Lincoln and Cartwright

Dec 31, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If the following story is not true, it should be. It involves two Illinois folk heroes, Abraham Lincoln and the traveling evangelist, Peter Cartwright. Most counties in Illinois have Lincoln and Cartwright stories. We Rock Islanders deserve ours. The story began as unsubstantiated rumor, but by the time Carl Sandburg wrote his biography of Lincoln, it had become fact.

If the story did happen, it took place in a Methodist campground in a grove south of Camden (now Milan) Illinois.

Cartwright was preaching at the campground in 1846, and Lincoln decided to attend the service. Both men were running for the same seat in Congress, emotions were high on both sides, and Lincoln's friends advised him to avoid a confrontation with the crusty Cartwright.

Against advice, Lincoln went, so the story goes, and sat in the back of the meeting. Cartwright noticed him and sensed a perfect opportunity. Lincoln's unsettled religious beliefs had been the subject of debate among those who knew him. Here was a chance to pin him down, make him commit. Toward the end of the services, Cartwright invited all those who desired to lead a new life, to give their hearts to God, and go to heaven. Many in the audience stood. Not Lincoln.

Cartwright then asked all who did not wish to go to hell to stand. Everyone stood except Abraham Lincoln.

Cartwright was quick to point out that everyone had stood except Mr. Lincoln. "May I inquire of you, Mr. Lincoln," said Cartwright, "where you are going?"

Did Peter Cartwright realize, even as he spoke those words, that he had fallen into one of Lincoln's famous traps? If not, he soon found out. Abraham Lincoln slowly rose to his feet. "Brother Cartwright asks me directly where I am going," he said. "I desire to reply with equal directness: I'm going to Congress."

Now please don't go back into your files and prove there was no Methodist campground near Milan in 1846, and ruin a good story.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.