Abe Lincoln in Illinois

by Robert E. Sherwood

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Jack Armstrong
Armstrong is the leader and the most aggressive of the Clary’s Grove Boys, a gang of bullies in New Salem. When the gang enters the Rutledge Tavern, Armstrong speaks roughly to Ann Rutledge and tries to pick a fight with Ninian Edwards. He stops when Lincoln enters, though. He respects Lincoln, in part because Lincoln is a man of the people and not a rich sophisticate like Edwards, but mostly he respects Lincoln because Lincoln is the only man in the territory who can beat him in a fight. Lincoln shows respect for Armstrong, too, preferring to joke with him rather than threaten him. Years later, Lincoln mentions that he is defending Armstrong’s son Duff on a murder charge, even though Duff seems to be hopelessly guilty. Armstrong is the one to bring Lincoln to the aid of Seth Gale when Jimmy Gale falls sick as the family is passing through New Salem.

BillySee William Herndon

Stephen A. Douglas
Douglas was a politician who ran against Lincoln for the Senate. He was a skilled orator, only slightly less persuasive than Lincoln. The series of debates that the two men had in 1858, primarily over the issue of slavery, became national news, giving Lincoln the fame that he needed across the land to run for president. Scene 9 presents one of those debates.

Ninian Edwards
Edwards is the son of the governor of Illinois. Although he comes from a wealthy background, he is not afraid to stand up for himself and fight Jack Armstrong, if necessary, although it is likely he would lose. He is the one to introduce Lincoln to his sister-in-law, Mary Todd. During the debate between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in Scene 9, Ninian Edwards is the narrator.

Seth Gale
At the very start of the play, Seth Gale plans to move with Lincoln out to the open territory west of the Mississippi river, where land is cheap and political systems are not yet established. He has to drop out of the plan, though, when he receives a letter saying that his father is ill and that he has to return to run the family farm. Ten years later, when his parents are dead, Seth finally does move west. While passing through New Salem with his wife, child, and a free Negro servant, Gale’s son Jimmy becomes ill, and Lincoln and Jack Armstrong help out his family. Seth’s family is an inspiration to Lincoln, who sees how important it is to stop slavery before it spreads to the new territory, so that people like the Gales do not have to worry about what kind of morals with which their children will be raised.

A free Negro who works for Seth Gale’s family. His father had been a slave, but was freed by Seth’s father twenty years earlier. While they lived in Maryland, there was always the danger that kidnappers might abduct Gobey and take him to the South, where they would sell him as a slave.

Mentor Graham
Mentor Graham only appears in the first scene, tutoring Lincoln. The examples that he uses reflect the political attitudes that Lincoln shows later in the play, particularly the selection from Senator Daniel Webster about whether the South has a right to secede from the Union.

Bowling Green
One of Lincoln’s oldest friends, Green is a judge whose influence guides Lincoln’s early political career. He brings Edwards, the son of the state’s governor, to see Lincoln and to consider him as a possible candidate for the state assembly. It is partially because of his grief when Bowling...

(This entire section contains 1951 words.)

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Green dies that Lincoln breaks off his engagement to Mary Todd and goes off for nearly two years to think.

William Herndon
A young clerk in Lincoln’s law office in Spring- field, Herndon is driven by two strong compulsions. The first is alcohol; there is not a scene in which he is not either drunk or on his way to get himself a drink. Lincoln notes in Act IV that when Herndon leaves to take some papers to the clerk’s office, which is downstairs in the same building, he takes his hat, which is a sign that he intends to go to the saloon. Herndon’s other driving passion is his staunch opposition to slavery. He functions as Lincoln’s conscience on the slavery issue. While Lincoln himself takes a tolerant attitude toward the laws of the South, Herndon is more radical, constantly pushing him to speak out against slavery, to refuse to associate with slaveholders or with supporters of slavery. Although Lincoln privately opposes slavery, he resists Herndon’s efforts to get him to speak out against it at political gatherings.

Kavanagh is a secret service agent who moves in to protect Lincoln immediately after he is elected president. His presence indicates the way that the office distances the man from the men who helped him get there. Immediately after the election returns are announced, Kavanagh moves in, coming between Lincoln and the people, walking before Lincoln through doorways to look for assassins. His concern is not just a matter of paranoia; as he points out, there were many threats on Lincoln’s life by Southerners who felt that he would endanger their right to own slaves. Audiences, of course, know that Lincoln was killed by an assassin, so all of Kavanagh’s precautions have an element of prophecy to them.

Abe Lincoln
This play is about the formative years of Abraham Lincoln, explaining how he grew in outlook and popularity from a simple country man to the president of the United States. As a result, every scene of the play either has Lincoln in it or has people talking about him. In the beginning, Lincoln is in his early twenties and being tutored in English grammar at night, using a variety of texts for examples. Even at such a young age, he is financially destitute, having invested in a business with a man who ran away with all of the funds and feeling responsible for paying back all creditors. He is already haunted by death, having helped his father make a coffin for his mother when she died out in the prairie wilderness. He is popular with the men of New Salem, where he delivers mail. He is in love with Ann Rutledge, but when her fiancé drops her and Lincoln has a slight chance with her, she dies. After Lincoln begins practicing in Springfield, he becomes engaged to Mary Todd, whose ambitions for his political career are greater than his own. On the day of his wedding, though, he runs away from her, and stays away for two years, until a chance encounter with an old friend and his family makes him think about responsibility, both to his family and to the country. He returns and marries Mary.

In the late 1850s, while they both are running for the United States Senate, he and Stephen A. Douglas have a series of debates on the subject of slavery: these debates receive much attention and make Lincoln’s name a household word. A committee of civic leaders comes to him to ask if he is interested in running for president. The final chapter of the play presents his farewell speech to the people of Illinois. Lincoln is not entirely enthusiastic about being the president—he tells friends that he expects to die, and he feels cut off by security measures from the people he knows best, the common people. He and Mary Todd are both unhappy in their marriage, but both are driven toward the presidency.

Ann Rutledge
Ann is the daughter of the owner of Rutledge Tavern, a meeting place in New Salem. She is forced to take orders from the tough local people who order her around when they want drinks. Lincoln has a crush on her, but he is not able to say so because she is engaged, and also because he is a homely man with financial debt and no social prestige. In Act II, a letter comes from Ann’s fiancé, Mr. McNiel, and Lincoln recognizes the handwriting and the fact that it has come from New York State. Seeing that it has upset her, he asks and finds out that McNiel probably is not coming back. Because Ann is upset about what people will say about her when they find out that her fiancé has dropped her, Lincoln declares his love for her, hoping that she could use an engagement with him to explain breaking up with McNiel. She tells him that she has never thought of him like that, and that she would have to consider his proposal. In the following scene, Lincoln’s political patrons, Green and Speed, discuss the fact that his romance with her might hinder Lincoln’s political career, but Lincoln arrives soon after with the startling news that she has died of a sickness that they all thought she would easily survive.

Joshua Speed
Described in Scene 2 as ‘‘quiet, mild, solid, thoughtful, well-dressed,’’ Speed is from Spring- field, and is a member of the Whig party who knows the small local towns like New Salem well enough to think of Lincoln when asked who might be a good candidate for the state assembly. He is full of admiration for Lincoln, but has doubts about his ability for success: ‘‘he has plenty of strength and courage in his body,’’ Speed tells Bowling and Nancy Green, ‘‘but in his mind he’s a hopeless hypochondriac.’’ Speed is usually present in meetings for political planning, but he is not very instrumental, usually limiting his input to asking questions and giving encouraging advice. In a decisive moment, he destroys the letter that Lincoln has written to Mary to break off their engagement.

Mary Todd
Mary is a willful woman, a bright, well-connected socialite, the daughter of the president of the Bank of Kentucky. She has many suitors, including Stephen Douglas, but to the surprise of her sister, Elizabeth Edwards, she chooses to marry Lincoln. Her choice is carefully thought out; she sees him, of all of the eligible bachelors around, to be the one with the greatest potential. She does not want social prestige or financial comfort and would live in poverty, ‘‘so long as there is forever before me the chance for high adventure—so long as I can know that I am always going forward, with my husband, along that road that leads to the horizon.’’ On the day of their wedding, Lincoln gets cold feet and runs away, but when he returns two years later Mary accepts him back and marries him. Mary becomes very status conscious when she is married to him, which causes strain in their marriage. She is horri- fied that he has invited several politicians over without telling her, because she feels that the house is not sufficiently clean. She refuses to let him smoke in the house, and so, when one of the politicians lights a cigar, Lincoln encourages him, telling him to bring it along as he comes to the dining room. On the night of his election to the presidency, they have a serious fight. Nervous about the changing results, Mary becomes hysterical and shouts, ‘‘You only want to be rid of me! That’s what you’ve wanted ever since the day we married—and before that. Anything to get me out of your sight, because you hate me!’’ Lincoln calmly asks the other people to leave the room before shouting back at her. Even though he immediately apologizes, Mary declares that he has ruined the most important day of her life.




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