“”by Stephen B.Oates
Published by Mentor Books
About the Author
Stephen B. Oates is a professor of history at the University of
Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of eight other books, including
The Fires of Jubilee and To Purge This Land with Blood. His task in this
biography was to perpetuate Lincoln as he was in the days he lived. His
purpose of this biography was to bring the past into the present for us
and his students.

The Life of Abraham Lincoln
Although other states such as Indiana lay claim to his birth, most
sources agree that Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in a
backwoods cabin in Hodgeville, Kentucky. In an interview during his
campaign for the presidency in 1860 Lincoln described his adolescence as
“the short and simple annals of the poor.” (p 30). His father Thomas
was a farmer who married Nancy Hanks, his mother, in 1806. Lincoln had
one sister, Sarah, who was born in 1807.

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The Lincoln family was more financially comfortable than most despite
the common historical picture of complete poverty. They moved to
Indiana because of the shaky system of land titles in Kentucky. Because
the Lincoln’s arrived in Spencer County at the same time as winter,
Thomas only had time to construct a “half-faced camp.” Made of logs and
boughs, it was enclosed on only three sides with a roaring fire for the
fourth. The nearest water supply was a mile away, and the family had to
survive on the abundance of wild game in the area.

Less than two years after the move to Indiana, Mrs. Lincoln caught a
horrible frontier disease known as “milk sick.”. Thomas Lincoln returned
to Kentucky to find a new wife. On December 2 he married Sarah Bush
Johnston, a widow with three children, and took them all back to
Indiana. Although there were now eight people living in the small
shelter, the Lincoln children, especially Abe, adored their new
stepmother who played a key role in making sure that Abe at least had
some formal education, amounting to a little less than a year in all.
To support his family it was necessary that Abe worked for a wage on
nearby farms.

“He was strong and a great athlete, but Abe preferred to read instead.
Although few books were available to a backwoods boy such as himself,
anything that he could obtain he would read tenaciously” (p 56).
Although his formal education had come to an end,
his self-education was just beginning.

After a three month flatboat journey along the Ohio and Mississippi, the
19 year old Lincoln returned to Indiana with an enthusiasm for the
lifestyles that he had just encountered. Unfortunately, his new-found
joy did not last long as his sister Sarah died in childbirth on January
20, 1828.

In 1830 the Lincoln family decided to leave Indiana in hopes of a better
future in Illinois. It was soon thereafter that Abraham became a leader
in the town of New Salem while operating a store and managing a mill.
The next step for such an ambitious man was obvious–he entered
politics, finishing eighth out of thirteen in a race for the Illinois
House of Representatives in August of 1832.

Abraham Lincoln was a strong supporter of Whig founder Henry Clay and
his “American System.” This system that arose from the National
Republicans of 1824 was in opposition to the powerful Democratic party
of President Andrew Jackson. Lincoln agreed with Clay that the
government should be a positive force with the purpose of serving the
people. Internal improvements were high on both mens’ lists, and this
stand made the relatively unknown Lincoln popular in rural Illinois from
the start. As the Whigs rose in stature throughout the 1830’s, so did
Lincoln, but not without paying his dues along the way.

For eighty days in the spring and early summer of 1832 Lincoln served in
the military. On a constant search for Black Hawk, war leader of the
Sauk and Fox Indians, he never saw any fighting but he did prove to be a
superior leader of men in some of the most trying situations, including
threats of desertion. “In return for his eleven and a half weeks of
service Lincoln earned a mere $125, but the connections that he made
with future leaders of Illinois and the experiencing of life from a
soldier’s viewpoint proved to be priceless in his future political
career” (p 80). During this time Lincoln ran for and won a seat in the
Illinois Legislature with bipartisan support.

In 1846 Lincoln took his biggest step in politics to that point. He won
election to Congress as the only Whig from Illinois. His single term
was only memorable in that he took an unpopular stand against President
James K. Polk and his Mexican War, which Lincoln saw as unjust. Lincoln
made unsuccessful bids for an Illinois Senate seat in 1855, running as a
Whig, and the Vice Presidency in 1856, running as a Republican.
In his early days as a lawyer and an Illinois Legislator, Lincoln was a
frequent guest of the Edward’s family and Mrs. Edward’s younger sister,
Mary Todd, immediately caught Abe’s eye.

She was like no woman he had ever known before. Her beauty,
intelligence, charm, and ability to lead a conversation was enough to
cause the usually unemotional Abraham to propose. Yet he felt he did
not love here and they broke up the engagement. Almost immediately
thereafter, Lincoln began to feel terrible guilt and unhappiness over
what he had done and what he then realized he had lost. He became so
depressed that for a short time many of those around him feared that he
was going to commit suicide. Until he longed for her so much that a
spark was reignited between the old lovers and they remarried.

