Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years

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Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years

by Carl Sandburg


A biography set on the American prairie (mainly in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois) from 1809 to 1861; published in 1926.


The biography chronicles the life of America’s sixteenth president from his humble birth in a log cabin until his departure for the White House in 1861.

Events in History at the Time the Biography Takes Place

The Biography in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Biography Was Written

For More Information

Although born over a decade after Abraham Lincoln’s death, Carl Sandburg spent a large part of his life writing about the deeds and accomplishments of this American leader. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, commonly referred to as simply The Prairie Years, was the first of several works that Sandburg would publish about his favorite personality. Because of the inclusion of myths and unsubstantiated anecdotes about Lincoln along with its more factual content, the work is perhaps most aptly identified as folk biography rather than a genuine life story of the real man.

Events in History at the Time the Biography Takes Place

The legal circuit

In the early 1800s, only a handful of law schools existed, primarily in the East, but most lawyers of the period preferred learning about the law through hands-on experience rather than in a classroom. Many were taken on as apprentices by more experienced practitioners who taught them firsthand how to effectively argue a case. Lincoln, however, taught himself the law without an apprenticeship, memorizing Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. He also learned by heart “Greenleaf on evidence, Chitty’s Pleadings, and Story’s Equity, rehearsing cases aloud, analyzing some legal point from various angles until he understood the essence of the problem” (Oates, With Malice toward None, p. 28).

After studying on his own, Lincoln became registered by the Sangamon County Court as a man of good moral character—a necessary step to becoming a lawyer in Illinois during the 1830s. He then summoned up the courage to take his bar exam—an oral questioning by practicing attorneys on the history and technical nuances of the law. Lincoln answered the questions without a fault, received his license (September 9, 1836), and immediately took on cases.

Because of their sparse population, many counties of the day could not yet sustain a fulltime judge. Back in 1789 the first Congress of the United States had adopted a system whereby state supreme court justices would complete a circuit of local county seats twice a year to hear cases. In Illinois in the early 1800s, riding the circuit of local county seats took three months at a time, so that anyone who rode the circuit twice would be gone from home for roughly six months a year. Lawyers such as Lincoln, who lived in the larger centers, could earn money by traveling with the justices to help handle the local disputes. As a lawyer, Lincoln earned part of his income by traveling the Eighth Circuit, which, in the years between 1843 and 1853, contained as many as fourteen counties. He did his most effective legal work, however, in the Supreme Court of Illinois, where he won nearly all of the 243 cases he argued, earning a reputation as a lawyer’s lawyer who was always admirably prepared. Lincoln also gained a reputation for honesty, which apparently mattered even more to him than the law. “Resolve to be honest at all events,” he advised young attorneys, “and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer” (Lincoln in Oates, With Malice toward None, p. 105).

Campaign techniques

In an age devoid of television, many of the politicians of Lincoln’s era were forced to campaign vigorously at the grassroots level. Although newspapers of the time published candidates’ speeches in their entirety and supported a candidate with interests similar to their own, the most common form of politicking took place on the “stump” at sites used for campaigning oratory. People from miles around would come together to hear candidates debate their position on political matters. Oftentimes, these debates would last for hours with no sign of disinterest from the crowd. Such was the climate when Lincoln decided to run for United States Senate in 1858. One of the most famous political debates ever to take place occurred between Lincoln and his Democratic adversary in the campaign, Stephen A. Douglas. Because of the immense fame that accompanied Douglas prior to the debates, many initially believed him to be the overwhelming favorite. Douglas, a long-time congressman from Illinois, had been one of the engineers of the Compromise of 1850 (which, among other provisions, admitted California to the Union as a free state and made the Fugitive Slave Act stricter than before). He had also won renown for delivering fiery speeches. However, the gangly Lincoln proved to be a formidable opponent with strengths of his own. He displayed a clever wit and an adroit oratory talent that captured listeners. In all, the two squared off at nine different locations over a fourteen-week period. Although Douglas won the election, the exposure that Lincoln garnered during these debates helped catapult him onto the national scene.

Republican party

During the 1830s, American politics revolved around two prominent parties of the day: the Whigs and the Democrats. In time, unable to bear the internal divisiveness over the issue of slavery, the Whig party fell apart. Arising in its place was the Republican party.

