February 12

"Now he belongs to the ages" was the remark ascribed to Secretary of  War Edwin M. Stanton as President Lincoln died from an assassin's bullet.

Those prophetic words have been abundantly verified during the hundred years since the death of the great leader. Not only to his countrymen but to honest seekers for liberty in every part of the world Abraham Lincoln has become the symbol of freedom-personal, political and economic. He stands as proof that allowed such freedom: However humble his beginnings a man may rise as high as his resources and faith will carry him."

In 1809, the year Abraham Lincoln was born, the United States was thirty-three years old. Three great statesmen-George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson-had safely piloted the new country through the treacherous shoals of war and domestic dissension. By purchase of the Louisiana Territory from the French, President Jefferson had doubled the size of the country, and exploration parties were pushing out the boundaries toward the West.

Lured by stories of the rich lands beyond the Alleghenies, Abraham Lincoln's grandfather, for whom he was named, left his home in Virginia and with his wife and five children joined the march of land-hungry families to the Kentucky frontier. Three or four years after they had staked their claim to 2,000 acres Grandfather Lincoln died with an Indian bullet in his back and his three sons were left the task of clearing the land. Thomas, the youngest (Abe's father), also worked on the farms of relatives in different parts of Kentucky and learned the carpenter's trade along the way. At 28 he married Nancy Hanks, a quiet young brunette, who also had come over the Wilderness Road from Virginia as a babe in arms. Their first home was a log cabin near Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where their first child, Sarah, was born.

Always hopeful of finding an easier life, Tom then moved his little family to a farm on Nolin's Creek near Hodgenville. There, on February 12, 1809, in the rough dirt-floored cabin, a second child, Abraham, was born to Nancy and Tom.

Until he was old enough to go to the little one-room school, where he and the other backwoods children were taught the ABC's and the multiplication tables, Abe explored the secrets of the red earth and the live creatures that populated their woods. He learned how to plant seeds, to hoe corn and to swing an axe so that it would slit the logs clean and even. He listened to Tom Lincoln's hair-raising tales of his own boyhood, of narrow escapes from Indian massacres and of how, even during Sunday services, men sat with their rifles propped against their knees.

As though swept by the Westward surge, the family was constantly on the move during Abe's early years-from farm to farm, across rivers and wild timberlands. Sometimes Abe heard his father complain that times were getting harder in Kentucky, and that folks with slaves to do the work were making it hard for the rest. The country north of the Ohio River was opening up. Indiana, they heard, had rich lands and it was going to enter the Union as a free state.

Abe was only seven when the family struck out along the Cumberland Trail which took them to a new claim on Pidgeon Creek in the Indiana wilderness, but he worked alongside his father, clearing the land and helping build a log cabin.

Hard work and privation were developing stamina in the young Abe, and necessity was teaching him ingenuity, but there was little opportunity on the backwoods farm to satisfy his growing desire to learn more of the world beyond his narrow environment. Nancy died when Abe was nine, and Tom married Sarah bush, a widow with three children. Although deeply saddened by the loss of his mother, Abe grow to love his stepmother, and it was she who encouraged his hungry pursuit of knowledge. Even so, the aggregate of his schooling did not amount to one year. After long days of work in the woods he read and re-read his small stock of books-the Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, Aesop's Fables and Weems' Life of Washington-and he walked miles to borrow others. The tall tales related by their neighbors fascinated Abe, and in time he was telling his own stories in a high-pitched voice and illustrating them with a mimicry that never failed to amuse his audience.

By the time he was sixteen Abe was six feet four inches tall and his strength matched his growth. He had gained the reputation of being a good worker, although he confessed a dislike for manual labor. At the slightest excuse he would stop work, draw a book from under his shirt, and read for a few minutes. In this way he had mastered Grimshaw's History of the United States and learned to recite the Declaration of Independence. Soon he graduated from fence building to clerking in a general store, where customers would stay around just to hear Abe's anecdotes. There was nothing spectacular about his adolescent years but "he was growing steadily, as a tree grows season after season. Then in 1825 a new job was offered him, a job that brought him to the Ohio River."

