Lincoln's Vandalia, a pioneer portrait; illus. by Romaine Proctor.
Baringer, William Eldon, 1909-
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depiction of covered wagon

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THIS is the story of a man and a town. The setting is Van|dalia. The hero—or, as Vandalia saw him, the villain— is Abraham Lincoln. Motorists on U. S. 40 between Terre Haute and St. Louis encounter modern Vandalia as a peaceful town in central Illinois, differing from a thousand others only in a vague tradition of historic events long past. Vandalia is ancient as settlements go in this part of the world. More than a century ago the chief business of the state was centered here. But the day of its glory was brief. Here also be|gan a career in public affairs destined to be of great and permanent importance. The development of the man and the decline of the town were closely interconnected.

If "all the world's a stage," Abraham Lincoln of Sangamon County was a prominent actor on the rustic boards of Van|dalia, pioneer capital of Illinois. Tall, slightly stoop-shoul|dered, young yet weather-beaten, with a face long, lined, and angular, the youthful lawmaker's melancholy appearance changed surprisingly in humorous conversation as his expres|sion brightened and his eyes sparkled, "all terminating," de|clared a colleague, "in an unrestrained laugh in which every one present willing or unwilling [was] compelled to take part." Acting with the dramatis personae of the log-cabin capital of Illinois, young Lincoln found constant opportunity to expand, to match his wits and works with the important men of the state, to enjoy himself and to enlarge his accomplishments. His colleagues and associates, typical American pioneer leaders, were men who have been largely forgotten. Seen in their con|temporary setting, they are figures no less fascinating than the young giant who was destined for great fame.

From these men Lincoln learned much. Assuming his first Page  4 elective office in December, 1834, within a year he had estab|lished himself as a man of mark, and within two and a half years had won a major victory which remained his outstanding achievement for two decades. Associating with the leading figures of the state, he, an obscure local politician, met the "great men" on terms of equality and quickly discovered that he could cope with, even lead, the best of them. In the muddy village of Vandalia he learned and practiced the subtleties of his trade under the example and tutelage of experienced poli|ticians. Here for the first time he mingled in polite society with men and women of wealth, culture, education; here he de|bated and heard discussed every phase of national and state politics and economic theory, probing problems of slavery and abolition, banking, states' rights, executive powers and patronage, temperance, internal improvements, public lands, tariff, education, capital punishment, judicial procedure, financial panic. As a formative influence the Vandalia period, 1834-39, was of first importance in the astonishing career of Abraham Lincoln.

If deprived of its Lincoln connection, the story of the rise and fall of Vandalia, pioneer capital, and its legislative sessions, would still be well worth the telling as social history. There one can see, in microcosm, the growth and functioning of American pioneer government and the early American town.

Abraham Lincoln of New Salem, novice lawmaker from Sangamon County, first saw Vandalia on a late November day in 1834. Seated uncomfortably in a jolting, crowded coach, tired after a journey of seventy-five miles which had lasted approximately two days and one night, Lincoln watched the log cabins of the capital flow by as the Springfield-Vandalia stage in which he rode rolled toward the town square. A blast assailed his ears; the driver blew a horn to announce the stage's arrival, and pulled his team to a stop in front of the post office. A crowd quickly surrounded the dusty vehicle. The onlookers assembled, not to see Lincoln arrive, or any Page  5 other legislator (for lawmakers were familiar sights to Van|dalia citizens), but to inquire for mail and learn the news pas|sengers might bring. Lincoln climbed down in the wake of a tall, elegantly dressed young man, John Todd Stuart of Spring|field, who knew his way about in the capital.

The towering Lincoln, dressed in the first expensive suit he had ever owned, claimed his bag, hastily surveyed the public buildings and the more numerous taverns on the square, then followed Stuart into one of the inns, registered, and took up residence as Stuart's roommate, under the same roof with some thirty other temporary residents. Few of these knew any|thing about him. When first mentioned by the Vandalia paper his given name was unknown in the capital; he was listed in August as "— Lincoln," an elected representative. But Stuart was in familiar surroundings, and, politician-like, he introduced his protégé to all comers. Those who greeted Lincoln in the hearty style typical of the times grasped a hand large, hard, and strong, and regarded a man who was strik|ingly tall—even among tall men—and of lean, powerful build, dark, intelligent rather than handsome of feature. Kentucky-born and Indiana-reared, of an undistinguished frontier family, the newcomer had been loosely educated, and was without advantages save those he made for himself. Voca|tionally he was a part-time man—law clerk, postmaster, sur|veyor, laborer, soldier, riverman, business man, grocery clerk—and now part-time lawmaker. Such variety of endeavor indicated neither superficiality nor extraordinary versatility, but an ambitious man of ability searching for his true career. Of excellent mind, with a strong flair for self-expression, witty, not without guile, young Lincoln had developed into an indi|vidual who was studious, serious, yet gregarious, with an in|exhaustible fund of humor and good-fellowship. Such a per|sonality, in the frontier environment of Illinois, naturally found public life the most attractive field of action.

