Abraham Lincoln in Illinois
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives


The use of local events to enhance the classroom study of American history has received considerable attention for the past several years. Teachers have recognized that their students often are not excited by traditional instruction in American history. Chief among criticisms has been that textbook treatments consist of dry narratives of impersonal facts that have little relevance to students' immediate lives, despite the fact that one of the principal purposes of the discipline of history is to provide students with a sense of continuity and perspective. The thirty-five document images provided in this teaching packet are intended to provide direct glimpses of events surrounding the life of Abraham Lincoln when he lived in Illinois from 1830 to 1861. Each document offers a picture of a particular circumstance at a specific time but each also should be seen in terms of how it might be relevant today. All of the events recorded by these documents occurred in Illinois and should be of interest to those who now live here.


The primary objective of this teaching package is to introduce students to local history in a meaningful manner and thereby increase interest in history in general. Taken together, the thirty-five document images offer a kaleidoscopic picture of the life of Abraham Lincoln and of the Illinois he lived in and helped shape. Individual documents describe very real historical occurrences, but each leaves unanswered questions that can be pursued by studying related documents in the packet, Illinois history in particular, and American history in general.

Subordinate objectives include teaching students how to read and understand historical documents and exposing them to historical reasoning. Besides understanding the texts of documents, students should learn how to identify significant information. Such information will enable them to make specific statements about particular circumstances at particular times. By themselves such events may have little significance but by studying additional sources broader images can be produced and generalized statements can be made to explain isolated events. This process is designed to give meaning to historical interpretation and to broaden textbook narratives. Along with teaching students how to read historical documents, another objective of the packet is to teach students how to question and analyze these documents. Finding a document is not always the end of the research trail but, in fact, may be the beginning.

State and local history offers an excellent opportunity to make the study of history in general more meaningful. A focus on a specific locality with which students associate will heighten their interest. It also offers them a sense of how their communities have evolved over time and thus gives historical perspective. But students of state and local history soon realize that the history of a locality cannot be treated as a separate entity because regional, national, and world events were of constant influence. It is hoped that this package will not only supplement the study of American history but also invigorate it. Along with providing information, primary source documents afford the opportunity to experience history on an emotive level because those documents were produced by the actual participants in history and describe events as those persons actually saw them at the time they occurred.

Use of Documents

The thirty-five documents in this packet were selected from the holdings of the Illinois State Archives. Lincoln's public career is well documented by these original records. Most came from the record group 600.000, Records of the General Assembly, and concern legislation he dealt with while serving as a member of the Illinois General Assembly. The remaining documents were pulled from various records series within the record groups 101.000, Office of the Governor; 103.000, Secretary of State; 105.000, Auditor of Public Accounts; 108.000, Attorney General; 301.000, Adjutant General; and 901.000, Supreme Court.

Because all of these documents concern Abraham Lincoln, they all relate to one another at various levels. The theme of this packet is how Lincoln grew as an individual, politician and leader in Illinois. However, his growth is also tied into how the state of Illinois grew during its early years and how he helped shape that growth. Because all of these documents are interrelated, a student or combinations of students can produce syntheses or different themes. Each document also stands alone as a statement of a particular circumstance in time. By using these primary documents, students should learn about Lincoln and his times and be able to ask questions about them. They should also make connections between what Lincoln did in his day and how that affects us today. In many cases, the problems Lincoln faced are problems that the state and its elected officials still wrestle with today. Finally, students should also be able to see that the documents themselves require further research to truly understand their importance and all the ways they can be used. Research with additional sources, such as those found in the Selected Bibliography portion of this manual, often will help clarify a document and place it in perspective. Still, it is by using primary sources that a student or scholar can come closest to a historical figure or era. Lincoln's public career is well documented with original documents at the Illinois State Archives.

Historical Background

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 near Hodgenville, Kentucky. He was the second child of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks Lincoln. His sister, Sarah, was two years older than Abraham. Thomas Lincoln was a carpenter and farmer whose father had come to Kentucky from Virginia in the 1780s, before Kentucky became a state. Thomas Lincoln had little wealth or education. In 1816 he moved his family to southern Indiana and started farming. On October 5, 1818, Nancy Hanks Lincoln died of a disease known as the milk sickness, which is caused by drinking the tainted milk or eating the meat of a cow that has eaten white snakeroot. On December 2, 1819, Thomas married Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow from Kentucky with three children. Although uneducated herself, Abraham Lincoln's new stepmother encouraged him to read and receive an education. Lincoln would attend one-room schools that were set up in the wilderness, although by Lincoln's later reckoning he did not have more than one year in total of formal education.