The 18-year-old Abe liked his work as a ferryboat helper. Rivers were the highways out of the wilderness and the travelers arriving from downriver represented a wider world. They also gave him an opportunity to go into business for himself. He built a flatboat and ferried passengers and produce out to steamers anchored off the riverbank. Here he earned his first dollar. Years later Lincoln wrote of the incident, "I was a more hopeful and confident being from that time." The following spring a prosperous landowner asked Abe to take a cargo of produce down the Illinois and the Mississippi rivers to New Orleans he had his first look at a big city and his first look at slaves being sold at auction. The memory of those scenes would find their way into the cause that dominated Lincoln's life. "It ran its iron into him then and there," wrote John Hanks.

Soon after his return to Indiana the family again pulled up stakes and headed for a farm newr Decatur, Illinois. Abe helped them move and then decided it was time to strike out on his own. Partly because he was offered a job in Denton Offutt's store, and partly because he felt his destiny was there, he settled in New Salem, Illinois, not far from Springfield.

Between the infrequent customers Abe found time to study Kirkham's Grammar and to debate politics, which for the townspeople was meat and drink and sport and business. Abe observed that people who wanted success and power and grandeur, or just excitement were mixed up in politics.

This interest drew him one day to a group gathered for an election. There Abe met Mentor Graham, the village school master who, biographers say, started Lincoln toward greatness by guiding his studies and by teaching him to think clearly and to talk simply.

When the governor of Illinois put out a call for volunteers to settle a dispute with the Black Hawk Indians, Abe enlisted. He was chosen captain of the New Salem Volunteers, "a success," he said later, "that gave me more pleasure than any I have had since." The War was of minor national importance and the Volunteers saw no action, but it was a major event in Lincoln's life. It not only widened his political and geographical horizon but on return from Wisconsin (where the company was mustered out) he met John T. Stuart, a young lawyer from Springfield, who encouraged Abe to study law and offered to lend him law books. Back in New Salem, Abe threw his hat into the political ring. Although he was defeated on this first try for the State Legislature, he did not give up, and two years later, in 1834, he was elected. His course was charted and he began to study law in earnest.

Meanwhile, "honest Abe" worked at odd jobs in order to pay off the debts he and a partner had incurred when their store went broke. He was village postmaster for a time and through the help of Mentor Graham became assistant county surveyor. So when the other legislators asked him his business, he would reply, "I'm a farmer and a riverman, a storekeeper, a postmaster, and a surveyor."

During those early days around the State House the most widely debated subject was slavery, and Abe's attention was frequently caught by the deep, vibrant voice of a short, handsome blackhaired man who was always surrounded by a crowd as he discussed the issue. Abe learned that this fellow-legislator's name was Stephen A. Douglas.

Born a Southerner, Lincoln had grown up with slavery. In Indiana and later in Illinois he had been surrounded by Southerners who considered slaves their property. Nevertheless, the thought of one man being owned by another was abhorrent to him. During his first term in the Illinois Legislature he opposed a resolution, saying "the institution of slavery is founded on... injustice." Yet he did not join the growing abolitionist movement, for he feared that should the Abolitionists prevail it would split the Union.

When Lincoln moved to Springfield, the new capital of Illinois, he was 28 years old, the law partner of the aristocratic John Stuart, and he had gained entree to the highest social circles--quite a rise for the "backwoods boy" who had left the forests just seven years earlier. Before long he was engaged to Mary Todd, a popular Southern belle with snapping brown eyes. Her ready wit and keen mind attracted Abe but their courtship was marked by great indecision on his part. Finally, after numerous break-ups and reconciliations they were married in 1842 and established their first home in the Globe Tavern in Springfield, where they lived until after the birth of their first son, Robert Todd. After John Stuart was elected to Congress Lincoln dissolved their partnership and formed another with Stephen T. Logon. Soon after that he opened his own law office and took on William Herndon (a young lawyer ten years younger than Abe) as junior partner, an association that lasted the rest of his life. Billy Herndon Became Abe's most loyal friend and confidant and later wrote a definitive biography of the great statesman.

