Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), 16th PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. Lincoln entered office at a critical period in U. S. history, just before the Civil War, and died from an assassin’s bullet at the war’s end, but before the greater implications of the conflict could be resolved. He brought to the office personal integrity, intelligence, and humanity, plus the wholesome characteristics of his frontier upbringing. He also had the liabilities of his upbringing–he was self-educated, culturally unsophisticated, and lacking in administrative and diplomatic skills.
Sharp-witted, he was not especially sharp-tongued, but was noted for his warm good humor. Although relatively unknown and inexperienced politically when elected president, he proved to be a consummate politician. He was above all firm in his convictions and dedicated to the preservation of the Union. Lincoln was perhaps the most esteemed and maligned of the American presidents. Generally admired and loved by the public, he was attacked on a partisan basis as the man responsible for and in the middle of every major issue facing the nation during his administration.
Although his reputation has fluctuated with changing times, he was clearly a great man and a great president. He firmly and fairly guided the nation through its most perilous period and made a lasting impact in shaping the office of chief executive. Once regarded as the “Great Emancipator” for his forward strides in freeing the slaves, he was criticized a century later, when the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, for his caution in moving toward equal rights. If he is judged in the historical context, however, it can be seen that he was far in advance of most liberal opinion.
His claim to greatness endures. Early Life The future president was born in the most modest of circumstances in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Ky. , on Feb. 12, 1809. His entire childhood and young manhood were spent on the brink of poverty as his pioneering family made repeated fresh starts in the West. Opportunities for education, cultural activities, and even socializing were meager. Ancestry Lincoln’s paternal ancestry has been traced, in an unbroken line, to Samuel Lincoln, a weaver’s apprentice from Hingham, England, who settled in Hingham, Mass. n 1637.
From him the line of descent came down through Mordecai Lincoln of Hingham and of Scituate, Mass. ; Mordecai of Berks county, Pa. ; John of Berks county and of Rockingham county, Va. ; and Abraham, the grandfather of the president, who moved from Virginia to Kentucky about 1782, settled near Hughes Station, east of Louisville, and was killed in an Indian ambush in 1786. Abraham’s youngest son, Thomas, who became the father of the president, was born in Rockingham county, Va. , on Jan. 6, 1778.
After the death of his father, he roamed about, settling eventually in Hardin county, Ky. , where he worked at carpentry, farming, and odd jobs. He was not the shiftless ne’er-do-well sometimes depicted, but an honest, conscientious man of modest means, well regarded by his neighbors. He had practically no education, however, and could barely scrawl his name. Nancy Hanks, whom Thomas Lincoln married on June 12, 1806, and who became the mother of the president, remains a shadowy figure. Her birth date is uncertain, and descriptions of her are contradictory.
Scholars despair of penetrating the tangled Hanks genealogy, and the legitimacy of Nancy’s birth is a subject of argument. Lincoln, himself, apparently believed that his mother was born out of wedlock. In either case, Nancy came of lowly people. Reared by her aunt, Betsy Hanks, who married Thomas Sparrow, she was utterly uneducated. Childhood Thomas and Nancy Lincoln set up housekeeping in Elizabethtown, Ky. , where their first child, Sarah, was born on Feb. 10, 1807. In December 1808, Thomas bought a hard-scrabble farm on the South Fork of Nolin Creek, where Abraham was born.
Soon after Abe’s second birthday the family moved to a more productive farm along Knob Creek, a branch of the Rolling Fork, in a region of fertile bottomland surrounded by crags and bluffs. The old Cumberland Trail from Louisville to Nashville passed close by, and the boy could see a vigorous civilization on the march–settlers, peddlers, circuit-riding preachers, now and then a coffle of slaves. This was probably his first view of human bondage, for the small landholdings of the region were not suited to slaveowning, and local sentiment, especially among the Baptists, with whom the Lincolns had affiliated, was hostile to slavery.
