Postmaster Lincoln

US #1113 pictures Lincoln in 1860 shortly after he was elected president. Click image to order.

On May 7, 1833, future President Abraham Lincoln took a job as postmaster for New Salem, Illinois.

In 1831, 22-year-old Lincoln joined with a couple of friends in floating a flatboat down the Sangamon River to New Orleans.  He was working as a bow hand, ferrying surplus farm products to the South.

US #1282 from the Prominent Americans Series. Click image to order.

Along the way, the boat got stuck on a milldam near New Salem, Illinois.  A crowd of people gathered by the water to watch the men free their boat.  Some took notice of the tall, thin man who took charge and successfully got the boat free.  Upon hearing of his leadership in freeing the boat, Denton Offutt, who’d hired Lincoln to man the boat, offered him a job as a clerk in his store there.  But when Lincoln returned from New Orleans, the shop wasn’t open yet, so he took on a variety of other jobs.

Item #M5893 – Lincoln photomosaic sheet. Click image to order.

While he was in New Salem, Lincoln briefly served as a captain in the militia during an uprising by Chief Black Hawk.  Also in New Salem, he ran for the legislature, stating, “Fellow citizens, I presume you all know who I am.  I am humble Abraham Lincoln.  I have been solicited by many friends to become a candidate for the legislature.  My policies are short and sweet, like the old woman’s dance.  I am in favor of a National Bank, I am in favor of the internal improvement system, and a high protective tariff.  These are my sentiments and political principles.  If elected I shall be thankful; and if not, it will be all the same.”

Lincoln lost the election but the experience gave him an interest in politics that he would always keep with him.  By early 1833, he was out of a job.  But on May 7th, he was appointed postmaster of New Salem.  It’s unknown exactly how Lincoln was selected, but one source claimed that the women of New Salem were upset that the current postmaster spent more time serving the men whiskey than he did attending to his postal duties.

US #4380-83 pictures Lincoln at different stages in his life. Click image to order.

Lincoln enjoyed his time as postmaster and was popular among his customers for his habit of going out of the way to keep them happy.  If he knew one of his customers was waiting for an important letter, he would walk several miles to deliver it as soon as possible.  Even though he had to work several jobs to make ends meet, Lincoln would help out the people that couldn’t afford to pay their mail bills.  And in one case, a friend turned him in for delivering unpaid mail.  Lincoln had to pay a $10 fine for this.

Item #M11968 was issued for the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death. Click image to order.

Lincoln remained in his post until May 30, 1836, when the post office closed.  At the time, the Post Office Department didn’t request the balance of about $16 that Lincoln had left over from his postal services.  A few months later, they finally requested it.  And even though Lincoln had been struggling financially, he provided the exact amount in the same coins it had been paid in by his customers, proving his nickname, “Honest Abe,” to be quite true.

US #1862 from the Great Americans Series.  Click image to order.

In 1914, Harry Truman was appointed postmaster of Grandview, Missouri.  He held the position only in title, handing the work and its pay over to Ella Hall, the widow of a Civil War veteran who needed the money.  He remained in the post for less than a year.  Because he didn’t personally carry out the tasks of postmaster, Lincoln is generally considered the only future president to truly serve as a postmaster.

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  1. Honest Abe might liked to work in the post office as a Postmaster in Illinois before he became a lawyer and 16th President of the United States.

  2. I enjoyed reading this background information about our greatest President! Wonderful work as always Mystic!

  3. An honest man became President of the United States…Wow! How times have changed recently.

    1. Yes, now we elect liars and crooked people who only care abut themselves. Great story of history. I had never heard that about Lincoln before. Thank you for this piece of history.

  4. What an enlightening story. You don’t hear stories like that about today’s politicians that’s for sure!

  5. Excellent history related to philately! That’s what first spurred my interest in history (and geography/international affairs)as an 8-year old that led to earning a Ph.D in history 2 decades later!

  6. I think we should give the Post Office and it’s many past and present employees credit for being in the Spirit of Honest Abe. Given the size of that employee body you seldom hear of honesty problems. The percent of problems must be very low.

    That is not true of at least one European County I know about.

  7. You can go to New Salem (the village) outside of Springfield (Illinois’s capitol) and visit that store & post office that Lincoln worked at in those times. The area is a park that later was also a Civilian Conservation Corps camp during the 1930’s.
    There also is (or was in the 1950’s & 60’s) a trail that you could hike the 21 miles into Springfield the way Lincoln frequently did in his days. This trail was developed by the BSA–Scout Council in Springfield.

  8. Great article about little known fact that young Abe Lincoln served as postmaster of his town years before the British ‘Penny Black’ and the USA issued their first stamps. I believe mail was still paid on delivery, which meant postage wasn’t always paid for.

  9. I knew that Lincoln had been a postmaster but didn’t know most of the details. Also – nice factoid about Truman – did know that at all. KEEP IT UP – I always find these enjoyable and informative!!

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