes for Springfield as the new capital. Vote trading often took the form of a process called logrolling. Modern scholarship is divided on whether there was any logrolling in this instance, yet even if there was, it should not necessarily be condemned. Balancing interests by trading votes for disparate pieces of legislation is one of democracy’s messier, but unavoidable legislative tools.

Grand internal improvements passed only to founder on the rocks of the Panic of 1837, an economic depression that ravaged the credit of the State of Illinois, greatly reducing the value of its bonds. None of the magnificent projects funded by those bonds was ever realized by the state, and Illinois did not retire the debt incurred until 1887.

A movement to abolish slavery began in earnest in the 1830s, led by committed activists such as William Lloyd Garrison. The effort was at first wildly unpopular. Many Americans considered the abolitionists Constitution-wreckers and zealots bent on disrupting the sectional harmony essential to the Union. An anti-abolition backlash swept the nation that had an extreme manifestation in Illinois when abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy was murdered by an Alton mob in 1837.

Southern state legislatures carried resolutions urging their northern counterparts to suppress the abolitionists. Such pleas received a sympathetic hearing in Illinois, which had been settled predominantly by southerners and tolerated slavery within its borders in various guises. In response to southern entreaties, the Illinois legislature adopted resolutions in 1837 condemning the abolition movement. In his first public stand against slavery, Lincoln opposed the resolutions in theMary Todd legislature.

Two years later, Lincoln and Douglas engaged in public debates on the issues at stake in the pending presidential election. In a precursor of their famous 1858 exchanges, the two traded barbs over Martin Van Buren's presidency, the sub-treasury, and the abolition movement. To rebut Douglas's contention that the Whigs supported the abolitionists, Lincoln discovered that Van Buren had voted to allow a limited degree of black suffrage in New York, a fact that incensed Douglas when Lincoln confronted him with it.

Lincoln's use of the black suffrage issue against Douglas illustrates the limits of his views on African-Americans. While he condemned slavery, Lincoln was, at this point in his career, unwilling to advocate black suffrage, and indeed, not shy about using the issue in anti-black Illinois. Lincoln stumped tirelessly for the Harrison-Tyler ticket, and although the Whigs failed to carry Illinois, they won the presidency and Lincoln enhanced his political reputation.

Lincoln married Mary Todd on November 4, 1842, after a rather tempestuous courtship that included an unpleasant break-up. Raised in Lexington, Kentucky, Mary came to live with her sister Elizabeth in Springfield in 1839, gaining instant admission into the prominent social circle around her brother-in-law, Ninian W. Edwards, son of an Illinois governor. Soon she met Lincoln and their rocky courtship followed. While the marriage is often characterized as stormy, it had a calming effect on Lincoln. He had suffered debilitating mood swings, periods of depression that left him incapable of work and desperate for relief. "Things I can not account for, have conspired and have gotten my spirits so low, that I feel that I would rather be any place in the world, than here," Lincoln wrote from Vandalia during one legislative session.

Marriage alleviated the worst manifestations of depression in Lincoln's behavior, but he remained subject to bouts of melancholia throughout his life. His law partner William H. Herndon described Lincoln as "a sad-looking man; his melancholy dripped from him as he walked.... The perpetual look of sadness was his most prominent feature."