Abrham Lincoln (1809-65)


Figure 1.--Tad Lincoln is pictured here in a White House photograph taken about 1862 after Willie's trafgic death. Note the adult looking clothing that Tad, who is only about 11, is wearing. This is the only portrait made of President Lincoln wearing glasses. It was originally photographed by Anthony Berger for Matthew Brady and became the most popular of the Lincoln images during the Civil war. This is a print of the original. Thousands of this image were made and sold.

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th and the most beloved of all American presidents, although at the time he engendered intense political controversy, in both the north and south. Lincoln was the first strong president since Polk. While his election precpitated the Civil War, it was clear by 1860 that the southern states were preparing to secede and only Federal military force could prevent. Abhorring war, Abraham Lincoln accepted it as the only means to save the Union. President Lincoln's leadership proceeded not only to save the Union, but also emancipate the slaves. This Civil War was no mere domestic struggle. Consider the fate of Europe if a powerful and united American Republic did not exist to confront the NAZIs in 1941 and the Russians in 1945. The amazing historical footnote is that a president with limited formal education as well as poorly schooled farm boys from Maine to Wisconsin so clearly understood this and supported the Union through 4 terrible years of Civil War.

Family

Lincoln's parents were Thomas Lincoln (ca1776-1851) and Nancy Hanks (1784-1818). He had a brother and sister who died at a young age.

Father

Thomas' father had been killed by Indians while clearing land. The absence of a father to support him left him with few prospects and opportunities. He tried as best he could. He was both a farmer and carpenter. He bought several farms, but there was a poor land system at the time and he was badly cheated. So Thomas kept moving and trying again. Thomas was uneducated and could barely scrawl his name. Thomas is probably the worst presidential father in American history. After his first wife died he abandoned his children, 9-year old Able and a daughter, for 6 months in their backwoods cabin. They nearly starved to death. As he grew up, Abe did not get on well with his father. Thomas who was illiterate, ridiculed his son's reading and interest in education. Abraham for his part wanted to be nothing like his father.

Mother

Nancy Hanks was illiterate. She came from a large family of modest means, but thoroughly respectable. Some have claimed that she was illegitimate, but recent scholarship has demonstrated that she was not. Nancy died when Abe was only 8 years old. Abe himself whittled pegs for his mother's coffin. So the young Abraham Lincoln met death at an early age.

Siblings

Lincoln had an older sister Sarah (1807-28) who died ias a young woman. There was also a younger brother, Thomas Jr. (1811-13), who died in infancy and an older sister who died in childhood. Abe was too young to have known Thomas. He was, however, very close to Sarah and grew up with her. Sarah married Aaron Grisby (1826). Sarah tragically died in childbirth (1828). Abe was crushed as the two were so close. He blamed the Grigsby family for not having a doctor to see to her. [Harrison] There were also half siblings.

Childhood

Abraham was the son of a not very sucessful Kentucky frontiersman and carpenter, He had to struggle for a living and for learning. Lincoln himself never said much about his childhood. Five months before receiving his party's nomination for President, he sketched his life briefly at the urging of a campaign manager. "I was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families--second families, perhaps I should say. My mother, who died in my tenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks.... My father ... removed from Kentucky to ... Indiana, in my eighth year.... It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up.... Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher ... but that was all." Actually Lincoln was wrong. He had rather miraculously for someone of his circumstances acquired the habit of reading. And by the time he had emerged from boyhood he had read many great works, in fact substantially more than most students graduating from modern high schools. Accounts of Lincoln's hardscrable experiences dominate accounts of his boyhood. More important, and often missed, was that as a boy, Lincoln developed an affinity for books e fact that with virtually no schooling was on his way to becoming an educated person. And key to that achievement were two remarkable women, Nancy Hanks and Sarah Bush Johnston.

