The Democrats, by contrast, had no clear frontrunner. Instead, half a dozen men had their eye on the presidential prize: James K. Polk, Martin Van Buren, Lewis Cass, John Calhoun, James Buchanan, and Richard M. Johnson. Of these six, former president Martin Van Buren had perhaps the best chance of a nomination, despite the fact that he had been defeated in the election of 1840. To generate support for his 1844 candidacy, he planned a trip through the West in the summer of 1842 that would include stops in Chicago and Springfield.
Illinois Democrats were beside themselves with excitement. “Every one, male and female, rich and poor, wants to see Mr. Van Buren!” gurgled the Springfield Illinois State Register.
The Whigs, by contrast, were not impressed. The Springfield Sangamo Journal gleefully reported news that Van Buren’s carriage had been upset on the National Road: “He was always opposed to that road, but we were not aware that the road held a grudge against him!” while the Chicago American advised that Whigs refrain from showing Van Buren all but the most basic civilities.
Abraham Lincoln probably had every intention of following this advice. Goodness knows he was no fan of Martin Van Buren’s; in 1839 he delivered a blistering speech against Van Buren’s Sub Treasury scheme; a year earlier, at a Whig barbeque, Lincoln had cried out “crucify him” when speaking of Van Buren. Nevertheless, by a strange twist of fate, Lincoln was drafted onto the Van Buren welcome wagon and wound up spending an evening of his life entertaining the man he had wanted to crucify four years earlier.
It seems that, on the way to Springfield, Van Buren’s travel was halted by impassably muddy roads some seven miles outside of town. He and his companions had to put up for the night in the small town of Rochester, where the accommodations were terrible. The Democrats were horrified – the aristocratic head of their party was stuck at a rustic tavern in the boondocks eating bacon and eggs. Determined to make the best of a bad situation, they decided to take the finer points of Springfield to Van Buren. Accordingly, they departed for Rochester after having gathered the best food they could get their hands on - and Abraham Lincoln, the most entertaining man they knew.
Perhaps Lincoln agreed to go as a personal favor to some Democratic friends. Perhaps he felt that any former President of the United States, regardless of party, deserved his respect. Or perhaps he was simply curious to meet the man who had held the highest office in the land. Whatever the case, Lincoln made the trip and for the first time in his life came face to face with a former President.
The evening passed in good cheer. Van Buren entertained them with stories of the New York bar going back to the days of Hamilton and Burr. Lincoln, having been “pressed into service” to entertain Van Buren, Lincoln “succeeded to admiration.” A fantastic storyteller, Lincoln pulled out all the stops and told his best stories. One guest at the party said that he had never passed a more joyous night. Van Buren, the guest of honor, enjoyed himself tremendously in Lincoln’s company; his “laugh was ready chorus,” and he later remarked that the only drawback to his enjoyment of the night was that his sides were sore from laughing at Lincoln’s stories for a week afterwards.
The next day Van Buren rolled into Springfield and was greeted by a crowd of several thousand people, a procession led by the Springfield Guards, and a thirteen-gun salute by the Springfield Artillery. Speeches were made, hands were shaken, and some were disappointed to find the ex-President “an open, frank, plainly dressed man” instead of a “dandy”. History does not record whether Lincoln showed up for these festivities, but it is likely that he did – after all, Democrat or no, Martin Van Buren had proved himself a man who could appreciate a good story, and tell one himself.
Postscript: Van Buren was defeated for the Democratic nomination for president in 1844 by James K. Polk, who went on to beat Lincoln’s choice for office, Henry Clay.
 Springfield Illinois State Register 17 June 1842.
 Springfield Sangamo Journal 1 July 1842.
 Theodore Calvin Pease, The Centennial History of Illinois, Volume 2: The Frontier State, 1818-1848 (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1922), 275.
Speech on the Sub-Treasury,  December 1839, in Roy P. Basler et al, eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1: 159-79.
 Vandalia Illinois State Register 19 October 1838.
 Charles Carleton Coffin, Abraham Lincoln (New York: Harper & Bros., 1893), 122.
 Joseph Gillespie to William Henry Herndon, in Douglas Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 180.
 Osborn Hamilton Oldroyd, Matthew Simpson, and Isaac Arnold, The Lincoln Memorial (New York: G. W. Carleton & Co., 1890), 461.
 Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 74.
 Springfield Illinois State Register, 17 June 1842