Like many of his legislative colleagues, Lincoln was a com|paratively new citizen of Illinois. Arriving early in 1830 from Page  6 southern Indiana, he had turned up in New Salem on the Sangamon River in 1831, in pursuit of employment promised by a frontier commercial magnate named Denton Offutt. Offutt's enterprise lasted a year, whereupon Lincoln spent four months as a soldier in the Black Hawk War, first as cap|tain by election, then as private. Failing to win election to the Eighth General Assembly in August, 1832, the ambitious young giant staved off unemployment by entering a merchan|dising partnership. The firm of Berry and Lincoln, general store, did not prosper, and Lincoln augmented his slender financial resources by frequenting, as witness and juror, courts of law in Springfield and New Salem, performing minor legal services, and accepting appointment as New Salem post|master. This office was hardly important enough to attract any prominent Democrat, so it went to an avowed Clay man. A second small piece of Democratic patronage, appointment as deputy surveyor of Sangamon County, came his way. Sighting the chain was the young politician's chief activity when the 1834 legislative campaign season arrived, and this time he ran successfully.

Many historians of Lincoln have theorized at considerable length concerning the reasons for his political affiliations. Born and reared, in his own words, in "the most humble walks of life," he spurned the party led by the "people's hero," Andrew Jackson, then dominant both in Illinois and in Sangamon County, and joined the "aristocratic" party of Henry Clay. But young Lincoln's choice of political associates was strange in appearance only. A party of aristocracy in the frontier state of Illinois—nonsense! The Clay men of the state were fully as democratic as the Jacksonians. Voters of Illinois believed in equal rights so firmly that the theory was extended to lower animals. A law of 1836, for example, which prohibited under|sized bulls from running at large and propagating inferior cattle, aroused a storm of opposition. The law was denounced as aristocratic, "intended to favor the rich." Equality of rights among bulls and their owners was vociferously demanded, and Page  7 numerous politicians responsible for the "little bull law" were permanently removed from public life.^1

Young Lincoln's political ideas, furthermore, were formed in the time of "men, not measures." The men who aroused the young Hoosier's interest in politics were not Jacksonians. Clear evidence shows that before he reached voting age Abraham had become intensely interested in politics and speaking on public affairs as an appropriate field for self-expression. Soon after his arrival in Illinois he witnessed a legislative canvass, as candidates for election to the Seventh General Assembly mounted the stump in Macon County. Hearing William L. D. Ewing and John F. Posey address the electorate in Decatur one summer day, he was moved to stand up and make a speech of his own. But he could not vote on election day, August 2, for he had not lived in the state the required six months.

Two years later he was prepared to vote and to run for the legislature. He had no intention of beginning his political career by winning a minor office and working up. Rather he would begin near the top, without benefit of the oft-men|tioned proddings of Miss Ann Rutledge or Miss Mary Todd, for the legislature was paramount in the government of Illi|nois. Plans were made well in advance of the campaign season. Though it was the era of "men, not measures," Abraham had no powerful friends to help him along. So he appealed for votes by taking a public stand on current issues locally im|portant. With great care he drew up a long document which he caused to be published in the Sangamo Journal at Spring|field, March 15, 1832, declaring to all voters of Sangamon County his belief in internal improvements and public edu|cation, his opposition to loaning money at high interest rates, his desire to improve laws regarding estrays, roads, and exe|cution of court judgments. But he spoke as an authority only on the subject of river navigation. Citing his experience as a Sangamon River boatman, he declared his conviction that the river could be made navigable by spending a moderate sum of money to clear and straighten the channel.

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But, Fellow-Citizens [he wrote], I shall conclude. Considering the great degree of modesty which should always attend youth, it is probable I have already been more presuming than becomes me. However, upon the subjects of which I have treated, I have spoken as I thought. I may be wrong in regard to any or all of them; but holding it a sound maxim, that it is better to be only sometimes right, than at all times wrong, so soon as I discover my opinions to be erroneous, I shall be ready to renounce them.

Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. . . . I am young and unknown to many of you. I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relations to recom|mend me. My case is thrown exclusively upon the independent voters of this county, and if elected they will have conferred a favor upon me, for which I shall be unremitting in my labors to compensate. But if the good people in their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the back ground, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.

Your friend and fellow-citizen, A. LINCOLN.

Before the canvass actually began the young candidate joined patriot and politician in taking up arms against war-painted Indians in northern Illinois, returning home in time to deliver a few speeches before election day, August 6. Four members of the lower house were elected from a field of thirteen candidates, among whom Lincoln ran eighth. The showing was not too bad for a first race, but he would have to advance rapidly to become one of the top four in 1834. That such an advancement might not be impossible was hinted by his vote in the New Salem precinct, 277 of 300 votes cast. New Salem lay in the northern part of Sangamon County. He must make himself equally well and favorably known in other sec|tions of Sangamon. Just such an opportunity came in his ap|pointment as deputy surveyor in 1833.

