- Historic Sites
“A Most Abandoned Hypocrite”
A newly discovered document almost certainly written by the young Abraham Lincoln shows him dismantling a shifty political rival with ruthless wit and logic
February/March 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 1
Samuel Hill’s store, where Lincoln worked, was described by a former resident, T. G. Onstot, as “headquarters for all political discussions. The farmers would congregate there and discuss the questions of the day. Peter Cartright [ sic ], who was a politician then as well as a preacher, would spend hours on the porch, and by his wit and sallies keep the audience in an uproar of laughter, and the man who undertook to badger Uncle Peter always came out second best.” None of this pleased Hill, an irritable man. Eventually an outright feud erupted between the two, and Cartwright began publicly to abuse Hill in front of his own store. “He would come and sit for hours and laugh and talk about Hill,” according to Onstot, “while Hill stayed indoors. He was describing one day to a crowd how he viewed Hill’s soul. He said he had some doubts whether he had a soul till one day he put a quarter of a dollar on Hill’s lips, when his soul came guggling up to get the piece of silver.”
The seeds for Lincoln’s attack on Cartwright were sown on May 30, 1834, when a national Methodist periodical, Christian Advocate and Journal , published a letter by the preacher reporting on his missionary activities and calling for the recruitment of devout Methodists to teach in Illinois’s public schools. This sounded to sectarian ears like a bold Methodist attempt to dominate public education, and it so aroused Ashford Smith, a Baptist printer, that he widely distributed a handbill reprinting and attacking Cartwright’s letter.
The beginning of Cartwright’s letter was to figure prominently in the attack printed in the Beardstown Chronicle : “This second report of the present conference year of the Fort Edwards, Henderson river, and Rock Island missions, under my superintendence, is made with gratitude to God for the success that crowns our little efforts in these regions of moral desolation.”
And here is what Cartwright had to say about teachers: “And now let me ask through the medium of the Christian Advocate and Journal, could we not, who live in the ‘far off West,’ obtain some pious young men and young women from the older States and Conferences, under the influence of our own church, with good literary qualifications, to teach common schools in this State. There is a vast opening here for school teachers. We greatly need them. I am confident that I could give employment to more than 100 immediately, in my district, and perhaps 500 in the State. It would afford the presiding elders and circuit preachers great pleasure, every where, to lend their aid in getting up schools for such teachers, if they could be prevailed upon to come.
“We expect our conference to form itself into a common school education society. All we lack is the right sort of teachers. These teachers would greatly aid our missionary efforts, train the rising generation, and do a good part for themselves in a pecuniary point of view.”
Ashford Smith asked in his handbill wasn’t Cartwright’s aim to “advance the missionary efforts, and the support of a speculative clergy? Is this not enough to make the parson hang his sham’d face, decline as a candidate for office, and hunt a place to hide himself from the free people of Sangamon County?”
Before the summer was out, Cartwright became aware that he had stirred up a vocal public reaction via Smith’s handbill. At least partly in response, he sent a letter in late August to the Sangamo Journal in which he pleaded his case. This letter was to play perfectly into the hands of his detractors. It ran under the heading THE VALLEY OF THE MISSISSIPPI, OR THE MORAL WASTE. NO. 1 . The bulk of it follows:
Permit me, through the medium of one of your public Journals, to state a few things on a subject of vital importance to the whole community. For a number of years past, the character of the citizens of the Valley of Mississippi , has been assailed and slandered, to an extent never surpassed, in any civilized country. We have been represented as totally destitute of all kinds of Literature, without religion, immoral, intemperate, rude, uncultivated in our manners, denying the obligation of the Sabbath for civil or religious purposes, destitute of any Evangelical Preachers; and, notwithstanding there have been, and still are, hundreds of ministers of the Gospel, of the different religious denominations, who preach with great acceptibility to listening thousands of deeply attentive hearers, yet we have been, and still are, represented, as in a perishing condition for want of competent Evangelical ministers of the Gospel … . And, notwithstanding this Valley of the Mississippi has furnished some or rhe ablesr statesmen and orators that ever graced the Legislative Halls of Congress, good jurists, sound, practical and successful Physicians, and able, intelligent, learned, Gentlemen of the Bar, and many Gentlemen that have stood preeminent in the Literary world, yet when we read the foul, false, and slanderous productions of a certain set of hired and mercenary men, whose letters have been published in many of the religious periodicals, on this continent, you would suppose the citizens of the Valley, and especially of the state of Illinois, were a perfect band of ignorant, lawless, Goths or Vandals , or something worse.