The Paradoxical President: Re-imagining Abraham Lincoln

| , | February 26, 2024

Every February, American children from all over their country are treated to the dusty facts regarding the sixteenth president of the United States — that of good ol’ Abe Lincoln, he of simple beginnings and Civil War stewardship. The guy was tall; he freed the slaves; he was killed while attending a theater performance. What else is there to know? 

After all of that captivating information, actually quite a bit. 

When the tall tales and myths are moved aside, a paradoxical man emerges from the forgotten records of American history. The real Abraham Lincoln was a complex, enigmatic character, and lived victim to the beliefs of his time.

The Icon of American Morality is Born in Questionable Circumstances

As most raised in the United States know, Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin on February 12th, 1809 in Hodgenville, Kentucky. At the time, Thomas Jefferson was finishing up his service as the United States of America’s third president, and there were seventeen states in the Union: the original thirteen, plus Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio.

On top of that, the Louisiana Territory had been obtained in the “Louisiana Purchase” but had yet to be divided up into administrative districts. 

Lincoln wasn’t actually born in Illinois — the area associated with him — as most people believe, but in Kentucky. His family moved between established country and the wilderness territory that eventually became the states of Indiana and Illinois several times during his youth, and he was nearly ten when the latter state officially joined the Union. 

As the child of poor farmers, little Abraham was not considered part of accepted society. His mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, was in fact born out of wedlock, and her own pregnancy with the future president is rumoured to have occurred in equally dubious circumstances, though the presence of Abraham’s older sister, Sarah, questions the validity of this. 

Lincoln’s father, Thomas, was rumored to have “assumed the boy’s parentage” (1) rather than having actually fathered him; the child’s name, Abraham, is speculated to have come from either his grandfather or from the man who paid Thomas to raise him. 

If it’s true, it makes sense that this questionable lineage would later provide much of the motivation for Abraham Lincoln’s social and political ambitions, a road that would lead him to being remembered as one of America’s greatest leaders. His early life on Kentucky’s frontier shaped his character and prepared him to lead the nation through Civil War.

A Rural Childhood and Dreams of More

Growing up, Abraham Lincoln attended school briefly, dropping in and out of the classroom as required by the farm calendar. He presumably learned to read, cipher, and complete basic math equations from teachers, but the boy was a reader, born and bred, and books were his primary educational tool (2). 

During his adolescence, he pored over classics such as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and a biography of George Washington, on top of the traveler’s tales told after dinner and the Bible stories taught by his Protestant settler parents.

Abraham Lincoln lost his mother at the age of nine, due to an illness known as the “milk sickness” — an ailment caused by drinking milk poisoned by a cow’s consumption of a common type of plant — and her loss devastated Abraham. Nancy had provided a buffer between him and his father, a relationship that was said to be strained. 

Fortunately, Abraham Lincoln was not left alone for long to be taken care of by his older sister. Less than a year later, his father began courting a woman named Sarah Bush Johnston.

Thomas Lincoln assumed her debts when he married her, and she in turn took on the task of raising his children alongside her three. Finding them to be running wild and in sore need of a civilizing influence, she also considered Abraham to be “the best boy [she] ever saw” (3).

Abraham Lincoln resented the manual labor required of him as the child of farmers, preferring to read and be alone with his thoughts. As the only living son of a struggling family, however, he pitched in and dutifully did what he could to keep the entire brood afloat.

Tall and strong, he was physically an impressive worker, and perhaps being influenced by the tall tales surrounding America’s first President, Lincoln, too, became known for his woodchopping skills.

But Abraham Lincoln found his frontier life tedious, and sought a way out of the physical and intellectual poverty that he felt surrounded him. Today, his humble origins are often glorified, but the man himself was always looking for an escape into higher society.

The Bookworm Becomes a Physical Laborer

As a young man, Abraham Lincoln soon found work as a “stevedore” — a waterfront dockworker, loading and unloading ships — traveling up and down the Mississippi River. His strength and work ethic served him well, as he was required to build a type of ship called a flatboat, load it full of heavy supplies, pilot it down the river, and disassemble it before he and his co-pilot would walk all the way back up-river to the journey’s origin.