Education

Abraham Lincoln is surely the most poorly educated president in American history. Which is of course not to say he was the least learned president. He attended even less school than Andrew Jackson who lost both his parents. Lincoln when asked about his education, had aone word description--"defficebt". Lincoln made some efforts to attain knowledge while working on the family farm. There were few opportunities, however, and Lincoln did not at this time have the same drive for education that he demonstrated in later life. As a boy only had probably less than 1 year of formal education. His parents encouraged him as best they could, especially Nancy, and by the age of 7 he had learned to read. He did not learn proper grammar until much later. Lincoln read and studied on his own as best he could while keeping store or being otherwise employed in New Salem, Illinois. Lincoln was a captain in the Black Hawk War, spent 8 years in the Illinois legislature, and rode the circuit of courts for many years. His law partner said of him, "His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest."

Friendships

More books have been written about Lincoln than any other American president. Yet Lincoln in many ways remains an enigma. Lincoln never wrote about himself in any detail. He had few close friends and even to them he never really opened himself up to describe his private life. Lincoln appears to have been unable of making intimate friendships. It is unclear why. The loss of his mother, his isolated rural boyhood, and his difficult relationship with his father all must have affected his ability to relate with others. Lincoln's closest friend was Joshua Speed. The two had very different upbringings. Speed came from a wealthy Kentucky planter family. They shared a room in Springfield when Sped arrived in 1837. Speed later advised Lincoln on the political situation in Kentucky which was a critical border state. Keeping Kentucky in the Union was critical to Lincoln's strategy. William H. Herndon was Lincoln's law partner and their relationship was very important in Lincoln's intellectual development. Orville H. Browning who was appointed to serve out Stephen O. Douglas' remaining senatorial term became close with Lincoln during the early part of the President's term. Secretary of State William H. Seward has aspired to be president himself and was dismissive of Lincoln's capabilities until he came to recognize them while working together. Lincoln was also close to his two personal secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay. [Donald, We]

Jobs

Lincoln had a variety of jobs before becoming a lawyer. He split rails, worked as a store clerk and on a river boat. It was on the Mississippi River that his views of slavery were formed, based on what he observed. As a politician, however, he had to mute his views of slavery. While there were abolitionists in the north, even if the United SDtastes was a racist nation. Tacist feeling was especially strong in Illinois. He was also a postmaster. This helped him meet people. It also gave him access to newspapers all over the country. His pribcipal career was the law. He speat nearly three decades practicing as a lawyer. He traveled extensively on the circuit. Sone authors believe that this was in part to get awayvfrom Mary. Lincoln became one of the best known lawyers in Illinois. Traveling n the circuit he met people and made friends that helped enormously in developing a political career. His effectively demonstrated by the fasct thatvthe Illinois Central Railroad (ICR) hired him for several cases. They of course had the money to hire the very best lawyers. He also took cases againt the ICR. His legal career is often glanced over in assessments of Lincoln, but in fact it was very important in developing Lincoln as a public figure and honming the skills that would make his sccessful. Linclon's performasnce in the Lincoln Douglas debates would not have been possible wuthout the years arguing before juries.

Political Career

Lincoln reversed the usual pattern of studying law and then becoming a politician. He first ran for the state legislature at 23 and won a seat in the second try as a Whig in 1834. There he met people with wider horizons. And he was soon was convinced to study law. Lincoln was a effective young politician and politics was his true love. Yet there was no real issue which motivated him. It was Stephen Douglas, the prominent Illinois Senator, that gave Lincoln an issue. Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill and popular sovereignty. Now Lincoln saw the possibility of slavery expanding. Lincoln did not dare to challenge slavery's existence--it was after all enshrined in the Constitution and most Americans accepted or supported it. He had hoped, however, that it would slowly wither away. Now there was the possibility that it would expand. Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas for Senator in 1850. Lincoln the speech accepting the nomination made perhaps his most famous speech, questioning whether America could endure both half slave and half free. The famed Lincoln-Douglas debates framed for the entire country the issue of slavery. Douglas accused Lincoln of codling the blacks. Lincoln replied that while blacks may not be equal that they are entitled to the income that they earn from their labor. Douglas also stressed the importance of majority rule. Lincoln evoked moral principles. Lincoln won a small majority, a major accomplishment in heavily Democratic Illinois. He lost the election in the Democratic state legislature. In debating with Douglas, a principal Congressional engineer of the Compromise of 1850 which had postponed Civil War, Lincoln gained a national reputation. He continued speaking out, assuming the middle ground between the abolitionists and the slave holders of the South. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were a key element that was to enable him to win the Republican nomination for President in 1860.

