It was said by those who lived near him on the Illinois frontier that Abraham Lincoln was always seen with an ax in one hand and a book in the other.
Given the fact he was self-educated, having taught himself how to read and cipher numbers, Lincoln’s rise from wilderness obscurity to greatness is all the more remarkable. Borrowed books such as John Bunyan’s "Pilgrim’s Progress," Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and even William Shakespeare's works made it onto Lincoln's reading list as a young man. His favorite book was Parson Weems’ biography of George Washington — ironic given the trajectory of Lincoln’s political career.
Though Lincoln had nothing in common with the white privileged Southern planter class, it would be the abolition of slavery to which the 16th president’s name is forever attached. As Lincoln matured into adulthood, he came to hate slavery. But let us be clear, as historian Matthew McCann Fenton writes, “Far from sharing the colorblind ideals of our time, Lincoln held many of the racist attitudes of his.”
Even before disunion and Civil War, you can get a glimpse into the mind of Lincoln.
Lesser known among his speeches, Lincoln’s Peoria Address in October 1854 signified his displeasure with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which infuriated northern newspaper editors and inflamed northern public opinion. Within two years, Lincoln would bolt the Whig Party of his political idol slave owner Henry Clay and join the new Republican Party.
Here an important distinction is to be made: Empathizing with Southern planters, Lincoln, a Free-Soiler, was willing to tolerate slavery where it existed. But he would never approve its spread into the Mexican Cession and the rest of the country. That, and Lincoln’s renewed consecration to the words in the Declaration of Independence that indeed “all men are created equal,” allows you to see into Lincoln’s thinking.
With the crucible of Civil War came more change. No less than three meetings with Frederick Douglass occurred in the White House during the conflict as Lincoln enlisted the Black abolitionist to recruit other Blacks and former slaves to fight for the Union cause. More than 180,000 Blacks enlisted before war’s end.
During the war, Lincoln met with African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Daniel Payne and a Black delegation to discuss the colonization issue, which the president abandoned. He welcomed Sojourner Truth and Martin Delany, and both left a lasting impression. Lincoln entertained Black diplomats from Haiti and Liberia as well as a Black North Carolina delegation petitioning the president for the right to vote with Southern white hegemony crumbling. Lincoln also welcomed a Black delegation from New Orleans to the White House.
As political historian Eric Foner makes clear, “He (Lincoln) never became a full-fledged racial egalitarian. In private, he continued to use offensive language "and tell racially inflected stories.” Even so, once Lincoln issued his executive order known as the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, he would forever be called “the Great Emancipator.” Ratification of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in February 1865, only enhanced Lincoln’s legacy. And Lincoln’s apotheosis continues to the present day.
Time magazine celebrated its 40th anniversary with Lincoln on its cover, calling him “the common man who is yet uncommon.” Before a joint session of Congress, Lincoln biographer and poet Carl Sandburg said, “Not often in the story of mankind does a man arrive on Earth who is both steel and velvet, who is hard as rock and soft as a drifting fog, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect.”
Future presidents have looked to him for inspiration; politicians ranging from Winston Churchill to Fidel Castro have admired him. Today a political action committee bears his name hoping to rekindle the spirit of the man who spoke these words on a famous battlefield: “... 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."
Jean Griffith lives in Carthage.