At the age of nineteen, his first trip left Rockport, Indiana in April of 1828, and travelled through the port of Vicksburg — which would later become the site of an important Civil War battle — before arriving in Louisiana. 

Upon arriving the boat was attacked by unknown Black assailants, and it is unknown whether they were slaves or free men. No matter the motivation, they were desperate for the money and provisions that the boat carried. 

Abraham Lincoln and his partner managed to fight them off and left the area immediately, in the middle of the night, and poled onwards to their destination: New Orleans (4).

Here, Abraham Lincoln was exposed to the realities of slavery. It’s likely that he was witness to slave auctions and the horrors that accompanied them, reportedly having trouble reconciling the beauty of the city — the first he had experienced — with the brutality he witnessed. It’s speculated that this was the occasion that would forever influence his view on the institution of owning human beings as property. 

Lincoln would make another flatboat trip in 1831, now at the age of twenty-one and moved out of home. As his only visits to the antebellum South, these provided him with personal knowledge beyond his boyhood on the Mason-Dixon line

These trips, and personally experiencing the plight of desperate men, women, and children, no doubt changed him in ways that would later culminate in the Emancipation Proclamation: the document created during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency that declared all slaves in the United States of America to be free from the centuries long oppression they’d been victim to. 

The Child of the People Becomes a Man of Law

During Abraham Lincoln’s final boat trip, he found himself marooned, his flatboat caught on a milldam, off the shores of New Salem, Illinois. Needing to make repairs to his boat, he found himself chatting with a number of the residents, including John M. Camron and James Rutledge (the father of one of Lincoln’s future loves), who had founded the town two years earlier. 

Lincoln’s quick thinking enabled him to reason through the mechanical problems, and his willingness to speak with the townspeople further helped to connect him to the residents. One of them, a man by the name of Denton Offut — who had, years prior, hired Abraham into his profession as a stevedore — now provided the twenty-two year old an alternative to the taxing physical labor. 

Having grown into a man during his travels, Abraham was hired to tend the counter at Offut’s general store (5).

Moved into the world of commerce, he worked both there and with the postal service, and it’s said that this is the place where Lincoln’s famous nickname came to be — the story goes that he overcharged a customer by giving the wrong amount of change back, and traveled many miles to return the money, earning him the title “Honest Abe.”

Here, in New Salem, and almost immediately after settling in the town, Honest Abe befriended a shopkeep by the name of Joshua Speed, the two renting an apartment and even later remaining close during Abraham’s presidency.  

On August 1, 1831, Lincoln participated in his first run for political office, offering himself as a candidate in the House of Representatives for Illinois State.

As he had no real qualifications he lost this race, but in the process of doing so, he was able to introduce himself to many of the area’s movers and shakers. Only two years later, he would run again, and, this time, he would win.

Although still living on the fringes of American society, Lincoln now found himself surrounded by people who read, thought, and discussed current events and issues — a new, heady reality for the budding politician who found himself developing ideas that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

A Future President’s Political Beginnings

This sociability provided him with an entrée into the Whig Party. An organization that had first grown out of the nation’s original Federalist Party, it had since coalesced in opposition to President Andrew Jackson’s crisis facing Southern states plantation’s protests of the tariffs he’d placed on their exports.

Ideologically, the Whigs championed the protection of business interests and governmental involvement in the development of infrastructure. But they were also considered supporters of “law and order,” in contrast to the populist Democrats of the time. Whigs believed in the rule of law as originally written, and protested what they saw as “presidential overreach.” 

The party had existed for thirty years, attempting to tie together various belief systems under a shared umbrella of compromise and coalition. This political group is where Lincoln learned to work with and around his rivals, joining disparate ideas together into a blend that would one day lead to stunning changes in the developing nation. 

This is also probably where Abraham Lincoln’s ultimately doomed belief in a “gentle reconstruction” got its start — the hope that through strides towards peace and mercy, the Southern states could, after the Civil War, rejoin the Union without too harsh a punishment, so as to bring the country back together with the least amount of resistance as possible. 

Unfortunately, this desire was never achievable, as the North and South have always played the blame-game. Given the fact that the American Civil War remains to this day the bloodiest conflict in the country’s history, it’s not hard to see why these hard feelings existed. 

