Thomas tells the story of the village where Abraham Lincoln lived from 1831 to 1837. His three-part examination of the village often referred to as Lincoln’s "Alma Mater" features the founding and early history of New Salem, Lincoln’s impact on the village and its effect on him, and the story of the Lincoln legend and the reconstruction of the town.
Thomas argues convincingly that New Salem was the town where Lincoln acquired faith in himself, faith in people. At 22 the future president drifted into town seeking to become a blacksmith. Thomas introduces us to the people who created New Salem and who knew, influenced, and befriended Lincoln.
Thomas highlights Lincoln’s arrival, his relationships with his neighbors, his important wrestling match with Jack Armstrong, his self-education, his quiet career as an Indian fighter, his experience as a postmaster largely indifferent to postal regulations, his financial woes as a businessman, his loyal friends who often came to his aid, and his election to the legislature.
This colorful history closes with a discussion of the Lincoln legend. The truth of the stories is unimportant. What matters is that the growing Lincoln legend prompted the gradual realization that New Salem was not a dismal mire from which President Lincoln had had to extricate himself but was, in fact, an energizing force. This realization led to research and finally to the restoration of New Salem, which began in 1932.