As Republicans began to organize themselves nationally, other competing parties were gradually absorbed into its fold. By 1856 the Republicans had garnered enough support to place their first candidate for the presidency on the ballot, John C. Fremont. Unfortunately for the party, Fremont lost to Democratic candidate James Buchanan, postponing its chance to take the White House for another four years.

In the years following Fremont’s defeat, Abraham Lincoln campaigned vigorously on behalf of the Republican party, helping it secure the governorship in Illinois and emerging as its party leader in the state. He hoped to run again for the Senate in the election of 1860, but instead won the nomination for president. Armed with a platform that included opposition to the extension of slavery as well as support for economic measures such as higher tariff duties, federal aid for a transcontinental railroad, and encouragement of a national banking system, Lincoln made history by going on to win the election and taking office as the first Republican president.

Personal life

As a young man, Lincoln struggled with romantic relationships. He felt insecure in the presence of women and anxious about the possibility of being rejected in love. There are stories of a romance between Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, whose father provided board for Lincoln at his tavern in the early 1830s. Lincoln and Ann did indeed become friends, but she was engaged to another man at the time and there is no evidence that their friendship ever blossomed into a romance. Lincoln met Mary Todd in 1839, married her in 1842, and had two sons with her—Robert Todd in 1843 and Edward in 1845. The marriage was, in fact, relatively satisfying to both partners, who shared a respect for as well as a need for each other that superseded their differences in temperament. (He was loving, but withdrew at times; she was described as outspoken.) The newlyweds purchased a frame house, one and a half stories high, in downtown Springfield, within walking distance from Lincoln’s office. Mary Todd was from a socially prominent and visible family, and Lincoln himself thrived in the city like atmosphere. “The prevailing notion,” says biographer Reinherd Luthin, “that Lincoln was a rural type is a misconception. Despite the legends that shroud his memory, Lincoln had left the rustic life behind him … and he never cared to go back to it” (Luthin, p. 125).

The Biography in Focus

The contents

Sandburg chronicles the life of Abraham Lincoln from the time of his birth in a log cabin until his departure in 1861 for Washington, upon taking oath as America’s sixteenth president. Spread out over two volumes numbering in excess of 900 pages, the biography carefully examines the personal as well as professional aspects of his life through historical examples as well as legendary anecdotes. Volume 1 covers the period of Lincoln’s life from 1809 until 1853; volume 2 resumes with 1854 and continues through his success in the election of 1860 and his departure for the White House.

Volume 1

Sandburg’s biography opens with a brief discussion of Lincoln’s ancestry and continues with his birth in 1809 and his family’s move two years later from their one-room, dirt-floor log cabin in central Kentucky’s Nolin Creek to Knob Creek, eleven miles north. Sandburg speaks of Lincoln’s education here, his daily trek of four miles to learn reading and writing in a log-cabin schoolhouse. In December of 1816, the family moves again, this time across the Ohio River to Little Pigeon Creek in southwestern Indiana, where they remain for fourteen years. Lincoln’s mother dies and his father remarries during this stretch, then the family moves two more times before Lincoln strikes out on his own at age twenty-one, traveling to the village of New Salem, Illinois, where he remains for the next six years.

While residing in New Salem, Lincoln begins his career in politics and the military, running in 1832 for a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives and volunteering to fight in the Black Hawk War. Although the reply to the first military order he issues in his new post is, “Go to Hell” (Sandburg, The Prairie Years, vol. 1, p. 155), this becomes Lincoln’s first experience as a leader in a wartime situation.


Douglas baited Lincoln on the issue of race, accusing him of regarding the black as his equal and of encouraging them to flood into Illinois and cover the prairies with black settlements. Blacks, Lincoln retorted, were not his equal or that of Douglas morally and intellectually but they were equal in their right to life, liberty, and the products of their own hard work. In his June 26, 1857, speech Lincoln included himself and his political party among the whites who felt “disgust” at and opposed the idea of a mixing of the races. On July 9, though, in another debate, he declared that yes, he had always hated slavery, as much as any abolitionist. It was a terrible moral evil. “Let us,”’ pleaded Lincoln, “discard all this quibbling about … this race and that race and the other race being inferior,” and “once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal” (Lincoln in Oates, With Malice toward None, p. 150). Such remarks have led the biographer Stephen B. Oates to conclude that compared to the white supremacist attitudes of others in his era, Lincoln was an enlightened thinker in respect to race.