On top of learning how to maintain diplomatic relations with his opposition, Lincoln’s involvement with the Whig party also led to his belief that becoming a lawyer was necessary for him to enter politics. He was continually reviled for his humble origins and rawboned looks; no doubt he sought something that would “prove” his suitability for public office.  

As a state assemblyman in 1834, Lincoln, then 25, was known for wearing blue jeans rather than more elevated attire — at the same time also known for his extreme hard work on the Whig party’s behalf.

Although he would not become nationally known for another twenty-five years, his time in New Salem helped him to understand the rough-and-tumble nature of the political sphere, as well as the history of both slavery and western expansion in the developing United States. 

He lived and worked with a variety of personalities, experiencing life on the border between territories that would, in the future, be violently at a Civil war with each other as Union and Confederate states. Eventually, New Salem would become too small for someone as ambitious as Lincoln, and he would move seventy-seven miles east to the state capital of Springfield, Illinois, entrenching himself deeper in politics.

The Man Who Ends Slavery Marries the Daughter of a Slave Owner

Before courting Mary Todd in 1842, Abraham Lincoln had two serious relationships with women. His first was with Ann Rutledge — the daughter of New Salem founder, James Rutledge. Like Abraham, Ann was originally from Kentucky and was born to a large family, as well as being self-educated. 

Almost twice her age when the two met, Lincoln was not her only suitor, but the two found common ground intellectually as well as in each’s industrious approach to life. In 1835, Ann finally consented to a long-term betrothal, giving Abraham the chance to build up his financial security before the wedding.

She would pass away suddenly, later that summer. Lincoln was distraught, as his business and political associate, William Herndon, is said to have considered Abraham’s heart permanently broken by her death. 

As history shows, though, Ann would have made a far different sort of spouse than Abraham Lincoln’s later wife. As the daughter of a tavern keeper, she lacked the political know-how needed by a future first lady, and had this relationship worked out, Lincoln’s life might have turned out very differently.

Continuing on with his search for a suitable spouse, he courted a woman by the name of Mary Owens while he studied for his law license. This relationship, however, proved to be very on-again, off-again — Lincoln alternately wooed her and backed away from any serious commitment, and the two finally parted in 1837 when he moved to the new Illinois state capital of Springfield.

A few years later, as a member of the state legislature, Lincoln’s work involved a great deal of party politicking and socializing. One of his associates, a man by the name of Ninian Edwards, was originally from Kentucky and had moved to Illinois state several years earlier. At a social gathering in 1839, Lincoln met Edwards’ sister-in-law, a beautiful and seductive woman by the name of Mary Todd. 

Twenty-one to Lincoln’s thirty-three, the two shared the misfortune of having both lost their mothers at a young age, as well as Mary Todd being unusually well educated and as interested in politics as he was.

A woman of high spirits and the daughter of a respected plantation owner from Kentucky, Mary grew up with slaves to wait on her. Witty and gregarious, her character is said to have ironically resembled that of the future fictional Southern belle from the famous Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara. Lincoln, the ambitious and competitive politician, no doubt enjoyed wrestling her away from her other suitors (8).

While the two were both conflicted on the desirability of marriage, they each saw in the other a fellow intellectual and social climber, and at their wedding, Lincoln invited no one from his family of birth, finally able to affiliate himself with relations more appropriate for an up-and-coming politico.

America’s Patriotic Innovator Suffers an Affliction of the Mind

By this time in his life, Lincoln was well known by his associates as being melancholic in character. The 1835 death of Ann Rutledge occasioned the first of Lincoln’s encounters with what he termed the “hypo” — what we now know as clinical depression — and it was not to be his last.

In 1840 he succumbed once again to a period of profound gloom, seclusion, and loss of pleasure in daily life, with another episode to occur in 1841. During these periods it’s told that Lincoln considered taking his own life, to the point where friends removed dangerous objects from his possession. He cried in public, became maudlin — overcome with emotion — easily, and stopped eating.

