Occasionally amid the tedium of these high-flown commonplaces there opens a fissure through which the inner spirit of the man looks out for an instant. It is well known that Lincoln was politically ambitious; his friends knew it, his biographers have said it, he himself avowed it. Now and again, in these early days, when his horizon could hardly have ranged beyond the state legislature and the lower house of Congress, he uttered some sentences which betrayed longings of a high moral grade, and indicated that office and power were already regarded by him as the opportunities for great actions. Strenuous as ought to be the objection to that tone in speaking of Lincoln which seems to proceed from beneath the sounding-board of the pulpit, and which uses him as a Sunday-school figure to edify a piously admiring world, yet it certainly seems a plain fact that his day-dreams at this period foreshadowed the acts of his later years, and that what he pleased himself with imagining was not the acquirement of official position but the achievement of some great benefit for mankind. He did not, of course, expect to do this as a philanthropist; for he understood himself sufficiently to know that his road lay in the public service. Accordingly he talks not as Clarkson or Wilberforce, but as a public man, of “emancipating slaves,” of eliminating slavery and drunkenness from the land; at the same time he speaks thus not as a politician shrewdly anticipating the coming popular impulse, but as one desiring to stir that impulse. When he said, in his manifesto in 1832, that he had “no other ambition so great as that of being truly esteemed by his fellow-men,” he uttered words which in the mouths of most politicians have the irritating effect of the dreariest and cheapest of platitudes; but he obviously uttered them with the sincerity of a deep inward ambition, that kind of an ambition which is often kept sacred from one’s nearest intimates. Many side glimpses show him in this light, and it seems to be the genuine and uncolored one.
In 1838 Lincoln was again elected a member of the lower house of the legislature, and many are the amusing stories told of the canvass. It was in this year that he made sudden onslaught on the demagogue Dick Taylor, and opening with a sudden jerk the artful colonel’s waistcoat, displayed a glittering wealth of jewelry hidden temporarily beneath it. There is also the tale of his friend Baker haranguing a crowd in the store beneath Lincoln’s office. The audience differed with Baker, and was about to punish him severely for the difference, when Lincoln dangled down through a trap-door in the ceiling, intimated his intention to share in the fight if there was to be one, and brought the audience to a more pacific frame of mind. Such amenities of political debate at least tested some of the qualities of the individual. The Whig party made him their candidate for the speakership and he came within one vote of being elected.