In December 1859, Abraham Lincoln wrote a “little sketch” of his life for use by Republican friends who sought to make him better known outside his home state of Illinois. The Republican national convention would be held in Chicago in a few months, and Lincoln was being mentioned by some newspapers as a possible vice presidential or presidential candidate. “There is not much of it,” said Lincoln about his autobiographical sketch, “for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me.” In the race of ambition, he regarded himself as largely a failure, especially compared with his famous rival, Stephen Douglas. But all was not failure. Looking back in his sketch across the whole span of his adult life, he fondly recalled “a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since.” He was thinking of his election at the age of 23 in the spring of 1832 as “a Captain of Volunteers” from Sangamon County, Illinois, in the Black Hawk war.

The Clary Grove Boys

The 22-year-old Lincoln had arrived, as he would often say, like “a piece of floating driftwood” in the village of New Salem, in Sangamon County, in the summer of 1831. He described himself as “a strange, friendless, uneducated, penniless boy, working on a flat boat—at ten dollars per month.” New Salem had existed for barely three years and had a population of about 100, a handful of whom had attended college. It was the most civilized and populous place Lincoln had ever lived. 

Some days after Lincoln floated into town, New Salem was holding elections. Local civic leaders, discovering that Lincoln could write—a prized ability in those parts—put him to work as a recording clerk registering ballots. In the course of a leisurely afternoon, as citizens came into the voting place, the election judge calling out their votes and the clerk writing them down, townsmen became familiar with another Lincoln ability—as a spell-binding storyteller. He told his lizard story that day, about how an old line Baptist preacher in the Indiana backwoods, delivering a sermon, had the misfortune to have a little blue lizard run up inside his pantaloons, with results that caused some distress among the faithful. 

In coming weeks and months—Lincoln now “a sort of Clerk in a store,” as he put it—New Salemites saw more of his storytelling as well as his affability, surprising gentleness, hard work, an unequalled determination and capacity to learn, honesty that immediately became legendary, and prodigious physical strength. This last led Lincoln’s impulsive employer to wager that Lincoln was not only the smartest fellow around but could outwrestle the toughest man in the county—Jack Armstrong, leader of the Clary Grove boys. That wild bunch lived a few miles outside town and were, despite their roguish gallantry, “a terror to the entire region,” as Lincoln’s future law partner William Herndon reports. In his warm description, 

They were friendly and good-natured; they could trench a pond, dig a bog, build a house; they could pray and fight, make a village or create a state. They would do almost anything for sport or fun, love or necessity. Though rude and rough…there never was under the sun a more generous parcel of rowdies.

The Clary Grove boys put their money on Armstrong to prove himself “a better man than Lincoln.” Accounts of the epic match vary. Herndon records that it ended when Lincoln, angered by foul play, suspended decorum and “fairly lifted the great bully by the throat and shook him like a rag.” However it ended, all accounts agree on the result: Lincoln increased his good standing in the opinion of “all New Salem,” and “secured the respectful admiration and friendship,” above all, of the Clary Grove champion, Jack Armstrong. (Many years later, Lincoln would, for no fee, skillfully and successfully defend Armstrong’s son against a charge of murder.) The Clary Grove boys were devoted friends and supporters of Lincoln ever after. 

Choose Your Weapons!

Lincoln had been living in New Salem only seven months when some of his more respectable new friends, impressed by his qualities, encouraged him to run for the state legislature. In his maiden speech as a candidate, March 9, 1832, he declared that he had no greater ambition than to be “truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.” He soon got a chance to show his worthiness in a new and unexpected field of honor. In April, a call came from the Governor of Illinois for volunteers to defend the state against the famous Indian chief, Black Hawk, and his warriors. These were known as the “British Band,” for their affiliation with British interests going back to the War of 1812; they had come across the Mississippi into Illinois to reclaim disputed territory. Lincoln answered the call with throngs of others, and to his surprise was elected captain of the Sangamon County company of the Thirty-first Regiment of the Illinois Militia. The Clary Grove gang was the core of the electorate who brought Lincoln this success. Like Lincoln, they had enlisted for 30 days.

With these boys, an election was not a coronation. They had chosen Lincoln as their captain, and no doubt considered that he should be proud of the distinction, as he would always be. But this did not mean they expected to have to obey him. According to one witness, Lincoln’s company “was the hardest set of men he ever saw.” Obedience did not come naturally to them—as Herndon observes, they “were difficult to bring down to the inflexibilities of military discipline.” Lincoln, himself, would later tell the story that to the first order he gave as captain, “he received the response, ‘Go to the devil, sir!'” 

Not his newly acquired rank, but something immeasurably more substantial, persuaded Lincoln’s independent-minded troops to obey him in “[one of] the few incidents of Lincoln’s career in the Black Hawk war that have found a place in history” (Herndon, again). An old Indian wandered into the camp of the Sangamon County company one day, carrying a military safe-conduct pass commending him for his faithful services. The men had been called out to fight Indians, had stories of Indian massacres fresh in their minds, and were in no temper to trust a redskin. They accused him of being “a damned spy” and were threatening to shoot him, when Lincoln “placed himself between the Indian” and his men and said, “Men, this must not be done…. We must not shed his blood. It must not be on our shirts.” But the men were belligerent and determined. They called Lincoln “cowardly” for refusing to go along with the project. Lincoln challenged, “If any man thinks I am a coward let him test it.” And here one has to smile at the guilelessness of these rough, spirited, unbridled young men, and some not so young—they objected that Lincoln was being unfair, since he was bigger and stronger than any of them! As Lincoln biographer Albert J. Beveridge tells it, the 6′ 4″ Lincoln “jumped, ran, boxed, and wrestled better than any man in the expedition.” So Lincoln, disdaining any advantage, evened the field: “Choose your weapons then,” he said. That broke it up. 