At the same time, however, over the years as these episodes would overtake him, Lincoln continued with his work and personal life, becoming engaged, getting married, and continuing his work with the Illinois State Legislature. Eventually, he was able to transform his relationship with recurrent depression, moving from episodes of near-insanity to periods of controlled melancholy. 

This of course tells us much about Lincoln’s strength of character as well as his desire to transform himself into a man of consequence. And with the help of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, who also suffered from mood swings, he was able to work at developing coping skills — the two would go on to have four sons together, attend parties and other social events, and build a life that allowed both to live and flourish in a time without psychiatric help.

Heartbreak soon hit the family when Lincoln’s 3rd son William Wallace Lincoln succumbed to typhoid fever on February 20, 1862, Both parents and his brother Thomas “Tad” were deeply affected. Lincoln said, “My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so much. It is hard, hard to have him die!” after the burial, he shut himself in a room and wept alone. Mary Todd Lincoln was bed-ridden for three weeks and was unable to attend William’s funeral or look after Tad. Abraham Lincoln took solace in caring for and comforting Tad, who remained very ill and was grieving himself for his brother’s death. Death, it seems, would continue to haunt the Lincoln family.

From Railsplitter to Wordsmith

Although Lincoln was politically active for more than twenty years before the 1860 Presidential election, he was not known nationally for the majority of that time, becoming a household name only when he ran for the Senate against the Democrat, Stephen Douglass. Lincoln’s famous “House Divided” speech, given on June 16, 1858, marked his rise from unknown challenger to American orator.

Given that Lincoln was trying to win the Presidential election, this speech was, in the words of Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, “morally courageous,” but politically incorrect. 

During the speech, Lincoln noted that the United States had reached a crisis point over the question of slavery. His oft-quoted comment, “I believe government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free,” echoed his private belief that — as reprehensible as slavery was to him personally — it was more of an issue that the country was divided into two separate sides, and left unable to work together for the good of the whole. 

In the speech, Lincoln reviewed the events of the previous decade, discussing the ways in which each side had moved farther apart, creating a chasm of political disagreement so large it was nearly impossible to cross. His opinion that slave states were trying to promote slavery and eradicate emancipation and that this would lead to the dissolution of the Union was too radical for many ears.

In Lincoln’s defense, his accusations were indeed borne out by recent history. The 1848 Mexican-American War was encouraged partially by a desire to extend the reach of slave states into the West, so as to overwhelm the abolitionist voices in the North and keep Southern power in the government. 

And the Dred Scott case — where a Black man unsuccessfully sued for the freedom of himself and his family — was another arrow in Lincoln’s quiver. The contention that slavery could not be excluded from a state or territory enraged abolitionists across the nation, but Lincoln’s comments were equally inflammatory. 

Where Stephen A. Douglas sought a compromise, Lincoln in essence declared that a line had to be drawn in the sand.

The Racist Becomes a Champion for Freedom

Throughout the 1850s, Lincoln had doubted the prospects of civil war, and his supporters rejected claims that his election would incite secession. Though he lost the election (but won the popular vote), when reviewed one hundred and fifty years later, the 1858 debates demonstrate quite a few paradoxes in Lincoln’s character. We idolize Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation, but the truth is that this executive order was not issued for ethical reasons.

Lincoln found the institution of slavery repugnant, but not because of the terrible moral reality of owning human beings as property. 

Instead, it was the preservation of the United States government that drove him to fuel the political vitriol of his day, and when pressed by writer and ardent abolitionist Horace Greeley on the matter, Lincoln said:

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 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.

Reader’s Almanac Blog

Historians are conflicted in their analysis of Lincoln’s personal stance regarding slavery and emancipation. Some consider him a personal moderate; others see him as a racist who used the Emancipation Proclamation in order to promote the Union’s cause during the Civil War.

It is important to remember that Lincoln was, above all, a political animal. His membership in the Whig Party was based on his devotion to the rational ideas of the Founding Fathers, whom he idealized, with cosmopolitan intellect valued over rural ideas of freedom. 

When he and others developed the Republican party in , it was in order to support societal equity and federal control over states’ rights — things far more important to him than the status of individual slaves (13).

