An IOU from Honest Abe

12/8/2020 cbw

By Ian Hunt

Recently while talking with a reporter about a painting the ALPLM had acquired, the topic of how a frontier economy would have functioned came up. I explained that in the first half of the 19th century, there was not a great deal of coin or paper currency available on the Illinois frontier. Many transactions involved either an exchange of goods or services or a promissory note, essentially an IOU.

This conversation reminded me of one of the most powerful items in the collections of the ALPLM that stood out for me personally. It doesn’t hold the symbolic power of the Gettysburg Address, nor the authority of the 13th Amendment. It is simply a small, ink-stained slip of paper with a few sentences of legalese and a few hastily scribbled signatures: the Promissory Note.

When we tell the story of Abraham Lincoln we usually focus upon his triumphs, his political victories, his acumen as an attorney, his leadership through the Civil War. Yet this small scrap of paper written in 1833 represents a failure, likely the biggest failure that Mr. Lincoln had ever suffered up to that point. As a resident and budding entrepreneur in the community of New Salem, Lincoln and his partner William Berry hoped that by purchasing a stock of goods for $379.82, purely on credit, their small store in the frontier village would take off. Sadly, the store would fail shortly thereafter and in 1835 his former partner William Berry would die, leaving Lincoln with the bulk of the debt.

A woodcut by Charles Turzak showing young Abraham Lincoln working in his store.

Though swimming in debt and suffering the dreadful punishment of having his personal property seized for auction, Lincoln continued to push through this adversity. (It’s worth noting that he had help from neighbors who thought highly of the him. One, James Short, even bought Lincoln’s property at auction and gave it all back to him.) While many might have abandoned their responsibilities, he refused, eventually retiring the debt through hard work and self-sacrifice. Today, many historians and admirers of the 16th President point to these events, among others, as proof that the campaign nickname “Honest Abe” was rooted in reality.

Hunt is the head of acquisitions at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

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