Abraham Lincoln: A Life of Contradiction
Abraham Lincoln was a man whose life can best be described as a contradiction. Many people believe he was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Presidents in American history. Those who don’t believe that think he was one of the worst, if not the worst, Presidents in American history.
He certainly is one of the polar Presidents. People either love him or hate him. There just is not much middle ground regard for him.
Illinois is called the land of Lincoln, but he was born in Kentucky. He was an attorney, but he had no formal education. He wanted to lead, but was often passed over for promotions and lost several elections. He is known as the Great Emancipator, but he did not believe black people were equal to white people. He wanted to unite the nation, but his election foreshadowed the Civil War. He wanted to live in peace, but, when he finally may have been able to live in peace, he was assassinated.
Many Presidents have had aspects of their lives or service as Commander in Chief contradict their principles and ideals, but none more so than Honest Abe.
Born February 12, 1809 in Hodgenville, Kentucky, Lincoln lived there and in Indiana before finally relocating to Illinois when he was twenty one years old.
He had little formal education amounting to less than one year, but was quite studious. As a child, he would spend time reading instead of working like many boys his age. He earned the reputation as being lazy because of the time he spent reading, but he did his chores. He was lanky and strong, and became adept at splitting logs.
He was a shop owner, a militia captain, a postmaster, and a surveyor before becoming a lawyer. Though a gifted speaker with an imposing frame, he lost his first attempt in politics to become an Illinois Asseblyman. He would also lose his next bid to join the Illinois General Assembly, but had been elected to the state legislature between those two failed campaigns.
His stance on slavery was unquestionable: he opposed it. However, that opposition fell short of belief that black people should necessarily be free citizens of this country, but rather be recolonized in Africa in a country purchased for that purpose known as Liberia. His thoughts on equality, or rather the lack of it, became more apparent in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates in their campaigns against each other for United States Senator in 1858.
"I agree with Judge Douglas that he [a black person] is not my equal in many respects—certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man."
He lost that election.
Two years later, he would win the nomination for President by the newly formed Republican party, and, ultimately, be elected as the 16th President.
The election began the Winter of Discontent, with seven states seceding and forming the Confederate States of America. President Buchanan and President-elect Lincoln refused to acknowledge the secession contending that it would require approval of all states for any state to leave the union.
Lincoln had to disguise himself to arrive safely in Washington D.C. for his inauguration in March of 1861. In his address, he said "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."
That did not halt the first shot fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina a few weeks later.
The Civil War was the most deadly war in American history. That was in large part due to the union being far more industrial and populated, but the Confederacy being led by the two Greatest Generals of the day: Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. General Lee had declined Lincoln’s offer to lead the union’s Army to a swift victory, and took charge of the rebel forces.
The union certainly had the upper hand, but the military genius of the southern Generals left the outcome in doubt until two decisive events occurred in 1863. The first was General Jackson getting killed in battle in May. The second was General Lee losing at the Battle of Gettysburg in July. From then on, it was only a matter of time for the Union to conquer the Confederacy.
Another significant event that happened on January 1st of that year was the executive order known as The Emancipation Proclamation. If the timing of it, and the inability to enforce it, do not leave some questions, Lincoln’s words leave little doubt about why he issued it. "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union ... I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free."
The Civil War ended with the official surrender at the Courthouse at Appamottox on April 7, 1865. Lincoln could finally live in peace. A week later, he was assassinated.
Lincoln faced more personal turmoil in his life than all that. His marriage was probably not a happy, loving one. Two of his four children died during his life, and only one lived to adulthood. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, came from Kentucky. Her family fought for the Confederacy. There simply was little to nothing in his life that was not contradictory.
He was one of the greatest orators to ever serve as President, and was far and away the greatest humorist of any President.
So why, despite all the contradictions in his life, do I admire him so much that I regard him as the greatest of all American Presidents? That, too, has to do with contradiction. He did three things that should be impossible.
The two Presidents who preceded him, and the President who succeeded him, are regarded as three of the worst Presidents in American history. He defied gravity to rise to one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Presidents of all time from amongst the worst.
He also defied logic by taking advantage of every opportunity life never gave him.
Finally, he defied mathematics by taking one divided into two, and resolved it to equal one.
Considering world events that would occur three score and fourteen years after his death, even those people who do not like him might appreciate that a United States of America existed thanks to him.
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Quotes from Abraham Lincoln
"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
"Whatever you are, be a good one."
"In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years."
"Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be."
"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."
"I care not for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not better for it."
Some other things I've written about: