Abe Lincoln in Illinois Summary
by Robert E. Sherwood

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Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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 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...

(The entire section is 2,605 words.)