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Lincoln's Years in the Illinois Legislature

Jonathan E. Helm
Macomb Junior/Senior High School, Macomb

When people today think of Abraham Lincoln, they think of his time in the presidency, but his early experiences in Illinois state politics helped prepare him to be the great president that people consider him to be. How did Lincoln's time in the Illinois state legislature prepare him for the presidency? While campaigning successfully for the Illinois legislature four times between 1834 and 1840 and holding office in the General Assembly, Lincoln developed qualities that carried him all the way to the presidency. Lincoln developed skills as a communicator, a popular leader, and an influential legislator and politician.

Throughout his years Lincoln was known for his astounding skills in communication. Stephen Douglas once said Lincoln was "full of wit, facts, dates and the best stump-speaker with droll-ways and dry jokes in the west." He was known as an accomplished storyteller and often used little stories to make important ideas known to the common folk. Lincoln was a great conversationalist. He loved talking with people and could persuade nearly anyone of anything. Lincoln also used humor to make a point clearly and effectively. Once when he was speaking about an especially wordy opponent he remarked, "It's like the lazy preacher that used long sermons and the explanation was he got to writin' and he was too lazy to stop."

Lincoln was a popular leader early in his political career. When Lincoln was first elected to the state legislature, Illinois' roads were bad, and it had no system of railroads or canals. Lincoln led in working toward the construction of a good transportation system and realized that many of his colleagues had the same views. Supported by Whigs and Democrats, he helped pass a bill to build better roads and construct a system of canals and railroads. The short-term setback putting Illinois six million dollars in debt paid off in the long run, making Illinois a more progressive and accessible state.

Lincoln showed off his fine qualities as a skillful politician in his greatest legislative achievement in Illinois when he moved the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield. The old capital in Vandalia was ruined beyond repair and the makeshift building was wet, dank, and cold. Most legislators wanted the capital moved, but the question was where to move it. Lincoln led a group called the Long Nine to move the state capital. The Long Nine consisted of seven legislators and two senators, so named because they were all very tall. First, they passed a bill proposing that the city chosen to be the capital would pay fifty thousand dollars and donate two acres for the capital building to be built to make other cities less anxious to be selected, thus lowering the competition. They also agreed to vote for bills supported by other legislators, if those legislators would in turn vote for the state capital to be moved to Springfield. By this bartering, the capital was finally moved to Springfield, giving Lincoln great statewide recognition while making him a hero in the city of Springfield.

Lincoln had done great things for the state of Illinois during his time as a legislator. Several projects such as internal improvements and especially the moving of the capital gave Lincoln recognition. The political experience and many political skills that Lincoln gained from being an Illinois state legislator also helped him later in being one of the greatest presidents.[From Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln the Orator; Donald T. Phillips, Lincoln on Leadership.]

Lincoln was running for state representative when this letter to the editor appeared in the June 18, 1836, edition of the Sangamo Journal. ihy9502431.jpg


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