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A Few Words about Abraham Lincoln

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I always remember this because it is the day before my birthday. (I was almost a Valentine’s baby.) Lincoln is one of the most beloved and mythologized men in American History. When you visit the Lincoln Memorial, you feel like you are in some kind of a Greek temple. Except with Lincoln, you want to sit on his statue’s lap and tell him your problems. (Does anyone remember that episode of The Simpsons?)

Lincoln, however, was more human (and interesting) than his statue. A few years ago, I read a biography of Lincoln called With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. This book, among other things, brings the real Lincoln to life. Lincoln, as the legends say, did work his way up from virtually nothing to become a successful lawyer, assemblyman, one-term congressman, and eventually President. His father could hardly write, which caused Lincoln to be ashamed of him. (Lincoln himself had a little more than a year of formal schooling.) Lincoln did not even attend his father’s funeral. He loved telling jokes, some of which would be considered a bit dirty by his society’s standards. He would often suffer intense bouts of depression where he would go into self-imposed isolation for long periods of time. Some believe that he may have had bipolar disorder or suffered from manic depression. Throughout his political career, he would make public statements indicating that he did not necessarily believe in racial equality. He once famously said that his opposition to slavery did not mean that he supported the idea if interracial marriage. When he started laying out reconstruction plans toward the end of the war, these plans did not include much in the way of aid for the former slaves he is given so much credit for setting free. When he first became President, a job he would have never dreamed of getting just a few years earlier, he was somewhat indecisive and insecure at times. When his generals during the early years of the Civil War often failed to take decisive and effective action, Lincoln did not feel confident enough to take more direct charge of the war. He was not particularly popular through much of his presidency, and he was nervous about his prospects for winning reelection in 1864. It was only after his assassination that he started to become one of the most beloved men in our history.

My goal is not to trash this man with whom I almost share a birthday. For me, the flaws and weaknesses of Abraham Lincoln make his achievements more impressive. He definitely grew into the job of President, and most Historians rank him as the greatest chief executive in our nation’s history. No President of the future is likely to have a resume that includes achievements as impressive as abolishing slavery and saving the union. He was also a man who showed the capacity to evolve. (Karl Rove would have labeled him a “flip-flopper.”) He grew from a man who believed that abolishing slavery was impractical to the President who pushed through the 13th Amendment. If he had lived to see Reconstruction through, would he have eventually supported plans to help ex-slaves transition more effectively to their new lives? We will never know. Still, the Lincoln story, particularly when it includes his flaws and weaknesses, gives me the hope to believe that a person as imperfect as I can do something significant with my life.


  1. Happy birthday. Did Honest Abe suffer from sports injuries?

  2. I don't think so. He did do a lot of hard labor as a young man, however. He became very skilled at chopping wood, in particular. So he may have had some back and shoulder issues. I'm sure that all of that labor gave him extra motivation to educate himself.

  3. I heard recently that the reason teachers cite "economic reasons" when discussing what caused the Civil War is that it's in the textbooks, which are written to deliberately misrepresent history, to appeal to southern states. According to my friend, Northerners were calling Southerners "unchristian" for owning slaves and Southerners reacted to save face; so the three reasons the civil war was started were: 1) slavery 2) slavery 3) slavery.

    I suspect my friend is right, and I need to read more about the Civil War. What do you teach when addressing causes of the Civil War?

  4. Everything that I have read says that most Northerners did not support abolishing slavery. (Even those, like Lincoln, who thought it was wrong.) The South, however, was convinced that the North was filled with abolitionists, and if Northerners ever gained control of the government, they would force the South to change its way of life. Southern paranoia, therefore, may have been the biggest cause. Lincoln's election, and the fact that the north now had more states, pushed them over the edge. Economics did matter, however. Economic differences created political disagreements which fed into tensions between the areas. The big question, however, was who would control the federal government and get its way on controversial issues. And who would get their way? Whoever controlled more of the west. So slavery, western expansion, and economic differences were all tied together.

  5. You said that Southern paranoia may have been the biggest cause of the American Civil War. However, was the South really "paranoid" about Northern aggression? Or justifiably fearful?

    The North did invade and conquer the South, and then forced it to change its way of life. Perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the South did play a small role in their destruction.

    When the South succeeded, the North blatantly attempted to reinforce forts that were in the South with Northern troops, which was meant to antagonize the South into firing the first shot. Eventually this Northern tactic worked, when the South shelled a minor Union fort, which gave the North a pretense for a massive invasion of the South.

    Lincoln, like Kennedy, would have been considered a mediocre president, had he not been "martyred".

    But he would have been far better than his replacement, who shares the same first name with me. (but not the same birthday)

  6. Paranoia led them to secede. The North had no reason to attack them before the South made this decision. After that, you could make a case that the North was the aggressor.

    Lincoln was considered mediocre through much of his presidency. I think that he would have eventually been appreciated, however, whether he was martyred or not. Many Presidents, such as Eisenhower or Truman, are much more highly regarded now than they were when they were President.


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