On April 19, 1834, Lincoln's candidacy was announced in the Sangamo Journal at Springfield. John T. Stuart of Spring|field had announced himself a candidate for re-election, and Page  9 the Jacksonian group of Sangamon County had put forward four opposition candidates. Lincoln did not repeat the experi|ment of issuing a platform. Instead, he put his faith in that bi|partisan support which in 1832 had given him virtually a clean sweep in the New Salem area. During the four-month cam|paign he divided his time between surveying and attending political rallies. At one of these Lincoln was approached by a Democratic leader who made him a proposition: a calculated number of Democratic votes would be cast for Lincoln, with the idea of beating Stuart and electing Lincoln and three Democrats. But the surveyor-politician would make no com|mitments until he had talked to the prospective victim. Stuart thought himself strong enough to win anyway, so he told Lincoln to accept. Stuart's followers then concentrated on beating one of the strong Jackson candidates, Richard Quin|ton, giving some of their votes to less prominent Jacksonians. Quinton finished out of the money by a narrow margin. Two Whigs and two Democrats were thus elected. Lincoln ran a strong second, only fourteen votes behind John Dawson, Democrat, who led the ticket. Third and fourth places went to William Carpenter and John T. Stuart. Only Stuart and Dawson were experienced legislators, Dawson having been in the House in 1830.

For four more months the young giant from New Salem car|ried chain and compass; then late in November he put aside those convenient instruments of advancement and prepared to begin his career as a giver of the law. Not wishing to make his initial appearance as an elected official clad in his customary homespun, trousers failing by six inches to meet his shoes, Lincoln borrowed $200 from a New Salem friend, Coleman Smoot, and spent sixty dollars on a new suit, tailor-made in Springfield. More dollars were expended on accouterments worthy of the new position, leaving enough cash to last until he could collect his legislative salary of three dollars per day. Boarding the regular weekly stage at New Salem, he bounced slowly south to Springfield, where other Sangamon legislators Page  10 came aboard. From Springfield they rode together south and east to Vandalia.

Such was the undistinguished background of the new anti-Jackson representative from Sangamon County. His political career would stand or fall by the record he made in the rough capital village, and Lincoln intently took stock of his surround|ings. The community had been there but fifteen years. The tall politician, himself ten years older than the capital, was not impressed by its size. Springfield, to which he journeyed often

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depiction of church

First House of Divine Worship (Erected by the State and later occupied by the Presbyterian Church)
Page  11 on business, was much larger. But Vandalia, mecca of the politically and socially minded of Illinois, was a place of greater importance. A community of some 800 to 900 in|habitants, the capital's appearance was described in a maga|zine briefly published in Vandalia. "The site of the town is remarkably handsome," boasted The Illinois Monthly Magazine. "Around it are many beautiful elevations, which command extensive prospects. It is surrounded by timber." The country around the timber, while good, did not "contain so continuous a body of fine land as is found in many other parts of the State."

The town is decidedly healthy. At its first settlement, it was, like all new towns, much afflicted with disease; but for the last eight years, the inhabitants have been as healthy as those of any other village in the State. . . . Excellent water is obtained in wells. . . . Wood is the only fuel used. . . . The neighboring hills abound in coal of a good quality, but none has yet been found nearer to the town than four miles.

Nothing is made in this country, as yet, for export, except beef, pork, venison hams, and skins, in small quantities. . . .

There are four stores for the retailing of merchandise. . . .

A plain brick edifice for a State-house. . . : a banking-house, of brick, now converted into public offices; and a neat framed church, are all the public buildings.

The benevolent societies of the State hold their meetings here. These are the State Bible Society, Illinois Sunday School Union, State Colonization Society, and State Temperance So|ciety. . . .

There is a school for boys, two schools for girls, and a Sunday school. . . .

The national road passes through this place. It has been lo|cated from Terre Haute, in Indiana, to Vandalia; the trees have been removed from the bed of the road, and the bridges are in progress. . . . This road will be of great importance to Van|dalia, as it will no doubt be the main route which will be trav|elled from St. Louis to the eastern States, and by the emigrants to Illinois and Missouri.^2

Like westbound emigrants who traveled the National Road, Lincoln found that the small seat of government had taken root atop a flat bluff overlooking the Kaskaskia River. The Page  12 unfinished National Road crossed the stream, led up a sharp hill, and precipitated travelers unexpectedly into the center of town, where a spacious public square was encircled by a rec|tangle of ramshackle buildings. Aside from two state buildings of brick, only the presence of an exceptional number of large taverns distinguished the capital from other towns of its size. Streets were simply wide spaces of mud or dust, with log cabins scattered along them. But great things were envisioned for the future, and a bevy of carpenters and allied artisans were al|ready making inroads on the preponderance of log houses.

