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Lincoln, Abraham (1809–1865)



Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln at the age of 54
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln shocked all Americans, in both the Northern and Southern States. The Northerners lost the man who had led them to victory in a long and fierce struggle, and the Southerners lost the only person who would have rebuilt their shattered country without imposing further burdens upon them.

Small wonder, then, that the news of the President's death on 15th April 1865 caused deep sorrow. A half-crazy actor named John Wilkes Booth had rushed into Lincoln's box during a gala performance at the theatre, shot the President with his revolver, and jumped out of the box on to the stage, from where he managed to make his escape. Lincoln survived the night, but died early the next morning.

In this way died one of the greatest American presidents, without whom the United States of America which we know today would probably never have survived.


The life of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809 in the frontier state of Kentucky. His parents were extremely poor, and the large Lincoln family lived in a small log-cabin on the edge of the forest. When Abraham was nine his mother died, but luckily for him his father married again, and his stepmother, Sarah Johnston, was a kind woman. She encouraged Abraham in his struggle to educate himself; this he was forced to do almost entirely on his own from books, which were hard to get hold of out on the frontier. One day he succeeded in buying a large number of books from a traveler heading west, who kept them in a barrel and didn't want to carry them any longer. These provided him with ample material for study, although his father warmly opposed the idea. 'I suppose Abe is still fooling hisself with eddication,' he is supposed to have said later. 'I tried to stop him, but he got that fool idea in his head and it can't be got out.'

Lincoln carried cargo down the Mississippi to New Orleans in a flatboat
Lincoln carried cargo down the Mississippi in New Orleans in a flatboat

The first journey to open up the world for him was one he made when he was nineteen and went as 'hired man' on a flatboat to New Orleans. This adventure made a lasting impression on him.

When he was twenty-one Abraham went to live at New Salem in the State of Illinois. There he worked at a number of quite humble jobs, including that of village postmaster. Although he had an awkward manner, which went with his height and ugly appearance, Lincoln quickly became well known as a storyteller and mimic.

Lincoln, 
      a circuit lawyer, rode from town to town on horseback
Lincoln, a circuit lawyer, rode from town to town on horseback
The popularity he won was a great help when he decided to go into politics. In 1834 he was elected to the Illinois State Legislature – the local parliament– as a Whig; that is, a moderate who believed in keeping the federal system of government intact. In 1837 he moved to Springfield, the state capital, in order to be in a better position to follow his political career, and become leader of the Whigs in the legislator. At the same time he began to practice as a lawyer; his study of the law dated back to some books he had found in the barrel which he had bought in his youth. In 1842 Lincoln married Mrs Mary Todd, and they had four sons, of whom, unfortunately, only one survived to manhood. Their married life was, on the whole, a happy one, although clouded by Mrs Lincoln's eccentricities. In 1846 Lincoln was elected to Congress – the Federal parliament – but his period there was not a success; he offended many people by his moderation and and was not put forward again as a candidate by his party.

Disagreement was growing between the states in the North, which did not permit the owning of black slaves, and those in the South, which were dependent on a large number of slaves for the growing of cotton. There had been an understanding that the States in the South would be allowed to keep their slaves provided that slavery was not allowed to spread north into the new States that were being formed as the frontier was pushed back. But by 1850 those men in the North who opposed slavery (the 'abolitionists') were not prepared to tolerate it any longer, and some of the hotheads in the South wanted the slavery to be allowed in the new States of Kansas and Nebraska. Lincoln's political party, the Whigs, who tolerated the compromise because it preserved the federal Union of all the States, could not survive the pressure from the extremists on both sides and began to lose all their supporters. A new political party was formed in the North called the Republican Party, which aimed at the abolition of slavery, and Lincoln decided to join it.

In 1858 Lincoln was chosen as Republican candidate for United States Senator for Illinois, and promptly challenged his Democratic opponent Stephen Douglas to debate the great issues of the day publicly. Douglas accepted, and although Lincoln lost the election his speeches in the debates with Douglas made his name famous all over the country. In 1860 Lincoln was chosen as Republican candidate for the Presidency, and with the Democrats hopelessly divided between North and South he easily won the election. But before he could take his place in the White House most of the southern states had decided to leave the Union and declare themselves independent. These States called themselves the Confederacy. In 1861 a federal fort called Fort Sumter was fired upon by the Confederates and the Civil War began.

In the Senate 
      campaign of 1858 Lincoln challenged Senator Douglas to a series of debates
In the Senate campaign of 1858 Lincoln challenged Senator Douglas to a series of debates

Although the Northern States were richer and had more inhabitants than the South and war want badly for them at the beginning, due largely to the brilliant leadership of the Southern general, Robert E. Lee. It was not until 1863 that Lincoln found in General Grant a commander to match him. Once Grant took command the tide began to turn, and in 1863 the North won great victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. In the same year Lincoln issued his famous declaration freeing all slaves.

By 1865 the South had been exhausted, and its capital, Richmond, was finally driven to surrender, but Lincoln did not survive his great triumph and the saving of the Union for very long. On 14th April, five days after General Lee's surrender, Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth and died the next day.


Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

This is the text inscribed in granite at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D C. Lincoln made this speech at Gettysburg on the 19th November 1863, when part of the battlefield was dedicated as a resting place for those who had died there.

'Fourscore 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. Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that the nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth'.


Lincoln and Manchester

At the beginning of the Civil War, the supply of raw cotton from the Southern States to the cotton-mills of Lancashire was cut off by a blockade imposed by the North. After a short time many of the mill workers in Manchester and the surrounding areas were out of work. Nevertheless, they considered that the cause of the North was just, and public meetings were held in Manchester to demonstrate support for Lincoln and his policies of freeing the slaves and maintaining the Union. At one of these meetings in 1862 an address was drawn up and sent to Lincoln in which these views were fully set out.

A few weeks later Lincoln sent a reply to the Mayor of Manchester, who had acted as chairman of the meeting. In this he said: 'I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working-men of Manchester and Europe are called on to endure in this crisis ... under these circumstances I cannot but regard your decisive utterances upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age, or in any country.'

The friendship which sprang up in this way in the dark days of the American Civil War has not been forgotten; a statue of Lincoln now stands in Platt Fields Park, Manchester, and in the White House at Washington there is a bust of John Bright, who led Lincoln's supporters in England.