Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States, was a tall, well-spoken, self-taught lawyer who freed the slaves. He was known as Honest Abe and the Great Emancipator. He was a subtle and purposeful man - even his top hat had many uses.
Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin in Hogdenville, Hardin County, Kentucky. In 1816 his family moved from Kentucky to Indiana, due to a land dispute, along with the fact that they disliked living in a slave-holding state. Lincoln's parents were members of a Separate Baptists church, with tenets including no alcohol, no dancing, and no slavery.
Lincoln was very close to his mother. He once said, "All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother." In 1818 Lincoln's mother died of milk sickness, an ailment which was common along the Ohio valley. The cause of milk sickness - drinking milk from a cow that had eaten white snakeroot - was unknown at the time. Lincoln's eleven-year-old sister, Sarah, suddenly found herself in charge of a household which included nine-year-old Lincoln, their father, and a cousin.
Lincoln's father remarried in 1819, to a widow with three children. Sarah later married, then died in in 1828 while giving birth to a baby who was stillborn.
The family moved to Illinois - another free state - in 1830, because they were worried about a new outbreak of milk sickness. As was the custom, Lincoln gave all of his earnings from manual labor to his father until he turned twenty-one. Some considered Lincoln to be lazy, because he preferred his studies to manual labor; he was, however, strong, athletic, and skilled with his axe.
Soon after he came of age, Lincoln struck out on his own, working as a surveyor and shopkeeper. For a time he was the postmaster for New Salem, Illinois, storing mail in his battered top hat for delivery. In 1832 he served as a Captain in the Illinois Militia, during the Black Hawk War between the United States and Native Americans.
The Education of Honest Abe
Lincoln was self-educated, for the most part, but when he had time to spare from working on the family farm he attended a so-called "blab" school. Students in a blab school generally had few or no books. They recited, or blabbed, their lessons out loud, following their teacher's lead. Young Lincoln was known to blab his lessons in a loud voice, even while walking to and from school.
Lincoln once explained the importance of education for citizens, stating, "The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next."
In pursuit of higher knowledge, Lincoln is known to have read the King James Bible, "Aesop's Fables," "The Pilgrim's Progress," "Robinson Crusoe," Mason Locke Weems' "The Life of Washington," and Benjamin Franklin's autobiography. "The things I want to know are in books," Lincoln said. "My best friend is the man who'll get me a book I ain't read."
He was, in fact, a self-taught lawyer - an accomplishment that was acceptable in his day, largely impossible in the U.S. since the 1970s. Lincoln studied "Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England" and other books, then was admitted to the Illinois bar on March 1, 1837, at the age of twenty-eight. He practiced law with several partners, including John T. Stuart, a cousin of his future wife.
Lincoln was once engaged to a young woman who died, some authorities say. It is certain that he was engaged to, then estranged from, Mary Todd of Kentucky. She was from a slave-holding family. Lincoln and Todd reconnected at a party, then married in 1842. They bought a house in Springfield, Illinois, near his law office. Their marriage was not a smooth one, according to historians, even though most agree that Lincoln loved his wife. She had a strong personality and was inclined to overspend. Lincoln once commented, "Marriage is neither heaven nor hell, it is simply purgatory."
The couple had four sons - Robert, Edward, William, and Thomas - but only Robert lived to adulthood. Lincoln's last direct descendant, his great-grandson, died in 1985.
Experts conjecture that Lincoln had a rare medical condition - possibly Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder which causes a long face, deep-set eyes, and a clumsy gait, or possibly ataxia, a hereditary disease that interferes with walking, writing, speaking, and swallowing. Some descendants of Lincoln's grandparents have been diagnosed with ataxia.
Testing has not been done to confirm these suspicions. Lincoln's last living descendant had denied access to his remains, and museum curators do not want to defile other artifacts in order to provide DNA samples. Proponents of DNA testing argue that the diagnosis of a specific condition could provide inspiration to others with disabilities.
Lincoln was known to suffer from what was then called melancholy. Today, he would likely be diagnosed with clinical depression.
In later years, Lincoln's assassination took a great toll on his widow, sending her into a depression. Her son, Robert, had her institutionalized in 1875, claiming she was mentally ill and reckless with her money. She was released in 1876 and regained control of her finances. She and her son were estranged.
There is no doubt that Lincoln was a strong physical presence, at six-foot-four. He wore a top hat to best advantage, to make himself seem still more of a towering figure. His hat and coat were often battered and shabby - intentionally, according to some historians, to play up his frontier image.
Lincoln was a member of three political parties: Whig from 1834 to 1854; Republican from 1854 to 1865; and National Union from 1864 to 1865.
He served in the Illinois House of Representatives for four terms as a Whig, from 1834 to 1842. During this time he voted to expand suffrage to all white males, as opposed to only landowners. He opposed slavery and abolitionism. Some historians believe that Lincoln opposed slavery not only because it was morally wrong but also because it interfered with economic development.
Lincoln served in the U.S. House of Representatives for the State of Illinois from 1847 to 1849. He had promised to serve for only one term and he kept that promise. During his one term he worked to help modernize the economy by regulating banks, tariffs, and railroads. He also opposed the Mexican-American War.
