Throughout the history of America, there have been a handful of truly great presidents. Abraham Lincoln’s legacy encompasses this great nation from the rock face of Mt. Rushmore to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Lincolns face is forever present in the American people’s everyday lives thanks to the penny and the five-dollar bill. But where did this great man come from, and what made him such an important part of our history? Lincoln’s greatness starts with his humble background and enormous determination.
Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in Hodgenville, Kentucky. He was the son of Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, and was named after his pioneer grandfather. His father worked in the fields, where his mother often accompanied him, and was also a carpenter on the side. In 1816 his parents moved Abraham and his sister Sarah to Indiana. On March 4, 1818, his mother died of milk sickness when he was only 9 years old. His father eventually remarried to Sarah Bush Johnston.
With Abrahams total amount of schooling adding up to the sum of less than one year, he took it upon himself to become educated by any means possible. He would borrow books and newspapers, and eventually grew a found interest in great works such as Robinson Crusoe, Arabian Nights, and The George Washington Biography. He also enjoyed Shakespeare and Robert Burns. When he was 18, his sister died while giving birth to her first son. In 1830, at the age of 21, his family moved again, to Illinois. He would only be with them for one year though, before he decided to move to New Salem, Illinois, on his own.
There, he joined the New Salem Debating Society, and worked at the counter of Denton Offutt’s store. There was little business, which allowed for him to indulge further into his passion for reading. The store went under in 1832, which is when he decided to run for State Legislature. During this time he also joined the state militia, where in which he was elected Captain to lead his men against the invading Native Americans. During the three-month campaign Lincoln’s men never saw any action. Because of the fighting he was unable to campaign properly, and came in 8th place out of 13, losing the election.
He would then try his luck as a frontier merchant, managing a general store with a partner who later died. He left Lincoln in $1,100 of debt that would take him 15 years to pay off. Lincoln was also elected as Postmaster of New Salem, which he knew nothing about, but taught himself all of the responsibilities of the position within 6 weeks. In 1834, he ran again for state legislature and placed 2nd out of 13, eventually serving 4 consecutive terms. At 25 he bought a $36 suit on credit and headed for the State Capitol in Vandalia, Illinois. He was 1 out of 4 in the Illinois House of Representatives from Sagamon County and made $3 a day.
Abraham Lincoln also studied law for 3 years, until he was able to pass all of his exams and be admitted into practice on March 1, 1837. In 1830, at the age of 30, he met Mary Ann Todd, the daughter of a disapproving, wealthy Kentucky banker. They were married on November 4, 1842, and nine months later Robert Todd Lincoln was born. He was named after Mary’s father, and the first of 4 children: Eddie (1846), Willie (1850), and Thomas (1853). Unfortunately, on February 1, 1850, Eddie Lincoln fell ill and died at his parent’s side.
In 1846, Abraham was elected into the United States House of Representatives. This is when he began to take a stance on slavery with quotes like, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel”. In 1849, his Congressional term ended and he took a break from politics. For five years he continued his law practice until his political silence was ended by the actions of Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas was a United States Senator from Illinois who helped push the Kansas Nebraska Act, which replaced the Missouri Compromise. The Kansas Nebraska Act now allowed slavery in new territories, which the Missouri Compromise had forbidden. Lincoln had previously hoped that the Missouri Compromise would help slavery die a “natural death”, but that was no longer the case.
Abraham was always a strong defender of the Declaration of Independence and believed that “all men were created equal” along with having the unalienable right of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In 1855, he made an unsuccessful bid for Senate as part of the Whig party, but won the Republican nomination in 1858. He ended up running against Democratic candidate Stephen. A. Douglas, and lost by a very slim margin. After this lose, “honest Abe” reluctantly decided to run for President. On May 9, 1860, Abraham was “chosen unanimously as [the Republicans] favorite-son candidate.” One week later in Chicago, he was nominated on the third ballot against Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Breckinridge, and John Bell. One week before the election, an 11 year old by the name of Grace Bedell from Westfield, NY, wrote to Abraham and suggested that he grow a beard. She thought it would suit him better on his very thin face. On November 6, 1860, at the age of 52, Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States and was inaugurated on March 4, 1861.
