Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was one of the greatest men who ever lived. As the first Republican to become President of the United States, he led our nation during the Civil War, the bloodiest war and greatest crisis our country has known. Through his great leadership, Lincoln ended slavery and kept the Union from splitting apart. Americans and all people who love freedom should have a special place in their hearts for Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln was born to Thomas and Nancy Lincoln on February 12, 1809, in Hardin (now Larue), Kentucky, on a farm located on the South Fork of the Nolin River, about five miles south of Elizabethtown. His ancestry has been traced to a weaver named Samuel Lincoln who emigrated from Hingham, England, to Hingham, Massachusetts, in 1637. The Lincoln's lived on the farm where Abraham was born for two years and then moved to another farm about ten miles away. Abraham and his older sister Sarah went to a long schoolhouse where they learned reading, writing and arithmetic. The Lincolns were apparently as well off as any of their neighbors. Sarah and Abraham were well fed and well clothed for the times. A third child, Thomas, died in infancy.
In 1816 when Abraham was about seven, the family moved to Indiana where they could buy land directly from the government. Thomas did not believe in slavery, and Indiana had no slavery. They arrived in early winter. Abraham helped his father clear trees from the 160 acres of land and build a three-sided shelter of logs. A fire on the fourth side burned continually. The family lived in the shelter until they finished a cabin and moved into it in February 1817.
By that time Abraham was eight years old and was large enough to swing an ax. He carried an ax with him most of the time that he lived in Indiana and considered it to be "the most useful instrument." Maybe he carried it for protection because bears and other wild animals roamed the remote area.
Life improved and became happier until Nancy died in October 1818, apparently from "milk sickness," an illness probably caused by poison that the cows ingested when eating snakeroot. She was buried on a hill by the cabin. Sarah, age 12, kept the house for more than a year before Thomas returned to Kentucky and married Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow, on December 2, 1819. Thomas had known the widow before her first marriage. She brought her three children, aged 12, 8, and 5, with her. The blended family apparently lived together in harmony.
Abraham lived on the Indiana frontier until he was 21, but long before he was 20, he was 6 feet 4 inches tall. He was thin, awkward, big-boned and str5ong, with his strength in his chest, legs and especially in his arms. He had coarse black hair that stood on end, dark skin and a homely face.
Abraham had less than one year of formal schooling. Because books and paper were scarce, he made his own arithmetic textbook - and several pages still exist. He worked his arithmetic problems on a wooden board which he "erased" by shaving the board clean so he could use it again and again. He walked long distances to borrow books. Some of the books he borrowed were Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim's Progress, Aesop's Fables, a history of the United States and a schoolbook or two.
When Abraham was 14 91823), his parents joined a Baptist church, but Abraham never joined a church and never attended church regularly. The bitter rivalry among the denominations might be the explanation for his lifetime avoidance of church. He was very religious and knew the Bible thoroughly. His later writings and speeches had many Biblical quotes. He kept a Bible on his desk in the White House and read it often for comfort and guidance.
Abraham read another book while young that really impressed him. He spoke about it in later years before the New Jersey Senate: "May I be pardoned if, on this occasion, I mention that away back in my childhood, the earliest days of my being able to read, I got hold of a small book, such a one as few of the younger members have ever seen, Weem's Life of Washington. I remember all the accounts there given of the battle fields and struggles for the liberties of the country…. And you all know, for you have all been boys, how these early impressions last longer than any others. I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for."
Abraham was a good speaker and story teller and was a favorite in his neighborhood. He also was a hard worker. He made his first money rowing passengers out to a steamboat waiting mid-stream in the Ohio River. He later (1828) helped take a flatboat loaded with farm produce to New Orleans. This trip was his first view of life beyond his community. His sister died in childbirth this same year.
In 1830 Thomas moved his family to a farm ten miles west of Decatur, Illinois. Lincoln moved with his family and stayed a year to help plant the first crops and split rails for a cabin and fences. In the spring of 1831 he was hired by a trader to take a flatboat to New Orleans and later to clerk in his new store in New Salem, Illinois. In New Salem, Abraham read the writings of the English dramatist William Shakespeare and the Scottish poet Robert Burns. These works and the Bible were his favorite things to read. The clerking job did not last long so Abraham joined the militia during the Black Hawk War and served for 90 days. After the war he had a chance to buy a New Salem store on credit in partnership with another man. The partnership got deeper and deeper in debt and eventually failed. Abraham was appointed post master of New Salem and worked with the county surveyor. He earned his living from odd jobs and the fees from his two public offices. His partner died, leaving Abraham with the debts of the partnership . It took Lincoln several years to pay off the debts, but his integrity in doing so helped earn him the name of "Honest Abe."
