Bowling Green was a Democratic farmer and who lived near New Salem and took a kindly and paternal interest in Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s first vote in New Salem included support for Green’s election as justice of the peace. Green would become one of Lincoln’s most important political and legal mentors. New Salem chronicler Thomas P. Reep wrote: “Bowling Green had migrated from Tennessee to Illinois in the early 1820s and later settled about half a mile north of the village of New Salem at the foot of the bluff marking the western line of the Sangamon River bottom. He had married a young lady in Tennessee by the name of Nancy Potter…Bowling Green was one of the first acquaintances of Lincoln. In a short time, he became one of Lincoln’s strongest admirers and friends.” 1
“Bowling Green was a large, fleshy man and weighed 300 pounds, in 1843,” wrote contemporary Thomas G. Onstott. “Bowling Green, a justice of the peace, lived a half mile north of Salem. He took a liking to Lincoln. He lent him his law books and encouraged him to read law. My father kept the log tavern from 1832 to 1835 and he with Bowling Green probably had as much to do with the shaping of the destiny of Lincoln as any other men in Salem.” 2
Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Lincoln found a surrogate father in Bowling Green, a rotund, easygoing, humorous, jovial ‘reading man’ from North Carolina known as a gifted spinner of yarns.” Lincoln also found it useful to consult Green’s law books as he prepared for a legal career. Burlingame wrote: “Abner Y. Ellis reported that Lincoln ‘Loved Mr Green’ as ‘his allmost Second Farther.’ Green, in turn, ‘looked on him wth pride and pleasure[e]’ and ‘Used to Say that Lincoln was a Man after his own heart.’ Green told Ellis ‘that there Was good Material in Abe and he only Wanted Education.’ Undertaking to provide that education, Green nurtured his protégé, lending him books, encouraging him to study, and fostering his political career.” 3 Lincoln scholar H. Donald Winkler noted: “The two enjoyed each other’s wit and humor. When they were together, they looked like strange opposites – Green with his ‘peaches and cream’ complexion, Lincoln with leathery, weather-beaten skin. Lincoln was tall and thin; Green, of average height, weighed 250 pounds. He was nicknamed ‘Pot’ for his protruding belly, which, like St. Nick’s, ‘shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.’ His bulging trousers were held up by one linen suspender.” 4 After the death of Lincoln’s close friend Ann Rutledge in August 1835, Green helped Lincoln get through a subsequent period of prolonged depression.
Mr. Lincoln took Bowling Green’s death in mid-February 1842 very hard. Thomas Onstott recalled: “He went to spend a Sunday evening with a neighbor, named Bennett Able, and while there had a stroke of apoplexy and fell dead. It was in the winter time. He was buried on the hill-side just north of his home. In the spring the Masons came down from Springfield one Sunday, uncovered the grave and had their ceremonies. Lincoln was the orator of the occasion. He referred to Green as the friend of his early youth and told how much he owed to the men over whose grave they stood.” 5 William McNeely, who knew Lincoln in New Salem, wrote: “The arrangements of the funeral were that Dr. McNeal, of Springfield, was to preach the funeral sermon and Mr. Lincoln was to speak of the character of the deceased. Dr. McNeal, in his introductory remarks, said that in relation to the character of the deceased he would say nothing, as that was left to better and abler hands. At the conclusion of the sermon Mr. Lincoln arose and said that Mr. Green, the deceased, had a great many friends, and had always been a true friend to him, but he would not say that he, Green, had no enemies. There was, however, one consolation in that, for he read in Sacred Writ, a woe was pronounced on that man that all men spoke well of, and in that his deceased friend got rid of that ‘woe.'” 6
Lincoln friend Abner Y. Ellis recalled of the funeral on February 15: “At another time I Saw Mr L cry, it was at his old friend Bowling Greens Masonic funural[.] Mr L Was to deliver and address on the occasion he Was on the stand but When he arose he only uttered a few Words & commenced choaking & sobing he told he listeners that he Was un Maned & could Not precede he got down and Went to Mrs Greens old family Carriage, and I Saw him No More that day I supposed he Went home with Mrs Green & our lodge took Dinner in Petersburgh I do not remember Who took the stand after M L. got down Mr L Loved Mr Green as he did his Farther & Mr Green looked on him with pride and pleasur. I have heard Mr Green Say that there Was good Material in Abe and he only Wanted Education Mr Green had some little acquaintance with Mr Lincolns Mothers family the Hanks and he thought he inherited his good Sence from the old Stock of his Mothers relations.” 7
- Thomas G. Onstott, Pioneers of Menard & Mason Counties, p. 74.
- Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, I, p. 86.
- H. Donald Winkler, The Women in Lincoln’s Life, p. 82.
- Thomas P. Reep, Abe Lincoln and the Frontier Folk of New Salem, p. 79.