Three months prior to taking office, South Carolina seceded from the Union, and by the time he took office 6 more had followed, with 4 more soon to come. One month previous to in inauguration date, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as the President of the Confederate States of America. Two weeks after Lincoln took office, the South attacked Fort Sumner and the Civil war began officially on April 12, 1861. Abraham Lincoln endured many headaches in his administration because of the war. He was criticized by Congress who clamed that he was “inexperienced”, suffered corruption in his War Department, and had to deal constantly with disputes within his own Cabinet.
On February 20, 1862, his son Willie died of a fever, from which his wife Mary would never recover. After Willie’s death she suffered from continual depression, imaginary fears, and led Abraham to question her sanity. On September 23, Abraham Lincoln released his final rendition of the Emancipation Proclamation to the press, which stated that all southern slaves would be freed as the Union Army conquered southern towns. The release of the document came as an attempt to persuade African Americans in the north and fleeing southern slaves enlist in the Union Army. At a New Years reception in the White House in 1962, Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet members quietly slipped out of the party and officially signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
During this time, Lincoln was constantly criticized due to the draft that was taking place, military arrests, African American troops, and the Emancipation Proclamation. That summer draft riots took place in New York City. To top it all off, Lincoln was having many problems with generals who could not seem to get the job done for the North. General Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Southern Army, took advantage of the North’s poor leadership and marched his troops all the way up to Pennsylvania. At this point, Lincoln hired George Gordon Meade to cut off Lee, and the two forces met on July 1, in Gettysburg Pennsylvania. Meade was able to successfully thwart off Lee, but at a devastating price. Both sides suffered a combined loss of 50,000 men.
Four months later, on Nov. 19, 1863, Lincoln followed a 2 hour speech by Edward Everett with a 2 minute speech. This would come to be known as his famous Gettysburg Address, which was actually ill conceived at the time. Many people had been waiting all day to hear Lincoln speak and were very disappointed with the unusually short speech. Lincoln did have a way with words though. He even made time for anyone who stopped by the White House and wanted to talk. One famous example of his intimacy with the people can be found in his Letter to Mrs. Bixby, a mother who was thought to have lost 5 sons in the war. His letter to her is filled with pure poetry as he tried to console, comfort, and congratulate her for the sacrifice she has made.
Early into 1864, things started to look up. Newly appointed Ulysses Grant was starting to make progress with the war, and just in time too. Many people were skeptical that Lincoln even run for office again, but with the end of the war finally in sight, he was reelected on Nov. 8th, 1864. On Jan. 31, 1865, the 13th Amendment was passed prohibiting slavery. This was huge for Lincoln, because the courts, Congress, or a future President could have overturned the Emancipation Proclamation, but now it was written into stone. On April 9th, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse, officially ending a civil war that had lasted almost four years and taken over 600,000 lives.
On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln went to see the play Our American Cousin at Ford Theater with his wife Mary, an army major by the name of Henry R. Rathbone, and his fiancée Clara Harris. After his bodyguard, John Parker, went downstairs to watch the play, John Wilkes Booth stormed into the booth sporting a derringer pistol and a hunting knife. He fired a single shot into the back of Lincolns head and slashed Rathbone in the arm before leaping 12 feet to the stage bellow effectively breaking his left shin bone. As he ran across the stage he shouted the motto of the commonwealth of Virginia at the audience: Sic Semper Tyrannis or thus always to tyrants. He hopped onto a waiting horse outside the back door and road away. Booth was cornered 12 days later and shot by federal troops while hiding in a barn.
Meanwhile, five doctors had worked on Lincoln throughout the night, but were unable to save his life. At 7:22 AM, on April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was pronounced dead at the age of 56 years old. His funeral was held on April 19, in the East Room of the White House. Lincoln’s death, along with his other vast achievements immortalized him forever within our nation’s history and the worlds. He united our country and paved the way for a new way of life that the American people are now able to enjoy today.