Abraham studied law and became a lawyer in New Salem. He moved to Springfield with everything he owned in his saddlebags. In Springfield, Lincoln met a visitor from Kentucky by the name of Mary Todd. After a stormy courtship, they married on November 4, 1842. Lincoln was 33, and Mary was 23. They had contrasting personalities but a loving marriage. The couple had four sons: Robert Todd, Edward Baker (died at age 4), William Wallace (died at age 11 in the White House, and Thomas, usually called Tad, died at age 18 in 1871).
Lincoln became a successful lawyer and politician. The family lived comfortably and usually employed a servant to help with the housework although Lincoln often milked the family cow and cared for his horse. He served four terms in the Illinois legislature. While in Springfield, Lincoln made a connection with my family. One of my great-great-grandfathers moved to Springfield, Sangamon County, Illinois, about 1838 and lived there about two years before moving to Nauvoo, Illinois. While living in Sangamon County, my ancestor drove a carriage for Abraham Lincoln during the time that Lincoln was a member of the State Legislature. Lincoln served a term in the United States House of Representatives and campaigned for various presidential candidates. He always opposed slavery but never became an abolitionist. He considered slavery to be evil (morally, socially, and politically) and something to be eliminated.
Lincoln revered the Founding Fathers and believed they had promised freedom and equality in the Declaration of Independence. He looked to Thomas Jefferson for his democratic principles and Alexander Hamilton for his economic principles.
Lincoln was elected to the Illinois legislature again but resigned to run for United States Senator. He lost the first election, joined the two-year-old Republican Party and campaigned for Republican candidates. In another campaign for United States Senate against Senator Steven A. Douglas, Lincoln said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved - I do not expect the house to fall - but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other…."
Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of debates, and seven were scheduled. Douglas won the election, but their debates made Lincoln a national figure. Lincoln received the Republican nomination for President and easily won the election. By the time he became the 16th President on March 4, 1861, seven Southern states had withdrawn from the Union and four more states followed later. These eleven states became the Confederate States of America.
The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Lincoln did everything he could to keep the Union together. He felt that the breakup of the American nation would be a tragedy for all Americans and cause all people to suffer. He believed that the United States was an experiment to see if people could govern themselves. He considered the central issue of the Civil War to be the fate of world democracy.
The Civil War probably destroyed any hope Lincoln had for happiness in the White House. Besides dealing with the Civil War, he wrote most of his own letters and all of his speeches. He spent hours each week visiting with anyone who chose to call. In all his years as President, he spent less than a month away from Washington. He found carriage rides relaxing and enjoyed the theater. White House dinners and receptions were simply duties to be performed, and his frequent visits to army hospitals brought great pain to his gentle soul. He read Shakespeare or the Bible for solace late at night.
Mrs. Lincoln was suspected by many as being disloyal because she had close family members fighting in the Confederate army. Lincoln grieved deeply at the death of their son "Willie" on February 20, 1962, but Mrs. Lincoln could not be comforted.
Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. He named the states and parts of states that were in rebellion and said that slaves there "are, and hence forward shall be, free." In reality, the proclamation freed no slaves. It applied only to territory controlled by the Confederates and could not be enforced by federal officers. Lincoln encouraged slave owners in Union states to free their slaves in exchange for government financial help, but his advice was not followed. The Emancipation Proclamation did however have long range effects. It showed other nations that the war had a high purpose. It also prepared the way for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment was adopted in December 1965 and ended slavery throughout the United States.
Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, at dedicatory services for a cemetery on the Gettysburg battle field. He prepared his address carefully and made final changes at Gettysburg. People who heard him speak knew that his declaration that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth" would last as long as democracy lived.
With a few Union victories behind him, Lincoln won reelection. His second inauguration took place on March 4, 1865. In his address, he explained that the Civil War was being fought to abolish slavery. He said that the Civil War was the result of the nation allowing slavery and urged the people to keep their faith in God strong.
The war wore on Lincoln. He didn't sleep well during crises, his eyes were ringed with black, his face was gaunt and deeply lined. He had no time for relaxation and ate irregularly. He continued to receive widows and soldiers who came to the White House. He was very humble but had confidence in his own judgments. He used persuasion to lead the people.
General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Lincoln gave his last public address on April 11, 1865.
On the evening of April 14, 1865, Lincoln attended a performance at Ford's Theatre in Washington. Just after 10:00 P.M., John Wilkes Booth shot the President in the head from the rear of the presidential box. Booth was a well-known actor and broke his leg leaping to the stage to escape.
Lincoln was carried unconscious to a nearby house. He was surrounded by his family and governmental officials when he died at 7:22 A.M. on April 15, 1865. Even enemies praised his selflessness and kindness. Millions lined the railroad tracks to watch his burial train go past. He was buried May 4 in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois.
Booth fled to Maryland on horseback but was later trapped in a barn in Virginia where he was killed. Eight people were accused of conspiring to kill Lincoln and other governmental leaders. After being tried, four were hanged on July 7, and four were sent to prison. One of those four died in prison, and the other three were pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869.
Facts and information for this blog post are from an article by Gabor S. Boritt, World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 12, pp 310-327.
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