In his debate with Stephen A Douglas — the man he would run against during his presidential campaign only a few years later — in 1856 (same year he joined the Republican Party) Lincoln stated his opposition to interracial marriage and to Black suffrage in as many words, holding this opinion at the same time as his dichotomous belief in the right of all people to pursue economic prosperity (14). 

After Abraham Lincoln won the Republican Party nomination and was elected President in 1860, seven slave-holding states left the Union to form the Confederate States of America, and four more joined when hostilities began between the North and South. Lincoln ordered a fleet of Union ships to supply the federal Fort Sumter in South Carolina in April. The Confederates fired on both the fort and the Union fleet, beginning the Civil War.

The Civil War engulfed the nation as Lincoln vowed to preserve the Union, enforce the laws of the United States, and end the secession. The Civil War was not entirely caused by Lincoln’s election, but the Presidential election was one of the primary reasons the war broke out the following year.

With the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 being dominated by the Southern Confederate army winning fight after fight and the Union army being forced to change commanders every few months, the Emancipation Proclamation became an important tool in encouraging the Civil war effort. Lincoln noted that “the war against the slaveholder’s rebellion must become a war against slavery itself.” The Emancipation Proclamation gained votes for Republicans in rural New England and the upper Midwest, but cost votes in the Irish and German strongholds and in the lower Midwest, where many Southerners had lived for generations.

The Lincoln administration did more than just manage the Civil War, although its resonance could still be felt in a number of policies. The Revenue Act of 1862 established the United States’ first income tax, largely to pay the costs of the Civil War.

Crushing the southern rebellion would be difficult under any circumstances, but the Civil War, after decades of white-hot partisan politics, was especially burdensome. From all directions, Lincoln faced disparagement and defiance. He was often at odds with his generals, his Cabinet, his party and a majority of the American people.

The Emancipation Proclamation was used as a method of rebuilding esprit de corps (pride, common loyalty to a cause) in those who had watched with horror at the Union’s bungling of multiple successive skirmishes.

But in a letter written to Horace Greeley during this time, Lincoln clarified his stance by once again stating that the “paramount object in the struggle is to save the Union, and is not to either save or destroy slavery.”

When finally issued on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation “freed” — a word used reluctantly, as Black Americans wouldn’t experience anything even resembling equality for another hundred years — only those slaves living in Southern states, “as an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity.” The Emancipation Proclamation, affirmed the freedom of slaves in 10 states not then under Union control, with exemptions specified for areas under such control.

On November 19, 1863, Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Gettysburg battlefield cemetery. Lincoln asserted that the nation was born not in 1789, but in 1776, “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. He declared that the Civil War was dedicated to the principles of liberty and equality for all. He declared that the deaths of so many brave soldiers would not be in vain, that slavery would end, and the future of democracy would be assured, that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”. The speech is famously remembered as the ‘Gettysburg Address’.

Those living in the border states that remained loyal to the Union were not affected by this decree, and the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery in the entirety of the United States was not passed by the House of Representatives until April 8, 1864. A decree that wouldn’t be fully ratified until December 18, 1865, many months after the end of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s death.

Perhaps, however, we expect too much of Lincoln in this regard. He was, after all, a man of the nineteenth century — surrounded by the racism and contempt of his White contemporaries, and forced to confront a divide that had existed for nearly the entirety of the nation’s young existence. And on top of that, the existence of a more salacious rumour… 

The Model of Nineteenth Century Morality Might Have Been Bisexual

In 1837, during his early political days while living in New Salem, Illinois, Lincoln shared an apartment — and a bed — with his friend, the previously mentioned Joshua Speed. This relationship was actually the cause of his initial breakup with then fiancée Mary Todd, as Lincoln followed Speed when the man left to move to Kentucky before returning to Illinois nearly a year later. 

To present further evidence — though both men did eventually marry women — during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln maintained another close friendship with his bodyguard, a man named David Derickson. Again, the two of them shared a bed when Mary Todd was away from home, it being said that their relationship was one of warm companionship.

We have to remember, though, when considering these ideas, that many people shared beds throughout most of history. The idea of privacy in today’s world is comparatively modern, and for most, a “room of one’s own” has always been a pipe dream. 

