The New Student's Reference Work/Lincoln, Abraham


Lincoln, Abraham. The greatest men are those whose fame cannot be wholly accounted for by their public acts. What Lincoln was is incomparably greater than anything he did. Pre-eminent as is his place in history, he conveys the idea of duty rather than of glory. In moral height and in human service he measures up to the immortals of all ages. As he looms ever larger in the perspective of time, we constantly marvel and rejoice that he does not recede to a dim, legendary figure, but grows clearer in outline, closer in human sympathy. His simple goodness — his honesty, courage, kindness, duty and love for humanity — we revere and know that we may emulate.

Nothing else that ever happened so justifies belief in the capacity of the common people for self-government, as the fact that Lincoln's great heart and brain sprang from poor, unlettered ancestry and were nourished in the sterile soil of backwoods life. Born in Hardin County, Kentucky, February 12, 1809, the pioneer era, with its comparative comforts, was just emerging from the Indian-fighting, hunting period of Daniel Boone. His log-cabin home, with its dirt floor, was but a grade better than an Indian lodge; his food and clothing were more often trophies of the chase than products of the soil. The school was nearly five miles distant, and the teacher competent to teach only reading, writing and elementary arithmetic. At 21 Lincoln possessed only six books — the Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, Æsop's Fables, The Arabian Nights, a Life of Washington and the Statutes of Indiana. He had also, from seeing an occasional Louisville or Vincennes newspaper, committed a number of Henry Clay's speeches to memory.

The conditions of life in southern Indiana, whither the family removed in 1816, were as primitive as in Kentucky. Here, on the farm near Gentryville — now Lincoln City — near the Ohio River, Lincoln's brave young mother died for lack of medical attendance in 1818. The boy of nine helped his father, a cabinet-maker by trade, to make the rude coffin in which his mother was buried. Then he wrote his first letter, one to a circuit-riding preacher, asking him to stop on his next round and say a prayer over her grave. To his mother, who urged him to “learn all he could and be of some account in the world,” and to his capable stepmother, with her sympathy and insight, he owed much in the shaping of his character. Honesty, loyalty, affection, willing service and striving after every kind of good marked the 21 years he spent under his father's various roofs. For good measure he added six months to help the family establish themselves in the new home on Sangamon River, Illinois, in 1830. He helped build the cabin, cleared land for corn and split walnut rails to fence the clearing. Thirty years later some of those rails, carried into the convention at Chicago by John Hanks, his relative, helped win for him the nomination for the presidency. Little he thought of such a thing when, in the autumn of 1830, he tied his extra shirts and home-knit socks in a big cotton handkerchief and turned his face to the nearest settlement - New Salem — to begin life as a man.


He made two voyages on flatboats to New Orleans; served as captain of the Clary's Grove boys, a company of volunteers in the Black Hawk War; clerked in a store; acted as village postmaster, carrying all the mail in his hat; and learned surveying. As a trader he was a failure, but his moral, social and mental gifts made him a leader. In 1834 he was chosen by the Whigs of his district to represent them in the legislature. Self-educated, he passed the examination for admission to the bar in 1837. When Springfield became the capital of Illinois in 1839, he removed to that city, and in 1842 refused to serve further in the legislature. All his time was needed to attend to his growing practice. In 1846 he served one term in Congress, but the administration was Democratic and, as a Whig, there was little chance to distinguish himself. From 1848 to 1854 Lincoln was out of politics, but he was making a great reputation at the bar and as an orator. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill of Stephen A. Douglas, Democratic senator from Illinois, alarmed the Whigs of the north to vigorous resistance against the threatened spread of slavery. Lincoln soon became the leader of the opposition in the west. He returned to the Illinois legislature, and he helped organize the new Republican party. In the first national convention of the Republicans his name was presented by the Illinois delegation as its candidate for the vice-presidency. In 1858 his fame was given a national scope by the Lincoln-Douglas debates and fight for the United States senatorship. In his speech in the Republican state convention that summer he made an observation that set the nation to thinking: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot remain permanently half-slave and half-free.”