Life was pleasant enough for the Lincolns. They had bought the home (at the corner of Jackson and 8th Streets in Springfield) which was henceforth to be the family's homestead and which stands today as a state Museum and another son, Edward Baker, had been born. But the dark meanings and drifts of the troubled times were showing in Abe's "long gloomy face and cavernous eyes."

With his election to Congress in 1847 Lincoln entered the national scene. The two great issues facing the legislators in Washington were slavery and the War with Mexico. Abe's position on slavery was well known and presumably shared by at least a majority of the Illinois voters, but his stand against the War made him unpopular with his constituents and he knew before the end of the term that he had forfeited any chance of re-election.

He returned to Springfield and resumed his law practice. By now his reputation as an honest, clever, capable, kindly lawyer was drawing clients from all over the state and once every few months he, a judge and several other lawyers held court in the neighboring counties--called "riding the circuit."

Back in 1820 it had seemed that the tormenting question of the spread of slavery had been pretty well settled through the Missouri Compromise, whereby the state of Maine was admitted as a free state and to maintain the balance Missouri came in as a slave state. At the same time it was agreed that slavery should never be allowed in any of the territories lying north of Missouri's southern boundary.

But the troublesome issue was appearing again. Two new territories--Kansas and Nebraska--were opening up for settlement. They were both north of the line described in the Compromise. Yet Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois had sponsored a bill setting aside the Missouri Compromise. "Let both the Northerners and the Southerners with their slaves settle in Kansas and Nebraska, and as soon as they are ready for state government let them decide whether their states shall be slave or free," he urged. Douglas called his stand "popular sovereignty." The passage of the bill enfuriated Lincoln. He could think of nothing else. Riding the circuit he lamented Congress' mistake, "Free men and slaveholders can't live side by side. They'll be at each other's throats before you know it. And when trouble starts between them there will be trouble between the North and the South...It doesn't belong in a free country which was established for a free people."

Slowly a resolution was taking shape in his mind which would change his life and the future of the country. That year (1855) he ran for the Senate on the Whig ticket and perhaps, prividentially, he was defeated, for although the Whigs were willing to have him speak against the spread of slavery, they themselves were not willing to take a firm stand against it.

Meanwhile, a new political party was forming in the North. They called themselves Republicans (a name Thomas Jefferson had used) and they flatly demanded that the extension of slavery in the territories be halted. Lincoln joined the party and spoke out at their first convention. Some said he had breathed the breath of life into the newborn party with his stirring speech against slavery. He was proposed for vice-president and received a fair showing of votes, but this was not quite his moment. It seemed as though he was waiting. "And While he waited, something in him began to grow, some secret, hidden stir of spirit."

The whole issue of slavery was growing as well. An amazing novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin (by Harriet Beecher Stowe), had focused attention on the plight of the Negro in bondage on southern plantation, and a Supreme Court decision--Dred Scott vs. the U.S.--which had ruled that slaves were property under constitutional law, had incited the indignation of Northerners.

In 1858 the Republicans nominated Lincoln for the U.S. Senate, and in his acceptance speech he made his views very clear: "A house divided against itself cannot stand....This government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free....I do not expect the Union to be dissolved--I do not expect the house to fall--but I do expect if will cease to be divided."

The Democrats had nominated Stephen A. Douglas, thereby supporting "popular sovereignty." Lincoln listened to one of Douglas' campaign speeches and felt the time had come to answer. He challenged his opponent to a series of debates, to be held throughout the state. The popularity of the men and the issues drew huge crowds to the flag-decked towns. People were almost as fascinated by the candidates' physical differences as they were by their opposing theories of government. Douglas, a short, thickset man, elegantly dressed and self-assured, spoke with flowery oratory in a deep mellifluous voice; Lincoln, gaunt and towering, his black coat wrinkled, his high tenor voice floating above the din of the crowd, spoke in simple language of the people. Douglas hammered at his stand that each state should be allowed to decide whether or not to permit slavery within its borders, while Lincoln cried out against the spread of slavery.

"Old Abe," as he was affectionately known, was not to be the senator from Illinois, but the debates had brought him into the public eye as an implacable foe of slavery and had put him in line for the presidency. Tension continued to mount between the North and the South and in 1859 the nation was shocked when a fanatical Abolitionist, John Brown, led a raid on a government arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in an attempt to start a slave insurrection. Brown was captured and hanged and became a martyr to the Abolitionists' cause. They Sang: "John Brown's body lies a-moldering in the grave, His soul goes marching on."

Passions came to a boil as the election campaign of 1860 got under way. The Republicans wanted a leader who could save the Union but who was firmly opposed to slavery. Here Lincoln qualified, but as he did not have the support of the Abolitionists nor the densely populated Eastern seaboard, his chances for election seemed slim. "Who is he?" they asked in the East. "An illiterate backwoods lawyer!" Abe "the rail splitter" was nominated as the Republican candidate and
this time he was victorious over his old opponent Stephen Douglas, the Democratic nominee.

The South regarded Lincoln's election as sure ruin for its institutions and its way of life, and South Carolina seceded from the Union even before the was inaugurated. Six other states followed and organized themselves into a Confederate States of America. Fearing the impending war, many people urged Lincoln to reach a compromise with the South. But he stood his ground. Slavery must not be extended.

As President-elect Lincoln prepared to leave Springfield he knew he faced a task even greater than the one that had faced President Washington. Even Mary Lincoln, who had long dreamed of seeing her husband in the White House, must have had some misgivings as the pressures of their new station suddenly thrust her and the boys into public view.

Among the stream of office-seekers and well-wishers was his old friend Hannah Armstrong, whose son Abe had cleared in the famous homicide trial.

"I just came to wish you good luck, Abe," she said, laying her withered old hands in his and peering up into his face. "My, you've grown awful thin and peaked. And you're growin' a beard, too. What are you doin' that for?

"I figured maybe it would make me look a little more dignified," he confessed with a grin. "A little girl over in New York state wrote me a nice letter and said she thought I'd make a better looking president if I had whisker. I knew my poor lean face couldn't look any homelier than it does, so I took her suggestion."

In his inaugural address Lincoln reminded the Southerners of the country's common heritage and reiterated his conviction that it was impossible for a divided nation to endure. Nevertheless, one month later, on April 12, 1861, Fort Sumter, where the United States maintained a small garrison (on an island in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor), was fired upon by the Confederate Army. The Civil War had begun.

On the surface the War was to settle the question of slavery and whether states that had entered the Union had the right to withdraw from it. But President Lincoln knew that there was another deeper question: Could a government founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence survive?

The spring of 1863 finally brought victorious news to the anxious President. General Grant was making inroads at Vicksburg on the Mississippi River and the Confederates established their capital at Richmond and selected the prestigious General Robert E. Lee to lead their army. The North, on the other hand, had had a succession of commanders and for the first two years the War went against them. Not until General Ulysses S. Grant assumed command were there any significant military gains by the Union army.

Gradually President Lincoln came to see what had to be done to save the Union. The slaves must be freed. In the summer of 1862 he spent long hours putting his thoughts into words. Finally he had a proclamation ready to present to his Cabinet. They approved it but recommended that announcement of the proclamation wait for a Union victory. The opportunity came shortly when the Northern Army secured a small advantage at an encounter at Antietam Creek, Maryland. On September 24, 1862, newspapers carried the news. "On the first day of January in the year of our lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any state, or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." There was great rejoicing among both the negroes and the whites in the North. They felt that a burden had been lifted; that a new freedom was dawning. But it was only the first step, for the proclamation applied only to the states then in rebellion against the Union.

Although the two armies fought on, President Lincoln never lost faith in ultimate peace, and according to Carl Sandburg, Lincoln's most important biographer, the common man never lost faith in President Lincoln. Sandburg wrote, "Lincoln foreshadowed something. The people took him as a new figure of hope for them. This hope ranged around wider freedom, political and economic, for the common man. It might be long coming. But Lincoln held the lights and the high torch for it."

Lincoln sensed it would be a long and difficult struggle. As hostilities mounted both sides called up huge armies. When the state of Virginia seceded, on July 1 the Confederates met the Union Army at the little town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (the site of decisive Revolutionary War battles). After three days of fierce fighting, the Confederates were forced into retreat--turning the tide of the War Toward the Union. A few days after the Gettysburg victory the Confederates surrendered to grant at Vicksburg.

