(A post from Dr. James Cornelius, the curator of the Abraham Lincoln Collection here at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)
Lincoln’s name makes it on to lots of lists these days, so you might ask: when did he first get listed, at least in print? Service in the Black Hawk War in 1832 got him on to muster rolls, and a pension list, as has long been known. Election to the state legislature in 1834 / 1836 / 1838 / 1840 also put him forward. We think his name first appeared in national newspapers in 1840, when he was an elector for the Whig presidential candidate, Gen. William Henry Harrison.
Two very out-of-the-way listings — one of them a new discovery — are worth listing here.
1. The federal government put out a biennial Register of All Officers and Agents, Civil, Military, and Naval, in the Service of the United States. (Today this is known as the Federal Register.) A copy of this dull and hard-to-find publication has recently entered the collection at the ALPLM. As of Sept. 30, 1835, amid the 297 pages of small print, including all people doing printing work for the government, and all cashiers of the Bank of the United States (which ceased operations about a year later, triggering a panic), is a long list of every postmaster in all 24 states, plus 3 territories.
Lincoln took home $56 for his work that year; the Irishman in Chicago, $649.00.
This 1835 edition is thus the first time that Lincoln’s name appeared in a federal publication. Somehow the Democratic President Andrew Jackson had commissioned the known Whig legislator A. Lincoln as postmaster of New Salem, Illinois, back in 1833. Lincoln did not appear in the 1833 biennial report, having taken up duties too late in the year; and he appeared again in 1837 only as a quarter-time employee, after his post office had been closed. (Jackson earned $25,000 a year as president; Lincoln earned that same salary, much reduced by inflation, 30 years later.) We do not know who exactly prevailed upon Jackson — more likely upon his postmaster-general, Amos Kendall of Massachusetts — to give Lincoln the tiny job, since the U.S.P.O. burned all such recommendation letters in the 1890s.
2. A more momentous and surprising listing came a decade later. Prof. Christine Kinealy of Drew University in New Jersey, for her book Charity and the Great Hunger in Ireland (2013), read the thousands of names printed in an official report and extracted, among others, Lincoln’s name. She mentions this directly on page 209.
The 1849 report from London listed subscribers to the “extreme distress” fund from all over the world.
He donated £5 (roughly $24.00 then, or very roughly $1,000 today) for famine relief. As a new Congressman from Illinois’s 7th district, Lincoln had tried and mostly failed to win the Irish-American vote. He was the only Whig in the entire Illinois delegation of 7 representatives and 2 senators, and the Irish voted Democratic. He also had many Scots-born constituents, who were drifting Whig. Let us dispense with politics, though: Lincoln always felt the burdens of the poor, and gave what he could, and the new level of catastrophe spawned by blighted potatos throughout Europe caused special harm in the bulk of Ireland where the one-crop food source left millions vulnerable. Prof. Kinealy reports that an earthquake in Caracas, Venezuela, and a famine in India had previously generated international relief help, but the severity of the potato blight, worse in 1846 than in 1845, had engendered the first truly organized international relief effort. Most donations arrived in 1847. Democratic President James Polk contributed; so did any number of British lords and ladies, Canadian and Indian expatriates, and U.S. bankers and shipping magnates. And a humble married man, father of two, from Springfield, Illinois, who never mentioned this donation in his next four runs for public office.
Thanks for assistance to John Hoffmann, and to book donors June and George Wiggins.