Residents of the capital were proud of Vandalia's history. In its founding they saw the state taking a step along the highroad of greatness. If the exploring Lincoln was not already familiar with the story of the founding of the town, he doubtless heard it before he had been there long.

A horseman had set out from the old French village of Kaskaskia on a May day in 1819. His horse carried him slowly north along the Kaskaskia River. Behind the rider, spread out on a low flat between the Mississippi and Kaskaskia rivers, lay the largest settlement and temporary capital of the new state of Illinois. The horseman was Thomas Cox, senator from Union County. He rode north on a mission which would end Kas|kaskia's eminence. The old territorial capital was subject to regular floods and badly situated with respect to the state boundaries recently marked out by Congress. A stronger in|fluence, however, in sending Senator Cox on his journey north, was desire for profit. To clear the wilderness and erect a new seat of government was expected to boost land values to the advantage of all participants. Not wishing to leave this bright prospect to chance, the politicians who made up the 1818 constitutional convention directed the first legislature to peti|tion Congress for a grant of land farther north on the Kaskaskia River. The First General Assembly accordingly asked Congress for a grant of from one to four sections of public land for a new capital, astutely pointing out that such a course would increase the value of nearby federal lands. Congress agreed, and made a Page  13 grant of four sections in March, 1819. The legislature ap|pointed Samuel Whiteside of Madison County, Levi Compton of Edwards County, William Alexander of Monroe, Thomas Cox of Union, and Guy W. Smith of Edwards, members of the commission to locate the new seat of government.^3

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portrait of Ninian Edwards

Ninian Edwards (Governor of Illinois, 1826-1830)

Required by their instructions to find a site on the Kas|kaskia River east of the third principal meridian (a key north-south line of the township system which bisects the state), in a region where public land sales had not yet begun, the com|missioners assembled at the remote cabin of Charles Reavis, pioneer farmer. Senator Cox traveled as the river flowed not less than a hundred miles to reach the rendezvous; Guy Smith did not show up at all. Crossing the third principal meridian, Page  14 the four commissioners went twenty miles up river, looking over the terrain on both banks. "After taking into view . . . the local advantages of each situation," they declared in their report to the legislature, the four examiners "did select" a picturesque wilderness highland, Reeve's Bluff (a corruption of Reavis),^4 fifty feet above the west bank of the river.^5 They named it, for reasons unknown, Vandalia, to be by constitu|tional direction capital of the state for twenty years.

Operations designed to convert the heavily-timbered head-land into a thriving, prosperous city were speedily begun. But the place was twenty miles from any settlement, in a region not yet organized for county government, and progress was necessarily slow. The commissioners, charged by the legis|lature with the task of laying out the town after locating it, and erecting a temporary state house within six months, hired sur|veyors and woodsmen to drive back the wilderness. Surveyors laid out the town in August, subdividing the plot into sixty-four squares. Two central squares were allotted to public use, and each remaining square cut into eight lots. Streets eighty feet wide were laid out. A corner lot south of the reserved pub|lic squares was selected as the site of the capitol building. One Edmund Tunstall, the lowest bidder, received the building contract from the commissioners.

Town lots, announced for sale in August, were sold at public auction in September, according to legislative direction. The state government had little money in its coffers, and intended to take for itself all speculative profits. Therefore the com|missioners were allowed to sell no more than 150 lots in the new stump city, and the price paid ranged from $100 to $780, a tremendous over-valuation based on grandiose expectations.^6 The average price was $234, and the state would, if all con|tracts were carried out, realize $35,000 from the original sale, enough to operate the state government for nearly two years. Few contracts were fulfilled, however, and the price of lots rapidly declined. On auction day a sizable crowd assembled and bidding was brisk. State officials arrived, or sent agents, to Page  15 buy lots. The surveyors invested. Everyone having a part in the new town, except the commissioners themselves and the state house contractor, Tunstall, paid part cash down and gave the name of another investor as security for the remainder of the purchase price.^7

Log houses began to go up even before auction day. One of the first settlers, arriving in August, encountered considerable difficulty in penetrating the dense surrounding forest. But by September several passable roads had been cut, and on September 10 he wrote:

There is already considerable activity manifested. . . . Now the most active preparations are being made for the construction of houses, and we are daily visited by travelers. But how it will have changed in 10 or 20 years! All these huge forests will have then disappeared and a flourishing city with fine buildings will stand in their place. A free people will then from this place rule itself through its representatives and watch over their freedom and well-being.^8

If Vandalia could hardly claim to be "a flourishing city" when Abraham Lincoln looked it over fifteen years later, the last part of the prophecy at least was being fulfilled.

