Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Presidency

by - May 11, 2010

Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Presidency

Early American leaders are almost always known for their courage, wisdom, and compassion. As the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln displayed all of these qualities and more. Known mainly for his contribution to the reestablishment of the Union during the Civil War, Lincoln was also well known throughout the political world. But to the man known as “Honest Abe”, government was only a small part of a much larger life.

Lincoln’s childhood began on February 12, 1809, in a modest log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky. The Lincolns didn’t stay there for long, however, and eventually moved north to Knob Creek, Kentucky. As a young boy Lincoln enjoyed attending school with his older sister, Sarah. His parents, though not educated, enjoyed teaching their children stories from the Bible. Abe’s happy days as a child didn’t last long. He was only 10 years old when his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died. His father then remarried a year later. Lincoln’s stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston, was a very affectionate woman and helped encourage Lincoln’s love of reading. His enjoyment of reading was often criticized by others as peculiar and unusual, but their judgments never seemed to worry Lincoln. Heartbreak would again strike the Lincolns on January 20, 1828, when Abe’s sister died along with her baby in childbirth at the age of 21. He hardly ever spoke of his childhood, but it can be assumed that the hurt associated with the early life of Abraham Lincoln contributed to his bouts of depression and sad demeanor.

By the age of 37, Lincoln had relocated to Springfield, Illinois. Together, he and his partner, John T. Stuart, built a successful law firm in downtown Springfield. During this time, Lincoln was also rising politically. While a member of the Whig party, he was reelected for the legislature. Soon after, a rivalry with Democratic Party nominee Stephen Douglas developed. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln was gaining additional exposure and experience. He eventually lost the political argument against Stephen Douglas, but his reputation grew fonder in the public eye.

Not completely confined by political affairs, Lincoln found time to begin courting Mary Ann Todd. The 21 year old daughter of a prosperous Kentucky banker, Mary was staying in Springfield with her extended family to find a husband. In a matter of months, the couple was engaged. Unfortunately, Mary’s family did not approve of 30 year old Abraham Lincoln. Mary was defiant and wanted to advance with the marriage undeterred, but Lincoln severed the courtship. Throughout the next weeks, Lincoln plunged into one of his deep depressions. It took fifteen months before they could meet again. Regardless of her family’s disapproval, their courtship continued. The happy couple was married on November 4, 1842 and their first of four children was born nine months later.

In February of 1860, Lincoln held his first major political appearance at a rally in New York. Later, on May 9, Lincoln was voted almost unanimously as the republican presidential candidate. This was a major step toward the presidency he hoped to win. Despite loosing to Lincoln, William Seward, the other republican who ran for the nomination, later became the secretary of state in Lincoln’s political cabinet. He also grew to be a close and trusted friend to Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln’s backwoods history and humble character helped to win the votes of the American people. A small girl from New York named Grace Bedell wrote Lincoln a letter just before the 1860 presidential election. She suggested he grow a beard to please all the women into persuading their husbands to vote for him. He decided to take her counsel.

Inauguration day at the White House was described to be festive, but highly monitored. Soldiers mingled with the crowds of thousands lining the Lincoln’s new home to hear their leader speak to them in his first presidential address. The problems with the south were growing worse. From the beginning, Lincoln’s message was preservation. Despite the fact that Jefferson Davis had already been sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America, Lincoln’s main purpose was not to necessarily abolish slavery in the United States, but to preserve the nation. Later, on June 16, 1858, he declared that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The essence of this statement embodies all that Lincoln stood for. In paraphrasing the Bible, his message became clear; eventually the United States would have slavery completely legalized or utterly abolished. This would be his political stance throughout the Civil War.

The fighting continued for four long years. Families were fighting each other over their rights and the nation was falling apart at the seams. Lincoln realized that as the president, giving freedom to the slaves might be the only way to restore the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22 to Lincoln’s cabinet. It then was released to the press the next day and the word spread. This document was an enormous boost to the Union’s manpower. By freeing the slaves and allowing them to enlist for the Union forces, the North gained needed strength. Not everyone was happy with Lincoln’s policies but he held firm in his decisions, and the war trudged on.

Many stories exist about Lincoln’s compassion during the war. He was often known to visit hospital’s full of Union and Confederate soldiers. He would shake his soldier’s hands and inquire on their condition. Then, just as sincere, he would turn to the wounded men and boys of the Confederacy and heartily wish them well. Fatigue lined the president’s face, but he continued in the war efforts.

Eventually, the war turned around for the North. As it came to a close in April of 1865, Lincoln visited the Capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. People cheered as Lincoln entered Jefferson Davis’ office and sat in the former President’s chair. The war was ending and slavery was abolished. It had seemed almost impossible, but the North was victorious.

Upon the war’s end, Lincoln’s friends became even more concerned with their president’s safety. He assured them that if someone was determined enough to kill him, then they would find a way to accomplish what they set out to do. Lincoln was intent on keeping his dealings and daily life the same. Still, his colleagues maintained some precautions on behalf of their friend. He received the defense they offered, but complained about it often.

On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Lincoln was reviewing court sentences. Always kindhearted, he dismissed a death sentence given to a Confederate spy and excused a boy charged with desertion. It was to be one of the last acts of his presidency. That night Abraham and Mary Lincoln attended a popular play called Our American Cousin at Ford’s theater. The door to the president’s box was not locked, only closed.

That night was the last Lincoln would ever see. At approximately ten o’clock John Wilkes Booth, a prominent and well-known actor of the time, slipped into the balcony with Abraham Lincoln. Booth held a pistol in his hand, and fired a shot. Mary Lincoln’s scream echoed through the theater as she tried to catch her falling husband. Major Rathbone, who was attending the theater with the Lincolns, quickly attacked Booth, but was injured and fell back, wounded. Booth leapt onto the stage, breaking his left shinbone. He looked toward the audience and yelled the now famous words, “Sic semoer tyrannis,” translated, “Thus always to tyrants.” Booth ran for twelve days, but was eventually caught and killed in Virginia.

Lincoln, meanwhile, remained in critical condition. His good friend William Seward had also been assaulted that night, but had survived. Friends, associates, and members of Lincoln’s family crowded into the small room where their beloved president lay dying. While surrounded by the people he cherished and loved, Lincoln passed away on April 15, 1865.

The Civil War was truly a horrific and appalling time for our country. Over six-hundred thousand lives were sacrificed in the name of freedom and preservation of the country. Running the nation during this period was painful and exhausting, but Abraham Lincoln truly gave everything that he had to offer, including his own life. Today it is important we remember him as the man who held America together during some of her most horrendous history. But almost equally important to remember is the kindness and compassion that he had for all people and the freedoms that American citizenry stands for.

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votes, nearly four hundred thousand, so, perhaps, and was not. ""House Divided" Speech by Abraham Lincoln." NetINS Showcase. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2010. .

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