Abraham Lincoln – the Legend and Legacy

In the United States, Abraham Lincoln has become an iconic and idealized figure, held up to every American school child as an example of honesty, intelligence, and morality.  His life is often used as an example of American liberty and freedom, where anyone can climb to the highest achievements, no matter how humble their beginnings.

But how much of Lincoln’s life is fact and how much is legend?  The realities of the life of a hero are often exaggerated in an effort to emphasis the moral of the story.  Often, they are simply misinterpreted with each telling until the subject becomes a bigger-than-life hero.

A defective education

Abraham LincolnThe facts that we think we know of the life of Abraham Lincoln are, basically, these.  He was born in a cabin, no bigger than a bedroom in most modern homes, in the backwoods of Kentucky.  He lost his mother at an early age, walked through the snow to borrow books in order to teach himself to read, and grew up to be many things.  At various times in his life, he was a trader on the Mississippi River, a store clerk, a post master, a lawyer, a statesman, an orator, and lastly, a president.  He was known as a man of high intellect, high moral values, a loving father and husband, and the man who ended slavery.

Lincoln left behind an impressively large number of letters and documents that provide a great deal of insight into who and what he really was.  Through his own words, he helped determine how much of the legend is true.  He wrote three autobiographies between 1858 and 1860.

The first was only a few lines for inclusion in a Dictionary of Congress being compiled by Charles Lanman, who worked as an editor, writer, and librarian for various government agencies during Lincoln’s time.  The autobiography confirms his birth date as 12 February 1809 in Hardin County, Kentucky. Lincoln goes on to describe himself as a man with a “defective” education, having the profession of lawyer, military service in the Black Hawk Wars, a postmaster at one time, a four time member of the Illinois legislature and a member of “the Lower House of Congress.”

Lincoln’s second biography came in December 1859 and provides a few more details.  But it is the third autobiography, written in June 1860, in which Lincoln provides the most details about his early life.  The third autobiography was written at the request of John L Scripps of the Chicago Press and Tribune and was intended for the purpose of writing a biography for Lincoln’s campaign for president.

Peculiar habits

Abraham Lincoln’s parents were Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln.  Lincoln describes himself as having no siblings.  However, he goes on to explain that his older sister married, but died without surviving children.  Another child, a boy, died in infancy.  Possibly his statement that he had no siblings was due to the fact that both siblings were dead when the autobiography was written.

Abraham, born 12 February 1809, was the middle child, possibly named for his grandfather, Abraham, who came to Kentucky from Virginia.  The younger Abraham never knew him.  The grandfather was killed by Indians around 1784, leaving behind a widow with three sons and two daughters.  Lincoln’s father, Thomas, was the youngest of the boys.  Beyond his grandfather, Lincoln claimed to know little of his ancestors.  He said they were Quakers from Pennsylvania, but the family had “fallen away from the peculiar habits of that people.”

Later, when Lincoln was eight-years-old, the family moved to Indiana.  He describes the area as a wilderness on the cusp of statehood.  At this point in his life, Lincoln was given an axe to help fell trees and clear the land.  Two years later, in 1818, his mother passed away.  One year after the death of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Thomas Lincoln married a widow named Sally Johnston, who had three children of her own.  Lincoln would later describe her as “a good and kind mother.”

In 1830, the family moved to Illinois, to Macon County.  Their home would be on the Sangamon River about ten miles west of Decatur.  It was here that the 21-years-old Lincoln claims he earned one of his nicknames, “The Rail Splitter.”  Lincoln and his father felled trees to build a cabin for the family and split enough rails to fence in ten acres of land for cultivation.

Born in a cabin

Lincoln does mention that he helped build the cabin in Illinois that the family lived in.  Other sources have stated that he lived in a cabin in Indiana as well, and that his birth was in fact in a cabin when the family lived in Kentucky.  However, the era in American history should be taken into account before concluding that Lincoln’s family was poor because he was born in a cabin.  At the time, the American frontier had not yet reached the Mississippi River.  Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois were still the frontier where most families came to fulfill what would later be known as the American dream—ownership of their own land and their own home.

It was not at all uncommon for their homes to be simple log cabins that would shelter the family until a better home could be built.  By some accounts, Thomas Lincoln was a landed man with a high standing in the community by the time his son was born.  Others claim the family was impoverished.  Lincoln himself usually declined comment as to the circumstances of his childhood.

In March 1831, Lincoln met Denton Offutt, an Illinois businessman.  Offutt might have recognized something in the young man who would later prove him to be far more astute than his early life might have predicted.

At this point in his life, Lincoln’s education consisted of, by his own estimation, less than one year total time spent in what Lincoln referred to as “ABC” schools.  These were schools where the teachers could be anyone who knew a little Latin and could teach the Rule of Three—reading, writing and ciphering, which we know today as arithmetic.  It was as much or more education that was considered necessary.  Offutt certainly felt that it was enough and thus he hired Lincoln to clerk for him, giving him responsibility for some of his business affairs.

After a year, the business was beginning to fail just as the Black Hawk Wars erupted.  Lincoln joined a volunteer militia company and was surprised when he was elected their captain.  He later described it in his second biography as “a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since.”  The young captain served for three months and lived the hardships that most soldiers endure with one exception.  He never saw battle.

Upon his return home, Lincoln was encouraged to run for public office.  He lost his bid for a seat in the Illinois State Legislature and said that it was the only time he was ever beaten.  He tried for the same office again in 1834 and won.  Another successful candidate, Major John T Stuart, encouraged Lincoln to study the law, and even loaned him the books to do so.  In between legislative sessions, Lincoln studied.  He received his law license in 1836 and joined Stuart’s law practice in Springfield, Illinois, in 1837.  He was re-elected to office in 1836 and 1840.  But after his 1840 re-election, he refused a third term and opted to leave politics to focus on the law.

Mr and Mrs Lincoln

Mary Todd LincolnLincoln also took the time to find a wife.  In 1842, he married Mary Todd of Lexington, Kentucky.  They would have four sons.  One would die in infancy, another before Lincoln’s time as president and a third while he was in office.  His eldest son, Robert, was the only child to reach adulthood.  It is believed that these losses were part of the burden that weighed so heavily on both Mary and Abraham Lincoln during his time as President of the United States.  Photographs taken of the president during his first four-year term show the face of a man whose appearance changed dramatically.

Lincoln seemed to be a natural born politician and it didn’t take long for him to be drawn back from law into politics.  In 1846, he ran for Congress and won.  After one term, he returned to his law practice, but continued to take an interest in politics.  In 1856, he made some fifty political speeches.

The sixteenth president

In 1860, the Republican Party was successful in their bid to bring Lincoln to the White House.  He became the sixteenth president of the United States, and embarked upon what must have seemed like an entirely new life that included a war that nearly tore the country apart.

He gave the United States income tax, the draft, the introduction of African Americans into the military, the end of the American Civil War and the beginning of the end of slavery.  Lincoln was able to announce the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1861, but did not live to see it become law.  On 14 April 1861, he became the first president in US history to be assassinated.  He died the following day.  But the Emancipation Proclamation would eventually be ratified by every state to become law and end slavery in the United States.

But the question remains.  Was Lincoln’s life a rags-to-riches story?  Lincoln never really gave a straight answer regarding it, and accounts differ among people who actually knew the family.  Whatever their circumstances, one fact remains.  Abraham Lincoln proved that a man who, born into humble beginnings as the son of pioneers, could rise to hold the highest office in the United States.

american_civil_warKat Smutz

Read more about the Civil War in The American Civil War: History In An Hour by Kat Smutz, published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

See also the assassination of Lincoln, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Mary Todd Lincoln.