Among the Vandalia inhabitants who welcomed the legis|lators at the end of November in 1834 were residents who spoke English with a heavy accent. The young giant from San|gamon heard them converse in their native tongue, German. These, the first Europeans with whom Lincoln was thrown into close contact, were the remnants of the Ernst colony. Ferdinand Ernst, wealthy German liberal, had come to America in 1819 seeking fertile soil for a German settlement. Accompanied by young Frederick Hollman, "agriculturalist," Ernst traversed the settled portion of Illinois in wagon and on horseback, examining the new state with perspicacious eye. Impressed by the abundance of waterways, he found them slow-flowing and frequently stagnant in low-water season, productive of swarms of mosquitoes which sent settlers to bed Page  16 with fevers. Flies were the plague of horses. In summer months a swarm of huge flies might kill a horse in a short time.^9

Ernst was impressed by the vast prairies:

They are covered with tall or short grasses and shrubs and, in|deed, no more inviting thing can be imagined for a stranger than to settle here and to live and move in this abundance of nature. He needs to do nothing more than to put the plow once into these grassy plains, . . . and his fields are splendid with the richest fruits and the most abundant harvests. How much easier is here the beginning of a planter than in the dense forest on the Ohio!

In Kaskaskia the German was astonished to hear, in a Catholic church, an eloquent sermon in French delivered by a courtly padre. Governor Shadrach Bond invited Ernst to tea "in a company of distinguished ladies." Democratic etiquette impressed the visitor. Moving north to St. Louis, Ernst was gratified to see corn growing to great heights without fertilizer in the Mississippi bottom. Reaching Vandalia while the sur|veyors were at work, Ernst began a log house, and rode north with a guide to look over the land on the Sangamon, praises of which he heard on every side. He found them justified. Returning to Vandalia in time for the auction, Ernst bid in four lots, made arrangements for the completion of his house, and hurried to St. Louis, Europe-bound. No steamboat was leaving for New Orleans, so Ernst bought a skiff and floated downriver, making port there a month later.^1^0

Back in Vandalia, construction went forward throughout the autumn of 1819. Young Hollman, who upon arrival with Ernst had been astonished to find the capital "an unbroken wilderness" instead of a city, remained to make preparations for the colony, expected within a year. "My situation," wrote Hollman many years later, "was not enviable. Here I was alone in a country so thinly settled that it might with propriety be called a wilderness, and unable to communicate with the few persons with whom I came in contact on account of being unacquainted with the English language." But the German was better off than the American pioneers of Vandalia, who Page  17 had to do their own work. Living in a pole and brush shelter, he hired "an old squatter" to erect a cabin, and explored the nearby timber, blazing trees for use in building operations.

Food production was a problem which did not arise to divert the early arrivals from building. Sufficient grain, beef, and pork was available on farms within a fifty-mile radius, and "game of all kinds . . . , bear, elk, deer, wild turkeys, wild geese, wild ducks, and fish were to be found in astonishing quantities." Most first-year Vandalians had little to do after erecting their own cabins, and Hollman found labor plentiful. He hired men to fell trees, and decided that a store was needed. Ordering a storehouse added to his cabin, Hollman went to St. Louis, bought a small stock of staples, a few cabin furnish|ings, and a supply of books in which he could study English through the long winter evenings. "When all was finished," he wrote, "I moved my furniture into the dwelling department and the goods into the storeroom. . . . This commenced our life of semi-civilization. Emigrants were arriving daily and building themselves primitive habitations."

In the spring of 1820 Tunstall the contractor arrived with a dozen workmen to begin erecting the state house. Slowly the building took shape. Contracted for on August 11, 1819, it was to cost less than five thousand dollars. Supposed to be ready within six months, sixteen elapsed before the govern|ment took possession. McCollum the surveyor "commenced to build a hotel and business was brisk in all departments." Hollman constructed a small brick kiln, producing brick not for houses but for cellar walls and chimneys, and contracted for three more log houses and two frame dwellings. In May he received a letter from Ernst, written three months earlier, stating that a chartered ship would presently bring a hundred Vandalia-bound colonists from Germany. Convinced that "if accommodations of some sort were not provided for members of the legislature it would be a death blow to Vandalia," he decided to erect a two-story building which might serve as a hostelry.

Page  18By summer Hollman's log houses were finished and frames of the other three buildings were standing amid stumps and weeds. Also up was the skeleton of the state house and frames of several other houses. "The place began to assume the ap|pearance of a veritable village. Blacksmiths, shoemakers, tailors, and other mechanics were as busy as bees."^1^1 Autumn came and the Ernst colony did not appear. Fearful that the legislature would assemble before the newcomers could ar|rive, move in and prepare lodgings, Hollman furnished the houses he had built, hiring a widow Thompson from a nearby farm to make bedclothes and act as landlady at the large house.

The state house was ready in November. Late in the month state officers and legislators rode into town from day to day, expressing surprise at the dent made in the wilderness on the wooded bluff. Hollman lodged twelve legislators and boarded four clerks who slept in the state house. State papers arrived in December. Young Sidney Breese, clerk of the secretary of state, brought them from Kaskaskia in a small wagon. State officials moved in, and on December 4 the Second General Assembly convened in the barren rooms. Vandalia had be|come, in fact as in law, the seat of government.^1^2

The legislature proceeded to incorporate the town of Van|dalia, charging the town trustees to look after the state house during legislative recesses. Heated by fireplaces, the capitol was found to have chimneys which supplied the chambers with smoke as well as heat. The lawmakers authorized the town trustees to hire "some skillful person" to paint the state house and provide flues which did not operate in reverse.

The log capital, in a year and a half, had made progress. Stumps and log buildings were more numerous. Prospects in the post office were considered sufficiently attractive to arouse lively competition for the office of postmaster.^1^3 Population had expanded, the largest rise occurring when Ferdinand Ernst at last returned with a colony of thirty families from Page  19 Hanover. At the supper hour one evening in late December citizens were mystified by a sound never before heard in Van|dalia—instrumental music. Up the steep hill leading into town from the river came a wagon conveying a band which rendered a lively patriotic air. Four more wagons contained Ferdinand Ernst and family, female and juvenile members of the colony, and household goods. A column of men marched in the rear. Hollman and his countrymen exchanged emotional greetings, and he led them to the state house where the immigrants gave three spirited cheers "for the legislature and the State of Illi|nois." Speedily installed in cabins and houses prepared for them, the newcomers accounted their new life auspiciously begun.

The Ernst colony contained forty-five men, thirty-five women, and some fifteen children. "Among the men were two carpenters, two blacksmiths, two butchers, and one baker. These all went to work and did well during the continuance of the legislative session." Other artisans, the building boom over, were idle. "So were most of the females. About half a dozen young girls who were both pretty and neat got good situations and most . . . grew up to womanhood and were married to American residents." The Reverend Mr. Smith, Lutheran minister, held weekly divine services in German in the state house, his audiences including Americans who understood not a word of his sermons. Ernst took over the large hotel, named it Union Hall, and operated it as a tavern and general store. Leaders of the colony were musicians of some skill, who performed in the Ernst home chamber compo|sitions of Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart. On week|days Smith the preacher taught school in one of the cabins. This schoolhouse also served as the first courthouse of Fayette County. At the first meeting of the county commissioners, April 16, 1821, Ferdinand Ernst and Elijah C. Berry were named supervisors of roads. The immigrants thus quickly established themselves as "industrious and prudent citizens, Page  20 occupying their time and attention with their own business."^1^4 The son of Frederick Remann, merchant, of the Ernst colony, was to be elected to the legislature, his grandson to Congress.

Even more interesting to the visitor from New Salem than the German inhabitants was the state capitol, hub of activity during legislative sessions. He saw and explored a ten-year-old brick building, plain of line and in a condition of extreme disrepair, occupying a large lot across the street west of the public square. This was Vandalia's second capitol; the first had had a brief career. Occupied by the state in 1820, it had served as the seat of government during Vandalia's infancy.

Members of the 1820 legislature, all of them non-residents, were hard put to find lodging of any kind. Some Vandalians, behind in payments on lots, were allowed to remain because they had put up houses needed to accommodate the law|makers. State officials lived in their official quarters, or main|tained offices in their living quarters. The auditor and family moved into this first state house, smoke notwithstanding, but had to move out when the legislature assembled, and could find nothing better than a tiny log cabin at the edge of the forest. Governor Bond boarded at the residence of Robert K. McLaughlin, treasurer, where the state treasury was also housed, but went back to his Kaskaskia home without delay upon adjournment.^1^5

The bucolic simplicity of life in the wilderness capital of a frontier state in 1821 can be accurately gauged by the ex|penditures of the first legislative session held in Vandalia. Less than a hundred dollars was spent on stationery, including the cost of inkstands for the new building (5 cork, 2 pewter, 1 china), bottles of ink, and quills. Writing paper cost only $13.50. Seventy cords of firewood were burned at $1.50 per cord. The legislature printed only 150 copies of the governor's message, a state paper which asked for generosity in improving the seat of government. Dignified public buildings ought to be authorized, said Governor Bond, including a "seminary of Page  21 learning," so that the student might, "by an occasional visit at the houses of the general assembly, and the courts of justice, . . . find the best specimens of oratory the State can produce; imbibe the principles of legal science, and political knowledge, and by an intercourse with good society his habits of life would be chastened, and his manners improved."^1^6

The legislature was not interested in improving the manners and chastening the habits of the younger generation. More to the point were the economic difficulties of the voting genera|tion. The panic of 1819 had produced a severe shortage of money and made payment of debts impossible. Attempting a remedy, the legislature passed a stay-law, blocking legal judg|ments against debtors' property, and chartered a state bank, located at Vandalia. The capital's first brick building, the bank, began to rise on the public square in 1821. Its loose money practices made the bank popular and brought people to town. A plain building, it was not completed until Sep|tember, 1822. Three months later the Third General Assembly convened. The eighteen members of the Second General As|sembly who returned to the Third found Vandalia improved. Fayette County, named for the famous French marquis, had been established February 14, 1821, and several licensed taverns were seeking custom.

The Senate selected a new clerk, young Thomas Lippincott, who looked over the capital with an appraising eye. Two generations later he wrote:

The town of Vandalia was altogether an experiment. . . . A square of reasonable dimensions . . . was retained in the center; . . . around the square the buildings needed for of|ficers were scattered. These were temporary of course. At the . . . lower side of the square and facing it, a wooden building had been put up, two stories high—not very high though—suf|ficient to accommodate the Senate on the upper and the House of Representatives on the lower floor. . . . The style of the building was primitive and plain as a Quaker meeting house. But it answered the purposes of legislation, or most of them. . . . The furniture . . . was as plain and primitive as the Page  22 structure. No cushioned chairs, but long, hard benches were the seats of the members. The Speaker . . . sat on an arm chair on a platform hardly large enough to contain it, and a few inches high, with a board before him for a desk supported by several sticks called balusters, and a table before it for the clerk. . . . The Senate was "like unto it," only smaller. The Governor, Secretary of State, and other high officers who did not happen to reside at Vandalia, had lodgings and board little if any better than the rest. . . . It should be borne in mind that Vandalia was only three years old at this time. . . . It had to make itself. . . . A great state of forwardness in improvement could hardly have been expected.^1^7

When Abraham Lincoln arrived in 1834 the capital had begun to pay the penalty of a southern location in a state that was developing rapidly in its northern territory. But ten years earlier the town grew slowly for the opposite reason. It was too far north. And bad luck paid a number of calls at the strug|gling village in the fourth year of its history. The new bank was severely damaged by a fire, which was quickly followed by a bank robbery and a murder. Then the state house caught fire in the dead of night and burned to the ground. A spring epi|demic swept away Ferdinand Ernst and twenty more of his colony. Leaderless and discouraged, the German clan dis|persed. Some drifted off, while others remained to produce descendants who still reside in Vandalia. "Business was almost entirely prostrated," wrote one of the immigrants. "During the sessions of the legislature . . . business was pretty good but at all other times Vandalia was a most dull and miserable village."^1^8

The state house conflagration threatened to lead to a still greater disaster. The legislature might, despite the law which made Vandalia the seat of government until 1840, move the capital elsewhere. To avert that calamity the town began to rebuild on its own initiative. All summer in 1824 gapers watched a new brick capitol rise near the charred site of the old. Workmen and suppliers of materials proceeded on faith that the state would pay them later. When the legislature met Page  23 in November they found a two-story brick building, plain and badly constructed, ready to house the state government and to be paid for. By the time Lincoln arrived to represent San|gamon County, the second state house was nearly ready to fall down.^1^9

Young Lincoln, already a story-teller of parts, picked up new material as he listened to Vandalians and colleagues regale him with the adventures, customs, and notable characters of capital history.

Like every pioneer community, early Vandalia had its rowdy element. Gambling was a popular pastime, especially during legislative sessions. A citizen told the lawmakers in 1824 that a stranger "would be hardly led to suppose there was a statute in existance [sic] here against gambling, when he sees it publicly practiced in various forms, under your very noses."^2^0 When the game of ninepins, a favorite vehicle of wager, was placed under ban, a new game, tenpins, was quickly invented. The town trustees, conscious of local dignity as the seat of law and justice, prohibited brawling. Enforcement of municipal regulations against fighting would have been difficult if not impossible, had not the custom taken hold of settling argu|ments at a place called the "Bull Pen." At a pond on the northern edge of town contestants gathered when personal combat was imminent. Honor satisfied, the sporting event in|variably ended at a nearby tavern.^2^1

A frequent occupant of the Bull Pen was Old Tom Higgins, celebrated Indian fighter. Only thirty-five in 1825, Higgins was regarded as aged because he had only one ear and bore countless scars won in warfare with the Indians of Illinois Territory. On the streets and in the taverns the warrior had entertained listeners by the hour with accounts of the time he stood off a band of Indians single-handed, with four bullets in his body and a serious tomahawk wound in the head; or his more recent exploit in the Galena lead region, where he fought a legal duel with rocks at ten yards, and made his opponent Page  24 run for his life. Higgins was the champion at all forms of sport —corn shuckings, logrollings, horse races, fisticuffs. To show his prowess he was wont to chew up the glass after tossing off his whiskey.^2^2

Politics of the 'twenties were similarly obstreperous, and earlier campaigns furnished material for nostalgic reminis|cences retailed by the somewhat tamer politicians of the 'thirties. The typical politician had been he who appeared in the larger towns on Saturday afternoon, dressed like his con|stituents in homemade cottons or linens, and engaged with each public house to supply free liquor. Women never came near these rallies, but men poured in by every road from miles around, tied up their mounts, and were harangued by the candidates "from wagons, benches, old logs, or stumps newly cut, from whence comes the phrase 'stump speeches.'" Vigorous oratory over,

then commenced the drinking of liquor, and long before night a large portion of the voters would be drunk and staggering about town, cursing, swearing, hallooing, yelling, huzzaing for their favorite candidates, throwing their arms up and around, threat|ening to fight, and fighting. . . . Towards evening they would mount their ponies, go reeling from side to side, galloping through town, and throwing up their caps and hats, screeching like so many infernal spirits.
Occasionally a drunk would fall off his horse in the wrong place and be found dead in the mud of the river bottom.^2^3

When the Seventh General Assembly met in December, 1830, the year young Lincoln arrived in the state and inter|ested himself in Illinois politics, Vandalia reached its tenth anniversary as the seat of government. In this period the population of the state had tripled. Immigrants had poured into the central region. Until about 1828 there had been doubt as to the permanence of Vandalia. Citizens tacitly realized, but would not admit, that the town had been "forced into existence unsupported by the surrounding country. That the spirited improvement which marked the commencement of Page  25 this place," wrote a citizens' committee in 1834, "should have slackened and at last wholly ceased for a time, is what the ex|perienced might have anticipated. Since 1828, at which period the farms in our vicinity became productive, there has been a steady and healthy improvement, which has been annually in|creasing." Independence Day had become an occasion of un|failing public celebration. A parade was always followed by a meeting at which some local celebrity read the Declaration of Independence, and another delivered a patriotic speech, which was followed by a public feast or barbecue punctuated by toasts and discharges of firearms. Sometimes a dance on the green for the people, a ball for the gentry, concluded the fes|tivities. Not a soul was to be seen on farms for miles around on July 4; everyone was in town celebrating.^2^4

An east-west stage line ran through town, bringing mail and passengers on the old post road between Vincennes and St. Louis. Several highlights came each week when the driver was heard blowing his horn as the stage, pulled by six horses, bowled toward the square in a cloud of dust. Every citizen who possibly could, dropped whatever he or she was doing to rush to the tiny post office, peer hopefully for mail, and discuss news brought in by driver and travelers. The fare, six cents a mile and up, dictated continued use of horseback and wagon travel for most. By 1830 post roads ran "in every direction," and mails arrived by stage or postrider from east, west, and south.^2^5

When James Hall of Shawneetown, elected treasurer in 1827, came to Vandalia, the reviving town acquired a pioneer man of letters. In one of the rude cabins a book was written: The Western Souvenir, a Christmas and New Year's Gift for 1829, edited by Hall and published in Cincinnati in covers of bright red silk. Hall organized a historical society, and in 1830 began publishing the state's first literary periodical, The Illinois Monthly Magazine. Hall wrote most of the contents, chiefly essays on manners and customs, articles on Indian history, sentimental stories and Byronic verse, intended to put the Page  26 American West on the literary map. An English traveler who visited Vandalia in 1830 wrote of his surprise that, in a town only a decade old, "three annual meetings of an antiquarian and historical society have already taken place, and the whole of their proceedings are as regular, as well conducted, and as well printed . . . as if the seat of the Society had been at Ox|ford or Cambridge." This intellectual pre-eminence was short-lived. In 1831 the magazine moved to Cincinnati, and Judge Hall followed in 1833.^2^6

During the biennial sixty- to seventy-day sessions of the legislature, the wilderness capital was crowded to capacity and beyond. Simultaneously the Supreme Court was in ses|sion. Lobbyists and hangers-on appeared in large numbers. Government expenditures, once a mere fifteen to twenty thou|sand dollars a year, had mounted to fifty thousand annually, making lobbying worth while. And the legislature now dealt with larger projects—internal improvement schemes, in|corporation of railroads and other ventures—bringing to town lobbyists interested in profits as well as in measures. The legis|lature itself increased, after the 1830 census, from forty-two members to eighty-one.

Many legislators, finding accommodations now available for their wives, brought them to Vandalia for the session. Ar|riving with trunks and portmanteaux bulging with their finest dresses, the ladies produced a social season which ran simultaneously with the legislative session and made Vandalia the social center of the state. Aristocratic ladies from the South did their best, in a continual round of balls, receptions, parties, and private theatricals, to match the magnificence of their sisters in Charleston and Mobile. Making allowances, one concludes that the social whirl was something between bril|liant and Boeotian.

A lively season was at hand as the warm autumn days of late November, 1834, passed into history. Members of the legislature arrived unheralded on horseback, or by stage, with Page  27 the driver's horn blowing and citizens hurrying toward the square to meet the mail. The coach from Springfield pulled to a halt in the dust on Saturday evening, November 29, at dusk, discharging a load of passengers cramped from the long ride over primitive roads. Six of them were Sangamon County legislators, two senators and four representatives. As all climbed out, onlookers saw two men of average height, John Dawson and William Carpenter, farmers and Democrats, and two of taller build who called themselves Whigs—slender, handsome John Todd Stuart, and beside him a less elegant, but taller, figure, one Abraham Lincoln.