Lincoln Campaign Flag

Lincoln earned his reputation as “Honest Abe” by repaying debts totaling $1,100 after his business partner died and their store “winked out” in an age when most young men would have simply fled to a distant jurisdiction. Rather than speculating in land or securities, Lincoln earned most of his money by working for it, as a rail splitter and boatman at first, and later as an attorney earning $2,000 to $3,000 per year. Antebellum politicians largely self-financed their election campaigns, so each time he ran for office Lincoln suffered a decrease in income as well as an increase in expenses. “I am absolutely without money now for even household purposes,” he wrote after a long, unsuccessful campaign for the US Senate in 1858 during which he ignored his law practice for half a year.

Stressed by periodic electioneering, Lincoln’s estate grew slowly. In 1860 it stood at about $5,000 in land and $12,000 in personal estate. During the war, however, Lincoln was able to invest about half of his presidential salary of $25,000 per year in government bonds. (A big chunk of the rest went toward his son’s education at Exeter and Harvard). At his death, Lincoln owned his house in Springfield and a town lot in Lincoln, Illinois, 200 acres in Iowa and about $60,000 of government bonds. But he also owed a few thousand dollars to New York and Philadelphia merchants thanks to his wife’s surreptitious purchases of fancy jewelry and clothing.