Issue Date: February 9, 2009
City: Springfield, IL
Two hundred years after his birth, Abraham Lincoln is still honored as one of the greatest U.S. Presidents. Lincoln was a complex man whose legacy is often overshadowed by the Civil War. Indeed, he ably led the Union throughout the War Between the States, but he did much more.
Lincoln made millions of acres in the West available to the public inexpensively, allowed grants for agricultural universities, and signed bills that funded the first transcontinental railroad. Lincoln introduced the first U.S. paper currency and income tax, and reformed the national banking system.
President Lincoln controlled the border slave states as the Civil War loomed. He rallied public opinion for the war effort within the Union states and prevented foreign nations from joining the Confederate cause. A gentle man who neither hunted nor fished because he couldn’t bear to kill, Lincoln believed the nation could be peacefully reunited at the end of the bitter war. Then, just days after the Civil War ended, Abraham Lincoln became the first U.S. President to be assassinated.
Today, the rail-splitter from Kentucky is one of America’s greatest heroes. Self-educated, honest, and hardworking, Lincoln embodies the notion that a common person can work their way to the nation’s highest office and become one of America’s most admired Presidents.
On May 7, 1833, future President Abraham Lincoln took a job as postmaster for New Salem, Illinois.
In 1831, 22-year-old Lincoln joined with a couple of friends in floating a flatboat down the Sangamon River to New Orleans. He was working as a bow hand, ferrying surplus farm products to the South.
Along the way, the boat got stuck on a milldam near New Salem, Illinois. A crowd of people gathered by the water to watch the men free their boat. Some took notice of the tall, thin man who took charge and successfully got the boat free. Upon hearing of his leadership in freeing the boat, Denton Offutt, who’d hired Lincoln to man the boat, offered him a job as a clerk in his store there. But when Lincoln returned from New Orleans, the shop wasn’t open yet, so he took on a variety of other jobs.
While he was in New Salem, Lincoln briefly served as a captain in the militia during an uprising by Chief Black Hawk. Also in New Salem, he ran for the legislature, stating, “Fellow citizens, I presume you all know who I am. I am humble Abraham Lincoln. I have been solicited by many friends to become a candidate for the legislature. My policies are short and sweet, like the old woman’s dance. I am in favor of a National Bank, I am in favor of the internal improvement system, and a high protective tariff. These are my sentiments and political principles. If elected I shall be thankful; and if not, it will be all the same.”
Lincoln lost the election but the experience gave him an interest in politics that he would always keep with him. By early 1833, he was out of a job. But on May 7th, he was appointed postmaster of New Salem. It’s unknown exactly how Lincoln was selected, but one source claimed that the women of New Salem were upset that the current postmaster spent more time serving the men whiskey than he did attending to his postal duties.
Lincoln enjoyed his time as postmaster and was popular among his customers for his habit of going out of the way to keep them happy. If he knew one of his customers was waiting for an important letter, he would walk several miles to deliver it as soon as possible. Even though he had to work several jobs to make ends meet, Lincoln would help out the people that couldn’t afford to pay their mail bills. And in one case, a friend turned him in for delivering unpaid mail. Lincoln had to pay a $10 fine for this.
Lincoln remained in his post until May 30, 1836, when the post office closed. At the time, the Post Office Department didn’t request the balance of about $16 that Lincoln had left over from his postal services. A few months later, they finally requested it. And even though Lincoln had been struggling financially, he provided the exact amount in the same coins it had been paid in by his customers, proving his nickname, “Honest Abe,” to be quite true.
In 1914, Harry Truman was appointed postmaster of Grandview, Missouri. He held the position only in title, handing the work and its pay over to Ella Hall, the widow of a Civil War veteran who needed the money. He remained in the post for less than a year. Because he didn’t personally carry out the tasks of postmaster, Lincoln is generally considered the only future president to truly serve as a postmaster.
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