Jesse W. Fell (1808–87) was an Illinois businessman and close friend of Lincoln. As Lincoln became active in national politics in the mid-1850s, Fell convinced him that writing a short autobiographical sketch would boost his chances of becoming a serious presidential candidate. After much prodding, Lincoln agreed to pen the short piece below on December 20, 1859, which gives a brief account of his early years. Lincoln describes his frontier origins, his selection as captain in the Black Hawk War (an 1832 conflict between Illinois and Michigan settlers and the Native Americans), his legal and political career in Springfield, and his return to political life, spurred by the crisis over slavery’s expansion into the Western territories. He ends with a humorous and self-deprecating description of his ungainly physical appearance.Why might Lincoln want this sketch to be “modest?” Why does he emphasize certain events in his life (e.g., his military service, his political loss in 1832)? Why does he end with a humorous aside about his physical appearance? What does this sketch tell you about Lincoln as a man and political leader? Imagine that you were a voter in the 1850s, how would you react to Lincoln’s account of his life? Would you want to vote for him? Why or why not? Considering both Baldwin’s story and Sarah’s remembrance, what personal qualities and circumstances do you think were most important to Lincoln’s rise to the presidency?
My dear Sir: Herewith is a little sketch, as you requested. There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me. If anything be made out of it, I wish it to be modest, and not to go beyond the material. If it were thought necessary to incorporate anything from any of my speeches, I suppose there would be no objection. Of course it must not appear to have been written by myself.
Yours very truly,
I was born February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families—second families, perhaps I should say. My mother, who died in my tenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks, some of whom now reside in Adams, and others in Macon County, Illinois. My paternal grandfather, Abraham Lincoln, emigrated from Rockingham County, Virginia, to Kentucky about 1781 or 1782, where a year or two later he was killed by the Indians, not in battle, but by stealth, when he was laboring to open a farm in the forest. His ancestors, who were Quakers, went to Virginia from Berks County, Pennsylvania. An effort to identify them with the New England family of the same name ended in nothing more definite than a similarity of Christian names in both families, such as Enoch, Levi, Mordecai, Solomon, Abraham, and the like.
My father, at the death of his father, was but six years of age, and he grew up literally without education. He removed from Kentucky to what is now Spencer County, Indiana, in my eighth year. We reached our new home about the time the State came into the Union. It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up. There were some schools, so called, but no qualification was ever required of a teacher beyond “readin’, writin’, and cipherin’” to the rule of three. If a straggler supposed to understand Latin happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard. There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education. Of course, when I came of age I did not know much. Still, somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the rule of three, but that was all. I have not been to school since. The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity.
I was raised to farm work, which I continued till I was twenty-two. At twenty-two I came to Illinois, Macon County. Then I got to New Salem, at that time in Sangamon, now in Menard County, where I remained a year as a sort of clerk in a store. Then came the Black Hawk war; and I was elected a captain of volunteers, a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since. I went the campaign, was elated, ran for the legislature the same year (1832), and was beaten—the only time I ever have been beaten by the people. The next and three succeeding biennial elections I was elected to the legislature. I was not a candidate afterward. During this legislative period I had studied law, and removed to Springfield to practice it. In 1846 I was once elected to the lower House of Congress. Was not a candidate for reelection. From 1849 to 1854, both inclusive, practiced law more assiduously than ever before. Always a Whig in politics: and generally on the Whig electoral tickets, making active canvasses. I was losing interest in politics when the repeal of the Missouri compromise aroused me again. What I have done since then is pretty well known.
If any personal description of me is thought desirable, it may be said I am, in height, six feet four inches, nearly; lean in flesh, weighing on an average one hundred and eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black hair and grey eyes. No other marks or brands recollected.
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