Abraham Lincoln's birthday is February 12, but in 1971, it was combined with the birthdays of other presidents to make Presidents Day, which is now celebrated on the third Monday in February. Lincoln was born in a log cabin with one room in LaRue County, Kentucky, in 1809. He was the 16th president of the United States.
Of all the presidents in the history of the United States, Abraham Lincoln is probably the one that Americans remember with deepest affection. His childhood experiences set the course for his character and motivation later in life. He brought a new level of honesty and integrity to the White House, living up to his nickname, “Honest Abe.” Most of all, he is associated with the final abolition of slavery, with his Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln became a virtual symbol of the American dream whereby an ordinary person from humble beginnings could reach the pinnacle of society as president of the country.
Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in Kentucky, and spent the first seven years of his life there. Abe’s family, like many on the frontier, lived in a log cabin, and Abe’s father worked hard as a farmer and carpenter to support his family. Abe and his sister were often occupied with household chores, but when they were free they attended a log schoolhouse.
In 1816, the family left Kentucky for Indiana, a state in the Midwest. The United States at this time was still young, and the Midwest was a wild frontier. Indiana offered new opportunities and differed from Kentucky in many ways. One important difference for Abe’s father was that Indiana was a state that did not allow slavery. Abe’s father was opposed to slavery, and instilled the same beliefs in his children.
Abe and his family settled in a forest, in Spencer County, Indiana. Neighbors were few and far away. Eventually, Abe’s father cleared enough land to build a log cabin. He and Abe cleared the woods for farmland, and Abe became so skilled at splitting logs that neighbors settling into the territory paid him to split their logs. Drawings and other depictions of Lincoln as a young man often show him splitting logs in a wooded setting.
During his life, Abe had less than one year of formal schooling. This lack of education only made him hungry for more knowledge. His mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, influenced him in his quest for learning. Although she was uneducated and could not read or write, she encouraged her children to study by themselves. Later, after his mother died and his father remarried, Abe’s stepmother was also instrumental in encouraging him to read. Abe would even travel to neighboring farms and counties to borrow books. Legend claims that he was often found reading next to a pile of logs that he should have been splitting.
Even as a boy Lincoln showed skill as a speaker. He noticed that people loved to listen to stories, and he began telling tall tales in the general store where people often gathered.
In 1830 the family moved again, this time to Illinois. Lincoln began working in a store in the capital of Springfield. His powers of speech soon helped him enter a new arena, that of politics and law. In 1834 he was elected into the Illinois State Legislature, and began studying to become a lawyer. There were few law schools in those days, so Lincoln studied law from books that he borrowed from an attorney. He received his license to practice law in 1836. In 1839, he met his future wife Mary Todd. After a long courtship, they married in November 1842, and eventually had four boys.
Lincoln practiced law all across the state, traveling far on horseback and by buggy to different counties. He became well known during this time for his ability to argue a strong convincing case and for his honesty. These experiences eventually led him down the road to become the sixteenth president of the United States.
In 1847 he was elected into Congress, but his criticism of then President Polk made him unpopular, and he did not run for a second term.
He returned to his law practice, but continued to present his views publicly. He was vehemently against slavery and took stands on other controversial issues.
Within a few years, slavery had become a stronger issue and more people were willing to abolish it. Lincoln joined the Republicans, a new political party that was opposed to slavery. The Republicans nominated him for the U.S. Senate in 1858, and in his acceptance speech, he stated:
A house divided against itself cannot stand... 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.
Abraham Lincoln’s oratorical powers brought him to the attention of the nation. He challenged his opponent, the Democratic nominee, to a series of debates in which he argued the moral evil of slavery. With the simple language that he used to communicate with people all his life, he defeated his opponent in the debates, but lost the election.
However, the debates had made Lincoln a national figure, and in 1860, he was nominated by the Republican Party as its candidate for the Presidency of the United States. Lincoln won the election with a majority of the electoral votes-all from the north. But with this election, the country began the process of “dividing against itself.” South Carolina, a strong slave state, had already seceded from the Union. Other slave states followed to form the Confederate States of America. The North and South were divided, and the Civil War began. The war was not only about the abolition of slavery, but also the right of individual states to make their own laws on other key issues.
As the nation was approaching the third year of the war, on January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that all persons who had been slaves within the southern states were free. Though this Proclamation was limited in that it only applied to states that had seceded from the Union, it transformed the focus of the war. From then on, the march from the North was equated with an expansion of freedom.
The Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania in 1863 was one of the bloodiest of the Civil War, and the largest battle ever fought on American soil. On November 19, 1863, a ceremony was held to dedicate the Gettysburg battlefield as a national monument. At that ceremony Lincoln delivered what was to become one of the finest speeches in American history, the Gettysburg Address. After Lincoln’s short speech there was a polite, but reserved applause. The main speaker of the day was Edward Everett, ex-governor of Massachusetts, who delivered a two-hour oration. As the two speakers returned to Washington together, Lincoln expressed disappointment in his own presentation. “I was a flat failure,” he said of his speech. “I ought to have prepared it with more care.” But Everett reassured him, saying, “I would be glad if…I came near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”