The Illinois System

Abraham Lincoln in 1846, then Representative from Illinois. By: Nicholas H. Shepherd.

Abraham Lincoln, as a Congressman in the House of Representatives, would be “an ardent supporter of internal improvements.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 596.


Lincoln’s enthusiasm for transportation and for internal improvements stretched so far that he even tried to invent “a device to enable steamboats to float themselves off when they stuck on shoals.” Id. Specifically, Lincoln imagined that there would be air chambers that helped the steamboat be buoyant, raising the boat and diminishing the boat’s draft when inflated, and collapsed when not needed. Id. citing David Donald, Abraham Lincoln (New York, 1995), 43-44; “Application for a Patent,” Collected Works of AL, II, 32-36. In fact, Lincoln obtained a patent for this device, although he never marketed the device. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 596.

Wanting to implement internal improvements in Illinois, Lincoln confided to a friend that he had an ambition to become “the DeWitt Clinton of Illinois.” Id. quoting Abraham Lincoln to Joshua Speed, quoted in Richard Carwardine, Lincoln (London, 2003), 12.

As a Whig, Lincoln wanted the federal government to spend money for internal improvements, however, when that was not forthcoming, he endorsed state funding. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 596. He devised a system of funding for the states called “the Illinois System,” which he worked to effectuate with the Democrats in the House. Id.

Lincoln’s beliefs would bring him to differ from the Democrats, as he thought that a national bank would be the best source of credit for internal improvements. Id. When the Democrats disagreed, he ensured that the Illinois state bank would not be impeded by the Democrats’ efforts. Id.

In the early 1840s, Lincoln was already developing a reputation for having progressive beliefs. Lincoln was one of the leaders for continuing the transportation revolution and ensuring that the infrastructure of America was being not only maintained but expanded. While doing so, Lincoln was rising up the chain of power, as he was a minority leader for the Whig Party in the House at the time he was propounding his Illinois System. In the years to come, Lincoln would only further develop his reputation, but as a member of the Whig Party, he was plying his trade, building the skills that would serve him well later.

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