Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), the 16th president of the United States, was the most beloved and respected leader in American history. Now, whenever I read such a statement, I ask myself "Does the man truly measure up to the myth?" After all, history is abundantly supplied with "beloved and respected" figures whose reputations rest upon exaggerated exploits and undeserved admiration.
Abraham Lincoln, however, was the real thing. Indeed, he may be the most beloved American in history and, if so, it is an honor well-deserved. Examine Lincoln's life and you will see that he was honest, wise, intelligent, compassionate and hard-working. Moreover, he had a rare combination of integrity, persistence and political skill that would be difficult to overpraise.
Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in a log cabin in the backwoods of Kentucky. His parents had no schooling, but they were hardworking and religious. They were both members of a Baptist church that, because of its opposition to slavery, had separated from another church. When Abe was 7 years old, his family moved to southern Indiana. Two years later, his mother died, which devastated the young child. However, his father soon remarried and Abe came to adore his new stepmother.
As a young boy, Lincoln had only a few months of formal schooling. However, he had a voracious appetite for learning and, over the years, he was able to use books to teach himself anything he wanted. For example, later in his life, Lincoln taught himself law and qualified as a practicing lawyer, solely through studying a number of reference books.
In his early 20s, Lincoln moved to New Salem, Illinois, where he worked at a variety of jobs. His character was such that he impressed the local residents who took to calling him "Honest Abe". While in New Salem, Lincoln developed an interest in government. He joined the Whig Party and ran for the Illinois legislature. The first time (1832) he lost but, after that, he won four elections in a row (1834, 1836, 1838 and 1840). It was while he was a state legislator that Lincoln studied law in his spare time and, in 1836, at the age of 27, became a lawyer.
In 1839, Lincoln met Mary Todd, the highly educated daughter of a prominent Kentucky family. After an on-and-off courtship that lasted the better part of three years, Abraham and Mary were married and set up housekeeping in Springfield, Illinois.
The newlywed couple had very little money, so to support his wife (and soon, children), Lincoln began to practice as a lawyer. The work was grueling because Lincoln practiced on The Eighth Circuit, which covered about 12,000 square miles. This required him to travel long miles on horseback through sparsely settled territory, with nothing more than his horse, some food and water, a few law books, and a change of clothes.
Lincoln's peripatetic lifestyle had an unexpected result: throughout the circuit, he established an excellent reputation for himself and, in 1846, he was able to win the election to the U.S. House of Representatives (still as a member of the Whig Party). After his 2-year term of office (1847-1849), Lincoln was offered a post as governor of the new Oregon Territory. However, he declined, returning to Illinois to retire from government and devote himself to his law practice. In the spring of 1854, however, at the age of 45, Lincoln returned to politics because he was incensed at the repeal of the so-called "Missouri Compromise", which had to do with slavery.
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You will remember that Lincoln's parents belonged to a church that opposed slavery, and Lincoln himself had strong humanitarian views on the subject his entire life. (He once said, "Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.") During his tenure in Congress, Lincoln denounced slavery as "founded on both injustice and bad policy".
The Missouri Compromise (of 1820) was an agreement between the pro- and anti-slavery factions regarding the regulation of slavery in the territories. The agreement stated that, slavery would be allowed in the new state of Missouri, but not in any other territories north of the line that formed the southern boundary of Missouri. However, in 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the possibility of slavery in the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska, which were north of the line.
This new development disturbed Lincoln and, once again, he resolved to run for political office. In 1855, he ran for the Senate and lost. The next year, however, he left the Whigs and joined the Republican party, a brand new organization that was founded by a number of anti-slavery Democrats and Whigs. In 1856, at the first national Republican convention, the Illinois delegation proposed Lincoln as a candidate for vice-president, but he did not receive the nomination.
In February 1860, the year of the next presidential convention, Lincoln traveled to New York City, where he gave a meticulously researched speech — the so-called "Cooper Union Speech" — which showcased his homespun Western charm and considerable political skill. (The Cooper Union was a meeting hall in lower Manhattan.) In the speech, Lincoln called for ending slavery within the territories, but did not support outright abolition throughout the country. Because he considered preserving the federal Union to be of prime importance, he urged friendship towards the southern slave-owning states and issued a warning to would-be secessionists in the South.
The Cooper Union speech was so well-received that it was reprinted in newspapers and widely circulated. Republicans from the New England states invited Lincoln to speak to them, and he went on a quick tour, speaking in 11 cities in 12 days. The result was that Lincoln was considered as a serious presidential candidate. At the Republican convention, which was held in Chicago in May of the same year, Lincoln received the nomination.
Four months later, in November 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected the first Republican president of the United States, swept into office with enormous support from the North, but with little support from the South. By March 4, 1861, when Lincoln was inaugurated, six southern states had already left the Union and set up a rival government, the Confederacy. A month later, on April 12, 1861, at 4:30 am, Confederate soldiers fired upon Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, beginning what would be the five-year American Civil War (1861-1865).
For Abraham Lincoln, the next five years were the most difficult of his life. However, they were also the most important. He managed the country and the Union army through a great many ups and downs, ultimately leading the North to victory and permanently restoring federal unity to the United States. During the Civil War years, Lincoln performed many acts of wisdom and compassion under difficult conditions. Among his most remembered deeds are the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address.
The Emancipation Proclamation was an order that Lincoln issued during his second year of office. He declared that all slaves who lived in states that were not under federal control were to be considered freed (emancipated). The Emancipation Proclamation was a symbolic act, in that it freed only those slaves who lived in states that had seceded from the Union. The actual freeing of all the slaves had to wait until the U.S. Constitution was changed by the adoption of the 13th Amendment which, sadly, did not occur until seven months after Lincoln's death.
The Emancipation Proclamation did, however, have an important provision that took effect immediately. For the first time, freed slaves were allowed to enlist in the U.S. army, an opportunity that was embraced by almost 200,000 black men.
On November 19, 1863, Lincoln was invited to say a few words at the dedication of a cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the site of what had been a battlefield. The primary speaker at the ceremony was Edward Everett, the country's foremost orator, who gave a 2-hour speech which is now long forgotten. After Everett spoke, Lincoln stood up and made a short speech, only 10 sentences long.
As unlikely as it seems, what Lincoln said that day became the most famous speech in American history. He began, "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." He then expressed his grief for the soldiers who had died in the war and proclaimed his support of the principles for which the soldiers had given their lives. He ended the speech by promising that "...we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth."
Lincoln's fondest wish was to see an end to the bitter war and the restoration of the country which he loved so dearly. On April 9, 1865, Lincoln was to see part of his wish come true, when the Confederate General Lee surrendered to the Union General Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, ending the Civil War. Two days later, an excited crowd gathered outside the White House, calling for President Lincoln. Lincoln addressed the crowd and made a short speech, in which he discussed the problems of reconstruction. For the first time, he talked, not only about freeing the slaves, but allowing them to attend public schools and allowing black men to vote. (In those days, women — white or black — were not allowed to vote.)
However, before the country could begin its reconstruction, Lincoln's life came to an untimely end. Two days later, Lincoln was shot, as part of a plot to avenge the South by assassinating the President and other officials. Lincoln and his wife were watching a play when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor with Southern sympathies. Lincoln never recovered consciousness and died the next day, April 15, 1865, at the age of 66. Twelve days later, Booth was captured and shot, and, eventually, eight other conspirators were captured and convicted; four of them were hung, the rest were imprisoned.
Although Lincoln's tenure as president was cut short, the steps he took to preserve the Union and emancipate the slaves had a lasting legacy. We remember Lincoln, not only because he did great things, but because he was a great man.
Although he had many failures in life, he had persistence and faith, in himself and in God. Throughout his life, the jobs Lincoln undertook required him to accept great responsibility and to work long hours in pursuit of imperfect solutions to extremely important problems. In general, he was not a happy man. He suffered from extended bouts of melancholia, although not to the point of clinical depression or manic-depression, as is sometimes reported. (Nor did he have Marfan's Syndrome.)
The jobs Lincoln undertook required him to work long hours in pursuit of imperfect solutions.
What Abraham Lincoln did have was powerful inner strength and an indomitable will, which endowed him with a remarkable ability to overcome hardship, disappointment and sadness. Although Lincoln had four children and three grandchildren, he had (after his death) only two great-grandchildren, neither of whom had children of their own. Thus, Lincoln, ultimately, had no direct descendents. However, his legacy is as large as any American who ever lived, and the honor and respect he is accorded are a lasting tribute to the man whose humility once led him to declare, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."
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