Lincoln loses his bid for office but runs again two years later and wins. Lincoln also begins to pursue a career in law. While still fulfilling his role as a representative, he opens a law office with John T. Stuart. In the legislature, he pushes a bill relocating the capital of the state from Vandalia to Springfield and moves there himself. Lincoln continues his life as both lawyer and legislator for the next five years, winning re-election three times.


Sandburg’s biography claims that Lincoln’s marriage to Mary Todd almost didn’t take place. On the day of the original wedding, with the bride ready and the cakes ordered, Lincoln was nowhere to be found. Even after the two reconciled and decided to try again, Lincoln was still not without his doubts. According to rumors circulating on the day of the second attempt, the son of the man Lincoln rented a room from walked in while he was getting dressed for the ceremony. “Where are you going?” the child asked inquisitively. Lincoln replied: “To Hell, I suppose” (The Prairie Years, vol. 1, p. 291). There is, in fact, no evidence to support this tale, though the biography presents it as fact. Actually, Lincoln, stricken with low self-confidence because the Todd family frowned on him as a marriage partner, broke off his engagement to Mary and sank into a depression. He later renewed their relationship after friends informed him of her continuing affection.

The biography dips into Lincoln’s personal life, which, it says, suffers tragedy when Ann Rutledge, a red-haired beauty whom Lincoln supposedly loves, dies from a fever. Lincoln later weds Mary Todd, a Kentuckian of proud heritage, who bears their first son, Robert Todd Lincoln, on August 1, 1843. Together, the couple purchases a modest one-and-a-half-story cottage “painted white, with green blinds, and white chimneys” (The Prairie Years, vol. 1, p. 426) on the corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets in Springfield. It proves to be the only home they ever own. Lincoln meanwhile continues practicing law, switching partners until he settles on William H. Herndon, with whom he would remain in business until winning the presidency.

In 1845 Lincoln campaigns vigorously as the Whig candidate for Congress and wins. Less than three weeks after taking his seat in Congress, he begins to stir up controversy. After listening to his colleagues describe their views on the ongoing war with Mexico, he concludes that the aggressor in the war is President Polk and the Democratic party. On January 12, 1848, Lincoln introduces the “spot” resolution, challenging Polk to clearly define the exact point in which the United States was, as Polk claims, drawn into war. This resolution gains Lincoln enemies, but shows his political tenacity. In 1849 his term expires and he returns home to Springfield, resuming his legal career. As volume one draws to a close, Lincoln is traveling on the Eighth Circuit Court, spending months away from his wife Mary and their children.

Volume 2

The second volume of Sandburg’s biography opens with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which rekindles Lincoln’s interest in politics. Returning to the stump, he makes several poignant speeches against the controversial act, engaging thousands of listeners throughout Illinois. One man whose attention is especially piqued is Stephen A. Douglas, a senator from Illinois. In various locations, the two men meet and debate before large audiences about the merits and drawbacks of the Act. These clashes precede the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates that will take place four years later.

Lincoln’s return to politics spurs his desire to run for the U.S. Senate in the next election. Until then, he continues to argue cases on a regular basis, becoming one of the most famous lawyers in Illinois.

Because of Lincoln’s success against Stephen Douglas in their previous debates, Lincoln easily wins his party’s nomination in 1858 to challenge the “Little Giant” for a seat in the U.S. Senate. At the nominating convention he delivers his famous “house divided” speech, which outlines the inevitably destructive consequences of maintaining a nation that is half-slave and half-free. He then meets with Douglas in a series of seven highly publicized debates. The debates prove immensely successful for Lincoln, drawing crowds as high as fifteen thousand. However, the Democratically controlled legislature, which decided such races at the time, elects Douglas, fifty-four to forty-six.

Following his defeat, Lincoln begins to tour the nation with a reprise of his earlier series of eloquent speeches regarding the fate of slavery. He draws enough attention to win the Republican nomination for president. Original tallies prove doubtful, but at the conclusion of the election the count shows “Lincoln winning with 1,866,452 votes, a majority of nearly a half-million over [the Democratic candidate Stephen] Douglas, the nearest contender” (The Prairie Years, vol. 2, p. 374). Volume 2 of Sandburg’s biography closes as Lincoln bids farewell to his home town of Springfield before assuming his new role in Washington.