Character

One of the most intriguing questions about Lincoln seems to be where his monumental character came from. It does not seem to have come from his father. And he had almost no formal education. Yes no president in American history, except perhaps Washington, approaches Lincoln in strength of character. This is a topic many historians have addressed to a greater or lesser degree. And their findings have varied. One historian describes what he sees as a "a basic trait of character evident throughout Lincoln's life: the essential passivity of his nature". [Donald, Lincoln.] We are not sure what the basis for this assessment is. Perhaps he was referring more to Lincoln's private life. We certainly so not see passivity in his public life. Another historian with more insight that Lincoln's public life was "mastery rather than passivity". [McPearson] One of the surprising aspects of Lincoln's character was his personal self-confidence. It was that self-confidence that Lincoln brought to Washington in 1861. Lincoln had no experience at any kind of administration or management. His experience in Washington was limited to a brief time in Congress. Yet he arrived in Washington supremely self confident, despite being confronted with the greatest crisis in American history. Mary Lincoln herself commented on her husband's self-confidence, "He was a terribly firm man when he set his foot down. .... No man or woman could rule him after he had made up his mind." [M. Lincoln]

Civil War

Abraham Lincoln warned the South in his Inaugural Address: "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you.... You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it." Lincoln thought secession illegal, and was willing to use force to defend Federal law and the Union. When Confederate batteries fired on Fort Sumter and forced its surrender, he called on the states for 75,000 volunteers. Four more slave states joined the Confederacy but four remained within the Union. The Civil War had begun.

Two American Presidents

America in 1861 had two presidents. Only one of them, however, had the kind of qualifications that we like to see in our presidents--and it was not Lincoln. Jefferson Davis was well educated with both a university degree and a graduate of West Point. He was a recognized war hero who played a major role in the war with Mexico. He was an important senator and served as Secretary of War. Lincoln had virtually no formal education. He served without distinction in the Black Hawk War. He served one term in Congress and lost a race for the Senate. He had no administrative experience and his law office was a shambles. But from the onset, it was Lincoln who made the right decisions and it was Davis who repeatedly erred beginning with the decision to fire on Fort Sumter, thus putting the South in the position of initiating the War. Even much of Lincoln's cabinet has little respect for him. Who would have thought in looking at the two men that Lincoln would emerge as arguably our greatest president.

Presidency

Lincoln as President built the Republican Party into a strong national organization. Further, he rallied most of the northern Democrats to the Union cause which, considering the horrors of the Civil War, was a major accomplishment. Lincoln on January 1, 1863, issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy. This transformed the War from a struggle to save the Union to a moral crusade to eradicate slavery. Lincoln never let the world forget that the Civil War involved an even larger issue. This he stated most movingly in dedicating the military cemetery at Gettysburg: "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 won re-election in 1864, as Union military triumphs heralded an end to the war. In his planning for peace, the President was flexible and generous, encouraging Southerners to lay down their arms and join speedily in reunion. The spirit that guided him was clearly that of his Second Inaugural Address, now inscribed on one wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.: With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds.... " On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater in Washington by John Wilkes Booth, an actor, who somehow thought he was helping the South. The opposite was the result, for with Lincoln's death, the possibility of peace with magnanimity died.

Historical Assessment

Lincoln is now regarded along with Washington and Franklin Roosevelt as the Republic's three greatest presidents, champion of freedom, and hero of the American nation. He is the most beloved of our presidents. In his life time, however, he was one of the most controversial presidents. In the South his name was an anathema, but there were also strident critics in the North. Overseas journalists in Britain caricatured him mercilessly, making him the butt of public ridicule and scorn. Lincoln's two monumental achievements are saving the Union and Emancipation of the slaves.

The Union

President Lincoln is commonly credited by historians for saving the Union. It is of course impossible to know if another president could have succeeded. We do know that other politicns at the time either were not or would not have daved the Union (Bucannan, Douglas, and McClellan). Given that the Federal victory was a close run thing, Lincoln's role was critical. A series of generals perforned very poorly, giving the Condederacy the opportunity to precail on the battlefield. Thus Lincoln's political savy was very impotant in the Federal victory. Lincoln's political decesions were invaribly well reasoned abd effective, including making sure the Confederacy fired the first shots, holding the border states, delaying the nove on emancipation, and many others.

Racism

There is a teendency in America to debunk the great figures in American history. This largely comes from politically motivated authors who want to undermine the very positive role America has played in world affairs. The tactic used here is to judge historical figures with modern standards. The charge made against Lincoln was that he was a racist. And Lincoln made statements that using modern standards woulkd be seen as racist. Now this not particularly surprising. America and Europe in the 19th century was highly racist. And this was not a particularly Western concept. Racist thought was strng in other societies, including China, India, and Japan. Racist ideas were even pronounced among abolitiinidts, not of whom were opposed to slavery, but saw blacks as inferior. That said, it is disengious to use Lincoln's public statements at face value. Lincoln was aolitican n a very racist state. If he had made the kind of statements that self-rightious modern racial historians want to see, he could not have been elected president. Lincoln picked his arguments very carefully. Strephen Douglas was an outright racist who had no quams about accepting the expansion of slavery. Yet Lincoln was able to do well against him with Illinois voters becase of the argument he chose. Lincoln argued thast slavery was wrong because te slave was denied his just benefits earned from the sweat of his labor. This was an argumentv that appealed to working men, even working men wiuth no real sympahy to blacks. There is no real way of knowing ro what extent used his argument to couch his true feelings on race.

Emancipation

Lincoln's view on slavery were formed at an early age. His mother and father belonged to a Baptist sect that opposed slavery. As a youth he worked on a flat boat taking goods own the Mississippi to New Orleans where he saw slaves being bought an sold. He was active in politics for years, but it was not until Senator Stephen Douglass proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and championed "popular sovereignty". The possibility that slavery would be expanded that Lincoln seize an issue that moved him. Lincoln hated slavery, but he was not an abolitionist. Almost certainly this was a matter of political expidiency--abolitionists could not win elections in Illinois. He hoped to contain slavery and hope that it would whither away--this was the best that could be hoped for at the time. Lincoln was a realist. He believed in reason. He hoped that slavery would eventually wither away if it could be contained. Lincoln was a man of his time. He though that blacks were inferior. In fact as President he told a group of black leaders that the solution to the race issue was freed slaves colonizing Africa. (Characteristically this was the first meeting of black leaders with any president. He had no black friends. Interestingly Mary did--her seamstress became her closest confident. What Lincoln did believe is that what a man earned by the sweat of his brow should be his to keep. After election he pursued the Civil War to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation was an act to strike at the economy of the South and not a moral pronouncement. Lincoln was, however, probably our most private of presidents. He never set down on paper his true feelings, primarily because of the contemporary political ramifications. No competent Lincoln scholar, however, would deny that he hated slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was written as a military act rather than a soaring moral pronouncement. Revisionist historians have used this to demonstrate that Lincoln had no strong moral convictions on slavery. Lincoln realized the nation would accept a military act and because of his concern that the Supreme Court would strike it down. (This was a very real possibility. It was the same Court that in the Dead Scott case had ruled that blacks could not be citizens.) A still very racist country accepted a military action against the South, but many had no interest in pursuing the War to emancipate the slaves. One telling incident into Lincoln's soul was in the dark days of mid 1864 when it looked like his re-election was lost, he called in Stephen Douglas to organize a secret mission behind Southern lines to encourage slaves to escape to the North while it was still possible. After re-election his major legislative initiative was the 13th Amendment, for ever abolishing slavery.

Family

Mary Todd Lincoln was not the first woman in Lincoln's life. When he was 26, the love of his life died. It may well be that the marriage with Mary was more of a political step, knowing that to advance he need the help of someone with social graces. What ever his personal feelings, he was a devoted husband and father. Mary Todd Lincoln is beyond doubt the most tragic of all America's First Ladies. Other have suffered great losses, but none so many losses beginning at such an early age. As a result, she was incapable of giving her husband the support that would have been so valuable for a man undergoing the trials faced by few men. It should always be remembered that the bright, vivacious young lady that Lincoln married was a great asset to his Illinois political career and without Mary, he may never have been so successful politically. The Lincolns had four sons. Mary would have certainly liked to have had a little girl to dress up and fuss over, but she loved the boys deeply. It is difficult to imagine two more loving parents. The Lincoln boys had extremely varied personalities. Robert was somewhat dour. Eddie and Taddie bubbly, Willie more contemplative. Taddie may have been mildly retarded or at least had learning difficulties. Willie was a very bright child. They were extremely permissive parents and the antics of Taddie and Willie are legendary. Willie perhaps the most beloved of all the Lincoln children died in the White House.

Secular Saint

Lincoln's inspired leadership and achievements as well as his assasination, often seen as a kind of mayrtardom, raised Lincoln's to a kind of secular saint. He is certainly the most beloved of all American presidents. Probably only Washington can rabk higher in any list of American presidents. One author deavels specifically in the traits by which Americans ranks its heros. He deavels into the ideas, beliefs, willpower, pertinacity, communication skills, and magnamity. These traits shown through all of Lincolm's life from his early efforts to educate himself, his legal career, anf his politicl life before the presidency. And as president he resisted secession, preserved the union (meaning the American democratic experiment), and then convertred the Civil War into a struggle for freedom for the slaves. [Williams] It is difficult to think of an individal who has achieved more, especially when we consider the role of the United States in defeating the horific totalitarian states of the 20th century which threatened to crete a new Dark Age. Lincoln is commonly seen as an American hero. Given what wouldc have transpired in the world without a strong, unified American republic, ghere is no country on earh that would not hve been adversely affected without Lincoln.

Summer White House

In the era before air conditioning, the White House was an extremely unpleasant place to live. Soldier's Home was a retirement community for indigent soldiers. It was located a few miles from the White House in Washington it was at a higher elevation and st among many trees. The air was fresher and cooler than the swampy area around the White House. Soldier's Home provided cottages for senior government officials. President Buchanan was the first president to retire to Soldier's Home during the Summer. He recommended to Lincoln that he take advantage of the facilities. The crush of events prevented the Lincoln's from doing so in 1861, but they did set up a Summer White House in the subsequent years. No only was it more pleasant, but they were away from the official tumult of the White House which was as much an office as a home. [Pinsker]

Sources

Donald, David Herbert. We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends (Simon & Schuster, 2003), 269p.

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln (1995).

Harrison, Lowell Hayes. Lincoln of Kentucky.

Lincoln, Mary.

McPherson, James M. This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (Oford University, 2007), 260p.

Pinsker, Matthew. Lincoln's Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers' Home (Oxford University, 2003), 256p.

Wead, Doug. The Raising of a President.

Williams, Fran J. Lincoln as Herp (2013), 144p.






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Created: June 25, 1999
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