From Illinois State Rep to First Republican President

In January 1838, a young state Representative in his second term in the Illinois House offered an eye-opening warning to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield. Alerting the audience to the tendency throughout history for civilizations to collapse from within, rather than be beaten down from the outside, Representative Abraham Lincoln (Whig, later Republican, of Springfield) offered these words:

“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step over the ocean and crush us at a single blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa … could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years….If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Whether Rep. Lincoln’s words were a prophetic foreshadowing of the Civil War which lay more than two decades ahead, or a more general warning about the fall of great civilizations due to debt and decadence, they offer a look into the mind of the most enigmatic; and most oft-quoted; member of the Illinois House of Representatives in its history.

Rep. Lincoln joined the Illinois House for the 9th General Assembly in 1835, after losing a House bid two years earlier. Having lived in Coles and Macon counties previously, Lincoln had finally settled in the town of New Salem in present-day Menard County, where he worked in the general store and served as postmaster and a deputy surveyor. It was there that he was first elected to the House, before moving to Springfield shortly after he was admitted to the bar in 1836.

Rep. Lincoln attended his first House session not in the historic Old State Capitol in downtown Springfield, but in each of two Vandalia statehouses in Fayette County. There Lincoln, and eight other Sangamon County legislators, worked to see the capital moved to Springfield. The group of nine legislators, all more than six feet tall, earned the nickname the “Long Nine” and they were ultimately successful in passing legislation in 1837 moving the capital to Sangamon County.

“When his bill to all appearances was dead beyond resuscitation, Lincoln never for a moment despaired,” wrote another member of the Long Nine, Rep. Robert Wilson (Whig-Springfield). “His practical common sense, his thorough knowledge of human nature, made him an overmatch for his (peers).”

Rep. Lincoln continued to be a force to be reckoned with in the House. In 1840, while the House was meeting in a temporary building awaiting completion of the Capitol building on Adams Street, Rep. Lincoln found himself on the minority side of a piece of legislation. To try and stave off defeat, Lincoln resorted to a combination of procedural expertise and physical dexterity to keep the House in session until he could persuade other members to his side.

Opponents of Lincoln’s favored legislation sought to adjourn the House without acting upon it, thus killing the bill. Knowing that a quorum needed to be present to vote to adjourn, Lincoln and his allies attempted to leave the chamber and thwart the vote. However, they found the doors locked. In desperation, Lincoln moved to one of the chamber’s windows and leapt to the ground two stories below. Historian David Herbert Donald noted that the jump, “caused him no harm because his legs reached nearly from the window to the ground.” The absence of a quorum proved short-lived, and the House did adjourn that day without voting on the bill.

Lincoln declined to run again in 1842, focusing on his growing law practice in Springfield. He re-entered politics in 1846, winning a term in Congress, based in part on his opposition to the Mexican War. After a failed Senate bid in 1855, Lincoln tried again in 1858, launching the campaign that would produce the most famous series of debates in American history; which in turn produced the current Illinois House tradition of the Republican caucus being seated in the chamber beneath a painting of Lincoln, and the Democrat caucus sitting in the shadow of a portrait of U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas.

Lincoln failed in that campaign, which included his visit to the House chamber to deliver his famous “House Divided” speech. The fame he earned in that 1858 race brought him the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, a race in which he was triumphant. Taking office in 1861 amidst the storm clouds of civil war, Lincoln used the skills which he honed in the state House to lead the nation through the darkest and most difficult years in its history, culminating with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery. Re-elected in 1864, Lincoln was murdered just five days after the surrender at Appomattox.

The long funeral procession from Washington carried Lincoln’s body throughout the cities and towns of the north. Its final stop, appropriately, was the chamber of the Illinois House of Representatives, where his political career had begun 30 years before. For 24 hours, 75,000 mourners passed through the House chamber paying respect to the man who had risen from an upstart 25-year-old state representative to become the greatest President in American history.