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Abraham Lincoln, Volume I by John T. Morse

Armstrong used to do his loafing


first Abraham's coming of age made no especial change in his condition; he continued to find such jobs as he could, as an example of which Is mentioned his bargain with Mrs. Nancy Miller "to split four hundred rails for every yard of brown jeans dyed with white walnut bark that would be necessary to make him a pair of trousers." After many months there arrived in the neighborhood one Denton Offut, one of those scheming, talkative, evanescent busybodies who skim vaguely over new territories. This adventurer had a cargo of hogs, pork, and corn, which he wanted to send to New Orleans, and the engagement fell to Lincoln and two comrades at the wage of fifty cents per day and a bonus of $60 for the three. It has been said that this and a preceding trip down the Mississippi first gave Lincoln a glimpse of slavery in concrete form, and that the spectacle of negroes "in chains, whipped and scourged," and of a slave auction, implanted in his mind an "unconquerable hate" towards the institution, so that he exclaimed: "If ever I get a chance to hit that thing, I'll hit it hard." So the loquacious myth-maker John Hanks asserts;[24] but Lincoln himself refers his first vivid impression to a later trip, made in 1841, when there were "on board ten or a dozen slaves shackled together with irons." Of this subsequent incident he wrote, fourteen years later, to his friend, Joshua Speed: "That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio or any other
slave border. It is not fair for you to assume that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable."[25]

Of more immediate consequence was the notion which the rattle-brained Offut conceived of Lincoln's general ability. This lively patron now proposed to build a river steamboat, with "runners for ice and rollers for shoals and dams," of which his redoubtable young employee was to be captain. But this strange scheme gave way to another for opening in New Salem a "general store" of all goods. This small town had been born only a few months before this summer of 1831, and was destined to a brief but riotous life of some seven years' duration. Now it had a dozen or fifteen "houses," of which some had cost only ten dollars for the building; yet to the sanguine Offut it presented a fair field for retail commerce. He accordingly equipped his "store," and being himself engaged in other enterprises, he installed Lincoln as manager. Soon he also gave Lincoln a mill to run.

Besides all this patronage, Offut went about the region bragging in his extravagant way that his clerk "knew more than any man in the United States," would some day be President, and could now throw or thrash any man in those parts. Now it so happened that some three miles out from New Salem lay Clary's Grove, the haunt of a gang of frontier ruffians of the familiar type, among whom one Jack Armstrong was champion bully. Offut's boasting soon rendered an encounter between Lincoln and Armstrong inevitable, though Lincoln did his best to avoid it, and declared his aversion to "this woolling and pulling." The wrestling match was arranged, and the settlers flocked to it like Spaniards to a bull-fight. Battle was joined and Lincoln was getting the better of Armstrong, whereupon the "Clary's Grove boys," with fine chivalry, were about to rush in upon Lincoln and maim him, or worse, when the timely intervention of a prominent citizen possibly saved even the life of the future President.[26] Some of the biographers, borrowing the license of poets, have chosen to tell about the "boys" and the wrestling match with such picturesque epithets that the combat bids fair to appear to posterity as romantic as that of Friar Tuck and Robin Hood. Its consequence was that Armstrong and Lincoln were fast friends ever after. Wherever Lincoln was at work, Armstrong used to "do his loafing," and Lincoln made visits to Clary's Grove, and long afterward did a friendly service to "old Hannah," Armstrong's wife, by saving one of her vicious race from the gallows, which upon that especial occasion he did not happen to deserve. Also Armstrong and his gang gave Lincoln hearty political support, and an assistance at the polls which was very effective, for success generally smiled on that candidate who had as his constituency[27] the "butcher-knife boys," the "barefooted boys," the "half-horse, half-alligator men," and the "huge-pawed boys."

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