Lincoln College Professor Ron Keller has published the first major book to focus on Abraham Lincoln’s legislative career in more than 50 years. Lincoln in the Illinois Legislature is an indispensable account of Abraham Lincoln’s earliest political years.
The last major book with a single focus on Lincoln in the state legislature – Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years – was written by the late U.S. Senator Paul Simon back in 1965, when Simon was near the beginning of his own political career, serving in the Illinois Senate.
“I did not set out to rehash his book, but instead, I wanted to reconsider Lincoln’s legislative years from a fresh perspective,” Keller said. “On a few occasions I break with Simon’s conclusions. For instance, in assessing Lincoln as the log-rolling legislator, I am a bit more critical than Simon. I sought to heighten the personal character of Lincoln and the relationships he forged in those years.”
While the book serves as a biography of Lincoln during his state legislative years, Keller explained that he wanted to accomplish more.
“I hope this book contributes to the knowledge and the dialogue of one of our greatest Americans in the midst of a very formative time in his life but I also hope this book will serve as an examination into the art of early Illinois legislative politics,” Keller said.
Keller’s book is the latest in the “Concise Lincoln Library” series published by Southern Illinois University Press. The book is available for purchase in bookstores and online retailers or directly from SIU Press at www.siupress.com, and available soon at the Lincoln Heritage Museum on the Lincoln College Campus.
While Lincoln’s four-term legislative career has been critiqued by some historians as lackluster, Keller digs into Lincoln’s time in the Illinois House to reveal how the underpinnings of his temperament, leadership skills, and political acumen were bolstered on the statehouse floor.
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. As Illinois debates a new capital construction bill in 2019, Lincoln’s experience and effectiveness in advocating and building support for his major project is particularly timely.
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.