Abe Lincoln in Illinois

by Robert E. Sherwood

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First produced: 1938

First published: 1939

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Historical chronicle

Time of work: 1831-1861

Locale: New Salem and Springfield, Illinois

Principal Characters:

Mentor Graham, a schoolmaster

Abe Lincoln

Ann Rutledge, Abe's early love

Judge Bowling Green, Justice of the Peace

Ninian Edwards, a politician

Joshua Speed, a merchant

William Herndon, Abe's law clerk

Mary Todd, Abe's wife

Stephen A. Douglas, Abe's political opponent

Seth Gale, Abe's friend

Jimmie Gale, Seth's young son


Robert Sherwood saw in the struggles of Abe Lincoln a symbol of democracy in action. The playwright was able to stick fairly close to the facts of Lincoln's life in working out his allegory of the growth of the democratic spirit, but in several scenes he was forced to invent fictitious characters or incidents to make his point. Whether the play be viewed as history or allegory, it remains as authentically American as its leading character.

The Story:

In the summer of 1831, when Abe Lincoln was twenty-two years old, he arrived in New Salem, Illinois, at that time a frontier village of fifteen log cabins. Shortly afterward the lanky young man opened a general store in partnership with a friend named Berry. Their stock included whiskey. Berry continued to tap the keg until he drank up all their liquid assets, and the store went bankrupt. Abe voluntarily assumed all the obligations for the partnership and went into debt for about fifteen hundred dollars.

At that time Abe boarded with Mentor Graham, the neighborhood schoolmaster, who began the task of teaching the young backwoodsman the rudiments of grammar. He awakened in Abe an interest in great oratory as well as a love for poetry. Graham sensed his pupil's extreme melancholy and preoccupation with death as well as his marked disinclination to do anything which required much effort. He advised Abe to go into politics, declaring wryly that there were only two professions open to a man who had failed at everything else—schoolteaching and politics.

Abe's opportunity came a year later while he held the job of local postmaster. A young politician, Ninian Edwards, a vigorous opponent of President Jackson, appeared at the Rutledge tavern in New Salem. He was looking for a possible candidate for the State Assembly. Edwards so much admired Abe's deft handling of several quarrelsome Jackson supporters that he offered Abe the candidacy.

In making his offer he was supported by Abe's two loyal and influential friends in Salem, Joshua Speed, a merchant, and Judge Bowling Green, the justice of the peace. But Abe, who had been considering going farther west, refused. Then several circumstances arose to change his mind. Seth Gale, the friend with whom Abe had planned to make the trip, received news that his father was sick and he had to return to his native state of Maryland at once. And Ann Rutledge, daughter of the local tavernkeeper, with whom Abe had been secretly in love, received a letter from New York State to the effect that a young man named McNeil, with whom Ann had been in love, would not be able to return to New Salem. When Abe declared his devotion, Ann, disillusioned with her former lover, encouraged him. As a consequence, Abe sent word by his friend Judge Bowling Green that he would be a candidate for the State Assembly.

Fate brought about another, more disastrous, turn in Abe's fortunes. Ann Rutledge fell suddenly ill of a fever, and nothing that the doctor or Abe did could save her. After Ann's death, Abe...

(This entire section contains 1849 words.)

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became completely obsessed by a feeling of melancholia from which none of his friends could rouse him. He opened a Springfield law office with his friend, Judge Stuart, but he refused to take much interest in politics, in spite of the urgings of his clerk, William Herndon, who was a firebrand Abolitionist. Although Abe disliked slavery, he failed to see that the Abolitionists were helping their cause by threatening to split the country.

Knowing that something must be done to pull Abe out of his lethargy, his old political mentor, Ninian Edwards, introduced him to his ambitious sister-in-law, Mary Todd. Mary saw immediately that Lincoln was a man she could inspire to great things. Her aristocratic sister, Elizabeth, could not understand what Mary saw in this raw-boned frontiersman, but Mary saw in him the satisfaction of her own frustrated yearnings. They became engaged.

But Abe had not forgotten Ann Rutledge. On the day of his wedding to Mary Todd, he pleaded with his friend, Joshua Speed, to deliver to Mary a letter he had written to tell her that he did not love her. Speed insisted that Abe go to Mary himself and explain that he was afraid of her, of the demands she would make upon him. After he had humiliated Mary Todd with his explanation, Abe drifted back to the prairie frontier once more.

