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Every hero has a backstory, and many times that backstory isn’t what you’d expect. For a great American leader like Abraham Lincoln you might assume that he had an easy life, a privileged upbringing and a lot of friends, but the opposite of all of those things are true.
Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Illinois in 1809. His mother died when he was 9 years old, and his father remarried a year later. He had an unusually good relationship with his stepmother, he even called her “Mother”. Young Abraham didn’t enjoy farm work and instead liked to read and write, but his formal education totaled less than 12 months of his entire life! He was a voracious reader and taught himself much of what he knew. He would read and reread the few books that he had access to, including Pilgrim’s Progress, Aesop’s Fables, and the King James Bible.
When he was older he worked on a flatboat taking goods to New Orleans for several years, where he witnessed the horrors of slavery firsthand. He later co-owned a general store, but soon sold his share to join politics. He ran for the Illinois General Assembly in 1832, but lacking money, education, and friends in power, he lost. He worked as the postmaster and county surveyor in New Salem, Illinois and decided that he wanted to become a lawyer. He then taught himself law by reading any law book he could get his hands on.
He ran for state legislature again in 1834 and this time he won. He served in various state government offices for the next several years. In 1836 he was admitted to the Illinois bar and moved to Springfield to practice law with a cousin of his wife. It was in 1837 that he first publicly stated his feelings against slavery, something he did not do again for many years, and he also supported helping freed slaves to settle in Liberia.
Over the next several years, he continued to be heavily involved in politics and he supported Zachary Taylor in his presidential campaign. When the Dred Scott decision raised tensions in government, Lincoln made his views on the matter very clear. He firmly believed that all men were equal regardless of color, size, intellect, moral development, or social capacity. In 1858 he ran for the Senate against Stephen Douglas and lost, but his speeches during the campaign gave him a new level of political presence.
In 1860 Lincoln ran for president. His campaign was unusual, in that he was the only candidate in the race who did not give speeches, but instead relied on the enthusiasm of his party. Using his frontier upbringing as his selling point, the Republicans called Lincoln “The Rail Candidate”. On November 6th, 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States. He was the first Republican president the country had ever had and his success was due primarily to the North and West, hardly any votes were cast for him in the South.
Lincoln entered office just months after the South had decided to secede from the Union. As president-elect, he had declared the secession illegal, but the South still proceeded to select Jefferson Davis as their president. In his inauguration speech, Lincoln tried to ease the tensions by stating that he had no intention of freeing the slaves in the South. The South didn’t care what he said and the Civil War was the result.
Lincoln was highly involved in every aspect of the war and is especially remembered for his kindness in visiting not only wounded soldiers from the Union, but also those of the Confederate army. Lincoln is probably best known for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves. That one act; although it didn’t end the horrors of slavery immediately, was extremely crucial in helping to change the United States for the better. I could go on and on and describe many of the other things Abraham Lincoln is known for, but this isn’t a high school History class, so instead I’d like to leave you with a question.
What is it that makes great leaders like Lincoln? Is it a perfect life? I don’t think so, because aside from the hardships and loss that Lincoln endured during his childhood, three of his four sons died in childhood. He suffered from what was then called “melancholy”, today known as depression. He endured fierce opposition during the years of the Civil War, and ultimately his life was taken because of that opposition. No, I don’t think that a perfect life is what creates a great leader, I think that it’s strength. The strength to keep going, the strength to not back down when opposition is staring you in the face, the strength that comes from knowing what you believe and what you want to stand up for, no matter what. That’s what I think makes a great leader.
I heard this song last week and thought that it fit with this post because of Lincoln’s beliefs in freedom for all people. The Emancipation Proclamation brought freedom to many, but lasting peace and freedom is something we all still are looking for.