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His biggest political project had fallen apart during this same period. Throughout what eventually turned out to be four terms in the state legislature, he had championed government support for a series of public works to construct bridges, roads and canals so that people in rural areas could bring produce to market. He believed, he later said, that the "leading object" of government was to "lift artificial weights from all shoulders--to clear the path of laudable pursuit for all--to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life." When a depression hit the state in the late 1830s, however, his plans were stopped in midstream. As a major proponent of the costly system that had contributed to his state's travails, Lincoln received a significant share of the blame. Now, beyond sadness over a lost love, he carried the added burden of a damaged reputation and forlorn hopes for the future.
"I am now the most miserable man living," he wrote a friend at the time. "If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me."
His friends were worried that he was suicidal and removed all razors and knives from his room. Throughout the nadir of Lincoln's depression, his best friend, Joshua Speed, stayed by his side. In a conversation both men would remember as long as they lived, Speed warned Lincoln that if he did not rally, he would most certainly die. Lincoln replied that he was more than willing to die, but that he had "done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived," and that "to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man was what he desired to live for."
Even in this moment of despair, the strength of Lincoln's desire to leave "the world a little better for my having lived in it" carried him forward. It became his lodestar, providing a set of principles and standards to guide his everyday actions.
Not long after he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, his old friend, Speed, visited him at the White House. Lincoln reminded him of their talks during his depression two decades earlier. "I believe that in this measure," Lincoln said, referring to the proclamation, "my fondest hopes will be realized." Nearly two centuries after his birth, we can say with certainty that the ambition that powered Lincoln from his earliest days--the desire to establish an admirable reputation on earth so that his story could be told after he died--has been realized far beyond his fondest hopes.
Goodwin's book on the political genius of Abraham Lincoln is to be published in October by Simon & Schuster