One day he encountered his old friend, Seth Gale, with whom he had once planned to go west. Seth had set out from Maryland with his wife and child, and was headed for Oregon. But his child, Jimmie, was ill, and Seth felt that if his son died neither he nor his wife would have the courage to continue the journey. In a flash of insight, Abe saw in his friend's predicament a symbol of the plight of the country as a whole. The Dred Scott Decision had made it possible to extend slavery in the West, a circumstance that would be fatal to those who, like Seth Gale, were trying to build a new country there. That vision crystallized Abe's purpose in life; and when he offered up a prayer to the Almighty for the life of little Jimmie, he was thinking of the country as a whole. Filled with a new purpose, he pocketed his pride and went back to Mary Todd. Still believing in him, she accepted Abe without a moment's hesitation.

From that day on his career followed one straight line, culminating in his nomination for the presidency. There were his debates with Stephen A. Douglas, who was to be his opponent in the election that followed. Within his own party there were political considerations which Lincoln handled with dignity and tact. But most important of all, there was his own life with Mary Todd. In the years since their marriage she had borne him four sons, one of whom had died, and through those years she had grown more tense and irritable, until the home life of the Lincolns became almost intolerable. Abe patiently endured her tirades in their own home, but when Mary began criticizing him in public, he resisted. On the night of his election she had one of her tantrums, and Abe was forced to send her home on the very eve of her triumph.

With his election to the highest office in the land, Lincoln's troubles increased. The old melancholia returned, the old preoccupation with death. On an eventful day in 1861, standing on the rear platform of the train which was to take him from Springfield to Washington, he tried to express to his old neighbors and friends his ideals for the future of America. As the presidential train pulled out he could hear his well-wishers singing the last strains of "John Brown's Body"—"His soul goes marching on!"

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

Robert Emmet Sherwood chose to dramatize the pre-presidential career of Abraham Lincoln for three primary reasons: first, his lifelong fascination with, and admiration for, the great Civil War leader; second, his belief that Lincoln was the quintessential American, a man who embodied the basic genius of the American character, with all of its strengths, ambiguities, and contradictions; and, third, his conviction that the world in 1938 faced a crisis not unlike America's Civil War and needed, therefore, the guidance and inspiration of Lincoln's example.

Sherwood's focus is on Lincoln's humanity and the agonizing contradictions in his character: his love of life and preoccupation with death; his bearlike physicality and his gentleness; his love of people and his "misanthropy"; his need for female love and his fear of its consequences; his humor and his sadness; his sense of greatness and his feelings of mediocrity.

The play is structured as a loose chronicle covering the major crises in Lincoln's career from his beginnings as a bankrupt shopkeeper in New Salem to an elected President setting off to assume office in Washington. Except for the dramatization of one Lincoln-Douglas debate and his farewell speech, however, all of the scenes are private; that is, all show Lincoln relating to friends or associates while the pressures and tensions, external and internal, swirl about him. Two concerns are foremost: Lincoln's erratic, indecisive political career and his need for, and fears of, the love and support of a woman. And the two are intimately connected.

In Sherwood's version, Lincoln's actual decision to commit himself to a political career is a solitary one, the result of an encounter with an old friend on the Illinois prairie, but the first concrete evidence of that commitment is his return to Mary Todd. The author only suggests the complexity of their relationship in the play, but he does so brilliantly. The combination of pride and hostility that Lincoln feels toward his electoral career becomes focused on her: she glories in his success; she suffers under his resentment. The climax of their relationship fuses with the climax of his political endeavors in Lincoln's election night outburst and her hysterical response.

But perhaps the picture that remains longest in the mind is that of Lincoln the peacemaker about to lead his country into Civil War. Lincoln's resistance to his "destiny," as Sherwood presents it, was not merely a matter of personal reticence or lack of self-confidence, but was the result of his acute perception. Lincoln knew that the leader of the country in the 1860's would have the responsibility of war or peace and, given his deeply felt antagonism to violence, that was the decision he felt most unwilling and unable to make. Sherwood stated that the dramatic core of the play "was the story of a man of peace who had to face the issue of appeasement or war. He faced it."

And this, of course, was the parallel that Sherwood saw with the world situation in 1938. Given the economic issue of the Great Depression in the United States and, even more important, the specter of Naziism rising in Europe, Sherwood saw America's "neutrality" and "indecision" as potentially destroying what was left of Western civilization.

In the plays immediately preceding ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOISTHE PETRIFIED FOREST (1935), ACROPOLIS (1936), and IDIOT'S DELIGHT (1936)—Sherwood had presented a totally bleak vision of the West; the "barbarians" were getting stronger and the "civilized" men seemed too weak and vacillating to do anything about it. ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS represented a turning point in Sherwood's attitude from thorough pessimism to guarded optimism. He had come to believe that America could have the Western world by reasserting the values and strengths evident in the life and career of Abraham Lincoln.