Sandburg’s Lincoln

Sandburg’s two-volume biography includes not only fact but also fictional passages presented as fact, with dialogue, scenes, and thoughts that are invented by Sandburg. As the biographer Stephen B. Oates points out, Sandburg accepts the legendary story about Lincoln and his young friend, Ann Rutledge, being involved romantically as if it were indisputable truth and then describes him sitting by the fire after her death on a storm-swept night. “The blowing weather woke some sort of lights in him,” claims Sandburg. “And he went to the door and looked out into a night of fierce tumbling wind and black horizons. And he came back saying, ‘I can’t bear to think of her out there alone.’ And he clenched his hands, mumbling, ‘The rain and the storm shan’t beat on her grave’” (Sandburg in Oates, Our Fiery Trial, p. 102). Certainly Lincoln grew melancholy after his friend Ann Rutledge’s death at the tender age of twenty-two. But just as there is no evidence that he ever loved her in the romantic sense, there is no factual basis for the sense of grief and the dialogue about the storm and her grave that Sandburg attributes to Lincoln.


Legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in 1854 provided for the creation of the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Seeking to solve the question of slavery peacefully, the act overturned an earlier policy, the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which had admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state and prohibited slavery from the Louisiana Purchase north of 36°30’. If it had not been overturned, the Missouri Compromise would have barred slavery from the Kansas-Nebraska territories, and so Southern slaveowners, hoping to make the territories slave states, supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It allowed the territories to decide the issue for themselves through popular election, but this led both pro- and antislavery forces to try and forcefully manipulate the Kansas vote in their favor, creating strife in so-called “bleeding Kansas” in the mid-1850s.

Similarly, Sandburg’s biography leaves out negative remarks made by Lincoln about race in the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. The biography mentions only a couple of relatively gentle comments made by Lincoln, identifying blacks as inferior. Lincoln, Sandburg admits, did say “Certainly the Negro is not our equal in color—perhaps not in other respects” (The Prairie Years, vol. 2, p. 131). The omission of the more definite remarks made by Lincoln about white superiority and black inferiority reflects the biography’s portrayal of the folk image of Lincoln as a nearly infallible shaper of American history.

The biography also presents Lincoln’s religious beliefs in a way that encourages a misunderstanding of them. As a child growing up on the prairie, Sandburg writes fondly how Lincoln was accustomed to his mother reading from the Christian Bible on a regular basis. Sandburg also notes that later, while working as an attorney with William Herndon, Lincoln “believed in God and constantly mentioned God” (The Prairie Years, vol. 2, p. 254). Together, these two observations suggest Lincoln was an avid member of the Christian faith. But throughout his life, Lincoln claimed no denomination and failed to become a member of any church, an avoidance that occasionally hurt him politically.


Douglas was sitting by, in an overcoat, with a broad-brimmed white hat, smoking a cigar. When the time came for his halfhour of reply, he slipped out of his overcoat in a hurry, stepped to the front, denied Lincoln’s charges, and four times walked up to Lincoln and shook his clenched fists close to Lincoln’s nose. Lincoln kept his face solemn and looked Douglas in the eye, while some men in the audience got restless, started to pull off their coats, one Republican saying, ‘Let them come on.’ Then Douglas branched into another subject, and quiet came.

(The Prairie Years, vol. 2, p. 149)


When Carl Sandburg was approached by his publisher, Alfred Harcourt, to write a children’s book about Lincoln, Sandburg was overjoyed. For decades, he had been collecting Lincoln lore, and the prospect of writing about a subject that had already captured his interest seemed ideal.

To begin his research, Sandburg first referred to previously published biographies of the former president. Of these, Ida Tarbell’s thorough account, originally published as a series for Mc-Clure’s magazine in 1895-96, and William Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, authored by Lincoln’s former law partner, proved invaluable. In addition, Sandburg traveled the nation collecting rare documents and interviewing those who had personally known the head of state. By the time Sandburg began writing, he had read over a thousand books on his subject and spoken with countless witnesses.

Sandburg also called upon several of his own experiences as well. Like Lincoln, Sandburg was born and raised in a small Midwestern town and spent his youth working in a myriad of jobs. As a result, much of the book reflects the personality of its author.

Events in History at the Time the Biography Was Written

Chicago race riots

Despite Lincoln’s 1862 proclamation of emancipation for all slaves in confederate territory as of January 1, 1863, and the Union’s subsequent victory in the Civil War, many blacks remained in the South even though they were free to live elsewhere. However, as a result of Northern employment shortages during World War I, large numbers of African Americans began to migrate northward, eventually causing increased competition in the work force and overcrowding in urban ghettos. Overall, this migration raised the tension between blacks and whites everywhere, particularly in Chicago.

One day in July of 1919, a young black boy swimming at the local bathing beach accidentally swam into an area restricted to whites only. Upon seeing this, some white boys on the beach began pelting him with stones, resulting in the drowning of the swimmer. When several black people approached a nearby officer and demanded he arrest those responsible, the officer refused. Eventually, more rocks were thrown from both sides until the fighting began to spread throughout the city. At the end of three days, twenty blacks and fourteen whites lay dead and several houses of blacks had been burned.

During these race riots, Sandburg was working as a journalist for the Chicago Daily News. In response to the riots, he decided to do a series of articles on the subject of racial strife in Chicago as well as the rest of the nation. The result was what some critics believe to be his best reporting ever, introducing him to the subject of racial strife, which he would later discuss in The Prairie Years.

Reviews of Sandburg’s book

When The Prairie Years was finally published in 1926, it entered the literary world with mixed reviews. Some, such as the critic Edmund Wilson, attacked the work viciously on the ground that it was overidealized. “There are moments when one is tempted to feel that the cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg,” said the critic (Wilson in Callahan, p. 132). Others went the opposite route, praising Sandburg’s biography as a masterpiece that managed to do justice to its subject. Still others sought the middle ground, complimenting the work for its brilliant prose and its content, but finding it to be sometimes invalid as historical biography. Sandburg himself said, “Among the biographers, I am a first-rate poet. And among the poets, a good biographer” (Sandburg in Callahan, p. 135).

A curious parallel

Because Lincoln was one of the greatest presidents in American history, many of his successors sought to invoke his image in the vain hope that some of the reverence that accompanied his name would enhance their public image. None were able to do so as successfully as Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Upon first being elected president in 1932, Roosevelt assumed his role in an era unlike any the country had ever seen. After the stock market crash of 1929, unemployment was at a record high and the country’s mood was grim. In response to this crisis, F.D.R. initiated bold new reforms that required the country’s backing in order to prove effective. To gain this support, he drew parallels to the time of Lincoln, enlisting the aid of Carl Sandburg to his cause.

Because of the notoriety Sandburg had gained following the 1926 publication of The Prairie Years, many now linked his name inextricably with Lincoln’s. By throwing his support behind F.D.R. in a series of campaign speeches and other writings, Sandburg brought his association with Lincoln into the political arena of the day. He lent the comparison between Lincoln and Roosevelt a sense of validity.

Nearly a decade later, Roosevelt called upon Sandburg once again. The president had been continually championed in Sandburg’s syndicated newspaper column and through various speaking engagements, but Roosevelt once again needed Sandburg’s talents on the stump. World War II was raging in Europe and American involvement seemed imminent. In order to gain support for F.D.R.’s policies, Sandburg made a series of speeches in which he compared the current state of history to the time when Lincoln was at the helm, describing F.D.R.’s actions as similar to ones Honest Abe would have taken.

Throughout his four terms as president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt invoked the image of Lincoln repeatedly. Without the assistance of America’s Lincoln expert, Carl Sandburg, his efforts to compare his own presidency to that of the fallen leader might have been less successful.

For More Information

Callahan, North. Carl Sandburg: His Life and Works. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987.

Friedman, Lawrence M. A History of American Law. 2nd ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.

Jones, Alfred Haworth. Roosevelt’s Image Brokers. Port Washington, N.Y.: National University Publications, 1974.

Luthin, Reinhard H. The Real Abraham Lincoln. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1960.

Oates, Stephen B. Our Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, and the Civil War Era. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.

Oates, Stephen B. With Malice toward None. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years. 2 vols. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1926.

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Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years

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