The movement to erect a cemetery at Gettysburg began immediately after the battle. It was dedicated on November 19, 1863, an act and a date made famous by Lincoln's memorable Gettysburg Address.  As the year 1864 drew to a close the country was still at war. It was an election year and the people had to decide whether to change leaders. Despite protests against his handling of the war, the Republicans re-nominated Lincoln. There were times when the President despaired, but he wanted to finish the task he had undertaken, no matter how hard, He had freed the slaves as a war measure, but how could slavery be ended once and for all? If he were re-elected, he declared, he would carry on the war until it had been won and the Union was safe. And he would do his best to make the Emancipation Proclamation a part of the Constitution.

By November the tide had turned for the Northern Army and shifts in the political picture assured Lincoln's re-election. After his election he devoted new efforts to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution--permanently outlawing slavery. The Congress had failed to pass the Amendment the previous year but President Lincoln was undaunted. Through masterful political maneuvering he was able to force reconsideration of the Amendment and on the last day of January, 1865, it passed the House of Representatives by three votes. When it was finally ratified on December 18, 1865, the Amendment read:

Sec.1 Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Sec.2 Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Those who gathered at the Capitol on March 4, 1865, to watch the President take the oath of office saw deeper lines in his face and darker shadows under his eyes than had been there four years before. In his address he spoke of the War as punishment upon the whole country for allowing slavery to grow up, and then he spoke of his hopes for a just peace and reconstruction of the Union without revenge:

"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; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."

News of General Lee's surrender at Appomatox came to the White House on April 9 [1865]. A few days later the President would be dead. On Good Friday (April 14) the President sat in his office talking to a friend. "Everything is bright this morning," he said. "The war is over....We are going to have good times now, and a united country."

That evening the President and his wife went to Ford's Theater to see the English comedy Our American Cousin. A few minutes after ten, John Wilkes Booth, a crazed actor, slipped into the presidential box, shot and mortally wounded the great leader. He died the following morning.

Year have passed and the nation remembers him in stone, speech and print, but his real memorial is in the country's determination to assure equal rights to all of its citizens.

"We cannot escape history. We...will be remembered in spite of ourselves." Lincoln's prophecy remains true. Although his birthday is not a legal holiday in all of the states, the date, February 12, is associated with the man, and there are permanent reminders in many parts of the country. The stately Lincoln Memorial in the nation's capital is one of the most beautiful and the most visited. On the wall above the great seated figure in a colonaded shrine on the Potomac River, is engraved:


When the cornerstone of the Memorial was laid on Lincoln's Birthday, in 1915, the poet Edwin Markham read this poem: The color of the ground was in him, the red earth, The smack and tang of elemental things. Sprung from the West, He drank the valorous youth of a new world, The strength of virgin forests braced his mind. The hush of spacious prairies stilled his soul.

His words were oaks in acorns; and his thoughts were roots that firmly gripped the granite truth.

With each year the figure of Abraham Lincoln has grown. A never-ending stream of books, poems and plays keep trying to capture the mystery of his many-sided genius. He has become the symbol of the American dream, the backwoods boy who, uneducated and lacking wealth and influence, won the highest office in the land--not through lucky political chance alone but by his honesty, dignity, and kindness. All through "Lincoln country" there are well preserved memorials: Lincoln's birthplace at Hodgenville, Kentucky; his home and his tomb at Springfield, Illinois; markers where the Douglas-Lincoln debates were held; the Lincoln Memorial University at Cumberland Gap, Tennessee; and the huge carved head at Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota.

In February of 1968, for the first time since Lincoln's death 103 years ago, the curtain rose at the renovated Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. This time the whole nation saw by television the interior of the theater, faithfully restored with cane-bottomed seats and flag-draped presidential box. On stage the nation's finest actors paid tribute to Lincoln through quotations from his own writings, and from his favorite authors, and Harry Belafonte, Patricia Brooks and Andy Williams Sang songs reminiscent of the period.

Visitors to Washington are invited to attend a function at Ford's Theater and to see the displays in the museum, depicting Lincoln, the man; Lincoln, the politician; and Lincoln, the president.

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1998 American Resource Center