In 1849 Lincoln obtained a patent for a flotation device to help boats maneuver in shallow water. The device was never used or sold commercially, but it places Lincoln in the record books as the first president to hold a patent.
After his term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Lincoln returned to Springfield to practice law. He frequently represented railroads.
Lincoln's philosophy regarding lawsuits contradicts the common view that all lawyers are greedy: "Discourage litigation," he said. "Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker the lawyer has superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough."
He became well-known for his creative use of judicial notice - the admission of evidence that is known to be true but not directly connected to the case at hand. His client was charged with murder, and a witness claimed that he saw the crime take place in the moonlight. Lincoln cited the "Farmers' Almanac" to show that the moon had been too low in the sky at the time of the murder to supply enough light for viewing, proving that the witness was lying. His client was acquitted.
Lincoln once said, "Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."
In the 1850s, slavery was legal in the southern states. Lincoln opposed the spread of slavery to new territories in the west, speaking out against the pro-slavery Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. His famous Peoria Speech of 1854 clarified his anti-slavery views.
Lincoln ran for the United States Senate, as a Whig, in 1854. At the time, senators were elected by state legislatures. When it became clear that Lincoln could not win, he encouraged legislators to support Lyman Trumbull instead. Lincoln then helped to build a new Republican Party, drawing members from the Whig Party and the Free Soil, Liberty, and Democratic Parties.
In 1857 the Supreme Court heard the case of "Scott v. Sanford," then ruled that African Americans were not citizens and had no rights. Lincoln - along with northerners who opposed slavery - disagreed with the ruling.
In 1858 Lincoln gave his famous House Divided Speech, based on Biblical teaching from Mark 3:25. He stated that the United States must reach a unified decision, regarding slavery. He said, "I believe 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 it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other."
Also in 1858, the well-known Lincoln-Douglas debates took place. The two men debated on seven occasions, battling for Stephen Douglas' senate seat. Topics included states' rights, western expansion, and slavery. New technology at the time allowed the public to follow the debates closely - stenographers recorded the words in shorthand, runners took the stenographers' notes by train to Chicago, transcribing on the way, then operators typeset and sent the words to telegraph offices around the country, informing journalists and citizens.
Douglas was the debate victor, ultimately - he retained his senate seat.
During Lincoln's run for the senate, he had gained national prominence. He was elected president in 1860. During the inauguration, Douglas, Lincoln's former opponent in debate, held Lincoln's hat - a lower silk plush rather than the iconic top hat.
Shortly thereafter, in 1861, the Confederacy chose Jefferson Davis as their provisional president. The Civil War began in April of the same year.
As president, Lincoln started his day with one egg, toast, and black coffee. He worked seven days a week, without vacations, often until 11 P.M. or later. He was the tallest U.S. president, the first president with a beard, and the first president born outside of the original thirteen states.
Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863, granting freedom to slaves in Confederate states and allowing African Americans to serve as Union soldiers. This proclamation changed the focus of the Union from fighting a Civil War against secession to fighting against slavery.
In November of 1863 Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to honor Union soldiers who had died during the Civil War. Wearing a stovepipe hat, he began his speech with some of the most famous words in Western history: "Four score 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." The speech had been edited and improved several times by Lincoln, including this earlier version of the opening lines: "How long ago is it? Eighty-odd years since upon the fourth day of July, for the first time in the world, a union body of representatives was assembled to declare as a self-evident truth that all men were created equal."
Lincoln concluded his Gettysburg Address with a vow that the northern soldiers had not died in vain, that the United States would have a "new birth of freedom."
On a lighter note, Lincoln helped to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863. It had previously been observed only in New England. Lincoln was the first president to pardon a turkey - sparing it from becoming the centerpiece of a holiday feast - to please his son, Thomas, known as Tad.
Lincoln was re-elected for a second term, in 1864. By that time he had resumed his habit of wearing tall top hats. In that same year, as Lincoln traveled by horseback, a would-be assassin shot a hole through his stovepipe hat, knocking it from his head.
In April of 1865 the Confederates surrendered, ending the Civil War and beginning the era of Reconstruction.
On April 14, 1865, only five days after the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. His size 7 1/8 top hat, complete with a black silk mourning band for his son, Willie, was on the floor next to his seat. John Wilkes Booth, a well-known stage actor and Confederate sympathizer, was the assassin. Lincoln died the next day. He was the first president to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.
Historians and hobbyists have drawn many parallels between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, including facts surrounding their deaths. Both presidents were shot in the back of the head, in the presence of their wives. Both were shot on a Friday. Lincoln was shot in Ford's Theatre, while Kennedy was shot in a Lincoln, made by Ford.
John Wilkes Booth suffered a broken leg after jumping from a balcony at Ford's Theatre. Nevertheless, he managed to escape. He remained a fugitive for several days, but ultimately he was gunned down.
Less than a month after Lincoln's death, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured and charged with treason, but he never went to trial.
The impact of Abraham Lincoln on the world is immeasurable. Many statues, monuments, and exhibits honor his life and achievements. Central to the Smithsonian's exhibit is the iconic top hat Lincoln wore on his final day.
Although his life was cut short, by his own standards he had lived a life to be proud of. Lincoln once said, "In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years."