Manly Abe


Here at the bicentenniel of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, there’s been quite a bit written, spoken and broadcast about the extraordinary man over the last couple of weeks. Of course, some of it has been overshadowed by the fact the we now have Lincoln II in the White House.

I was stoked to see that my new issue of The Claremont Review of Books had a large section devoted to essays about our greatest president. One of the shorter ones is a great little piece by Christopher Flannery about a little-known period of Lincoln’s life in which his character and leadership qualities first became evident.

Here’s an excerpt of how, as a single, 22-year-old newcomer to New Salem, Illinois, Lincoln quickly gained the respect of the locals:

In coming weeks and months—Lincoln now “a sort of Clerk in a store,” as he put it—New Salemites saw more of his storytelling as well as his affability, surprising gentleness, hard work, an unequalled determination and capacity to learn, honesty that immediately became legendary, and prodigious physical strength. This last led Lincoln’s impulsive employer to wager that Lincoln was not only the smartest fellow around but could outwrestle the toughest man in the county—Jack Armstrong, leader of the Clary Grove boys. That wild bunch lived a few miles outside town and were, despite their roguish gallantry, “a terror to the entire region,” as Lincoln’s future law partner William Herndon reports. In his warm description,

“They were friendly and good-natured; they could trench a pond, dig a bog, build a house; they could pray and fight, make a village or create a state. They would do almost anything for sport or fun, love or necessity. Though rude and rough…there never was under the sun a more generous parcel of rowdies.”

The Clary Grove boys put their money on Armstrong to prove himself “a better man than Lincoln.” Accounts of the epic match vary. Herndon records that it ended when Lincoln, angered by foul play, suspended decorum and “fairly lifted the great bully by the throat and shook him like a rag.” However it ended, all accounts agree on the result: Lincoln increased his good standing in the opinion of “all New Salem,” and “secured the respectful admiration and friendship,” above all, of the Clary Grove champion, Jack Armstrong. (Many years later, Lincoln would, for no fee, skillfully and successfully defend Armstrong’s son against a charge of murder.) The Clary Grove boys were devoted friends and supporters of Lincoln ever after.

There’s an unapologetic manliness that saturates this whole story — one that most big city-raised metrosexuals must find utterly alien.

Do read the whole thing, along with Claremont’s other Lincoln pieces.