Abe Lincoln in Illinois

by Robert E. Sherwood

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Abe Lincoln in Illinois

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Characters Discussed

Abe Lincoln

Abe Lincoln, who, at the age of twenty-two in 1831, is an awkward, melancholy young backwoodsman with no particular ambition. By 1861, he is a man of dedicated political principles whose personality and career have been shaped by friendship, love, loss, marriage, his reactions to the Dred Scott decision, and the great debates with Stephen A. Douglas.

Ann Rutledge

Ann Rutledge, Lincoln’s great love, who agrees to marry him after her engagement to another man has been broken. She dies of a sudden fever.


McNeil, Ann’s fiancé, who is unable to return from his home in New York State to marry Ann.

Mary Todd

Mary Todd, an ambitious young woman who sees in Lincoln the means of fulfilling her own frustrated desires. After their marriage, she bears four children, but her jealousy and tantrums make his life so miserable that he is forced to shut her out of his election triumph.

Seth Gale

Seth Gale, Lincoln’s friend. When the possible death of his son Jimmie threatens the Gales’ plans to move west, Lincoln, seeing in his friend’s predicament a symbol of what could happen to his countrymen’s hopes after the Dred Scott decision, finds his political convictions shaped and strengthened.

Mentor Graham

Mentor Graham, the New Salem schoolmaster who taught Lincoln grammar and encouraged his love of poetry and oratory.

Ninian Edwards

Ninian Edwards, Lincoln’s political mentor and Mary Todd’s brother-in-law. Admiring Lincoln, he urges him to become a candidate for the Illinois State Assembly.

Judge Bowling Green

Judge Bowling Green, the New Salem justice of the peace.

Joshua Speed

Joshua Speed, a New Salem merchant.


Berry, Lincoln’s whiskey-drinking partner in a general store. His drinking bankrupts the partnership and leaves Lincoln with a debt of fifteen hundred dollars.

Judge Stuart

Judge Stuart, with whom Lincoln opens a law office in Springfield.

William H. Herndon

William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner.

Stephen A. Douglas

Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s political opponent.

Jimmie Gale

Jimmie Gale, Seth’s young son.


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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.

Historical Context

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The Abolitionist Movement Slavery existed in the United States from the earliest colonial days, with settlers first using captured Native Americans to do the heavy labor of cultivating and then importing poor people from Europe to work as indentured servants, a position almost equal to slavery. In the 1680s, southern landowners began importing slaves from Africa. From colonial times, laws defined black slaves and their children as property, to be owned for life. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 made it easier to process cotton and increased the demand for cotton. In the South, which had the soil and climate for cotton production, slavery became an institution and a necessary part of the economy.

The Abolitionist Movement, which fought to abolish slavery, is generally considered to have started in 1831, when the newspaper The Liberator began publication in Boston. A few years later, in 1833, which is the year of the first act of Abe Lincoln in Illinois , delegates from all over the country met in Philadelphia to form the American Anti-Slavery Society, which was to become the...

(This entire section contains 1006 words.)

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principle organization for fighting for slaves’ freedom. It was a time of vocal opposition to injustice, especially in the New England states. There were movements to encourage the government to adapt free schooling, workers rights, and voting rights for women, and groups that wanted the government to put an end to slavery, consumption of alcohol, and imprisonment for debt. Out of this rash of social movements, the Abolitionist Movement was to be come one of the largest and most lasting. Its members, like Billy Herndon inAbe Lincoln in Illinois, were passionate in their opposition to slavery, and they kept pressure on the government to limit the spread of slave ownership as the country grew.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act Throughout this play, Abraham Lincoln becomes increasingly conscious of how slavery affects his life, even though he lives in a free state and would rather ignore the issue altogether. One of the reasons that Americans were so aware of slavery in the 1830s to 1860s was that the country was still expanding westward, and when each new territory applied to become a state, there had to be a decision about whether it would be free or slave. The issue was settled for a long time by the Missouri Compromise, which was a series of legislative measures enacted in 1820. To get around Southern opposition to Maine entering the Union as a free state and Northern opposition to Missouri entering as a slave state, Congress decreed that future slavery states would be limited to those south of a line near 36 degrees latitude. By the 1850s, though, activists on both sides of the issue were becoming angry about the gains that were being made on the other side. Congress passed a new law, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which superseded the Missouri Compromise.