The Victorian era, which took place during the mid to late 1800s (the later half of America’s Antebellum period) and heralded the beginnings of a middle class, was the advent of private rooms and beds; a luxury those living across the pond in the young United States would not get to enjoy until the tail end of the century. 

On the other hand, today’s world now has the concepts and capability of describing what Oscar Wilde termed “the love that has no name,” while in contrast, during Lincoln’s lifetime, the Second Great Awakening swept across the United States — a religious revival movement that brought about an avalanche of Puritanical thought. 

“Sodomy” and “unnatural acts” were grave sins, and women were not considered to be able to have intimate relations with each other. Is it any wonder that Lincoln, as a public figure, would have preferred a conventional marriage? 

There are also several occasions noted where Abraham Lincoln frequented female prostitutes, and at one point was thought to have contracted syphilis. As a young adult, Abraham Lincoln was tall, nearly skeletally skinny, and gangly, a far cry from the prevailing idea of a handsome man. While he was liked for his conversational skills and ability to tell stories, he was also ridiculed for his lack of dress sense and low birth. 

This by itself may be one reason why the man was more comfortable forming close friendships with men; another of course being his fear of passing on the venereal disease that he would reportedly take a medicine known as “Blue mass” — otherwise known as mercury pills — for, later in his life. (Though his use may have also been for his frequent episodes of depression, or even for the many other common ailments the blue pill supposedly remedied.)

Regardless of what the man’s sexual orientation might have been, there are lasting effects that this speculation has had. The presence of today’s “Log Cabin Republicans,” an organization (so named because of Abraham Lincoln’s humble beginnings) that work within the Republican Party to advocate for the equal rights of gay and lesbian Americans, is a direct result of these ideas pertaining to his personal relationships. 

The fact that an organization like this exists displays the belief and interest in the possibility of such an important historical figure existing and living as a bisexual man.

A Changed Nation Without its Champion

On March 4, 1865, Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address, a speech that would later be inscribed in the Lincoln Memorial together with the Gettysburg Address. In it, he wondered what God’s will might have been in allowing the war to come, and why it had assumed the terrible dimensions it had taken. He endeavored to address some of these dilemmas, using allusions taken from the Bible.

Abraham Lincoln lived out the Civil War as he had lived previously — in a city straddling two cultures. Washington, D.C. is right on the Mason-Dixon Line, and many of the Virginian and Pennsylvanian battlefields of the Civil War were perilously close to Lincoln’s home and work. 

While his life was constantly in danger, Abraham Lincoln made it a point to socialize with others in the city throughout the Civil war. His work as commander-in-chief exposed him to both the battlefields and to being near enemies with reason to strike.

He was shot at several times during the four year period of the Civil War, surviving five failed attempts at his life before the end of the conflict.

And then, as the last days of the Civil War drew near, a man by the name of John Wilkes Booth came into the picture.

As a bigot and Confederate sympathizer, Booth wanted to reverse the course of American history started by Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, where the Confederate General had surrendered, as he believed, like a coward.

On April 11, 1865, twenty-one year old John Wilkes Booth — a man who referred to Black people as all manner of terrible things, and wrote that slavery was “one of the greatest blessings that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation” — attended a speech given by Abraham Lincoln. Upon hearing that former slaves would now be allowed to vote, he became furious, exclaiming, “Now by God, I’ll put him through. That’s the last speech he will ever give.”

The Civil War had never been about slavery to Lincoln, but the bigotry that held hard and fast to the institution would prove to be his undoing.

As his original idea to kidnap the president unraveled, John Wilkes Booth began his plan for assassination instead. He and his co-conspirators hoped that, without its leader, the United States government would fall into disarray, allowing the Confederacy to rise from the ashes of its defeat.

Only a few days after Abraham Lincoln’s speech, on April 14, 1865, Abraham and Mary attended a theatre performance at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. 

Booth crept silently into the Presidential Box, placed a gun to the back of Lincoln’s head, and shot him. At Mary’s horrified scream, he turned and fled, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Death to tyrants!” — the words of the Virginia state motto.) 

