Abraham Lincoln was poor, but not humble, and his ambition in life was later described as “a little engine that knew no rest.”
Some of his critics called him nasty names, but the legend of Lincoln has prevailed and today, citizens all over the nation join in celebrating the 200th birthday anniversary of the man who raised himself up to the presidency of the United States.
West Virginians pay tribute to him especially because Lincoln created this state from Virginia in 1863, signing the document that provided statehood.
On this anniversary of his birth, many writers are providing literary tributes to the man who has been dubbed the greatest president this nation ever had.
Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, gives West Virginians another link with the family. She was born in what was then Hampshire County, Va., and is now Mineral County, W.Va., located in the state’s eastern panhandle. A Charleston Gazette-Mail staff writer, Susan Williams, reported that some Mineral County residents hope the Legislature will declare their county Hanks’ undisputed birthplace.
Renewed attention to themes of the 16th president was provided in President Barack Obama’s Jan. 20th inauguration theme, “A New Birth of Freedom,” which is a phrase from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. A Lincoln Bible was used for his swearing-in ceremony.
Abraham Lincoln was born Feb. 12, 1809 in a log cabin in Hodgenville (Hardin County), Ky., a son of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks Lincoln.
It is said that as he traveled about in February 1861 in a Pullman sleeper, one of the first ever in use, that Lincoln might have wondered how a dirt-poor, would-be village blacksmith who had painfully mastered grammar without teachers, forged himself into a lawyer of strict honesty. And after achieving such a task, how he had gradually raised himself up to the presidency itself; how this odd choice of the American people would cope with a “task”, which he had said was “greater than that which rested upon Washington.”
The log cabin where Lincoln may have been born is enshrined in Kentucky. The family name was spelled by some as “Linkhern” or “Linkorn.” Abraham Lincoln (paternal grandfather of his presidential namesake) and his wife, Bathsheba, signed the name “Lincoln” before leaving Virginia with their five children in the early 1780s to travel the Wilderness Road.
The family followed a trail past Indians out to ambush, to the rich timber and bluegrass farmlands of Kentucky. There they staked their claim for 2,000 acres, a modest sized plantation, for $800.
Tragedy struck not long after when an Indian sneaked through the woods and fired a fatal shot into Abraham while he was clearing a field. Six-year-old Thomas (who later became the father of the future President Abe Lincoln) watched in horror and was in danger of being carried off when his older brother, Mordecai, took aim with a rifle from the family’s nearby cabin, shooting the killer dead.
Historians tell of how the forlorn family eventually scattered about. Tom, who had grown to be 5 feet 10 inches tall, struck out on his own, working odd jobs. He helped to build a milldam, cut wood for hire, learned carpentry and cabinet-making, bought a horse, guarded prisoners, enlisted to fight Indians, patrolled for permitless slaves, saved his money, got a piece of land and established a home for his widowed mother. It is said Tom was the best storyteller around.
In 1806, at age 28, he married Nancy Hanks, a pretty, uneducated 23-year-old, and they first lived in Elizabethtown. Their first child, Sarah, was born the following year. By 1808, the family was living in a rough hewn cabin on newly purchased property on the south fork of Nolin Creek – “Sinking Spring Farm” – three miles from the village of Hodgenville. The cabin had a packed dirt floor and single window.
The couple’s son, Abe, was born on a snow-filled Kentucky Sunday as his mother lay on a bed of poles and cornhusks and bearskins. All of young Lincoln’s formal education added up to about a year. The lad was bashful, dull but peaceable, so history says. He was said to be mild, tender and intellectually inclined like his mother.
By age 7, tall and spidery Abe could read well enough to take his turn at the Sunday Bible reading at the cabin. Abe nearly drowned once when he lost his balance on a log and fell into the water while chasing birds on Knob Creek. He had to be fished out with a sycamore branch.
Lincoln was seven when his restless father moved the family to Indiana. At that tender age, an axe was put into his hands and he became known as a rail-splitter. Tragedy struck the family when Abe’s mother, Nancy, took “milk-sick” after nursing an uncle and aunt and died.
A year later, Sarah Bush Johnston, became his stepmother when his father remarried. She proved an excellent stepmother, cleaning up Abe and Sarah who were found to be wild, ragged and dirty. She encouraged Abe with his lessons while dealing with her own three children.
Abe was a plowboy, rail-splitter, coon hunter and hog butcher, but on the other hand, he was lost in the clouds. An insatiable reader, he knew all the long words and a lot of big ideas. He read every book on which he could lay hands. He could mimic the preachers’ sermons without missing an inflection; he could mount a stump and give a speech on a variety of interesting subjects to his speechless peers, and could keep an audience in stitches for hours.
His stepmother is quoted as saying that Abe “never told a lie and never quarreled. He was the best boy I ever did see.” He didn’t like physical labor, was diligent for knowledge, read the Bible some and was an avid reader of newspapers and books.
He spent seven years at New Salem, Ill., 20 miles from Springfield. In 1834, he was elected to the state Legislature of Illinois and set off for Vandalia, then the capital. He was reelected in 1836 and set off to practice law in Springfield, receiving his license to practice law on March 1, 1837.