The Lincoln family moved to Macon County, Illinois in March 1830 and settled on the north side of the Sangamon River about ten miles west of Decatur. Illinois had been a state for less than twelve years and was still a frontier wilderness. In 1831, Lincoln piloted a flatboat filled with supplies for New Orleans. The trip went from the Sangamon River to the Illinois River to the Mississippi River. Along the way, in the tiny Sangamon County town of New Salem, the boat became stuck on a dam and Lincoln had to spend several hours freeing it. When the trip was finished, the now twenty-two-year-old Lincoln came back to New Salem to live.

In New Salem he worked a variety of jobs, including as a handyman and as both a store clerk and store owner. He also read a lot and showed an interest in learning the law. In 1832, although he had lived in New Salem for less than a year, he was encouraged by his new neighbors to run for the state legislature. That same year, before the election, the Black Hawk War started. This was the last Indian war in Illinois, occurring when the Indian chief Black Hawk crossed the Mississippi River from Iowa with about 450 warriors and 1,500 women and children to reclaim their tribal homeland. Lincoln volunteered for one month and was elected captain of his company. He served two more short terms of duty, both times as a private, before leaving the service in July 1832. The Black Hawk War was a small affair and Lincoln saw no action as a soldier. He did, however, make some contacts with influential people, including his future law partner, John Todd Stuart.

In August he lost his first bid for the legislature. A short time later, his store failed. Lincoln found work as a postmaster and a surveyor and continued to do odd jobs as a laborer. In 1834 he again ran for the state legislature and this time won office as a state representative. Before he began his term of office, he began the study of law with the help of John Todd Stuart, who was a state representative from the same district. Stuart's law office was located in Springfield about twenty miles from New Salem and Lincoln often visited there.

At this time the Illinois state capital was located in Vandalia, a small town that had been created in 1820 specifically for the purpose of being the state capital. Lincoln began his first term on December 1, 1834. He did not play an active role in the session of the General Assembly, but learned about the legislative process and how to draft bills. He also met many important politicians. While attending the three-month session, Lincoln roomed with Stuart, an experienced legislative leader who served as his political mentor.

Lincoln returned to New Salem after the three-month session and continued the study of law while working as a postmaster and surveyor. He was reelected to the state legislature in 1836 and served a central Illinois district that had seven state representatives and two state senators. These legislators were dubbed the "Long Nine," due to their average height being six feet. They supported internal improvements to the state and moving the state capital from Vandalia to the more centrally located Springfield.

Illinois was expanding at this time and was in dire need of a better transportation system. New Salem, for example, was a dying town, as its road system to other towns was poor and the Sangamon River was not deep enough to provide it with a reliable river route. The nine legislators from the district, including Lincoln, were in accord with other legislators who favored spending state money on internal improvements to the state, such as building roads, bridges, railroads and canals. The legislature, with Lincoln's support, approved large funding measures for internal improvements, but in 1837 an economic depression hit the country, ensuring that most of these projects were never built and leaving the state in deep debt for the projects that had been started.

There was a hot contest during the session on relocating the state capital. Several Illinois towns vied for the honor, including Springfield, Alton, Jacksonville and Quincy. Vandalia, of course, did not wish to lose the capital. Using all of the political skills he had learned, Lincoln was able to have the legislature vote to remove the capital to Springfield by 1840. It was one of Lincoln's most lasting legacies to his home state. To this day, Springfield remains the state capital. After the session, on April 15, 1837, Lincoln moved to Springfield, where he would live until February 1861, when he left for Washington D.C. as the president-elect. Lincoln also received his law license in 1837 and he and John Todd Stuart opened a law partnership.

Lincoln was reelected to a third term in the state legislature in 1838. He was now the recognized leader of the Whig Party, the precursor to the Republican Party. Lincoln tried to be elected as Speaker of the House, but was defeated by a Democrat who had the backing of several independent legislators. Lincoln spent the term serving on several committees and working to protect Springfield's interests, which included making sure the vote to move the capital to Springfield wasn't overturned. One of the more controversial issues he faced this term was on dividing Sangamon County into several smaller counties.

In 1840 he was reelected to a fourth consecutive term in the legislature. During this term he again served as the leader of the Whig Party; however, in the book Lincoln's Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years, Paul Simon writes that it appears as if Lincoln had lost interest in the legislature. It was during this time that he began courting Mary Todd, his future wife. In 1841, the law firm of Stuart and Lincoln was dissolved and Stephen T. Logan and Lincoln formed a law partnership. During this term of office, Lincoln joined with other legislators to try to tackle repaying the great debt the state had incurred from the internal improvements plan of two sessions earlier. However, the final payment of that debt would not occur until well after the Civil War.

