Chapter Four: Second Journey to New Orleans
Lincoln’s first winter in Illinois, 1830-31, was one of those unusual seasons that come to all communities. It is remembered for the extraordinary amount of snow that fell. There is little doing in such a community during any winter; but in such a winter as that, there was practically nothing doing. Lincoln always held himself ready to accept any opportunity for work, but there was no opening that winter. The only thing he accomplished was what he did every winter and every summer of his life: namely, he made many friends.
When spring came, Denton Offutt decided to send a cargo of merchandise down to New Orleans. Hearing that Lincoln, John Hanks, and John Johnston were “likely boys,” he employed them to take charge of the project. Their pay was to be fifty cents a day and, if the effort proved successful, an additional sum of twenty dollars. Lincoln said that none of them had ever seen so much money at one time, and they were glad to accept the offer.
The boat and its cargo had been set afloat in the Sangamon River at Springfield. All went well until, at New Salem, they came to a mill dam where, although the water was high, owing to the spring floods, the boat stuck. Lincoln rolled his trousers “five feet more or less” up his long, lank legs, waded out to the boat, and got the bow of the boat over the dam. Then, without waiting to bail the water out, he drilled a hole in the bottom and let the water run out. He constructed a machine that lifted and pushed the boat over the obstruction, and their voyage was quickly resumed. Many years later, when he was a lawyer, he whittled out a model of his invention and had it patented. The model may today be seen in the patent office in Washington D.C. The patent brought him no fortune, but it is an interesting relic.
This story tells something about Lincoln’s character – his ingenuity and cleverness. He was remarkably good at devising ways and means of getting out of unexpected difficulties. Later, in 1860, when the “ship of state” (the United States) seemed about to run aground and get hopelessly stuck in bad times (Civil War), it was Lincoln’s determination and ingenuity that averted total wreck. Just as in his youth, he saved the flatboat, so in his mature years he saved the nation.
The other event was that at New Orleans, where he saw with his own eyes some of the horrors of slavery. He never could tolerate a moral wrong or mistreatment of people. Though born in a slave state, he had an earnest and growing hatred of slavery. Still, up to this time he had never seen much of its workings. At this time, he saw a slave market – the auctioning off and selling of human beings.
The details of this auction were coarse and ugly. Lincoln saw it all. He saw a beautiful girl shown like a racehorse, her “points” described, one by one, in order, as the auctioneer said, that “bidders might satisfy themselves whether the article they were offering to buy was sound or not.” One of his companions said slavery ran the iron into Lincoln then and there. His soul was stirred with a righteous indignation. Turning to the others, Lincoln exclaimed with a solemn oath: “Boys, if ever I get a chance to hit that thing [slavery], I’ll hit it hard!”
He bided his time. One-third of a century later he had the chance to hit that thing. He kept his promise. He hit it hard.
The success of the trip to New Orleans had won the admiration of his employer, Offutt, and he now offered Lincoln a clerkship in his store. The offer was accepted, partly because it gave him some time to read. It was here that he came to know the two great poets, Burns and Shakespeare.
There are some stories connected with his work in the store that are worth saving because they show traits of his character. He once sold a half-pound of tea to a customer. The next morning, as he was tidying up the store he saw, by the weights that remained in the scales, that he had mistakenly given her four, instead of eight, ounces. He instantly weighed out the balance and carried it to her.
At another time when he counted up his cash at night, he discovered that he had charged a customer six and a quarter cents too much. He closed up the store at once and walked to the home of the customer and returned the money. It was such things as these, in little matters as well as great, that gave him the nickname of “honest Abe,” which, to his honor be it said, clung to him through life.
Based on the book by Henry Ketcham
Edited by Deborah Carroll
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