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Lincoln in the Illinois Legislature

Lincoln in the Illinois Legislature

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Ron J Keller


E-book (Other formats: Hardcover)
8 illustrations

Concise Lincoln Library


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  • Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

About the Book

In this indispensable account of Abraham Lincoln’s earliest political years, Ron J. Keller reassesses Lincoln’s arguably lackluster legislative record during four terms in the Illinois House of Representatives to reveal how the underpinnings of his temperament, leadership skills, and political acumen were bolstered on the statehouse floor.
Due partly to Lincoln’s own reserve and partly to an unimpressive legislative tally, Lincoln’s time in the state legislature has been largely neglected by historians more drawn to other early hallmarks of his life, including his law career, his personal life, and his single term as a U.S. congressman in the 1840s. Of about sixteen hundred bills, resolutions, and petitions passed from 1834 to 1842, Lincoln introduced only about thirty of them. The issue he most ardently championed and shepherded through the legislature—the internal improvements system—left the state in debt for more than a generation.
Despite that spotty record, Keller argues, it was during these early years that Lincoln displayed and honed the traits that would allow him to excel in politics and ultimately define his legacy: honesty, equality, empathy, and leadership. Keller reanimates Lincoln’s time in the Illinois legislature to reveal the formation of Lincoln’s strong character and political philosophy in those early years, which allowed him to rise to prominence as the Whig party’s floor leader regardless of setbacks and to build a framework for his future.
Lincoln in the Illinois Legislature details Lincoln’s early political platform and the grassroots campaigning that put him in office. Drawing on legislative records, newspaper accounts, speeches, letters, and other sources, Keller describes Lincoln’s positions on key bills, highlights his colleagues’ perceptions of him, and depicts the relationships that grew out of his statehouse interactions. Keller’s research delves into Lincoln’s popularity as a citizen of New Salem, his political alliances and victories, his antislavery stirrings, and his personal joys and struggles as he sharpened his political shrewdness.
Keller argues Lincoln’s definitive political philosophies—economic opportunity and the right to rise, democratic equality, and to a lesser extent his hatred of slavery—took root during his legislative tenure in Illinois. Situating Lincoln’s tenure and viewpoints within the context of national trends, Keller demonstrates that understanding Lincoln’s four terms as a state legislator is vital to understanding him as a whole.


Ron J. Keller is an associate professor of history and political science and the managing director of the Abraham Lincoln Center for Character Development at Lincoln College. He is a coauthor of Abraham Lincoln in Logan County, Illinois, 1834–1860 and A Respect for the Office: Letters from the Presidents. A past director of the Lincoln Heritage Museum, he serves on the board of the Abraham Lincoln Association and is an adviser to the Lincoln Forum.


"Lincoln in the Illinois Legislature is a welcome reconsideration of Lincoln's legislative career. It provides a fresh perspective on those eight momentous years in the future president's early life."—Kenneth J. Winkle, The Annals of Iowa

“Ron J. Keller is a knowledgeable, insightful, and readable historian of Lincoln’s earliest political years in Illinois. This nuanced work shows how Lincoln transformed himself into our country’s most respected president. Without hesitation, and with over forty-six years in the Lincoln world, I would suggest that Keller’s book is truly essential to the understanding of Lincoln’s well-documented growth in the 1850s.”—Daniel R. Weinberg, president, Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, Inc.

“Ron Keller delves into a formative time of Lincoln's life that is often mentioned but has rarely been written of at length. In Lincoln in the Illinois Legislature, Keller serves notice that Lincoln's four terms in the Illinois House tremendously impacted the Railsplitter's future course and laid the groundwork for how he approached so many of the issues he would face later in life. Any admirer or student of Lincoln will find this a must-read, and they will come away with a greater respect for how a frontier capital forged our nation's greatest president.”—Tim Butler, Illinois state representative, whose legislative district includes much of the same area Abraham Lincoln represented

“Keller's book offers a synthesis of material on Lincoln's early public service and is a useful tool in the continuing quest to understand Abraham Lincoln.”—Bernard Sieracki, author of A Just Cause: The Impeachment and Removal of Governor Rod Blagojevich