Lincoln finished his fourth term in the legislature in 1842. On November 4, 1842, he married Mary Todd in a wedding in Springfield. On August 1, 1843, their first son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was born. In the fall of 1844, the law partnership of Lincoln and Logan was dissolved and Lincoln started a law firm with William H. Herndon.

In 1846, Lincoln ran for and won a seat in Congress. Illinois had seven congressional districts and was generally a Democratic state. Lincoln's district was the only one that had a chance of electing a Whig candidate. Leading Whig politicians agreed to take turns running for a term in Congress and so Lincoln only ran once. The Democratic Party had a majority in Congress and Democrat James K. Polk was president during Lincoln's one term, so the Whig Party played the part of the loyal opposition. In Lincoln's case, this meant opposition to the Mexican War. However, the war was popular so Lincoln's opposition cost him political favor in his district. His term in Washington allowed Lincoln to meet many of the political leaders of the day and to have a taste of national politics.

Having served his one term in Congress and having opposed an extremely popular war, Lincoln temporarily left electoral politics. He threw himself into his law practice and became one of the leading attorneys in Illinois. He practiced law in front of the state Supreme Court, the federal courts and in the various courthouses of the Eighth Judicial Circuit, which included a wide swath of counties in central Illinois. His law career also took him outside the circuit and sometimes outside the state. Several of his cases focused on transportation issues and he became a leading railroad attorney. He continued to be somewhat active in politics as a Whig Party leader, but the approaching sectional conflict between the North and the South was signaling the death of the Whig Party.

In 1854 Democrat Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas successfully promoted the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which basically allowed territories to determine whether they wanted to enter the union as slave states or free states. The act outraged many in the North, because it signaled the possibility of unlimited expansion of slavery.

Opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act brought Lincoln back to a more active role in politics. In 1854, he ran for the state legislature, not because he wanted to but because he was popular and was needed to help lead the ticket. His real goal was to be elected to the United States Senate, something not allowed as a state legislator. As such, shortly after winning election to the state legislature, he turned down his election. In January 1855, when the legislature met to elect a United States senator, Lincoln entered the contest with the most votes, but lost on the tenth ballot after he couldn't secure a majority of the legislature.

Undeterred, Lincoln remained active in politics. He helped form the Illinois Republican Party, which, with him acting as manager, elected the governor and other constitutional officers in the election of 1856. On June 16, 1858 the new party nominated Lincoln for United States senator. His opponent was Douglas and the two candidates canvassed the state in search of votes for their party. They met in debate seven times. Although Douglas would go on to win the Senate seat, Lincoln gained such fame and notoriety that in less than two years he became the Republican nominee for president and was elected over Douglas and two other candidates.

Lincoln left Springfield for Washington on February 11, 1861, never to return. He was shot in Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865 and died the next day. He was buried in an impressive tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield. His time in Illinois had molded him for the struggles he had to face as a wartime president and he, in turn, had helped make Illinois the place it is today.

Selected Bibliography

Listed below are several books and other items that chronicle Lincoln's time in Illinois. Many of these books were used for background information for this packet. Former U. S. Senator Paul Simon's Lincoln's Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years and The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler were relied on heavily for this packet.

Angle, Paul M., "Here I Have Lived"; A History of Lincoln's Springfield, 1821-1865. Springfield, IL: The Abraham Lincoln Association, 1935.

Basler, Roy P., ed. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953.

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Drury, John. Old Illinois Houses. Springfield, IL: State of Illinois, 1948.

Howard, Robert P. Mostly Good and Competent Men. Springfield, IL: Illinois Issues, Sangamon State University and Illinois State Historical Society, 1988.

Herndon, William Henry and Jesse William Weik. Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (History & Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln). Chicago: Belford, Clarke, 1889.

Johannsen, Robert W. Stephen A. Douglas. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

Krause, Susan, Kelley A. Boston, and Daniel W. Stowell. Now They Belong to the Ages: Abraham Lincoln and His Contemporaries in Oak Ridge Cemetery. Springfield, IL: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 2005.

Miers, Earl Schenck, ed. Lincoln Day by Day: a Chronology 1809-1865. Washington: Lincoln Sesquicentennial Commission, 1960.

Monroe, Dan and Lura Lynn Ryan. At Home with Illinois Governors: A Social History of the Illinois Executive Mansion, 1855-2003. Springfield, IL: Illinois Executive Mansion Association, 2002.

Neely, Mark E. The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.

Perrin, J. Nick. Perrin's History of Illinois. Springfield, IL: Illinois State Register, 1906.

Simon, Paul. Lincoln's Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.

Temple, Sunderine W. and Wayne C. Temple. Abraham Lincoln and Illinois' Fifth Capitol. Mahomet, IL: Mayhaven Publishing, 2006.

Wilson, Douglas L. and Rodney O. Davis, eds. Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

On-Line Sources