William H. Grigsby to Abraham Lincoln, 14 July 18581Pekin Ills. July 14th /,58.Hon. A LincolnSpringfield Ills.Dr.[Dear] Sir
Will you credit my presumptions^,^ for intruding on your time and patience, from the reasons below stated:—
Knowing you do not like tangles and fine spun threads of discourse— I will tell my story in as plain & simple terms as possible.
I have considered the ways of life, with fair attention ’till I am persuaded to the study of Law. I think I can climb— ’tis enough to say I will try, if I can find a true experienced guide, and I think as I believe— “thou art the Man.”2
I want a fair start on a good reliance. I must commence right if I would end well on the journey of life.
It is now time for me to commence my chief business of life— no man can know all of everything. The study & practice of Law is my choice, provided I can get in with the counsel of some good Lawyer.
A distinguished man of our State, recommended the firm of “Lincoln & Herndon, Springfield, Ills[Illinois],” This is my plea: Can you give me a situation in your Law Office, for purposes aforesaid?
There are too many men now on a “dead-level”,—3 they have contaminated the very air with their intemperate breath. I want to go up & see the world & the glory thereof.
<Page 2>It is neither honorable or profitable to stay below in the kitchen.
I want to do something in this world worthy of my being & privilege.— To do the most good in the shortest time. But wanting & waiting will never fill the cupboard. It must be action brave, decided & conscientious action.
Base actions beget a fame that ruins itself. While the good will survive the shock of falling time— to live again.
A short account of myself might not be irrelevant:
I am nineteen years old— a native Missourian (from the heart of the state and not from among the Bristles of the “Border”. This may account for some of my political sentiments, Anti-Borderation!)4
My parents were poor in purse but rich in soul, They early learned me certain good principles that are stereotyped on the tablets of my heart which the storms of time can never erase. I can boast of Honesty & Industry in full & perseverance in more than common share. I was raised on a farm & know how to work & I am not ashamed of my knowledge, or hardly of my Ignorance, for I mean it not.
About one year ago my parents in close succession died, leaving me alone, without a relative in the state to my knowledge, but they left me many true & influential friends, peace to their ashes.5
My early education was extremely limited, but since my lone sojourn, I have attended school several terms, yet most of my present education came from home culture, by myself.
I have studied Phrenology, physiology and Phonography untill I am tolerable well versed in their principles, but not for in practice.
I am now in the employ of G. L. Thomas, Bookseller & Stationer, Pekin, Ills. I am an agent for Fowler & Wells’ publications, and have travelled some in the Book Agency business.
Willingly will I let all go back, provided, you can give me a situation where I can work. I have many reason to advance for this request, but space & time will not permit & your patience might not bear.
A man to rise must associate with Men. If we associate with geese—
We’ll learn their gabble quick as you please,
But if we stand by the roaring tide,
Our thoughts, will be more dignified.
Observation & exercise is the sovereign panacea, the universal cultivators of the immortal mind.
If I can get to Springfield on business I believe I can go up hill— slow probably but in the right direction. Slow steps toward Jerusalem is better than mighty strides toward the city of destruction.6
I can get into Law Offices here, enough, but I want to fill my cup at the fountain.— Take a rest, & aim high.
I would not alone have had the presumption to put on a face bold enough to make this application to you, had I not been encouraged to do so, by my friend Richard Yates Esqr[Esquire] of Jacksonville
You may think I am too impulsive. One reason why I am so forward is unless I expect I can not gain, and now is my proper time to mark out in the dim future a path which Reason— that constitutional guide of our being— approes[approves] and conscience— that balance power of the soul— defends. I am extremely anxious for my future safety & success. I remember: Good works & Faith are the lever & fulcrum that moves mountains the good old way. Excuse this long letter & bold plea, and please oblige by an early reply7Wm H. Grigsby.Hon A. Lincoln.
2The accusation “thou art the man” is made in the Bible by the prophet Nathan against King David. At the command of God, Nathan told David a parable of a rich man who stole his poorer neighbor’s sheep to serve to a guest. When David expressed outrage at the actions of the rich man, Nathan used this phrase to point out that David had committed a similar crime by killing Bathsheba’s husband so that he could marry her himself.
2 Samuel 12:1-10.
3By “dead level,” meaning lacking a rise or fall in any direction, Grigsby apparently means stagnant, or lacking ambition.
James A. H. Murray, ed., A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897), 3:58.
4Grigsby refers to the border between Missouri and Kansas Territory, which was the scene of violent conflict following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, as pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” from Missouri sought to ensure that Kansas entered the Union as a slave state.
David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 199-224.
5Samuel Grigsby, William H. Grigsby’s father, had moved to Iowa in 1856 and died there on October 31 of that year. The date and place of death for Grigsby’s mother, Sarah Tharp Grigsby, has not been determined.
[William H. Grigsby], Genealogy of the Grigsby Family in Part Including a Brief Sketch of the Porter Family (n.p.: William H. Grigsby, 1878; repr., Chicago: Robert Hall McCormick, 1905), 5.
6Grigsby is referencing John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century religious allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the City of Destruction is the home of the unconverted. The protagonist of The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian, flees the City of Destruction and travels to heaven, called the Celestial City by Bunyan.
Adrian Room, rev., Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (London: Cassell, 1999; repr. London: Cassell, 2002), 219, 239, 244; William H. Grigsby to Abraham Lincoln.
7William H. Herndon responded to Grigsby on behalf of Lincoln & Herndon on July 29, 1858, stating that the office was full, but that Grigsby would be welcome as a student if a position opened. Grigsby wrote a reply to Lincoln & Herndon on August 3, 1858, renewing his application, to which no direct response has been located. Abraham Lincoln simultaneously wrote his own personal response to Grigsby on August 3, 1858, stating that Herndon handled such applications for the firm, but advising Grigsby that he would become a lawyer more quickly studying on his own. In an 1861 letter to Lincoln, Grigsby mentioned that he came to Springfield in the autumn of 1858 hoping to speak with either Lincoln or Herndon, but that neither was in town. Herndon wrote Grigsby a further letter on April 23, 1859, in response to another unlocated letter from the hopeful student, in which he reiterated that the office was full and had no room for an additional law student. The two letters to Grigsby in Herndon’s hand on behalf of Lincoln & Herndon are docketed by Grigsby at head of text with notes that appear to be addressed to Lincoln and which narrate the history of his correspondence with the firm. This suggests that Grigsby may have at some time enclosed or intended to enclose Herndon’s correspondence in a letter to Lincoln, but no such covering letter has been identified.
Letter, Document ID: 124908; Letter, Document ID: 131067, Lincoln & Herndon declined Grigsby as legal apprentice, Martha L. Benner and Cullom Davis et al., eds., The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, 2d edition (Springfield: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 2009), https://lawpracticeofabrahamlincoln.org/Details.aspx?case=141408.
Autograph Letter Signed, 5 page(s), Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress (Washington, DC).