What made our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator? It’s not something that was destined for him, and yet he became a towering figure both in stature and in history who changed the course of the United States forever. And he did it by taking control of his own destiny and forging his own path at every turn.
He was the epitome of a self-made man. Beholden to no one, a free thinker who cultivated his own mind and stuck to his ideals and values, no matter how high the cost. There were obstacles along the way, but when lesser men would have stumbled, Lincoln was so driven by his sense of right and wrong that he followed his moral compass wherever it led. And it all began in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere in Kentucky.
An Education in Slavery
Abraham Lincoln spent his earliest years in backwoods Kentucky, mostly on the 228-acre Knob Creek Farm. His memories of the time included everyday tasks like carrying water, fishing in the stream that ran through the property, planting seeds, gathering firewood and picking berries. He also remembered listening to his mother, a very devout woman, reading the Bible.
But there was another memory, too, and one not so peaceful. The U.S. Congress had outlawed African slave trade to the United States one year before Lincoln was born, but domestic trade was still flourishing. Over the next 50 years, the enslaved population in the United States would nearly triple to a peak of around four million. And young Lincoln got his first glimpse of that at Knob Creek Farm, where he saw Africans being taken South to be sold as slaves.
What went through young Abraham’s mind as he saw these slaves being led along the road to what would be, for most of them, a lifetime of bondage and hard labor? A letter Lincoln composed in 1864 gives us a glimpse of his thinking, where he stated without hesitation that he had been against slavery his entire life.
If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel. -Abraham Lincoln
In those days, Lincoln only looked at those poor souls. But it planted the seeds of an idea in him that would one day lead to him making the decision to set their sons and daughters free.
Learning to Persevere
Dirt floors, half-finished cabins, sickness, hard work and death marked the early years of Lincoln’s life. In 1816, Lincoln and his family moved from the backwoods of Kentucky to the backwoods of Indiana. Two years later, his mother died of milk sickness, a mysterious illness caused by drinking milk from cows that ingested the toxic weed, white snakeroot. At just 9 years old, Lincoln watched as his mother was buried in the woods. But he did not, would not ever, allow it to suppress his spirit.
Lincoln’s father and the woman he married after his first wife died—a kind soul who loved Lincoln as his own—were said to be almost completely illiterate. And although he went to school only a few months here and there during his childhood (totaling less than a year of formal education ), Lincoln would walk for miles to borrow a book. And the few books he did have access to, Lincoln immersed himself completely in. Books like Parson Weems’s Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Aesop’s Fables and, of course, the Bible. But for all Lincoln learned, there was still one thing he didn’t know: what he was going to do with his life.
Finding His Own Path
In 1830, Lincoln’s family moved again, to Illinois. He was 21 years old and ready to launch his life. While he didn’t know what he wanted to do, he did know one thing with certainty: he did not want to be a farmer.
Thus began his era of exploration. He worked as a flatboatman, sailing up and down the Mississippi River; a storekeeper, postman and surveyor. He enlisted and fought in the brief Black Hawk War, then considered becoming a blacksmith. He was elected to the state assembly and threw himself into it, but in the end he decided to study law for his career—but true to form, he did it his own way—the way he learned things as a child.
Harvard Law School was founded in 1817, and Yale’s law school was launched in 1824. But Lincoln did not study at these—or any other—law school. The custom of the times was to learn law by studying under established lawyers, but that was not in the cards for Lincoln either, who lived in a rural village. Instead, Lincoln taught himself. For three years, he pored over books and was finally admitted to the bar in 1836.
The boy who had grown up with nothing was sharpening his intellect and developing the skills that would, decades later, keep a nation going during its darkest days. But he still had more to learn, and he moved to Springfield, Illinois to practice law.
It was not, however, Lincoln’s law career that would earn him a reputation. In 1846, four years after he married Mary Todd, Lincoln was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he showed the same independent streak he’d had his entire life. He took a strong stance against the Mexican-American War that him unpopular with many of his constituents—so unpopular that he promised not to seek re-election.
But then something happened that brought Lincoln off the sidelines: Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. It gave voters of each territory the right to decide whether slavery would be permitted, instead of the federal government. On Oct. 16, 1954, Lincoln finally put his childhood feelings about the wrongness of slavery to work, and went before a large crowd in Peoria, Illinois, in a debate on merits of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. There, he denounced slavery as a violation of the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.
If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that `all men are created equal;' and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man's making a slave of another.-Abraham Lincoln
With those words, Lincoln was vaulted back into national politics.
Fighting for Unity
Over the next six years, Lincoln’s profile continued to rise, and he was elected president in 1860. Although he passionately believed slavery to be morally wrong, he also believed that the Constitution protected the rights of Southern states to own slaves. And as president he said as much. He concluded his inaugural address on March 4, 1861, with this plea for unity:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.-Abraham Lincoln
But Lincoln’s words were not enough to quell the fear and suspicion rising in the South. On April 12, Confederate forces fired the first shots of the Civil War.
In 1863, Lincoln took action that would change America forever. The Emancipation Proclamation declared that all enslaved people in the states currently engaged in rebellion against the Union “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
Strength in the Darkness
July 1 through July 3 of 1863 saw some of the bloodiest battle ever to be fought on American soil. There were an estimated 51,000 casualties. Amputated limbs were piled into bloody heaps. Bodies were collected and buried near where they fell. Any building nearby that could be used to treat the wounded was put to use. Thousands of dead horses and mules were burned in piles, creating a stench that was said to have hovered for weeks.
The nation was on its knees.
Many in the country were tired of the war. Some questioned the wisdom of continuing to fight. Others were grieving their losses. It was against this somber backdrop that Lincoln delivered a speech on Nov. 19, 1963. In just three minutes long, he clearly and eloquently stated the reason why the cause should be carried on, in a way that would stand the test of time.
The speech started with the now-famous words looking back to the beginning of the country, “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation”, but it ended with a call to honor the dead by continuing to fight to build a new one.
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.-Abraham Lincoln
Today we know it as The Gettysburg Address. It’s widely considered to be one of the greatest speeches of all time, given by a man who attended less than a year of school. A man who found his way to being President only through countless hours of study, developing his intellect, and a willpower that would see the entire country through the war.
A Short-Lived Victory
The Battle at Gettysburg proved to be a turning point in the war. The Union gained ground over the next months, and on April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee and the Confederates surrendered. But there was little time for Lincoln to celebrate, or to help the country recover from the war it had just been through. Or to see the fate of the now-freed slaves. Because just six days after the surrender, Lincoln was assassinated by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.
Lincoln could never have known how his life would end but, if he had, we can be sure of one thing: He would have counted his sacrifice as no more valiant than that made by the 365,000 Union soldiers who died fighting for freedom and unity.
For some, the aim of life is to find prosperity and comfort. For things to be easy. But for those like Lincoln, the goal is never to stop in their pursuit. Their hunger to make a difference guarantees they will never seek comfort instead of accomplishment. Because on the other side of struggle is where greatness lies—something just as true for Amelia Earhart, or Teddy Roosevelt, Coco Chanel, as it was for Abraham Lincoln.