Some politicians, led by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas (who appears as a character in this play), fought for measures that would allow new territories to vote on whether they wanted to be free states or slave states as they entered the Union. When the Kansas Territory was opened for settlement in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, allowing the issue of slavery to be settled by popular vote. Thousands of settlers crossed the border from proslavery Missouri, and, to counter their votes, thousands of Abolitionists came from the Northeast. The violence that followed was extreme, earning the territory the nickname ‘‘Bloody Kansas.’’ Compromise measures to end the killing were suggested, voted upon, and rejected, until Kansas finally was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1861. In the meantime, though, the country had seen that emotions on the slavery issue were so strong that they could not be ignored or be left to settle themselves in a spirit of cooperation. The face of politics had changed: the Whig party, which had existed since the country was formed, was so divided that it eventually dissolved, and in its place rose a new party: the Republicans. When the Democrats nominated Douglas as their presidential candidate in 1860, southern Democrats objected, putting forward their own candidate instead. The split in the Democratic party allowed Lincoln to win the election in 1860.

Theater in the 1930s The Great Depression began in 1929, two years after the first commercially successful sound movie. During the 1930s, audiences shifted their attention to movies, which cost a fraction of what plays cost and were able to bring the biggest stars to small towns all across America, all at the same time. Theater became more of an isolated pursuit, written for and enjoyed by an educated class. At the same time, intellectual circles, disappointed by the failure of the American economy, began experimenting with other forms of government, such as communism and socialism. In some ways, this new social consciousness resembled the rise of the social movements like the abolitionists in New England in the 1830s. Some theater groups were formed on socialist principles, with equal rights granted to all players and decisions made by group consent. For instance, the members of the American Laboratory Theater not only worked together, but lived together, as well, and the members of the Mercury Theater staged The Cradle Will Rock without any sets or costumes after the government withdrew its support money, claiming that its pro-union stance was too controversial.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois was the first production of the Playwrights’ Company, a group that Sherwood and several other writers formed in response to the mishandling of their plays by members of the Dramatists’ Guild. They felt that the Guild was too wrapped up with making petty decisions about casting and rights for movie adaptations to present their works properly, so they decided to form their own group. Sherwood, Elmer Rice, Maxwell Anderson, Sidney Howard, and S. N. Behrman founded the Playwrights’ Company in 1938. At the time, Sherwood had almost completed Abe Lincoln in Illinois, so he presented it to the others in the group, and it was the first play that they staged, with great success

Literary Style

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Structure Most full-length plays are divided into two or three acts, or, as in the case of most of Shakespeare’s works, into five. Each of these acts is further divided into scenes, usually two or three per act. Very few dramas reach the level of twelve scenes, as Abe Lincoln in Illinois does. In addition, very few are written for a cast as large as this, which has more than thirty performers. This is a work of epic scope, fitting three decades of Lincoln’s life into a few hours onstage. It incorporates many familiar moments and expressions that are part of the Lincoln legend, as well as new ones that were fabricated by Sherwood to dramatize the aspects of Lincoln’s character that he thought were most important. There is no consistency in the lengths of the individual acts, nor is there any pattern used in the play’s structure to remind readers of things that came before. For instance, Scene 8 is the shortest scene, just a little more than four pages, which is a length not approached by any other scene. It is not part of any larger repeating pattern, either; there is no real relationship between Scene 8, which ends Act II, and either of the scenes that end the first or third acts. The structure of this play is not aimed at any measurable sense of style, it is aimed at making sure that all of the important parts of the Lincoln legend have been taken into account.

Because it is a biography, the most obvious structure, the one that Sherwood used, is chronological, following the order of time. Other plays use devices such as flashbacks, to tell what happened earlier in time, or tricks of lighting to show action that happens in two different places at once. Abe Lincoln in Illinois starts when Lincoln is twenty-one and progresses straight through to his election to the presidency. It would be a simple structure, if not for the many scene changes and characters involved.

Setting The setting of this play is crucial to its message. It is a play about Lincoln’s formative years, how he came to be the president that he was. It does not focus solely on his formative years in the wilderness, but presents Lincoln within a period of transformation. In the early scenes around New Salem, in the first act, he is light-hearted, good-natured, well liked, but unsure. His attitude is changed by the death of Ann Rutledge, who succumbs to ‘‘the brain sickness.’’ Like Seth Gale’s son Jimmy, who is overcome in Scene 7 with ‘‘the swamp fever,’’ and Lincoln’s own mother, whom he describes as having died of ‘‘the milksick,’’ people out in the prairie were susceptible to disease and early death. When Lincoln moves to Springfield, the issues examined by the play take on a more political nature. His rise in politics coincides with scenes that are set in offices and homes. In these settings, political issues are discussed, especially the burning issue of the day: slavery. This follows naturally because Lincoln is a politician, but it also is more expected that people in town would be aware of national political issues than people in remote villages like New Salem, where the news is delivered once a week. A turning point in Lincoln’s life comes when he discusses the issue of slavery with the Gale family on the prairie, as they are passing from the sophisticated, crowded East Coast to the unsettled space in the West, and he realizes that slavery affects people in all areas of the country, no matter how remote.

