Outside of Illinois, People knew little about him. Even newspapers were conspicuously reticent about his life and background. All most could say was that he hailed from Illinois, that he had served a single term in Congress and had lost a bitter Senate contest to Stephen A. Douglas a couple of years before. And now, in the summer of 1860, he was the Republican candidate for President of the United States in what promised to be the most combustible election the Union had ever known. In the South, Democrats who understood nothing about the candidate as a man, nothing at all, castigated him as a symbol of "Black Republicanism"--a "sooty and scoundrelly" abolitionist who wanted to free the slaves and mongrelize the white race. In the North, Democratic papersdisparaged him as a party hack and a political unknown who lacked the ability to serve as President. Even many Republicans were hard-pressed to talk specifically about their candidate, to sell voters on his appeal and his talents. Some party bosses mistakenly thought his first name was "Abram," and various newspapers persisted in calling him that.
"There are thousands who do not yet know Abraham Lincoln," observed Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, and he called for the publication of an inexpensive biography that Republicans could read and circulate across the North. As several writers set about compiling their own profiles (one inevitably called him "Abram" Lincoln), Joseph Medill out in Chicago decided that a terse campaign biography should be prepared under the auspices of the Chicago Press & Tribune, Medill's influential Republican newspaper. Medill assigned senior editor John Locke Scripps to write the portrait, and Scripps caught a train for Springfield, where Lincoln lived and practiced law.
Scripps called on Lincoln in his Springfield office and found him besieged with Republican bigwigs, office seekers, and reporters (Mr. Lincoln, what are your plans? policies? Cabinet choices? Mr. Lincoln, what will you do if you are elected and the slave states secede?). It was sometime early in June, and the air was scented with summer smells; outside, hogs rooted in the dirt streets, wagons jingled by, and people strolled about the public square.Lincoln shooed people out of his office and closed the door so that Scripps could interview him in private. The candidate was tall and melancholy, with coarse black hair, large ears, a hawkish face, and long and bony limbs. As he commented on his rise to prominence and the impending campaign, Scripps took notes and urged Lincoln to talk more about himself. "The chief difficulty I had," Scripps reported later, "was to induce him to communicate the homely facts of his youth." "Why, Scripps," Lincoln protested, "it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life. It can be all condensed into a simple sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray's Elegy, 'The short and simple annals of the poor.' That's my life, and that's all you or any one else can make out of it."
The truth was that Lincoln felt embarrassed about his log-cabin origins and never liked to talk about them. In fact, he had worked all his adult life to overcome the limitations of his frontier background, to make himself into a literate and professional man who commanded the respect of his colleagues. So if he ever discussed his boyhood or his parents, said William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, "it was with great reluctance and significant reserve. There was something about his origin he never cared to dwell on."
Still, Lincoln conceded that it might be well for Scripps to write a brief, authorized biography, so that the public might know the essential facts of his life ... like the fact that his first name was Abraham, not Abram, as he was tired of pointing out. To ensure factual accuracy, Lincoln even agreed to furnish a summary of his early life and career. As he spoke, Scripps noted, Lincoln "seemed to be painfully impressed with the extreme poverty of his early surroundings, and the utter absence of all romantic and heroic elements." At least that was how Lincoln remembered things now, as a selfmade lawyer reaching for the highest office in the land. He told Scripps a few details about his ancestry, but warned that he did not want them published.
Later, after Scripps had gone, Lincoln toiled over an autobiographical sketch in which he referred to himself as "A." It was little more than an outline--as lucid, exact, and careful as he could make it, but an outline all the same. Because he could not bring himself to compose a full record of his life--that lay in uncertain fragments in a thousand letters, speeches, and newspaper clippings, in family trunks with their photographs and memorabilia, and in the diaries and recollections of his family, friends, colleagues, and adversaries. No, not a complete record of his life, because there was much about himself he would never reveal ... much about his parents and their backgrounds and deficiencies he refused to make public for the opposition to exaggerate and use against him. No, not a complete record of his life--not so much as a glimpse of who he was, of how he had suffered and what he had come to know in the decades since he had romped and roamed andbrooded and labored in the fields and creek bottoms of his youth. Still, he must have paused from time to time in his composition and thought back over those faded years, recalling some half-forgotten episode of his boyhood (a storm, a dream) and listening to the echoes of his past.