Like most frontier children, Abraham performed chores at an early age, but occasionally he and his sister Sarah attended classes in a log schoolhouse some two miles (3 km) from home. Nancy bore a third child, Thomas, but he died in infancy. Faulty land titles, which were a constant problem to Kentucky settlers, were especially troublesome to Thomas Lincoln. Because of a flaw in title, he lost part of a farm he had bought before his marriage, and both his other Kentucky farms became involved in litigation.
For this reason, and because of his roving disposition, he resolved to move to Indiana, where land could be bought directly from the government. Abraham was seven years old when, in December 1816, the Lincolns struck out northwestward. They crossed the Ohio River on a ferry near the village of Troy, made their way 16 miles (26 km) farther north through thick woods and tangled underbrush, and settled near Pigeon Creek, in present Spencer county, Ind. Thomas hastily threw up a half-faced camp, a rude shelter of logs and boughs, closed on three sides and warmed only by a fire at the open front.
Here the family lived while Thomas built a cabin. The region was gloomy, with few settlers, and wild animals prowled in the forest. By spring Thomas had cleared a few acres for a crop. In an autobiography that Abraham Lincoln composed in 1860, he said of himself: “Abraham, though very young, was large of his age, and had an axe put into his hands at once; and from that till within his twenty-third year, he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument–less, of course, in plowing and harvesting seasons.
So, year by year the clearing grew, and the family’s diet became more varied as farm products supplemented game and fowl. At first, Thomas was a mere squatter on the land, but on Oct. 15, 1817, he applied for 160 acres (65 hectares) at the government land office in Vincennes. Unable to complete payment on so large a tract, he later gave up half, but paid for the rest. The Lincolns had not been long in Indiana when they were joined by Thomas and Elizabeth Sparrow, the relatives by whom Nancy had been reared.
They arrived from Kentucky with Dennis Hanks, the illegitimate son of another of Nancy’s aunts. An energetic youth of 19, he became Abraham’s companion. Within a year, however, the Sparrows became victims of the “milk-sick” (milk sickness), a disease dreaded by Indiana settlers, and soon afterward, on Oct. 5, 1818, Nancy Lincoln, too, died of this malady. Without a woman to keep the household functioning, the Lincolns lived almost in squalor. To remedy this intolerable condition, Thomas Lincoln returned to Elizabethtown, where, on Dec. 1819, he married Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow with three children.
A kindly, hard-working woman, she brought order to the Lincolns’ Indiana homestead. She also saw to it that at intervals over the next two years Abraham received enough additional schooling to be able, as he said later, “to read, write and cipher to the Rule of Three. ” All told, however, he attended school less than a year. Young Manhood During the 14 years the Lincolns lived in Indiana, the region became more thickly settled, mostly by people from the South.
But conditions remained primitive, and farming was backbreaking work. Superstitions were prevalent; social functions consisted of such utilitarian amusements as corn shuckings, house raisings, and hog killings; and religion was dogmatic and emotional. Abe, growing tall and strong, won a reputation as the best local athlete and a rollicking storyteller. But his father kept him busy at hard labor, hiring him out to neighbors when work at home slackened. Abe’s meager education had aroused his desire to learn, and he traveled over the countryside to borrow books.
Among those he read were Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim’s Progress, Aesop’s Fables, William Grimshaw’s History of the United States, and Mason Weems’ Life of Washington. The Bible was probably the only book his family owned, and his abundant use of scriptural quotations in his later writings shows how earnestly he must have studied it. Young Lincoln worked for a while as a ferryman on the Ohio River, and at 19 helped take a flatboat cargo to New Orleans. There he encountered a manner of living wholly unknown to him. Soon after he returned, his father decided to move to Illinois, where a relative, John Hanks, had preceded him.
On March 1, 1830, the family set out with all their possessions loaded on three wagons. Their new home was located on the north bank of the Sangamon River, west of Decatur. When a cabin had been built and a crop had been planted and fenced, young Lincoln hired out to split fence rails for neighbors. In the autumn all the Lincoln family came down with fever and ague. That winter the pioneers experienced the deepest snow they had ever known, accompanied by subzero temperatures.
