Lincoln’s early life was defined by his exploits on the river, building flatboats, transporting cargo and piloting steamships. He had saved more than one ship from becoming stranded, and even designed and patented a mechanism for stopping a ship from grounding in shallow water. Though an ignored aspect of his life, Lincoln’s nautical experiences remind us about the perennial hiccups of human advancement — something made clear by the plight of the Ever Given in recent days.
Lincoln got his aquatic start in Indiana working a ferry across the Anderson River. At 19, he was commissioned to navigate a flatboat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Lincoln’s boat measured about 60 feet. It was no Ever Given, but its task was the same: ferrying cargo for trade. Many historians believe that this three-month expedition south was a transformative encounter with slavery that disturbed him deeply.
In 1831, after moving to Macon County, Ill., on the Sangamon River, Lincoln hand-built a second boat. Hauling heavy cargo one day, the boat drew too much water, running aground on the local milldam. Townspeople gawked as the boat filled with water and Lincoln offloaded the cargo onto another ship. By cleverly shifting the weight on the deck and drilling a hole to take on water at the bow, Lincoln got the ship dislodged and moving again.
He continued to face the problem of ships getting stuck. Lincoln was tasked with navigating and safely docking New Salem’s first visiting steamboat, Talisman, in early 1832. The state-of-the-art ship risked becoming mired in the ice and dirt, so Lincoln helped manually clear the river way in the days before the ship’s approach. Lincoln had an easy enough time piloting the Talisman into town, but its exit a few days later was plagued by shallow water. Part of the local milldam was demolished so the ship could glide through without grounding.
These episodes helped bring Lincoln into state politics. He began pushing for reforms to the Sangamon River to make it navigable by the larger steamboats, which he understood was essential for encouraging economic expansion in the area. In his first (unsuccessful) run for state legislature in 1832, he told the people of his county, “I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relations to recommend me. My case is thrown exclusively upon the independent voters of this county.” However humble his background, he had qualities they needed in a representative, a thorough knowledge of local waterways and a commitment to “improvement” of the river. He served in the Illinois legislature from 1834 to 1842, before serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1847 to 1849.
Even as he delved deeper into politics, Lincoln remained focused on solving these river issues, and in May 1849, he proposed a solution. Twelve years before his presidency, he submitted a patent application for an invention entitled “Buoying Vessels Over Shoals.” “Be it known that I, Abraham Lincoln … have invented a new and improved manner of combining adjustable buoyant air chambers with a steamboat or other vessel … to enable them to pass over bars, or through shallow water, without discharging their cargoes,” the application began.
The invention was a curious device. Lincoln envisioned fastening large inflatable chambers made of “india-rubber cloth, or other suitable water-proof fabric” to the sides of a river-going ship. These massive air tanks were to be attached, via pulleys and rope, to a central shaft. The contraption would allow the captain to deploy the air chambers at will to raise the ship higher out of the water, allowing it to pass over dangerously shallow areas. When the chambers were no longer needed, the captain could turn the main shaft in the opposite direction, deflating and folding up the cloth tubes. Lincoln even built a model of the system, which is now housed at the Smithsonian.
His invention didn’t catch on, but his early legal cases included boating disputes and a patent lawsuit as he focused on practicing law after serving in Congress. Despite his legal argument against a waterwheel patent in 1850 in Parker v. Hoyt, Lincoln respected the Patent Office and held patents in the highest esteem, seeing them as emblematic of American inventiveness. He later remarked that the institution of patent laws “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.” Even after being elected president in 1860, leaving the concerns of the Sangamon River far behind, Lincoln went to see his old model at the Patent Office.
Lincoln was the only U.S. president to hold a patent for something he invented. More significantly, these physical and mental labors on the river can tell us something about Lincoln as a political leader. The experience of navigating and working a boat molded him. In the small wooden features and miniature ropes of his patent model lies an overlooked and untapped window into his mind. His patent built to save an endangered ship, allowing it to continue down the river without losing its cargo, was thematically linked to his actions in the Civil War. As he presided over a country going to war with itself, Lincoln’s impulse was to work to salvage the ship of state.
Today, the crisis in the Suez Canal reminds us of a historical truth that must never be buried beneath narratives of progress: The physical challenges of humankind’s relationship to nature may morph but never change. The crews tasked with freeing the Ever Given engaged in the same task Lincoln puzzled over on the Sangamon River 170 years ago.
Whether it is the Ever Given or Lincoln’s flatboat, vessels are made for controlling and harnessing natural elements. Moving food and goods from place to place is as central to our existence now as it has been in the past, even if we tend to view ourselves as having advanced past the day-to-day logistics of survival. No matter how globalized the world becomes, the water must be traversed. And still today, few things are more terrifying and challenging than losing control of a ship. The fragility of our maritime mastery of nature is quickly laid bare.
Lincoln’s “Buoying Vessels Over Shoals” wouldn’t have helped reopen the Suez Canal last week, but it can be a historical encouragement. Ships — both literal and metaphorical — will continue to run aground, disrupting transportation and paralyzing livelihoods. And people will continue to design artful solutions to right the ship and move us along.