“As surveyor under Calhoun”

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Someone, probably a Democrat who voted for him in the preceding fall, recommended him to John Calhoun, then surveyor of the county, as suitable material for an assistant. This office, in view of the prevailing speculation in lands and town lots, was the most important and possibly the most profitable in the county. Calhoun, the incumbent, was a Yankee and a typical gentleman. The recommendation of Lincoln’s friends was sufficient to induce Calhoun to appoint him one of his deputies. At the time he received notice of his selection by Calhoun, Lincoln was out in the woods near New Salem splitting rails. A friend named Pollard Simmons, who still survives and has related the incident to me, walked out to the point where he was working with the cheering news. Lincoln, being a Whig and knowing Calhoun’s pronounced Democratic tendencies, enquired if he had to sacrifice any principle in accepting the position. “If I can be perfectly free in my political action I will take the office,” he remarked; “but if my sentiments or even expression of them is to be abridged in any way I would not have it or any other office.” A young man hampered by poverty as Lincoln was at this time, who had the courage to deal with public office as he did, was certainly made of unalloyed material. No wonder in after years when he was defeated by Douglas he could inspire his friends by the admonition not to “give up after one nor one hundred defeats.”

After taking service with Calhoun, Lincoln found he had but little if any practical knowledge of surveying-all that had to be learned. Calhoun furnished him with books, directing him to study them till he felt competent to begin work. He again invoked the assistance of Mentor Graham, the schoolmaster, who aided him in his efforts at calculating the results of surveys and measurements. Lincoln was not a mathematician by nature, and hence, with him, learning meant labor. Graham’s daughter is authority for the statement that her father and Lincoln frequently sat up till midnight engrossed in calculations, and only ceased when her mother drove them out after a fresh supply of wood for the fire. Meanwhile Lincoln was keeping up his law studies. “He studied to see the subject-matter clearly,” says Graham, “and to express it truly and strongly. I have known him to study for hours the best way of three to express an idea.” He was so studious and absorbed in his application at one time, that his friends, according to a statement made by one of them, “noticed that he was so emaciated we feared he might bring on mental derangement.” It was not long, however, until he had mastered surveying as a study, and then he was sent out to work by his superior-Calhoun. It has never been denied that his surveys were exact and just, and he was so manifestly fair that he was often chosen to settle disputed questions of comers and measurements. It is worthy of note here that, with all his knowledge of lands and their value and the opportunities that lay open to him for profitable and safe investments, he never made use of the information thus obtained from official sources, nor made a single speculation on his own account. The high value he placed on public office was more fully emphasized when as President, in answer to a delegation of gentlemen who called to press the claims of one of his warm personal friends for an important office, he declined on the ground that “he did not regard it as just to the public to pay the debts of personal friendship with offices that belonged to the people.”   

As surveyor under Calhoun he was sent for at one time to decide or locate a disputed corner for some persons in the northern part of the county. Among others interested was his friend and admirer Henry McHenry. “After a good deal of disputing we agreed,” says the latter, “to send for Lincoln and to abide by his decision. He came with compass, flag-staff, and chain. He stopped with me three or four days and surveyed the whole section. When in the neighborhood of the disputed corner by actual survey he called for his staff and driving it in the ground at a certain spot said, ‘Gentlemen, here is the corner.’ We dug down into the ground at the point indicated and, lo! there we found about six or eight inches of the original stake sharpened at the end, and beneath which was the usual piece of charcoal placed there by Rector the surveyor who laid the ground off for the government many years before.” So fairly and well had the young surveyor done his duty that all parties went away completely satisfied. As late as 1865 the corner was preserved by a mark and pointed out to strangers as an evidence of the young surveyor’s skill. Russell Godby, mentioned in the earlier pages of this chapter, presented to me a certificate of survey given to him by Lincoln. It was written January 14,1834, and is signed “J. Calhoun, S. S. C., by A. Lincoln.” “The survey was made by Lincoln,” says Godby, “and I gave him as pay for his work two buckskins, which Hannah Armstrong ‘foxed’ on his pants so that the briers would not wear them out.”

By William H. Herndon,Jesse W. Weik “Herndon’s Lincoln: A True Story of a Great Life”

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