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The Five Years that Made Lincoln President

Abraham Lincoln, who hated to condemn a deserting soldier to death, was given to putting the papers of tough cases aside and saying, “they are still in soak.”

He might have said the same thing at one time about his political career. It was after his one term in Congress ended in 1849. He was not running for reelection, probably couldn’t have won if he did, because he had opposed the U.S. Mexican War, not a popular position in Illinois. It appeared to him that his political career was at an end, that his ambition to make a big mark in the world was past and gone. After years of arduous climbing up the political rungs, he thought himself finished. All that was left for him was to return to his law practice. For five years he rode the Illinois Eighth Judicial Circuit, having little to do with active politics—as he had for so many years.

“How hard—oh, how more than hard, “ he told his law partner, Billy Herndon, “it is to die and leave one’s country no better for the life of him that lived and died her child.”

It can be argued, however, that those five years of relative political inactivity, from 1849 to 1854, were five of the most important in his entire political career. For whether he or anybody else understood it at the time that career was only in soak. When it came out it would emerge powerfully renewed, transformed, and earth shaking.

As he practiced law in Springfield and rode the circuit, the lethal issue of slavery continued to tear at the life of the Union. “The world is dead to hope,” Lincoln told Herndon, “deaf to it own death struggle made known by a universal cry. What is to be done? Who can do anything and how can it be done? Did you ever think on these things?”

For the next five years he, for one, thought deeply on those things—had them in soak. And as the great issue was thundering toward its crescendo he emerged fully armed and ready, with as firm a grip on the issue as anybody in the country. From this soaking the Lincoln who would save the Union emerged in the American consciousness. Unknown perhaps even to him, he was in those five critical years preparing himself for greatness.

He read intently and thought deeply, reading newspapers voraciously, driving Herndon nearly out of his mind by reading them aloud in the law office, so as to “catch the idea by two senses”—simultaneously hearing and seeing it. That way Lincoln told Herndon, “I remember it better, if I do not understand it better.”

John Stuart, a former Lincoln law partner and fellow lawyer on the circuit, remembers how often on evenings after court Lincoln would strip of his coat and lie down on the bed and read and reflect and digest what he was reading. After supper he would slip into his nightshirt, light a candle, draw up a chair or table, and read late into the night.

He read not just newspapers, but the works of great writers. He carried Shakespeare on the circuit with him. He loved and read Robert Burns and could quote the rhythmic lines of Edgar Allan Poe. He was reputedly introduced to the powerful writing of the poet Walt Whitman. And to hone his power of reasoning he mastered the six books of Euclid. He was honing not only the issue, but his eloquence and his reasoning to razor sharpness.

As Lincoln had all this in soak, his long time rival in Illinois, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, was taking the slavery issue violently to a new level. Douglas had been the chief architect or the Compromise of 1850, which had clamped a temporary lid on the simmering issue of slavery in the territories. Douglas believed that the answer, the cure-all, to slavery agitation in America was “popular sovereignty”—letting every territory decide for itself whether it would enter the Union a free state or a slave state. Douglas claimed not to care if slavery was voted up or down, as long as the decision accurately mirrored the will of the people of the territory.

Lincoln’s five years of reading and his lifetime of thinking slavery wrong, rebelled at this proposed solution to the problem. In his eyes Douglas’s “popular sovereignty” ignored the moral issue—the immorality of slavery—and therefore was wrong, as wrong as slavery itself was wrong.

In 1854, to clear the way for the widespread implementation of his popular sovereignty solution in the territories, Douglas rammed through Congress—and strong-armed President Franklin Pierce into signing—the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That act, which stirred outrage in the North, abolished the dividing line between North and South that had kept slavery from expanding into free territory since 1820. Under this new law, slavery would not continue to be contained in the South, but could expand into all the territories, North as well as South.

This, Lincoln believed, would never do. It must be vigorously resisted. When the law passed, all of Lincoln’s five years of silent preparation flowered. Armed by all the thinking and reading of those five years in political exile, he immediately became Douglas’s most eloquent, most devastatingly effective antagonist, and the weapon that all anti-Kansas-Nebraska men in Illinois, and eventually in the union, would wield against slavery expansion.

Lincoln dogged Douglas as he stumped for support of his new act in Illinois in 1854, speaking after Douglas spoke, refuting his pro-Kansas-Nebraska arguments on every possible platform. Newly joined to the newly formed Republican Party, Lincoln became the obvious choice to run against Douglas for his Senate seat in 1858. Together those two giants from Illinois waged the great debates over the slavery issue that immortalized them in American political history. Lincoln lost to Douglas in that campaign. But two years later, now an acknowledged political power in his own right, a man who understood the issue and could stand toe-to-toe to Douglas, it would he, not Douglas who would be elected president.

Those five years then, in which he had thought himself dead in politics and had his career in soak, are what in the end ultimately carried Lincoln to the very pinnacle of political power.