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Reading 4: The Youth of Indiana Becomes the President of the United States
The boy who grew up on the Indiana frontier eventually became the leader of the nation and did so at a critical point in its history. After moving to Illinois, Abraham Lincoln worked at several different jobs before he became a lawyer. His success as a lawyer led him to Springfield, the capital of Illinois, where his long interest in politics became a serious part of his life. In 1834, he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives where he served three terms. In 1846, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives and in 1858 he ran for Senator from Illinois. Although he lost that election, he gained national prominence, partially through debates with Stephen A. Douglas on the issue of slavery. Two years later, in 1860, he was elected President of the United States, just as the crisis over slavery and secession peaked. Many of the qualities and characteristics that would help him to lead the country through the Civil War were born and nurtured during his formative years between the ages of 7 and 21.
Quotes from Abraham Lincoln:
"In this country, one can scarcely be so poor, but that, if he will, he can acquire sufficient education to get through the world respectably." (1)
" . . . I am never easy . . . when I am handling a thought, till I have bounded it north and bounded it south, and bounded it east, and bounded it west." (2)
Abraham Lincoln's intelligence was invaluable in making the many difficult decisions that came with being President during a time of crisis. He worked hard all his life to educate himself, in spite of many obstacles and challenges, and while President he continued to learn. As a boy he listened to his father and friends talk about the issues of the day, and then worked the idea in his mind until he understood it. His stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln, later recalled that he would repeat things over and over until it was fixed in his mind. As President, he listened carefully to his generals and advisors and read books on military strategy in a continual effort to learn and understand.
"Labor is the great source from which nearly all, if not all, human comforts and necessities are drawn." (3)
"Labor is the true standard of value." (4)
Growing up on the Indiana frontier, Abraham Lincoln learned at an early age that hard work was necessary for survival. He spent long days working with his father to clear the land, plant, and tend the crops. He hired himself out to work for neighboring farmers as a means of bringing additional money in for the family. When he decided to become a lawyer, he read and studied diligently and advised others to do the same. Certainly as President, he knew that it was going to take a lot of hard work to save the Union. He put in long hours attending to the countless details of running the country, including spending the entire night, sometimes, at the telegraph office, waiting for the latest news from his generals. He believed in the virtue of hard work not only for himself but for others. In response to a woman seeking work for her sons in 1865, he forwarded her request to one of his generals with a note stating, "The lady bearer of this says she has two sons who want to work. Wanting to work is so rare a want that it should be encouraged." (5)
. . . resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer." (6)
Honesty and integrity were character traits that Abraham learned early in life, possibly from observing his father. Thomas Lincoln was described by those who knew him as "a sturdy, honest . . . man." A young and impressionable boy was certainly impressed by the regard with which neighbors and friends held Thomas, and determined to emulate his behavior. Abraham exhibited his own sense of honesty on a number of occasions, enough so to earn him the nickname of "Honest Abe." As a teen, he had borrowed a book about George Washington from a neighbor and while it was in his possession, the book was damaged. Not having any money to pay for the damage, Abraham honestly told his neighbor what happened and offered to work off the value of the book. For three days he worked in the man's fields as payment for the damaged book. Such a strong sense of integrity later became a hallmark of his presidency.
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan..." (7)
Abraham Lincoln has long been revered for his compassion as so eloquently stated in his Second Inaugural Address. There were also instances of him granting clemency to deserters and of writing heartfelt letters of condolence to bereaved families. Perhaps because he had experienced loss himself at a young age, he was able to empathize with those in pain. But his acts of kindness were not limited to just people. At the age of eight he killed a wild turkey and was so distraught that he resolved never to hunt animals again. A childhood friend remembered that one day at school Abraham ". . . came forward . . . to read an essay on the wickedness of being cruel to helpless animals." Whatever its origins were, the compassion that led him to urge the binding of the nation's wounds, after the terrible devastation of the Civil War, helped ensure the country's survival of its trial by fire.
"I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for." (8)
"I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual." (9)
Abraham Lincoln held very strong beliefs about the sanctity of preserving the Union. In his mind the Founding Fathers envisioned a form of government unlike any the world had ever known and they sacrificed everything to create it. The ideas of freedom, equality of opportunity, and representative government were the foundation upon which a new nation was built. As a young man in Indiana, he read biographies of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and accounts of the revolutionary struggle they, and others, waged and endured. The impression they left on him was strong and lasting. So much so that when he found himself faced with secession, he did not hesitate, but resolved to preserve the Union. That decision, based on beliefs formed during his youth, significantly impacted the United States of the 1860s, and the United States of today, which still exists due to his resolve.
Questions for Reading 4
1. What are some of the characteristics Lincoln began developing during his time in Indiana?
2. How did these characteristics show up in his life as President?
3. What experiences in your life have left a lasting impression?
(1) "Eulogy on Henry Clay," July 6, 1852, reprinted in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, v. 2, p. 124. You can visit the entire collection online via the Humanities Text Initiative on the University of Michigan's Digital Library Production Service website at http://www.hti.umich.edu/l/lincoln/.