One day, many years ago, a town called New Salem rose like Brigadoon out of the forest to meet a young man named Abe Lincoln, and the country would never be the same.
Yesterday, as I celebrated our nation's birthday with a brat and can of soda in my hand, the life and times of our sixteenth president came to mind. In particular, I began to think of the days he spent as a young man along the Sangamon River, years before anyone would ever know his name or speak of his greatness. Lincoln came to New Salem by flatboat while returning from New Orleans, having been hired by a man to travel down to that port city and sell a load of wares. The Sangamon River was low that year, and Lincoln's raft was caught on the dam that powered the small town's mill. One of the men who came down the bluff from the town to help free the raft was opening a store soon, and seeing something in young Lincoln, offered Abe a job running the store. Lincoln agreed, and after completing his trip, returned to New Salem for the job that awaited him.
The Abe Lincoln that entered New Salem was tall, gangly, and twenty-two years old. He had only one year of formal education, but a remarkable ability to educate himself. He was unsure of his future, and while he had ambition to make something of himself, he had no idea what that something was. Lincoln, later in life, remarked that he arrived in New Salem as directionless as a twig floating on a river. A gifted storyteller with a quick mind and sense of humor, Lincoln quickly became popular with the townspeople who appreciated him for his personality and strong work ethic. New Salem was such a good fit for Lincoln that he stayed even after the failures of the original store he clerked at and a subsequent store he opened with a friend. After the business failures, the town still found work for the young man as a surveyor and as the town's postmaster.
I traveled down to central Illinois a couple of years ago and had a chance to walk around New Salem. The town was restored through a grant by the Rockefellers, and it's possible to see New Salem much as it was in the days of Lincoln. Upon arriving at a small general store that also served as the town's post office, the docent informed us that Lincoln slept in the back of that building while he was postmaster. We walked to the back of the small log cabin, and next to a row of cubbyholes for sorting mail there was a small, narrow cot. "Abe Lincoln slept here," the docent said, pointing to the cot. "He never owned property here, so he slept in various places around town." Basically, Lincoln slept on people's couches for seven years.
I enjoy museums, and have seen many antiquities over the years, but I have rarely ever seen an object as inspirational as Lincoln's cot. To hear that a man comes from humbles origins is one thing, but to see the cot that he slept on in the back of a store is another.
Sometimes in life it seems that the odds are stacked against us and our days are filled with too many defeats and not enough victories. Lincoln knew about failure and tragedy; he lost his mother and sister when he was a young boy and his early adulthood is a litany of failed enterprises; but while his spirit was beaten it was never broken. The difficulties in Lincoln's life played a tremendous role in shaping his character, and we need only to look at his past to see the circumstances that helped create a man who spent long nights in the Oval Office writing compassionate letters to war widows. Difficulties can either embitter a person or bring out their true greatness, and in Lincoln they did the latter.
Lincoln didn't sleep on that cot forever. Eventually he became interested in law, and since he couldn't afford law school, began to study the subject in the shade of New Salem's trees. He was also elected to the Illinois State Assembly by the people of the area, and at age twenty-nine, set off down the road to Springfield and legend.
Next time your child faces difficulties and needs some inspiration, try telling them about Abe Lincoln and his cot.