Lincoln cut his teeth as a campaigner based in the small pioneer town of New Salem, where he practiced the fine art of door-knocking along the woodsy 19th century campaign trails just north of Springfield.
Later, as Lincoln was on the verge of becoming the national standard-bearer for the still-young Republican Party, the savvy politician made use of what might have been the equivalent of the social media of his day: a pamphlet of partisan news clips that included coverage from both the Democratic-leaning Chicago Times and the Republican-leaning Chicago Press & Tribune of his 1858 debates over slavery with opponent Stephen A. Douglas.
"It would be like Newt Gingrich wanting to publish the earlier debates in South Carolina," said Michael Burlingame, a nationally renowned Lincoln scholar now based at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "I think it indicates Lincoln thought he won the debates."
Much like today, running for the Illinois Legislature in Lincoln's time involved a lot of schmoozing. Lincoln mastered face-to-face politics, spending time in the fields with farmers, learning about their families and values over supper. He first learned about their lives, then asked about their politics, while many opponents would "start talking politics right away," Burlingame said.
"Lincoln was a man of the people. He was born into poverty and worked his way up," Burlingame said. "He radiated a kind of integrity and a decency and clear-mindedness, but also moral conscience and intellectual rigor."
For years, Lincoln endeared himself to the people of central Illinois when he rode the circuit practicing law, showing not only his intelligence in the courtroom, but his facile ability to spin yarns and tell jokes, said Richard Norton Smith, who served as inaugural executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.
While today's politicians are heavily coached and tightly scripted, Lincoln proved to have a purer approach. He crafted his own speeches and fashioned his own arguments, Smith said.
"When you heard Abraham Lincoln on a platform … there were no handlers, there were no spin doctors, there were no speechwriters," said Smith, a scholar-in-residence at George Mason University in Virginia. "It was pure Lincoln."
In 1860, one such speech helped turn Lincoln into legitimate presidential timber. Like President Barack Obama's 2004 Democratic National Convention speech in Boston, Lincoln wowed the surprised crowd at Cooper Union in New York. The astute audience was prepared to be let down, but attendees found themselves swept off their feet, Smith said.
Today's top candidates sometimes try to skirt the major issues. But Burlingame said Lincoln stuck his neck out on slavery before it had become the dominant national issue.
Lincoln publicly denounced slavery in 1837 as a state legislator. While in Congress during the late 1840s, Lincoln proposed a bill abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia. In 1858, Lincoln delivered the famous "House Divided" speech in Springfield at what is now the Old State Capitol.
"Public opinion is like a broad river, and you can sail right down the middle of the river, or you can sail over (to) the right bank, or you can sail over to the left bank, but if you go far toward the bank, either the left or the right, you're going to run into the rocks and sink," Burlingame said. "And in my view, Lincoln ran as close to the left bank on the slavery and race issues as he could without running into the rocks."
The Great Emancipator is long remembered for the eloquence of a Gettysburg Address that hailed a government "of the people, by the people, for the people" and the Second Inaugural Address that called for a just peace "with malice toward none, with charity for all." Yet Burlingame said Lincoln deserves to be recognized for the words and sentiments of a final speech that urged an expansion of voting rights.
After Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender in April 1865, Lincoln told a jubilant crowd outside the White House that he wanted to extend the right to vote to black soldiers and literate blacks, most of whom could not vote at the time, Burlingame said. It was this Lincoln speech that John Wilkes Booth heard, vowing it would be Lincoln's last, Burlingame said.
"Lincoln wasn't killed because he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He wasn't killed because he abolished slavery in the Confederate states. He wasn't killed because he supported the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery everywhere," Burlingame said. "He was killed because he talked about voting rights, and therefore, I think it's appropriate in the 21st century to think of Lincoln as a martyr to black civil rights."