In the seven public debates in various parts of Illinois between Lincoln and Douglas, Lincoln demoralized his opponent who had been looked upon as probably the next president. Douglas was returned to the national senate by a lessened majority, and admissions had been forced from him that killed his popularity in the south and his chances for the presidency. In the election of 1860 the Democratic vote was divided between Douglas and Breckenridge. But their united vote would not have defeated Lincoln, who had 180 votes in the electoral college against 123 for all other candidates.

Lincoln was not pledged to abolish slavery, only to preserve the Union and to prevent the spread of slavery. Even after the war began, the government offered to purchase the freedom of slaves in the slave-states that remained loyal — Kentucky, West Virginia and Missouri. But the secession movement began as soon as Lincoln's election in November, 1860, was assured. When his inauguration took place on March 4, 1861, seven states had seceded. In his inaugural address he declared that the Federal government would not assail the rebellious states, but that it would “defend, protect and preserve if attacked.” A month later Fort Sumter was bombarded and captured by the Confederate government. The president mobilized the regular army and issued a call for volunteers. Within a month all the states had arrayed themselves on one side or the other, and the four years' Civil War was begun. The conduct and results of this war are set forth in every school-history. Separate sketches of the commanders who distinguished themselves are to be found in this reference-work. (See Grant, Sherman, Farragut and Lee.) Lincoln's part was to guide the ship of state through the troubled waters of civil war. For two years he kept consistently to the task of preserving the Union. On Jan. 1, 1863, he issued the emancipation proclamation, and from that on the prosecution of the war had the added purpose of freeing the slave. Never has the world seen a greater example of wisdom, patience, patriotism and moral courage than animated his every act. The battle of Gettysburg was fought in July, 1863. In the following November the battlefield was dedicated as a national cemetery. Lincoln's brief speech on that occasion will ever remain one of the greatest speeches ever uttered, both for its lofty sentiment and for its matchless literary style:

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure. We have met on a great battlefield of that war. We are met to dedicate a portion of that field as the final resting place of the men who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the task remaining before us: that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to the cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion: that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain: that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

It is said that this immortal speech was so quietly uttered, so unexpectedly brief, that those who heard it did not realize their privilege until they saw it in print. Then it was understood that in its pilot this country had one of the greatest heroes of all time. Love, reverence and gratitude were in the votes by which he was re-elected in 1864. In his second inaugural address, delivered six weeks before he was assassinated, he set forth the moral significance of the conflict, then drawing to a close, and declared that the task would be finished “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” On April 14, five days after Lee's surrender, President Lincoln was shot by J. Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater, Washington. He died the next morning without recovering consciousness. The nation hopes never again to see such a pageant of mourning as marked the progress of his funeral train to Springfield, Illinois, where he was laid away in the sweet, spring weather. A noble monument marks his resting place. On the looth anniversary of his birth, Feb. 12, 1909, the Lincoln Farm Association dedicated a memorial museum, erected at a cost of $250,000 on the site of his birth. The weatherworn log-cabin is to be reverently preserved within a marble temple.

In statue, bust and portrait we have all been made familiar with Lincoln's tall, spare figure, strong features, heavy, black hair and deep-set, gray eyes. We are equally familiar with his simple, friendly manner, his humor, his illuminating anecdotes, his tolerance and the wistful expression he often wore as if he had missed his meed of happiness. In speech he was plain and forcible, often- dramatic; in mind he had quick perception, logical analysis, sagacity, a tenacious memory, intuitive knowledge ot character and broad-minded philosophy. He had the brain of a sage, the foresight of a prophet, the inflexible purpose of the historic reformers and the tender heart of a mother. He is our country's most poignant and admonishing memory. It rests with us to breed such wise, gentle and consecrated souls that this nation which he lived and died to save may deserve not to perish from the earth.

Hay and Nicolay's Life of Abraham Lincoln, in 10 volumes, is encyclopedic in information. The latest biography, by Ida M. Tarbell, in four volumes, is philosophical and contains much new material. William E. Curtis' history is in one volume. Every library contains a collection of Lincolniana, covering every phase of his life.