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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Abraham Lincoln Born, February 12, 1809

Today in 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin south of Hodgenville, KY. These humble beginnings were no indication of what lay in store for this infant born on the frontier of a young United States. As the nation’s 16th President, Lincoln would introduce America to many aspects of the modern Presidency and greatly expand federal power, much to the dislike of his political opponents. His entire time in office would be dominated by the Civil War, a conflagration eighty years in the making that came very close to permanently tearing the United States into two halves. Many of the decisions he took as Commander-in-Chief of the Union Army and Navy were controversial, but he stood behind them, believing that the preservation of the Union required unprecedented actions.

Despite many stories to the contrary, Abe Lincoln’s parents were not destitute. In fact, if they lived today they would be considered middle-class. Thomas Lincoln purchased the land Abe was born on in 1808, but lost it three years later in a court case involving a prior claim on the land. They moved a few miles away but lost that land as well in a similar court case. Disgusted by the poor surveying and court system in Kentucky, the Lincolns moved to Indiana in 1816. Whether or not these incidents influenced Abe’s later career choices is not known.

Lincoln moved to Illinois at the age of 22 in order to make his own way in life. He joined the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War and was elected the company’s Captain by his fellow soldiers. While he and his men never saw combat, Lincoln would later say that the earnest vote of confidence he received from those men was one of the high points of his life.

Lincoln had little formal education, but had a voracious appetite for books. He taught himself the law and was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1837 at the age of 28. During this time, he was elected to four terms in the Illinois House of Representatives. In 1846, Lincoln was elected to a term in the US House of Representatives. This was his introduction to national politics and he learned much. He spoke out against the war with Mexico and openly supported Zachary Taylor for President in 1848. When Taylor won the election, Lincoln was offered the governorship of the Oregon Territory. Desiring a return to his home in Illinois, Lincoln declined.

In addition to tending a successful law practice and representing the people of Illinois, Lincoln found time to wed Mary Todd, a Kentucky-born woman of wealth. The couple would have four sons, but only the oldest son, Robert, would live into adulthood. Much has been made of the Lincoln’s marriage, including the accusation that Abe may have been a homosexual. While the discreetness of the 19th century makes these accusations hard to prove, it certainly draws attention away from the more relevant and important contributions made by this man to his nation.

Lincoln joined the newborn Republican Party in 1856. He won their nomination for Senator from Illinois in 1858, setting the stage for the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates in which Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, the incumbent Democratic Senator, visited seven Illinois towns and argued over issues of the day, most importantly slavery. During this time in US history, the majority party in a state’s legislature determined who would represent in the state in the US Senate, not the votes of the people. The Democrats controlled the Illinois Legislature after the election and Douglas kept his seat.

Thrust into the national spotlight as a moderate Republican, Lincoln won the Republican nomination for President in 1860. He had a strong hand with both his exemplary oratory skills and his Kentucky farm boy success story. He won the three-way race for President on November 6, 1860 even though his name was not on the ballot in nine states, all of them in the South. Lincoln’s election triggered seven states to secede before his inauguration in March, 1861. The stage was set.

Lincoln had been in office for one month when the opening shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The President immediately called on the states to call up their militias to preserve the Union. The early months of the war went poorly for the Union, so much so that nations like Great Britain considered formal recognition of the Confederacy as a legitimate nation. There was a military leadership crisis in the North, a problem Lincoln desperately tried to solve by replacing the generals in command of the Army of the Potomac over and over again. Finally, he found a man who fought the war the way Lincoln wanted: Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant fought a war of attrition against the South, knowing that the Confederacy did not have the population or the manufacturing base necessary to replace the losses that Grant was willing to endure in his army. Casualties mounted quickly in the second half of 1863 and deaths continued to be incredibly high for the rest of the war. Both Grant and Lincoln believed that this was the cost of victory. In addition, both men believed in a scorched earth policy---that is, destroying the South’s economic ability to continue fighting the war. An example of this is General William Sherman’s March to the Sea through Georgia, in which the General’s forces destroyed everything in their path of any value.

On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, perhaps his most famous act. There is much misunderstanding about the true purpose of the Proclamation; the general belief is that it freed every slave in the United States. Sadly, this was not the case. Instead, only escaped slaves and those in Confederate states liberated by the Union Army were freed. Slaves in border states, like Kentucky, were not freed. As a wartime declaration, the Emancipation Proclamation did not have the permanent force of law. The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution was what truly ended slavery in the United States.

After his reelection in 1864, Lincoln began to focus on the process of Reconstruction. The President realized that the war would one day be over and that the nation would need to be brought back together. While some in Lincoln’s own party wanted to treat the South harshly, Lincoln took a more moderate path. During his second inaugural address, the President addressed the need to “bind up the nation’s wounds”. On April 9, 1865, the Civil War ended with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. The long, bloody struggle had seen more Americans die than in any war before or since. The time for national reconciliation was at hand.

Abraham Lincoln would see none of it. On Friday, April 14, 1865, the President, First Lady and Army Major Henry Rathbone sat in the Presidential Box for a presentation of Our American Cousin, a musical comedy. During one of the audience’s fits of laughter, John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Southern loyalist, shot Lincoln in the back of the head with a .44 caliber pistol. The President was carried across the street, where he slipped into a coma and died nine hours later. The Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was heard to say, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

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