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Lincoln spent six important years in New Salem, Ill. Defeated for office, he turned to storekeeping, then was appointed postmaster, became a surveyor, and plunged into law studies. he was elected to the legislature as a Whig, In 1834, and denounced slavery as "founded on both injustice and bad policy." Yet, Lincoln opposed the spread of abolition societies. Three years later, Lincoln moved to Springfield, Illinois’ new state capital. Obtaining his law license the year before, he formed a partnership with the able John T. Stuart and soon dipped into local politics. After marrying Mary Todd, a Kentucky belle, in 1842, he settled down in earnest to the law.

From 1847-49 Lincoln served in Congress. He worked hard in office, but his opposition to the Mexican War proved notably unpopular back home, and he was passed over for re-nomination. Sadly he returned to Springfield, and resumed his law practice. Honest, shrewd, and effective before juries, he soon rose to the first rank of the Illinois bar.

Over the next five years, Lincoln devoted much time to studying the issue of slavery. Roused by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and its restrictions on the spread of slavery, he emerged from political retirement to grapple with Stephen A. Douglas. Senator Douglas advocated doctrines that would allow the introduction of slavery into the western territories.

The first skirmish between Lincoln and Douglas came in 1854. Arguing that slavery should be restrained to its present domain, Lincoln marshaled history and logic to counter Douglas' theory of "popular sovereignty." It was the first great speech of Lincoln’s career.

Two years later, Lincoln’s address to a state convention of the new Republican party, again brought him wide attention. He was now enough of a national figure to merit serious consideration for the Republican vice-presidential nomination. In 1858, Lincoln challenged Douglas for his Senate seat. For three months they toured Illinois, debating the issue of freedom in the territories. Lincoln exposed the inconsistencies in Douglas' arguments, while disavowing abolitionism himself. Douglas won the election, but the contest raised the profile of the tall prairie lawyer.

Early in 1860, Lincoln journeyed east to lecture in New York City. He called for the exclusion of slavery from the territories, deplored efforts to destroy the Union, and urged friendship toward the South. This speech at the Cooper Union was a triumph, and the number of his supporters grew. When his rivals proved weak in the national convention, Lincoln was nominated for the presidency on the third ballot.

From his doorstep in Springfield, Lincoln ran a quiet campaign, receiving delegations and political leaders while avoiding speeches and stumping. In November 1860, Lincoln won a large electoral majority (180 votes to 123 for his three opponents), but he polled less than half of the popular vote. The South voted almost solidly against him.