At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis

By Shearer Davis Bowman | Go to book overview

6 Abraham Lincoln, Henry Waller, and the
Free-Labor North

When Abraham Lincoln began to appear to be a serious contender for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination, the editor of the Chicago Tribune, Joseph Medill, sent reporter Jon Locke Scripps to the Illinois state capital, Springfield, to gather information for a brief campaign biography. (On the day of Lincoln’s inauguration, the entrepreneurial editor wrote to the president’s political ally, Senator Lyman Trumbull, that he hoped Scripps would receive a patronage appointment as the new postmaster of Chicago. “If Mr. Scripps has it,” Medill pointed out, “the country postmasters of the Northwest would work to extend our circulation.”)1 Borrowing a line from a favorite poem, Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Lincoln told Scripps that his early life could “be condensed into a simple sentence: ‘the short and simple annals of the poor.’” In this instance, Lincoln’s penchant for self-deprecating humor served him well in driving home a potent and positive political message. Throughout his political career, Lincoln liked to paint himself as embodying the American dream of substantial, even dramatic upward social mobility from humble, modest beginnings—what one historian has termed “the embodiment of the American success story.” During his first, unsuccessful run for a seat in the Illinois state legislature in the early 1830s, he had portrayed himself as “humble Abe Lincoln” from “the most humble walks of life.” During the 1860 campaign, Republican boosters portrayed him as the “Rail Candidate for President” and the “People’s Candidate for President”; his political persona appeared to embody the cult of the self-made man. The phrase “selfmade man” seems to have been introduced to American parlance by Lincoln’s political hero, Kentucky’s Henry Clay, during a Whiggish paean to industrial entrepreneurs in 1832. Clay, according to two biographers, had “a genius for self-dramatization” and “nurtured the pretense of great poverty in his youth” for the political reason that “the ideal of the ‘self-made man’ added considerable luster to his reputation in the minds of his contemporaries” during the era of Jacksonian democracy for white men.2

Lincoln’s formidable Democratic opponent, Senator Stephen A. Douglas,

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