In December 1839, at a grand cotillion in Springfield in honor of completing the new capital building, Lincoln was introduced to Mary Todd, a 21-year-old, blue-eyed Kentucky belle with an engaging personality and quick, sarcastic tongue, who had been reared in luxury. She had plenty of suitors, and Abe liked her looks.
Abe and Mary were attracted to each other from the start, although they were an unlikely pair – she was short, plump and round-faced, and he was tall and thin with hollow cheeks. Mary was cultured and refined, with French words detected in her lively conversation; Abe sounded as if he were right off the farm with his backwoods drawl.
The couple overcame various obstacles, including her father’s objections to the engagement, and on Nov. 4, 1842, they were married in Springfield. Eventually, they lived at the Globe Tavern for four dollara a week where their first child was born. In 1844, Abe purchased their own home.
At one point, Peter Cartwright, the Democrat who opposed Lincoln for Congress in 1846, charged that Lincoln was a heathen. In reply, Lincoln had a handbill printed, stating he was not a member of any Christian church but that he had never denied the truth of the Scriptures, “and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular. I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live.”
Raised by a free Baptist family with anti-slavery convictions, Lincoln knew that his father’s decision to leave Kentucky for Indiana in 1816 had been at least in part a desire to get the family away from the ugly presence of slavery and to start off fresh in free territory.
When Abe was 28, he and his friend Dan Stone became the only state legislators in Illinois to take a stand against slavery.
Abe and Mary’s family grew as the years passed and they had four sons, Robert Todd Lincoln, Edward Baker “Eddy” Lincoln, (who died when he was not quite four), William Wallace Lincoln (who died at age 11), and Thomas “Tadpole” Lincoln.
For five years after his term in Congress and his refusal of an offered term as Oregon governor, Lincoln campaigned for fellow Whigs but did not pursue any political office for himself.
The Missouri Compromise, which had outlawed slavery from the open terrains of Kansas and Nebraska, reignited all of Lincoln’s political ambitions and passions. In 1855, he sought but failed to gain a coveted United States Senate.
There had been seven debates between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas after Lincoln was nominated by the Illinois State Republican Convention to run for the Senate seat. Although Douglas won the Senate race, the debates launched Lincoln on his own path to the presidency.
The 1850s proved Lincoln’s leadership and thrust him into the forefront of the nation. By Dec. 1860, South Carolina had seceded from the Union, setting off a chain reaction throughout the lower South. By early Feb. 1861, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas were headed in the same direction. In the nation’s capital, President James Buchanan, deeply sympathetic to the South and its right to slavery, stood by doing nothing.
This, then, was the national situation when Lincoln was elected to the presidency. His trip east from his home in Springfield, Ill, began Feb. 11, 1861 and ended on Feb. 23. It had begun amid warnings and death threats, the state of the country was precarious. The national issue of slavery was threatening death to the Union.
Historians tell of the crucial events of Lincoln’s 50 months as president and the people who touched his life. One historian wrote that Lincoln’s first 10 months in office got so bad that once he said he’d like to hang himself. The Civil War between the Union and the Confederacy was a time to try men’s souls.
On Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, decreeing that all slaves should be henceforth and forever free. That same year brought two great victories for the Union in July and a speech that will be remembered forever: The Gettysburg Address. The president had been invited to a cemetery dedication on the Gettysburg battlefield but it was assumed he would not attend. Lincoln not only desired to attend but to speak. His 10 simple sentences became known as the single greatest speech in American history.
Lincoln was inaugurated as president for a second term on March 4, 1865 and lived to see the war’s end. On April 11, 1865, from a second-story window of the White House, Lincoln made his last public address.
Lincoln and his wife were seated in the President’s box overlooking the stage of the Ford Theatre the evening of April 14 when a bullet from the gun of an assassin, actor John Wilkes Booth, put an end to the life of this great president. Booth and other conspirators were hanged later for their dastardly deed. Lincoln’s widow was stricken with madness in the wake of the deaths of a son and then her husband.
Much of the facts in this story came from “Lincoln,” an illustrated biography by Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., and his sons, Philip B. Kunhardt III and Peter W. Kunhardt. More than 700 illustrations accompany the text. In a foreword, they note that the unique biography “amply demonstrates the courage, devotion to deep moral convictions,and qualifies of leadership that have made Abraham Lincoln the man perhaps most admired by Americans even today.”
An introduction to “Lincoln” was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Herbert Donald. Among the hundreds of photos of Lincoln were some made by the famous photographer, Matthew Brady. In one portrait, Lincoln sat with his right hand staying closed because it was swollen and nearly paralyzed from thousands of handshakes after his departure from Springfield, Ill, on the train trip to Washington, D.C.
As Associated Press National Writer Hillel Italie pointed out that, 200 years after his birth, we still seek Lincoln in words and in action, in lessons from his life, in reminders of his legend – and in pilgrimages to the Lincoln Memorial, an image of a Greek temple that graces the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The marbled colossus is 19 feet tall.