Beautiful Goodness 

Lincoln could not turn these ruffians into angels or even mere philosophers, and he had no inclination to try. It was all he could do, at peril of his life, to keep them from doing grave wrong. There was no guarantee that he would succeed even at that. They could no more slough off their prejudices, passions, and follies than they could step out of the skin they lived in. But such as they were, they had chosen Lincoln as their captain. They had chosen him because he was the best man among them, the one most worthy of their esteem. Their esteem, as Lincoln well understood, was far from wisdom, but in good light it glimpsed at least a hint of wisdom in the distance. Lincoln earned it in no small part by outrunning, outboxing, and outwrestling them, but they knew, when they listened to the better angels of their natures, that there were much more important reasons to esteem him. Of course, it could sometimes require the prospect of a good thrashing to make them listen.

“When [his] thirty days were up,” writes Beveridge, “Lincoln was easily the most popular man in the whole army.” “All the men in the Company—as well as the Regiment to which he & they belonged loved him well—almost worshipped him,” recalled Henry McHenry. What was most apparent to these elemental men, what won their respect in the first instance, was Lincoln’s physical prowess coupled with his courage. At their sober best, they saw that his strength of character was greater even than his storied strength of limb, and they admired him the more for it. His still greater strength of mind, so decisive in Lincoln’s later celebrated political battles, they could only wonder at. His magical storytelling delighted and entranced them. That he never talked down to them, that he met them, and bested them, on their own ground—this made it possible for them to think of him as their friend, even though he didn’t drink, swear, or chew. His genuine liking for them they warmly reciprocated. But what made them love him to the point of worship was the most exquisite and essential thing about him. It was his goodness—that firmness in the right, as God gave him to see the right, that was sovereign in his noble soul even at a young age. It was their love of this beautiful goodness, I like to think, more than fear of the native mightiness of Lincoln, that brought the boys to reason, in that wild, murderous moment, against the pull of their most unruly passions. 

Many aspiring politicians enlisted for the Black Hawk war, and brought home stories not likely to damage their political careers. As one contemporary recalls, “Jack Falstaff never slew as many men in buckram as each and every one of those Illinois politicians did” in that war. Lincoln is reported to have had “an inexhaustible supply of stories based upon his experiences in this war,” and he shared a few jokes on the subject in an amusing speech in Congress years later. But esteem takes time to spread. In 1832, having served a couple of extra months in the militia, Lincoln returned to New Salem to resume his candidacy for the state legislature. As he later described the moment: “Returning from the [Black Hawk] campaign, and encouraged by his great popularity among his immediate neighbors, he the same year ran for the legislature, and was beaten…the only time Abraham was ever beaten on a direct vote of the people.” But those who knew him best loved him best. His own New Salem precinct, as he proudly records, cast its votes “277 for and 7 against him.” 

Face to Face

Over the next 20 years, esteem for Lincoln certainly did spread, and he had many successes as a lawyer and Whig politician. But his Democratic competitor Stephen Douglas, who started out in Illinois politics at the same time as Lincoln, outstripped him at every turn. By 1854, Douglas was the most powerful man in Illinois and in the U.S. Senate. His name filled the nation, as Lincoln noted ruefully, and was “not unknown, even, in foreign lands.” He had achieved “high eminence.” Lincoln had by then been out of elective office for several years and was a modestly successful local attorney, a private citizen raising a respectable family. 

Then, in 1854, Douglas pushed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law, repealing the Missouri Compromise, threatening to introduce slavery into the territories and to replace America’s founding principles with Douglas’s doctrine of popular sovereignty. The rest, as they say, is history. Looking back from the vantage of 1860, Lincoln would reflect that “his profession had almost superseded the thought of politics in his mind, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused him as he had never been before.” From the moment Lincoln called Douglas out at a public meeting in Springfield on October 3, 1854, until he defeated Douglas in the 1860 presidential campaign, Lincoln grappled with the most formidable champion he had ever challenged, for the highest stakes; their arena was a country. It required all Lincoln’s force of character and especially the heroic exertion of his commanding mind to prevent Douglas and his doctrine of popular sovereignty from making mob rule the law of the land. 

The finally vanquished Douglas, like Jack Armstrong in New Salem days, became a fast ally as soon as he was thrown, and until his untimely death was a staunch supporter of Lincoln. So it would be, too, with other great men who had been Lincoln’s Republican rivals for the presidency. Once beaten, they joined his administration, and came to have the highest regard for him, some of them coming to love him no less than did his Sangamon County volunteers. Even the wisest leaders of the rebellious South, when defeat came upon them, acknowledged that they would be fortunate to have Lincoln to surrender to. Soon there would be no American, not even Washington, so highly esteemed by his countrymen and the best of his fellow men. 

What made Lincoln worthy of the highest esteem was stated with martial economy by one of his generals, William Tecumseh Sherman, in words that would be perfectly understood by the boys of Clary Grove who had made Lincoln their captain so long ago: “Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness than any other.” Sophisticated and literate eastern Americans had usually taken a little longer than western roughnecks to recognize Lincoln’s worthiness, so in his Commemoration Ode, recited at Harvard University in July 1865, James Russell Lowell explained it to them in terms they might understand. When Lincoln was among us, he said, “one of Plutarch’s men talked with us face to face.”