Keller speaks on the importance of Abraham Lincoln's years as an Illinois Legislator

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[November 03, 2015]   MOUNT PULASKI - Abraham Lincoln was a traveling man. He was born in Kentucky and moved once with his family to a farm near his birth place. His family then moved to Indiana and on to Illinois.

As a young man, he left his father’s home and moved to New Salem. After becoming a lawyer with a home and office in Springfield, he rode the 8th judicial circuit and then it was on to Washington D.C. as a one term congressman. He finally won the presidency and made his last move to Washington.

Lincoln College history professor Ron Keller was the speaker at the monthly meeting of the Mount Pulaski Historical Society on Monday, and told of a journey and destination that Mr. Lincoln made that is not well known, if at all.

Keller has finished a book on the history of Lincoln’s time in the Illinois legislature in the state capitol. No, it was not in the state capitol we all know. “The Illinois state capitol was in Vandalia rather than Springfield during most of Mr. Lincoln’s time in the legislature,” said Keller.

This time in Lincoln’s life has rarely been studied. Even Mr. Lincoln’s four autobiographies make short shrift of his time as a representative of Sangamon County in the state legislature in Vandalia. “His time in the legislature has been mostly overshadowed by other events in his life,” said Keller.

While Lincoln’s time in the legislature does not rise to the stellar nature of his later accomplishments, he did introduce bills that had a profound influence on the state.

Lincoln first ran for the state legislature in 1832 and lost, coming in 8th. Lincoln was a follower of Henry Clay, a nationally known politician from Kentucky, and an advocate of federal spending on infrastructure improvements in the states. Clay was a bitter enemy of President Andrew Jackson. Jackson fought for little federal involvement in the affairs of the states.

Lincoln again ran in 1834 and won as one of seven representatives in the legislature from Sangamon County. Each county in the state at that time could send multiple representatives to the state house. His main backing was from his friends in New Salem who made Lincoln promise that he would work to divide Sangamon County into several counties. And then the new state legislator was off to Vandalia.

During Mr. Lincoln’s time in Vandalia the state legislature was a part time job, meeting three or four months a year. The members were from all walks of life - lawyers, farmers, ferry men, local politicians. They typically served just a few terms and moved on to other endeavors. And most of them were born outside Illinois, and like Mr. Lincoln, many were from Kentucky.

Lincoln had a lot in common with his fellow legislators. He was from poor and humble beginnings, and self-taught. The legislators knew one another and got along, even though they had differing political views.

Vandalia was also a difficult place to live, having few amenities that seem to be a requirement these days. The legislators roomed together in any sort of accommodation they could find. The capitol building was in very poor condition. Given all of these difficulties, Lincoln reveled in his time in Vandalia. He said he wanted to make a difference, and in later years he said that his time in Vandalia was some of his most satisfying.

Keller said that Lincoln was true to his constituents in New Salem by introducing a bill in three of his terms in the Illinois legislature to split Sangamon County into several counties. It failed in his first attempt.

“Lincoln was true to his feeling that the federal government should help build up the states with money for roads, bridges, and railroads,” said Ron Keller. His four terms in the Illinois legislature were hugely important to Mr. Lincoln’s future as a politician.

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According to Keller, Lincoln was an ambitious politician and gained respect from his peers in the legislature. Lincoln also achieved his law license in 1836, which served to enhance his stature. He left New Salem and moved to Springfield to join the law practice of his mentor John Stuart.

The drum beat was beginning to move the Illinois state capitol from Vandalia to Springfield in the late 1830’s. Lincoln’s win for another term in 1838 was the last he served in Vandalia. Sangamon County had the votes and the population to overwhelm any opposition against moving the capitol to Springfield. Lincoln was reelected to his final term as a state legislator in 1840, serving in Springfield.

Professor Keller’s book deals with Lincoln’s time in Vandalia and the important legislation that Lincoln supported. Lincoln did introduce legislation to divide Sangamon County during his time in Vandalia and was finally successful in 1839. Logan County was one of the three new counties that were carved out of Sangamon.

Lincoln supported internal improvements in Illinois that were to be paid for by the state, including a charter for the Illinois Central Railroad. Internal improvements paid for with public funds proved controversial. Many believed that internal improvements should be made with private funds. While some infrastructure improvements were finally made with state money, because of the small amount of money coming into the state coffers and an economic depression in the late 1830’s, Illinois was saddled with debt for decades.
Lincoln made a speech that asserted his view that women should be granted the right to vote.

In 1837, Lincoln wrote an entry in the house journal to protest the injustice of slavery. He did it to protest the anti-abolition sentiment that he saw in the Illinois legislature.

“In 1860, Lincoln stated that he was most proud of this bill,” said Keller. One of Lincoln’s friends in Vandalia was Stephen Douglas. He and Douglas debated in the Illinois legislature in Vandalia long before their historic debates of 1858 when both were candidates for the U.S. Senate from Illinois.

Ron Keller asserts in his new book that Lincoln grew to prominence during his time in the Illinois legislature in Vandalia and gained the esteem of his fellow legislators. He remained friends with them for the rest of his life. Lincoln asserted that his eight years in the legislature were some of the most satisfying of his life.

“The case could be made that Lincoln’s time in the Illinois legislature in Vandalia was vital to his being elected President of the United States,” asserted Keller. Keller’s history of Lincoln’s time in Vandalia is scheduled to be published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2016.

The Mount Pulaski Historical Society meets the last Monday of the month at 6:30 p.m. at the museum on the square in Mount Pulaski. They have a speaker quarterly. The public is always welcome.

[Curt Fox]

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