Table of Contents
Second Journey to New Orleans
The first winter in Illinois, 1830-31, was one of those epochal seasons which come to all communities. It is remembered by “the oldest inhabitant” to this day for the extraordinary amount of snow that fell. There is little doing in such a community during any winter; but in such a winter as that there was practically nothing doing. Lincoln always held himself ready to accept any opportunity for work, but there was no opening that winter. The only thing he accomplished was what he did every winter and every summer of his life: namely, he made many friends.
When spring opened, Denton Offutt decided to send a cargo of merchandise down to New Orleans. Hearing that Lincoln, John Hanks, and John Johnston were “likely boys,” he employed them to take charge of the enterprise. Their pay was to be fifty cents a day and “found,” and, if the enterprise proved successful, an additional sum of twenty dollars. Lincoln said that none of them had ever seen so much money at one time, and they were glad to accept the offer.
Two events occurred during this trip which are of sufficient interest to bear narration.
The boat with its cargo had been set afloat in the Sangamon River at Springfield. All went well until, at New Salem, they came to a mill dam where, in spite of the fact that the water was high, owing to the spring floods, the boat stuck. Lincoln rolled his trousers “five feet more or less” up his long, lank legs, waded out to the boat, and got the bow over the dam. Then, without waiting to bail the water out, he bored a hole in the bottom and let it run out. He constructed a machine which lifted and pushed the boat over the obstruction, and thus their voyage was quickly resumed. Many years later, when he was a practising lawyer, he whittled out a model of his invention and had it patented. The model may to-day be seen in the patent office at Washington. The patent brought him no fortune, but it is an interesting relic.
This incident is of itself entirely unimportant. It is narrated here solely because it illustrates one trait of the man–his ingenuity. He had remarkable fertility in devising ways and means of getting out of unexpected difficulties. When, in 1860, the Ship of State seemed like to run aground hopelessly, it was his determination and ingenuity that averted total wreck. As in his youth he saved the flatboat, so in his mature years he saved the nation.
The other event was that at New Orleans, where he saw with his own eyes some of the horrors of slavery. He never could tolerate a moral wrong. At a time when drinking was almost universal, he was a total abstainer. Though born in a slave state, he had an earnest and growing repugnance to slavery. Still, up to this time he had never seen much of its workings. At this time he saw a slave market–the auctioning off of human beings.
The details of this auction were so coarse and vile that it is impossible to defile these pages with an accurate and faithful description. Lincoln saw it all. He saw a beautiful mulatto girl exhibited like a race-horse, her “points” dwelt on, one by one, in order, as the auctioneer said, that “bidders might satisfy themselves whether the article they were offering to buy was sound or not.” One of his companions justly said slavery ran the iron into him then and there. His soul was stirred with a righteous indignation. Turning to the others he exclaimed with a solemn oath: “Boys, if ever I get a chance to hit that thing [slavery] I’ll hit it hard!”
He bided his time. One-third of a century later he had the chance to hit that thing. He redeemed his oath. He hit it hard.