One of the more bizarre episodes of Abraham Lincoln’s life is that he was a very good wrestler. It was 1830 and Abraham Lincoln was just 21 years of age and was working in a store in New Salem, Illinois. Of course, young men have always been willing to test their manhood against other young men in feats of athleticism in order to boost their credibility with other young men. Though he never competed for an organized championship he did gain quite a reputation. Remember, he was 6 foot 4 or about 193 cm tall and had been working in a variety of outdoor jobs including his time as a rail-splitter. So the somewhat spindly man that we see as president had been in his youth an athletic character famed who would later gain fame for his leadership during the nation’s darkest hour.
The 16th president has a place in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He was not immune from creating some verbal intimidation with lines like these: ”I’m the big buck of this lick. If any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns’’. Deer was common in Illinois at the time so the analogy with deer and salt licks would’ve been understood widely.
This analogy was also understood by a local gang who were called the Clary’s Grove Boys. They reckoned that Jack Armstrong was the ‘’champion of his clan’’, according to John T.Stuart, Lincoln’s first law partner. It must be understood that the word champion is used here in the context of an unorganized sport that depended upon a series of challenge matches with no belt, trophy or money on the line. The only thing to be gained was a reputation for toughness. A match between Armstrong and Lincoln was then arranged.
The match was a rough and tumble affair as recounted many years later. Stuart described the match with this vivid description: ’’It did not take Jack long to discover that he had got hold of the wrong customer; and when it was evident that Lincoln was getting the better of their champion, the whole Band pitched in and gave Lincoln several blows which had no salutary effect on the strength of his legs. Lincoln, however, took all this perfect humor and laughing and joking displayed such an excellent disposition that he at once won their hearts and was invited to become on their company. This was the turning point in Lincoln’s life’’.
The match also involved cheating because Armstrong that he had thrown Lincoln unfairly. Despite this, the two became friends for life as often happens to those who have shared such an intense event together. Lincoln’s journey to the White House seems to be traced back to this event as gained a certain reputation as David Herbert Donald recalled in his biography of Lincoln,’’ What mattered was that Lincoln proved he had immense strength and courage, and that enough to win the admiration of the Clary’s Grove gang. Thereafter they became Lincoln’s most loyal and enthusiastic admirers’’.
It was this image as a common man who could look after himself that helped his political career in the local arena. The debates with Douglas that made a national figure of importance were decades in the future but for now, his political career would be helped by his image as the lone man earning respect through sheer determination against the local ‘’champion’’.