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Other titles in the American Presidents series:
Abraham Lincoln: The 16th President, 1861-1865 (American Presidents)by George S Mcgovern
The Greatness of Lincoln
Two hundred years ago Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in the Kentucky wilderness. From crude, disadvantaged beginnings he somehow recognized significant capabilities within himself and nurtured a determination to succeed. He rose improbably and unevenly, becoming a clerk, surveyor, businessman, lawyer, legislator, family man, statesman, and national political figure. From the heights of presidential power and privilege he led the country through its most terrible trial of civil war. In his resolve he maintained that no state or sectional interest could break apart a Union formed in perpetuity. In his genius he transformed the bloody struggle into a second American Revolution, a "new birth of freedom" that would finally allow fulfillment of the national promise of equality for all Americans, regardless of color. In life he was respected and ridiculed, beloved and hated; in death he was martyred. Lincoln is revered as our greatest president, but he is certainly more than that. He is an unparalleled national treasure, a legend that best represents the democratic ideal. Every generation looks to Lincoln for strength, inspiration, and wisdom. We want to know everything about him, and we wish we could be more like him. Why do we admire him so?
Abraham Lincoln was a self-made man who rose above the circumstances of his birth. The son of antislavery Baptists, reared in the backwoods of Kentucky and Indiana, he led an unpretentious and obscure early life. He knew no privilege or advantage, and was taught no life lessons except the necessity of unrelenting work. His formal education totaled just one year, but from that brief experience in the schoolroom he learned that knowledge, no matter how acquired, would be the key to improving his station in life. He never stopped reading, absorbing, analyzing, and through dogged determination he grew in wisdom and stature.
His unquenchable ambition came from within. Certainly he longed to remove himself from his father's world of drudgery and near-poverty. Perhaps he was inspired by his mother's, and then his stepmother's, gentle insistence that he could improve himself through reading, learning, and mental activity. Perhaps, too, he carried with him a mea sure of New En gland Yankeemahastyle initiative and character and recognition of individual responsibility. What ever the source, Lincoln was, in the words of one biographer, "the most ambitious man in the world."1
He learned from all of his failuresand there were many. Dissatisfied with farm life, he left his father's home for good at age twenty-one, settling in New Salem, Illinois, a tiny village that was, like him, rough, undeveloped, and facing an uncertain future. He purchased an interest in two small general stores, but chose unreliable and perhaps dishonest men for partners who left him with a staggering debt that took him years to pay. At various times he worked as a field hand, postal clerk, blacksmith, and surveyor, positions that at best brought temporary satisfaction but left him feeling unfulfilled. He was gawky, shambling, and homespun. He lacked confidence, particularly around women, and Ann Rutledge, alleged by some to be his first true love, died of typhoid in 1835. In 1832 he lost the first political contest he entered, for the Illinois state legislature.
But Lincoln would not resign himself to failure and loss; instead he learned from each experience and carried on. People, he found, liked him despite his rough exterioror perhaps because of it. They laughed at his jokes and liked to be around him. He inspired trust. He paid his debts. He ran again for the state legislature in 1834 and was elected, and then reelected four more times. He threw himself into the study of law, spending nearly every waking moment reading and analyzing the rules of pleading and practice, and became an attorney in 1836. He earned a reputation for honesty and sincerity, and he parlayed his standing in legal circles and his political connections into election to Congress in 1846. He shook off his broken heart over the death of Ann Rutledge and in 1842 married the vivacious Mary Todd, perhaps the most enchanting young lady in Illinois, who would fuel his driving ambition.
During most of his life Lincoln suffered from recurring bouts of emotional depression or what he and his associates called "melancholy." This is a malady that can result in agonizing, even paralyzing, despair. That Lincoln was able to contain, if not conquer, this dread affliction is a huge tribute to his strength and character.
Perhaps the best account of his depression is by the historian Joshua Wolf Shenk, who wrote of Lincoln:
He told jokes and stories at odd timeshe needed the laughs, he said, for his survival. He often wept in public and recited maudlin poetry. As a young man he talked of suicide, and as he grew older, he said he saw the world as hard and grim, full of misery, made that way by fates and forces of God. "No element of Mr. Lincoln's character," declared his colleague Henry Whitney, "was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy." His law partner William Herndon said, "His melancholy dripped from him as he walked."2
In 1841, at the age of thirty-two, Lincoln wrote: "I am now the most miserable man living." During his days in the Illinois legislature, his friend Robert L. Wilson said that while Lincoln was often humorous and fun-loving, he once took Wilson aside to confess that he was a victim of depression so painful that he didn't dare carry a knife lest he commit suicide. Lincoln suffered grievously. It is Shenk's view that this suffering refined and strengthened Lincoln's greatness.3
Lincoln's obvious sadness drew his associates and many citizens to him. Given his determination to control his emotional life and to move from challenge to challenge and from battle to battle, it may well be that he converted an apparent handicap into a political asset. His sad countenance, reflecting his internal depression, doubtless touched the hearts of many voters who came to love and admire the tall, lean, sad-faced man from Illinois.
Various factors could have contributed to Lincoln's depression: heredity, deaths in the family, business failures, election defeats, even bad weather. His law partner William Herndon reported that Lincoln believed he might have contracted syphilis in 1835 or 1836. If so, this might account for some of his anxiety about marriage. Many of the men in Lincoln's time had some kind of sexually transmitted disease or feared that they did.4
Despite his struggle with depression, Lincoln took advantage of his opportunities. Although he served but a single term in Congresshe took the unpopular stand of opposing the war with Mexicohe reentered the political arena in 1858, challenging the feisty Stephen Douglas for the U.S. Senate. He lost the election but won the admiration of many who heard him speak passionately about the country and its future, and he most assuredly caught the attention of national political leaders. Riding a wave of good publicity after a speech at New York's Cooper Union in February 1860, where he declared that "right makes might," he sensed that the time was his. His name was bandied about for the Republican presidential nomination while his Democratic opponents bickered, hopelessly splitting their party along North-South lines. Lincoln's Republican adversaries for the nomination were not as talented and well positioned, and he became the ideal compromise candidate at the party's convention. A few months later, he was elected president of a country that seemed b
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