The importance of this play’s prairie setting can be seen in the fact that it ends when Lincoln leaves Illinois. In part, this change is required by the play’s title—it only promises to tell audiences about his life in Illinois—but it also makes thematic and psychological sense to consider a chapter of his development complete and fulfilled.

Compare and Contrast

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1837: Chicago is incorporated as a city.

1938: At a time when freight is moved by rail and barges, Chicago is the country’s second largest city, only losing that title to Los Angeles in the 1990s.

Today: Although they are still in the same state, Chicago has little in common with rural downstate towns like New Salem and Vandalia.

1830s–60s: Most black people in Southern states are slaves. Blacks living in states that bordered the Southern states are sometimes kidnapped and forced into slavery. The Supreme Court rules in 1857 that blacks can never become U. S. citizens.

1938: Although slavery is technically over when the Civil War ends in 1865, a series of laws passed in the South, known as Jim Crow Laws, keep blacks from enjoying their rights as citizens. Difficult IQ tests are given at polls to keep blacks from voting, and the charade of offering ‘‘separate but equal’’ accommodations leave blacks with inferior housing, food, and education.

Today: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 threatens serious federal punishment for anyone who discriminates on the basis of race.

1830s: The economic depression, which begins in 1837, is eventually overcome with new resources acquired by expanding the nation westward.

1938: The economic depression, begun in 1929, is eventually overcome by an increase in manufacturing when America enters World War II in 1941.

Today: The economic recession of the 1980s is eventually overcome, in part by the new business resources made available by the growth of the Internet.

1830s: A message going from rural Illinois to Washington, D. C. has to be carried by train or horseback, and takes more than a week.

1938: Telephones are common in most households; verbal messages can span the continent almost immediately. A written message takes a few days, unless sent by airplane with a special courier.

Today: A message can be sent via fax or e-mail attachment almost immediately.

1830s: Food has to be eaten fresh or else preserved with salt, limiting how far people can live from farms.

1938: Precooked frozen meals become available from Birdseye, which has been offering frozen vegetables since 1931.

Today: Foods are sealed in packages so that they can be kept fresh in cabinets or desk drawers without refrigeration.

Media Adaptations

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Abe Lincoln in Illinois was adapted as a film in 1940, starring Raymond Massey in the title role, with Ruth Gordon and Gene Lockhart. Sherwood wrote the screenplay, which was adapted by Grover Jones; John Cromwell directed. Available from Turner Home Video’s RKO Collection.

There is a 41-minute audio cassette version of the play entitled Abe Lincoln in Illinois: Robert Sherwood’s Political Drama of a Lincoln Few People Knew. Released by the Center for Cassette Studies in 1971.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Brown, John Mason, The Worlds of Robert E. Sherwood: Mirror to His Times, Harper & Row Publishers, 1962.

Fergusson, Francis, ‘‘Notes on the Theatre,’’ in The Southern Review, Winter 1940, p. 560.

Flexner, Eleanor, American Playwrights, 1918–1938, Simon and Schuster, 1938, pp. 272–82.

Meserve, Walter J., Robert E. Sherwood: Reluctant Moralist, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1970, pp. 221–222.

Sandburg, Carl, ‘‘Forward,’’ in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939, pp. xi–xii.

Shuman, R. Baird, Robert E. Sherwood, Twayne Publishers, 1964, p. 83.

Further Reading Drennan, Robert E., The Algonquin Wits, Replica Books, 2000. As a member of the famous Algonquin Round Table, a group of literary wits who met at the Algonquin Hotel in New York in the 1920s and 30s, Sherwood was engaged in intense intellectual competition.

Fehrenbacher, Don E., ed., Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832–1858, Library of America, 1989. The Library of America editions are painstakingly researched, checked for authenticity and thoroughness. This edition covers the same years as the play and gives Lincoln’s own words to compare to Sherwood’s portrayal.

Holzer, Harold, ed., The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text, HarperCollins, 1993. Edited and introduced by Harold Holzer, one of the leading historians in the field of Lincoln studies, this text gives a sense of drama that is like that of the play.

Smith, Wendy, Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931–1940, Grove Press, 1992. The Playwrights Company, which had its debut with Abe Lincoln in Illinois, was patterned on the Group Theater.

Wilson, Douglas, Lincoln Before Washington: New Perspectives on the Illinois Years, University of Illinois Press, 1997. Covering the same period of Lincoln’s life as Sherwood, this scholarly work is particularly concerned with the historical truth of William Herndon’s biography.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide