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Lincoln the Storekeeper

Annie Goitein
Peoria Hebrew Day School, Peoria

In 1832 Lincoln returned to New Salem from the Black Hawk War. He was unemployed and did not know what he wanted to do. His first thoughts were to become a blacksmith or a lawyer, but initially he decided against both.

The idea of being a storekeeper, however, appealed to Lincoln. Everywhere that he lived, the town merchant was looked up to as a leading citizen. His place of business provided a focus of community life. The store was a common meeting place of farmers and was popular among the loungers. People gathered at the store to talk about politics, religion, and current events. They told stories and jokes, and the news was discussed. The opportunity to talk with others attracted Lincoln; thus he decided that storekeeping would be a good line of business for him.

There were three general stores in operation in New Salem. They were Samuel Hill's, Reuben Radford's, and the Herndon Brothers'. One of the Herndon brothers had just sold his share in the business to William F. Berry. The other Herndon brother was a very good friend of Lincoln. Although Lincoln had no money at the time, Herndon had no problem selling to Lincoln. Herndon wrote, "I believe he was thoroughly honest, and that impression was so strong in me, I accepted his note in payment of the whole. He had no money, but I would have advanced him still more had he asked for it." Because of the Herndon brothers selling out, Lincoln and Berry became partners. The first store that they operated was located on the main street.

One night, Reuben Radford's store was vandalized. Radford was so discouraged that he sold the store to the first buyer, a man by the name of Greene. Greene and Lincoln took inventory and Greene then sold the store to Lincoln and Berry. After buying Reuben Radford's store, Lincoln and Berry bought James Rutledge's store. All these stores were combined by Lincoln and Berry. As a result, Lincoln and Berry gained a monopoly over the general stores in New Salem.

Some of the items that Lincoln and Berry sold were lard, bacon, firearms, beeswax, and honey. In addition to these items, they also sold liquor, as most of the stores of the day did. Every store could sell liquor in quantities larger than a quart without having to get a license, as long as it was not consumed at the store. During one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas accused Lincoln of once keeping a "grocery." In the frontier days, a grocery was the name for a tavern. A license was required to sell liquor in quantities less than a quart, and consumed on the premises. Only when one was licensed would one be engaging in the occupation of grocery-keeping as a tavern. Lincoln and Berry decided to keep a tavern in addition to their general store,
to try to make some more money. Berry issued a license to Lincoln and himself in 1833. Neither of the signatures was in Lincoln's handwriting, however. Lincoln denied that he ever kept a grocery, and said that he never liked liquor or its effects. One historian claimed that "local tradition maintained that disagreement over the sale of liquor caused the dissolution of the Lincoln-Berry partnership soon after they obtained the liquor license."

Lincoln had a wonderful time working at the store. He talked and joked for much of the time. He often told very entertaining stories, but, unfortunately, they usually kept the customers from buying anything. Most of the time, Lincoln read or was wrapped up in politics. One historian wrote that, "sometimes, intending purchasers found him [Lincoln] not in the store at all, and had to call him from the wayside, where he was sprawling in the grass, covering a wrapping paper with problems in mathematics." Another historian concluded, "he had little aptitude for business; he was not a shrewd bargainer."

Lincoln was always very honest, just as legend says. He did not exaggerate the truth or make a

This sculpture depicts Lincoln as a store clerk in New Salem.
Lincoln sculpture

customer want to buy something unnecessary. He always made sure to tell customers that they would regret the whiskey or tobacco that they were thinking of buying. Lincoln told customers when the quality of a particular product was not very good. If he ever made a mistake in money or weight, he walked for miles to give the customer his correct change or amount of something.

Lincoln had left a large part of the business management to Berry. Berry, although a son of a minister, had devoted himself to the store's supply of whiskey. He also spent much of his time gossiping.

The tavern that Lincoln and Berry were planning never opened. At the time, they were thinking of selling their store to the Trent brothers. The Trent brothers had no intention of paying, and were willing to give notes to any amount. They soon left, and Lincoln and Berry were overwhelmed with debts.

In less than a year, Lincoln and Berry's business had tailed. The partnership, as Lincoln stated, "did nothing but get deeper and deeper in debt." As soon as he could. Berry left. Lincoln was then left with many debts, and only the worthless notes of Berry and the Trents. Lincoln labored for many years, and finally paid off every debt, so large some called it "the national debt."

Storekeeping helped Lincoln prepare for the presidency in many ways. Since the store was a place to socialize, Lincoln learned how to work with people. He built his conversational skills as well as his wit and storytelling skills. Lincoln also gained popularity as a storekeeper.[From James Morgan, Abraham Lincoln; John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln, A History; Ida Tarbell, The Life of Abraham Lincoln; Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln; Benjamin P. Thomas, Lincoln's New Salem; Henry C. Whitney, The Life and Works of Abraham Lincoln; Lincoln the Citizen.]


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