16th President of the United States
Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. He came into this world
in a humble log cabin, yet rose to
the highest office in the nation. His parents were simple people, both born in Virginia. His mother died when he was nine years old. When asked about his family background, he said, "I don't know who my grandfather was; I am much more concerned to know who his grandson will be."
Lincoln received almost no formal education but earned a place in history as one of the most eloquent leaders the world has ever known. "When I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher… but that was all."
He tried his hand at many things. He opened a general store, but it failed. He ran for local office, but he lost. He became a rail-splitter, a river boatman, and a village postmaster, but none of these jobs satisfied him. The job of postmaster did actually become a turning point though. The postmaster delivered newspapers to subscribers along with the mail. This gave Lincoln the opportunity to read through the nation's papers before delivering them, acquainting himself with the national events and political developments of the day.
Lincoln was determined to make something of himself.
"I'm a slow walker," he said, "but I never walk back."
He did all he could to learn as much as he could. He would often listen intently and quietly. "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."
Lincoln was a captain in the Black Hawk War, spent eight years in the Illinois legislature, and rode the circuit of courts for many years. At the time, very few practicing attorneys had attended law school. They became lawyers simply by studying the law, usually under the supervision of a practicing attorney. For three years, Lincoln poured through every law book he could find to receive his license to practice law. His law partner said of him, "His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest."
He married Mary Todd, and they had four boys. Only one lived to adulthood.
In 1858 Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas for Senator. He lost the election, but in debating with Douglas he gained a national reputation that won him the Republican nomination for President in 1860.
Lincoln was President during one of the most tumultuous times in US history, when the country's very future was in serious doubt. The Civil War was unlike anything Americans had ever experienced. Before it was over, more than 2 million men would fight for the North, while close to 1 million would serve in the Confederate forces. More than 3 million would fight and more than 650,000 would die. Tens of thousands of the soldiers and sailors were not men but children, many ten years old and younger.
After hearing of the thousands of men who had been killed during one battle, Lincoln clasped his hands behind his back, looked off into space, and cried out, "My God! My God! What will the country say?"
Lincoln had always been concerned about slavery. He believed that "those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and under a just God can not long retain it." He also commented that during the war "my paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that…"
After a significant victory of the North over the South, Lincoln saw his opportunity to do what was in his heart. On January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free "all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State." Said Lincoln, "I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper." The great African-American leader Frederick Douglass said that with this proclamation, the Civil War had suddenly been "invested with sanctity." Thanks to Lincoln, the war to save the Union had also become the war to free the slaves.
Lincoln never let the world forget that the Civil War involved an even larger issue. He stated this so 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."
As President, Lincoln built the Republican Party into a strong national organization. He also rallied most of the northern Democrats to the Union cause. Among his other accomplishments, and one for which he is not widely known, was to make Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated on the same day in every state. He also authorized the construction of the nation's first transcontinental railroad.
Lincoln won re-election in 1864, as Union military triumphs heralded an end to the war. In his planning for peace, Lincoln 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, DC: "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 Theatre in Washington by John Wilkes Booth, an actor. Booth was part of a plot with several others to kill Lincoln because he had freed the slaves.
Lincoln was on the national stage for only six years. But he managed to keep the American nation from destroying itself. His greatest strength came from his unwavering faith in the common person: "I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts."
William T. Sherman, the Union general who helped defeat the South, described Lincoln this way: "Of all the men I have ever met, he possessed more of the elements of greatness combined with goodness, than any other."