Over the years, I’ve seen many opinions about who were the greatest presidents in US history. I think it’s safe to say that most lists include George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. From there lists start to vary widely.
However, if you were to ask me who was the greatest president of all time, I wouldn’t hesitate to say it was Abraham Lincoln and I would quickly add that he was the most troubled president of all time.
The biography of Lincoln has filled volumes as famed author Carl Sandberg knew all too well as he filled six volumes with the history of a very unlikely and troubled President. I first read all six volumes when I was in 6th grade and again in high school and I still have the entire set on my bookcase.
However, for this piece, I want to highlight just a few things about Lincoln’s life and most of the information shared here comes from History.com-Lincoln is born, History.com-US Presidents; History.com-Lincoln assassination; CivilWar.org; and Biography.com.
Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln had moved to a small farm in Hodgenville, Hardin County, Kentucky in the early 1800s. At the time, this part of Kentucky was considered the edge of the frontier and life was hard. Thomas and his siblings witnessed the murder of their father, Captain Abraham Lincoln in a 1786 Indian raid at their home in Jefferson County, Kentucky, which today is modern Louisville.
On February 12, 1809, Nancy Hanks Lincoln gave birth to their second son who was named after his grandfather, Abraham Lincoln. Young Abe grew up fairly poor and was put to work at a young age on the farm. His father was a strict task master which may have helped young Abe’s affinity towards his mom.
Sadly, Nancy Hanks Lincoln died in 1818 when Abe was only 9. According to most records, she died of what was called ‘milk sickness’ which is a type of poisoning that happens when cows eat white snakeroot plants which contain a poison called tremetol. Milk sickness is also called the trembles or tremetol vomiting and is characterized by severe abdominal pain, excessive vomiting and trembling all over. Imagine a young 9-year-old boy watching his mother go through this and then dying.
Abe was a voracious reader, which is astounding considering the fact that he only had 1 year of school. After that, he was self-taught. His thirst for learning and desire to learn helped drive him to become a lawyer and pass the Illinois Bar. In 1834, Lincoln was elected to the Illinois legislature where he served two years before leaving politics. He also worked as a shopkeeper, postmaster and surveyor.
In 1842, Abe married Mary Todd and over the course of time they had four sons. One of those sons, Robert Lincoln went on to serve as Secretary of War under Presidents Garfield and Arthur and then became the US Ambassador to the United Kingdom under President Benjamin Harrison.
In his travels, Lincoln on several occasions ran his boat aground on shoals, prompting him to invent a mechanism to help free the boat. Although Thomas Jefferson was a prolific inventor, Lincoln is the only president to hold a patent.
In the 1850s, Lincoln once again became involved with politics and soon became the leader of the newly formed Republican Party. This in itself is odd since Lincoln was not a staunch conservative but rather more of a moderate. At the time, he believed that the states that already had slavery should be allowed to keep their slaves, but other states should be barred from entering into the practice of slavery.
In 1858, Lincoln ran for a senate seat, but lost the election. It was at a time when the talk of secession was at a peak and during his bid for the senate, Lincoln made his famous ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’ statement. Sadly, many people today believe that Lincoln was the originator of that phrase, but they fail to realize that he was quoting Jesus response to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:24-26:
“But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.’ Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?’”
Not only did Lincoln lose that senatorial election, but he lost five consecutive elections prior to 1860, which in today’s America would make his nomination for the presidency highly unlikely, but not only did he win the Republican Party nomination, but he went on to win the White House.
Imagine that happening today where a poor self-educated boy who loses 5 of 6 political campaigns ends up as President of the United States. It sounds more like a Hollywood feel good movie than reality but that’s exactly how you could describe Abraham Lincoln.
Upon his inauguration in March 1861 Lincoln was still not a true abolitionist. In his mind, the critical issue facing the nation was the splitting of the country and that’s what he focused on. Yet the splitting of the country began shortly after Lincoln had won the vote. The divided house greatly troubled Lincoln and forced him to reconsider his stand on slavery.
On January 1, 1863, Lincoln delivered his Emancipation Proclamation which stated in part:
“Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:”
“Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.”
“And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.”
Lincoln’s order didn’t end the war and many believe it gave the Confederacy that much more to fight against.
The Civil War was the bloodiest and costliest war in terms of human lives than any other in our nation’s history. It is estimated that around 620,000 men died during the Civil War with several hundred thousand of those dying from disease or infections after being wounded and Lincoln took every single loss on both sides personally and he carried the weight of their deaths upon his shoulders until the day he died.
One thing became clear during the Civil War and that was the fact Lincoln was a great strategist and was actively involved in planning out the actions of the Union. On more than one occasion he showed up at battle sites to talk with his military leaders and encourage the soldiers.
By the 1864 election, the tide of the Civil War was shifting in the favor of the Union, but Lincoln knew the war was far from over. Upon his re-election, he devoted every bone in his body and ounce of his energy in ending the war and re-uniting a torn nation.
By April 1865 it was apparent that the Union was on the verge of victory. On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Lee’s surrender was considered by many to be the end of four long years of bloodshed and fighting.
To celebrate the end of the war, Lincoln, along with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, planned to attend the acclaimed play, Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. A young army officer by the name Henry Rathbone and his fiancé Clara Harris were invited to share the Lincoln’s private box at the theater.
Four days prior on April 11, Lincoln gave a speech in which he called for all blacks to have the right to vote. This incensed a southern sympathizer by the name of John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor of the day. Booth and a number of others formulated a plot to assassinate Lincoln along with Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. By eliminating not only the president but the two next in line for the presidency in case of death, it would throw the nation, mostly the Union, into political turmoil and chaos.
On the night of the play, Booth easily slipped into the theater since he was well-known there and made his way to the Lincoln’s private box. Slipping into the box, he shot Lincoln in the back of head and stabbed Rathbone who tried to stop him and then leapt to the stage, breaking his leg and making his escape.
Charles Leale, a young 23-year-old doctor was at the play and was quickly summoned to the Lincoln box. When he arrived, Lincoln was not dead but paralyzed and having great difficulty breathing. Several army officers carried Lincoln across the street to a hotel and laid him in bed. Surgeon General Joseph Barnes was summoned and upon examination said he doubted the president would survive.
At 7:22am, April 15, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was pronounced dead.
Fortunately, not all of Booth’s plans met with success as both Johnson and Seward were not injured. Shortly after pronouncing the death of Lincoln, Andrew Johnson was sworn in as the 17th President of the United States.
No other president in US history was faced with the issues that took their toll on Lincoln. No other president carried the weight of 620,000 lives lost. Some say that the reason Lincoln seemed to stoop over in the last couple years in office was due to the weight of the dead and wounded, Union and Confederate soldiers and the weight was almost too much to bear.
Yet he bore that weight unlike any other president in history could have. He didn’t blame his opponents although he would have been justified to do so. He didn’t point fingers like so many of our current presidents have done. Lincoln carried the burden himself in a manner that’s never been seen since.
Lincoln worked hard for everything he got. He never blamed his poor background or lack of formal education for any of his woes. Instead he devoted himself to learning as much as he could to help better himself and his family and that hard work took him from a small frontier farm to the White House.
Yes, I dare to say that Abraham Lincoln was the greatest and most troubled President in American history and I proudly celebrate his 207th birthday today. I hope and pray that many other Americans will likewise take time to honor a great and noble man.