Lincoln, unconscious from the gunshot wound, was carried to a nearby house and cared for throughout the night by a team of doctors. They removed blood clots, found the lodged bullet, and attempted to staunch the heavy bleeding, but agreed that no man could survive such a wound. 

Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son Robert Todd Lincoln, who had turned down the invitation to accompany his parents to the theatre that night, arrived to sit with his father, crying openly at his bedside.

Mary Todd, who had become hysterical, was escorted from the room and kept apart from her husband until shortly before he died early the next morning, at 7:22am on April 15, 1865.

Lincoln’s body was carried by an honor guard to the White House in Washington D.C on Saturday April 15, 1865. He lay in state in the East Room of the White House which was open to the public on Tuesday, April 18. A funeral service was held on April 19, attended by large crowds, and then the coffin, was transported in a procession down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol Rotunda, where a ceremonial funeral service was held. The body again lay in state on the 20th and on the early morning of the following day a prayer service was held for the former President’s cabinet officials.

Lincoln’s remains were then put on a funeral train that left Washington D.C headed for the Oak Ridge Cemetery in the State of Illinois where he was finally laid to rest.

As a famous actor, John Wilkes Booth’s face was easily recognizable by witnesses to the attack. He was found and killed little more than a week after the assassination, as well as his conspirators who were also later hanged. 

Less than a week after people celebrated the end the Civil War, the country was mourning yet again. The nation mourned the violent loss of the individual who had done so much to preserve the Union, and thus began Lincoln’s transformation into what would become a near-deified icon of the patriotic spirit. He would be hailed as the president who preserved the Union during the American Civil War and brought about the emancipation of the slaves.

Lincoln’s Place in History

Abraham Lincoln has long been considered one of the two greatest presidents in American history, second only to George Washington himself. Because of this, our understanding of his life has been subjected to repeated revisionist thought as successive generations strive to connect with his legacy. 

This is why it is important to return to the actual events of the past, including older ideals of the ways in which the world works. After his assassination in 1865, the Atlantic magazine published an exegesis of Abraham Lincoln’s life and work, commenting, “The thought of the individual was effaced; and men’s minds were drawn to the station which he filled, to his public career, to the principles he represented, to his martyrdom.”

This is perhaps the best description of Lincoln’s memory. An intelligent man, Abraham Lincoln was the right person in the right place at the right time; his ideas were so powerful that he was able to preserve the Union together during a period where all it wanted to do was tear itself apart.

And, though his political beliefs may not earn him the title of Republican today — despite the party’s best efforts to claim otherwise — the decisions he made for his time were forward thinking and led the country into the new century.

In her book Team of Rivals, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin discusses what she terms the “political genius” of Abraham Lincoln, namely his willingness to surround himself with opposing views (19). This analysis makes sense when examined alongside the many contradictions of Lincoln’s life. 

Changing ideas regarding slavery and freedom swirled through intellectual thought of the nineteenth century, as did conceptions of state and federal rights. Born amidst these philosophical currents, Abraham Lincoln charted his course as a self-made man, a cerebral giant whose policies emerged as the United States wrestled with industrialization, westward expansion, and the role of race in society. 

Whether piloting a riverboat, working on court cases, or leading the United States through its worst period of turmoil, he made his mark by channeling the synthesis of opposing ideas. 

By doing so, he preserved the Union as we now know it today, in a metaphor for his lasting contribution — a country as paradoxical as one of its key saviors. The Lincoln memorial was established in 1922 in Washington D.C to honor the man who was the 16th President of the United States. A plaque of the Gettysburg Address together with a giant 159 ton statue (made of Georgia marble) of the former President were erected inside the memorial to remind future generations of the President who lived and died in service for his country and countrymen.


The Right Arm of Custer, Colonel James H. Kidd

President William McKinley

Nathan Bedford Forrest

The Bixby Letter, a New Analysis Casts Doubt

Ida M. Tarbell, a Progressive look at Lincoln

For Further Reading:

  1. Keneally, Thomas. Abraham Lincoln: A Penguin Life. Penguin Putnam, New York, New York, 2003. ISBN: 0-670-03175-5.
  2. “Abraham Lincoln.” History. Updated June 6, 2019. Retrieved on 8 October, 2019.
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