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Desultory Employments

Upon the arrival of the Lincoln family in Illinois, they had the few tools which would be considered almost necessary to every frontiersman: namely, a common ax, broad-ax, hand-saw, whip-saw. The mauls and wedges were of wood and were made by each workman for himself. To this stock of tools may also be added a small supply of nails brought from Indiana, for at that period nails were very expensive and used with the strictest economy. By means of pegs and other devices people managed to get along without them.

When Abraham Lincoln went to New Salem it was (like all frontier towns) a promising place. It grew until it had the enormous population of about one hundred people, housed–or log-cabined–in fifteen primitive structures. The tributary country was not very important in a commercial sense. To this population no less than four general stores– that is, stores containing nearly everything that would be needed in that community–offered their wares.

The town flourished, at least it lived, about through the period that Lincoln dwelt there, after which it disappeared.

Lincoln was ready to take any work that would get him a living. A neighbor advised him to make use of his great strength in the work of a blacksmith. He seriously thought of learning the trade, but was, fortunately for the country, diverted from doing so.

The success of the expedition to New Orleans had won the admiration of his employer, Denton Offutt, and he now offered Lincoln a clerkship in his prospective store. The offer was accepted partly because it gave him some time to read, and it was here that he came to know the two great poets, Burns and Shakespeare.

Offutt’s admiration of the young clerk did him credit, but his voluble expression of it was not judicious. He bragged that Lincoln was smart enough to be president, and that he could run faster, jump higher, throw farther, and “wrastle” better than any man in the country. In the neighborhood there was a gang of rowdies, kind at heart but very rough, known as “the Clary’s Grove boys.” They took the boasting of Offutt as a direct challenge to themselves and eagerly accepted it. So they put up a giant by the name of Jack Armstrong as their champion and arranged a “wrastling” match. All went indifferently for a while until Lincoln seemed to be getting the better of his antagonist, when the “boys" crowded in and interfered while Armstrong attempted a foul. Instantly Lincoln was furious. Putting forth all his strength he lifted Jack up and shook him as a terrier shakes a rat. The crowd, in their turn, became angry and set out to mob him. He backed up against a wall and in hot indignation awaited the onset. Armstrong was the first to recover his good sense. Exclaiming, “Boys, Abe Lincoln’s the best fellow that ever broke into the settlement,” he held out his hand to Lincoln who received it with perfect good nature. From that day these boys never lost their admiration for him. He was their hero. From that day, too, he became the permanent umpire, the general peacemaker of the region. His good nature, his self-command, and his manifest fairness placed his decisions beyond question. His popularity was established once for all in the entire community.

There are some, anecdotes connected with his work in the store which are worth preserving because they illustrate traits of his character. He once sold a half pound of tea to a customer. The next morning as he was tidying up the store he saw, by the weights which remained in the scales, that he had inadvertently given her four, instead of eight, ounces. He instantly weighed out the balance and carried it to her, not waiting for his breakfast.

At another time when he counted up his cash at night he discovered that he had charged a customer an excess of six and a quarter cents. He closed up the store at once and walked to the home of the customer, and returned the money. It was such things as these, in little matters as well as great, that gave him the nickname of “honest Abe” which, to his honor be it said, clung to him through life.

One incident illustrates his chivalry. While he was waiting upon some women, a ruffian came into the store using vulgar language. Lincoln asked him to desist, but he became more abusive than ever. After the women had gone, Lincoln took him out of the store, threw him on the ground, rubbed smartweed in his face and eyes until he howled for mercy, and then he gave him a lecture which did him more practical good than a volume of Chesterfield’s letters.

Some time after Offutt’s store had “winked out,” while Lincoln was looking for employment there came a chance to buy one half interest in a store, the other half being owned by an idle, dissolute fellow named Berry who ultimately drank himself into his grave. Later, another opening came in the following way: the store of one Radford had been wrecked by the horse-play of some ruffians, and the lot was bought by Mr. Greene for four hundred dollars. He employed Lincoln to make an invoice of the goods and he in turn offered Greene two hundred and fifty dollars for the bargain and the offer was accepted. But even that was not the last investment. The fourth and only remaining store in the hamlet was owned by one Rutledge. This also was bought out by the firm of Berry & Lincoln. Thus they came to have the monopoly of the mercantile business in the hamlet of New Salem.

Be it known that in all these transactions not a dollar in money changed hands. Men bought with promissory notes and sold for the same consideration. The mercantile venture was not successful. Berry was drinking and loafing, and Lincoln, who did not work as faithfully for himself as for another, was usually reading or telling stories. So when a couple of strangers, Trent by name, offered to buy out the store, the offer was accepted and more promissory notes changed hands. About the time these last notes came due, the Trent brothers disappeared between two days. Then Berry died.

The outcome of the whole series of transactions was that Lincoln was left with an assortment of promissory notes bearing the names of the Herndons, Radford, Greene, Rutledge, Berry, and the Trents. With one exception, which will be duly narrated, his creditors told him to pay when he was able. He promised to put all of his earnings, in excess of modest living expenses, into the payment of these obligations. It was the burden of many years and he always called it “the national debt." But he kept his word, paying both principal and the high rate of interest until 1848, or after fifteen years, when a member of congress, he paid the last cent. He was still “honest Abe.” This narrative ranks the backwoodsman with Sir Walter Scott and Mark Twain, though no dinners were tendered to him and no glowing eulogies were published from ocean to ocean.

His only further experience in navigation was the piloting of a Cincinnati steamboat, the Talisman, up the Sangamon River (during the high water in spring time) to show that that stream was navigable. Nothing came of it however, and Springfield was never made “the head of navigation.”

It was in the midst of the mercantile experiences above narrated that the Black Hawk war broke out. Black Hawk was chief of the Sac Indians, who, with some neighboring tribes, felt themselves wronged by the whites. Some of them accordingly put on the paint, raised the whoop, and entered the warpath in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. The governor called for soldiers, and Lincoln volunteered with the rest.

The election of captain of the company was according to an original method. The two candidates were placed a short distance apart and the men were invited to line up with one or the other according to their preference. When this had been done it was seen that Lincoln had about three quarters of the men. This testimony to his popularity was gratifying. After he became president of the United States he declared that no success that ever came to him gave him so much solid satisfaction.

Lincoln saw almost nothing of the war. His only casualty came after its close. He had been mustered out and his horse was stolen so that he was compelled to walk most of the way home. After the expiration of his term of enlistment he reenlisted as a private. As he saw no fighting the war was to him almost literally a picnic. But in 1848, when he was in congress, the friends of General Cass were trying to make political capital out of his alleged military services. This brought from Lincoln a speech which showed that he had not lost the power of satire which he possessed while a lad in Indiana.

“Did you know, Mr. Speaker, I am a military hero? In the days of the Black Hawk war I fought, bled, and–came away. I was not at Stillman’s defeat, but I was about as near it as General Cass was to Hull’s surrender; and, like him, I saw the place very soon afterwards. It is quite certain I did not break my sword, for I had none to break, but I bent my musket pretty bad on one occasion. If General Cass went in advance of me picking whortleberries, I guess I surpassed him in charges on the wild onions. If he saw any live fighting Indians, it was more than I did, but I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes; and although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say I was often very hungry. If ever I should conclude to doff whatever our Democratic friends may suppose there is of black-cockade Federalism about me, and thereupon they shall take me up as their candidate for the Presidency, I protest that they shall not make fun of me, as they have of General Cass, by attempting to write me into a military hero.”

In 1833 Lincoln was appointed postmaster at New Salem. To him the chief advantage of this position was the fact that it gave him the means of reading the papers. The principal one of these was the Louisville Journal, an exceedingly able paper, for it was in charge of George D. Prentice, one of the ablest editors this country has ever produced. The duties of the post-office were few because the mail was light. The occasional letters which came were usually carried around by the postmaster in his hat. When one asked for his mail, he would gravely remove his hat and search through the package of letters.

This office was discontinued in a short time, but no agent of the government came to close up the accounts. Years afterwards, when Lincoln was in Springfield, the officer suddenly appeared and demanded the balance due to the United States, the amount being seventeen dollars and a few cents. A friend who was by, knowing that Lincoln was short of funds, in order to save him from embarrassment, offered to lend him the needful sum. “Hold on a minute and let’s see how we come out,” said he. He went to his room and returned with an old rag containing money. This he counted out, being the exact sum to a cent. It was all in small denominations of silver and copper, just as it had been received. In all his emergencies of need he had never touched this small fund which he held in trust. To him it was sacred. He was still "honest Abe.”

In the early thirties, when the state of Illinois was being settled with great rapidity, the demand for surveyors was greater than the supply. John Calhoun, surveyor for the government, was in urgent need of a deputy, and Lincoln was named as a man likely to be able to fit himself for the duties on short notice. He was appointed. He borrowed the necessary book and went to work in dead earnest to learn the science. Day and night he studied until his friends, noticing the wearing effect on his health, became alarmed. But by the end of six weeks, an almost incredibly brief period of time, he was ready for work.

It is certain that his outfit was of the simplest description, and there is a tradition that at first, instead of a surveyor’s chain he used a long, straight, wild-grape vine. Those who understand the conditions and requirements of surveying in early days say that this is not improbable. A more important fact is that Lincoln’s surveys have never been called in question, which is something that can be said of few frontier surveyors. Though he learned the science in so short a time, yet here, as always, he was thorough.

It was said in the earlier part of this chapter that to the holders of Lincoln’s notes who consented to await his ability to pay, there was one exception. One man, when his note fell due, seized horse and instruments, and put a temporary stop to his surveying. But a neighbor bought these in and returned them to Lincoln. He never forgot the kindness of this man, James Short by name, and thirty years later appointed him Indian agent.

At this point may be mentioned an occurrence which took place a year or two later. It was his first romance of love, his engagement to a beautiful girl, Ann Rutledge, and his bereavement. Her untimely death nearly unsettled his mind. He was afflicted with melancholy to such a degree that his friends dared not leave him alone. For years afterwards the thought of her would shake his whole frame with emotion, and he would sit with his face buried in his hands while the tears trickled through. A friend once begged him to try to forget his sorrow. “I cannot,” he said; “the thought of the rain and snow on her grave fills me with indescribable grief.”

Somehow, we know not how, the poem “Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?” was in his mind connected with Ann Rutledge. Possibly it may have been a favorite with her. There was certainly some association, and through his whole life he was fond of it and often repeated it. Nor did he forget her. It was late in life that he said: “I really and truly loved the girl and think often of her now.” Then, after a pause, "And I have loved the name of Rutledge to this day.”

This bereavement took much from Lincoln. Did it give him nothing? Patience, earnestness, tenderness, sympathy–these are sometimes the gifts which are sent by the messenger Sorrow. We are justified in believing that this sad event was one of the means of ripening the character of this great man, and that to it was due a measure of his usefulness in his mature years.

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