Better Know A President XVI: Abraham Lincoln Part I

8 12 2009

I noticed today, in going over this incomplete history of Lincoln, that it finished at the point of his Presidency. So, I thought that before attempting to finish his overview after finishing my finals this semester, I would post what I have so far. I apologize beforehand for the length of this “summary”, but there is a plethora of interesting Lincoln stories which makes it all the harder to be selective.

It hardly seems adequate to summarize such a great man and great President in only a few words. People could write a million pages on Lincoln (and I suspect that they have) and there would still be more to write. While I will try to give a detailed description of his life, I will also try to keep it short. Lincoln is arguably the greatest President in our history, so I would highly encourage you to really study this man and his life.


-Served from 1861-1865

-Elected from Illinois

-He was actually born in Kentucky, not Illinois as most people believe. In fact, he spent his early childhood there, before his family moved to extreme southern Indiana. They moved because their land was taken away after the family became too poor to pay for it. After continuing financial problems, they moved near present day Decatur, Illinois, and then another move to Coles County, Illinois.

-If there was one word to describe Lincoln’s life, I think it would be “hardships”. Lincoln overcame many of them to become the incredible person and President we know him as. Being the son of two farmers, Lincoln only received a little formal education as a child. Lincoln also grew up in a poor household. While living in Indiana, his mother died of milk sickness. The first serious relationship he had with Ann Rutledge ended with Ann dying of typhoid fever. His marriage proposal to another woman was flat out rejected. Of the four children Lincoln had with Mary Todd, only one, Robert, lived to adulthood. Edward died before he was even 4, Willie famously died while Lincoln was serving as President at 11, and Tad died of tuberculosis in Chicago at 18. Because of the deaths, Mary Todd famously went insane while in the White House.

-Lincoln ran as a Whig to the Illinois House at the age of 23, but he was no elected. Without a job, he enlisted into the Illinois militia.

-Served in the Illinois militia as a Captain during the Black Hawk War. He made political friends during his service, and also received a land-grant in Iowa of over 160 acres (which he never used). He served 3 months (sporadically) before he was honorably discharged. There are conflicting reports of his skill as a military leader. Some called him quite effective, while others saw him as a joke. After his dischargement, he walked back to New Salem, Illinois where he was living at the time. Suffice to say, it was a long walk that took several days to complete.

-After the war, he tried to start various businesses, all of which failed to take off. Lincoln even acquired a liquor license during this time, and sold his own whiskey. When business did not work out for him, he decided to teach himself law. He did this quite successfully, and in 1837 he moved to Springfield and started his own practice. Law practice worked well for Lincoln. In his time as an attorney, he worked 5,100 cases over 23 years of service. The most famous case he was involved in was when he successfully defended William Armstrong against a murder charge. Armstrong was acquitted when Lincoln proved through judicial notice that a previous testimony was actually false.

-Served 4 terms (8 years) in the Illinois House after his early failure to be elected. He represented Sangamon County, which included the eventual state capital Springfield. Lincoln and other politicians in the area were the main reason Springfield became the capital. Through his continually rising prominence as an accomplished lawyer, Lincoln eventually earned a seat in the US House, where he served only one term from 1847-1849. His time there was mostly uneventful, because he was not well respected by others in the House, nor did he have any influence. His most famous moment at the time was when he challenged the then President James K. Polk on where the first American soldier had died. Polk’s argument was that the Mexican soldier had crossed over into US soil and had attacked, but Lincoln demanded that Polk show the exact spot that the soldier was fired upon to prove it. Lincoln even started a Spot Resolution to get Polk to show where the soldier was attacked. (Lincoln was right, in that the soldier had died on disputed lands.) The resolution was ignored entirely, and it made Lincoln look like a fool. Without any support, he decided to not seek reelection to his seat. He then went back to Springfield, and resumed practicing law for many years. During that time, he was a major proponent of Western expansion and fought in defense of many people and businesses that were helping in Western expansion.

-Not coincidentally, Lincoln reentered politics in 1854 with the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. During his time in both the Illinois Senate and the US House, Lincoln fought vehemently against slavery. The KNA created such a vast change in the political landscape of the country that Lincoln felt compelled to speak. His speech in Peoria of that year gave him incentive to try politics again.

-He was central to the foundation of the Republican Party (the same one that exists today). He helped them establish the foundation of their political party. The new party did well in Illinois, and their first major victory was in the election of a US Senator. (At the time, the state legislature chose the Senators, not the public.) Everyone in the state wanted Lincoln to become the Senator, but he declined it. Instead, he focused on delivering more speeches and helping the new Republican party. Four years later, however, the law of Senator election had changed, and Lincoln challenged incumbent Senator Stephen A. Douglas.

-The election between Lincoln and Douglas arguably established Lincoln’s political career toward the Presidency. While he lost the election, the debates that were held in 7 different towns across Illinois attracted masses of people, many of whom were not even from Illinois because they were talking heatedly on the issue of Slavery. Stenographers recorded the debate and printed them in national newspapers. After the election, Lincoln compiled all of the documents, edited them, and then published them in his own book. The media coverage and the popularity of the book (particularly when they addressed slavery) thrust Lincoln into the national political spotlight. The debate format used by the two men (60 minutes for the first speaker, 90 minutes for the second, and a 30 minute rebuttal by the first speaker) established debate as a tradition is modern elections, and has been used popularly since.

-In 1860, Lincoln was chosen as the candidate for the Republican Party for the Presidency in Chicago. He was the only candidate that appealed to the most amount of people, hence why he was chosen. The other candidates (notably Salmon P. Chase and William Seward) had been in politics too long and had many political enemies. Lincoln did not publically campaign for the Presidency, but Republican Party officials shared his story of growing up in poverty and his political beliefs. Essentially, the 1860 boiled down to the split in Northern interests, and Southern interests. Lincoln appealed to most Northerners, and John Breckinridge (running as a Southern Democratic in the newly split party) appealed to most Southerners. Lincoln won the election, without winning a single Southern state. (Lincoln did poorly in the Southern states) This, probably more than anything else was the final straw before South Carolina started the secession trend. It gave the impression that the South’s ideas on the Union (specifically on electing the President) would be mute because the North could unite and elect whoever they wanted without input from the Southern states. Less than a month after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina left the Union followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.

-Lincoln had to arrive in disguise to his own Inauguration, because of the many death threats he received before arriving in Washington. Before his Inauguration, he repeatedly stated that seccesion was illegal, and that there would be no compromise to keep the Southern states in the Union. If there was one major mistake in his Presidency, it was probably that he completely underestimated the anger of the Confederacy. Lincoln thought that they could still preserve the Union without going to war. He also refused to attack the South until they had attacked first, which they did on April 12, at Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

-Lincoln had power that no President had before. In the intial stages of the war, he arrested people suspected of instigating rebellions in states bordering Conferderate land and held them without trials in prisons.




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