In the spring the family backtracked eastward to Coles county, Ill. But this time Abraham did not accompany them, for during the winter he, his stepbrother John D. Johnston, and his cousin John Hanks had agreed to take another cargo to New Orleans for a trader, Denton Offutt. A new life was opening for young Lincoln. Henceforth he could make his own way. Supposedly it was on this second trip to New Orleans that young Lincoln, watching a slave auction, declared: “If I ever get a chance to hit that thing, I’ll hit it hard. ” But the story is almost certainly untrue. Lincoln at this period of his life could scarcely have believed himself to be a man of destiny, and John Hanks, who originated the story, was not with Lincoln, having left his fellow crewmen at St.
Louis. Near the outset of this voyage, at the little village of New Salem on the Sangamon River, Lincoln had impressed Offutt by his ingenuity in moving the flatboat over a milldam. Offutt, impressed likewise by the prospects of the village, arranged to open a store and rent the mill. On Lincoln’s return from New Orleans, Offutt engaged him as clerk and handyman. By late July 1831, when Lincoln came back, New Salem was enjoying what proved to be a short-lived boom based on a local conviction that the Sangamon River would be made navigable for steamboats.
For a time the village served as a trading center for the surrounding area and numbered among its enterprises three stores, a tavern, a carding machine for wool, a saloon, and a ferry. Among its residents were two physicians, a blacksmith, a cooper, a shoemaker, and other craftsmen common to a pioneer settlement. The people were mostly from the South, though a number of Yankees had also drifted in. Community pastimes were similar to those Lincoln had previously known, and life in general differed only in being somewhat more advanced.
Lincoln gained the admiration of the rougher element of the community, who were known as the Clary’s Grove boys, when he threw their champion in a wrestling match. But his kindness, honesty, and efforts at self-betterment so impressed the more reputable people of the community that they, too, soon came to respect him. He became a member of the debating society, studied grammar with the aid of a local schoolmaster, and acquired a lasting fondness for the writings of Shakespeare and Robert Burns from the village philosopher and fisherman.
Offutt paid little attention to business, and his store was about to fail, when an Indian disturbance, known as the Black Hawk War, broke out in April 1832, in Illinois. Lincoln enlisted and was elected captain of his volunteer company. When his term expired, he reenlisted, serving about 80 days in all. He experienced some hardships, but no fighting. Politics and Law Returning to New Salem, Lincoln sought election to the state legislature. He won almost all the votes in his own community, but lost the election because he was not known throughout the county.
In partnership with William F. Berry, he bought a store on credit, but it soon failed, leaving him deeply in debt. He then got a job as deputy surveyor, was appointed postmaster, and pieced out his income with odd jobs. The story of his romance with Ann Rutledge is rejected as a legend by most authorities, but he did have a short-lived love affair with Mary Owens. Illinois Legislator In 1834, Lincoln was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, and he was reelected in 1836, 1838, and 1840.
Political alignments were in a state of flux during his first two candidacies, but as the WHIG and DEMOCRATIC parties began to take form, he followed his political idol, Henry Clay, and John T. Stuart, a Springfield lawyer and friend, into the Whig ranks. Twice Lincoln was his party’s candidate for speaker, and when defeated, he served as its floor leader. His greatest achievement in the legislature, where he was a consistent supporter of conservative business interests, was to bring about the removal of the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield, by means of adroit logrolling.
When certain resolutions denouncing antislavery agitation were passed by the house, Lincoln and a colleague, Dan Stone, defined their position by a written declaration that slavery was “founded on both injustice and bad policy, but that the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than abate its evils. ” An internal improvement project that Lincoln promoted in the legislature turned out to be impractical and almost bankrupted the state. On national issues Lincoln favored the United States Bank and opposed the presidential policies of Andrew JACKSON and Martin VAN BUREN.