After receiving the Republican Party nomination for the 1858 Illinois
senatorial race, Lincoln gave his historically famous, yet questionably
radical “House Divided” speech
Lincoln had lost this election against Douglas but he had strengthened
the Republican Party and won national recognition in the process. As a
result of holding his own with the “Little Giant” (referring to
Douglas’s physical stature and political power), the entire nation was
able to see just how great and powerful of a leader Abraham Lincoln
could become. Lincoln put the Senatorial defeat in its proper
perspective six years later when he said, “It’s a slip, and not a fall.” (p 143)
After Illinois chose Lincoln over the more radical William Seward and
Edward Bates, he almost reluctantly turned his attention to the national
scene. Lincoln’s true desire was to be a Senator, where Abe believed
that he could concentrate on the most important issues more closely.
Since he honestly did not believe that he had a chance of actually
winning the presidency, one of the main reasons that he was running was
to gain more notoriety for the 1864 senatorial. Nevertheless, Lincoln
had thrown his hat in the ring and he ran on the Republican platform
of: 1) opposition to the extension of slavery 2) opposition to
“nativist” demands that naturalization laws be changed to limit the
rights of immigrants
3) support of federally sponsored internal improvements, a protective
tariff, a railroad to the Far West, and free land for Western settlers.
This stand was obviously very attractive to Northern and Western voters.
When election day finally came, Lincoln simply waited, first in his
office at the statehouse and later in the telegraph office. When the
final results came in at about two o’clock in the morning, Abraham
Lincoln had become the sixteenth President of the United States with
1,866,452 popular votes. However he, did not receive a single vote in
ten Southern states, and largely because of his victory, frustrated,
humiliated, and defeated Southerners began the process of secession,
beginning with South Carolina in 1860.

Abraham Lincoln was chosen by destiny as the man to lead the
Nation through its most trying hour, and it is quite probable that he
understood just how trying it would be. Upon recalling how he felt
immediately after learning of his victory, Lincoln
replied, “I went home, but not to get much sleep, for I then felt as I
never had before, the responsibility that was upon me.” (p 231)
By Lincoln’s inauguration day in March of 1861, seven states had already
seceded from the Union, electing Jefferson Davis as President of their
Confederacy. In his inaugural address Lincoln attempted to avoid
aggravating the slave states that had not yet seceded. He asked the
South to reconsider its actions, but also reinforced his belief that the
Union was perpetual, and that states could not secede, saying, “In your
hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not mine, is the momentous
issue of civil war.” (p 288) Lincoln also announced that because
secession was unlawful he would hold the federal forts and installations
in the South. All sided with the Union basically because they were
assured by Lincoln that the war was being fought to preserve the Union,
and not to destroy slavery. In a letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the
New York Tribune, on August 22, 1862, Lincoln confirmed this position
“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.” (p 290)
Just as he had previously said that he would, on January 1, 1863,
Abraham Lincoln declared that all slaves residing in states and
districts still in rebellion against the United States were to be free.
Although this was a bold move meant to upset the Southern war effort,
the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation had no immediate affect
because it applied only to the Confederate states over which the federal
government had no control. The proclamation did not apply to the slave
states under Union control because there was no legal justification for
Lincoln to apply it in those places. It had to be classified as a
“military measure,” such as depriving the South of the services of her

Lincoln realized that in order to peacefully integrate the former slaves
into American society he decided to train them as regular soldiers, and
they fought gallantly. Some 186,000 colored troops had been enrolled in the Union army by the end of the war. The famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow remarked, “At last
the North consents to let the Negro fight for freedom.” (p 340)
Jefferson Davis, and his war-torn South, had one final hope — the
defeat of Lincoln in the election of 1864. Davis knew that as long as
Lincoln was in the Office, the industrial superior North would continue
to fight, and the South could not withstand the war much longer. If a
new “peace” candidate were to be elected, then the Confederacy might

“Luckily for Lincoln the tide of the war turned dramatically in
September of 1864 when General Sherman took Atlanta, an extremely
important Southern rail and manufacturing center. Morale was boosted
greatly in the North, and the victories continued to mount under
Lincoln’s new-found leaders in Ulysses S. Grant and General Sherman. By
the time of the election in November, Lincoln won overwhelmingly with
212 of the 233 possible electoral.” (p 402)
The very weary President addressed the Nation the next day with less
than victorious words. He stressed that the South should be dealt with
mildly in order to bring the entire Nation back together as soon as
possible. “Let us all join in doing the acts necessary to restoring the
proper practical relations between these states and the Union.” (p 409)
What should have been Lincoln’s finest hour was probably one of his most
stressing, because it was now up to him as to where the Nation was to go

It was Good Friday, April 14, 1865, only five days after the end of the
war. Despite numerous warnings from some of his closest advisors,
President Lincoln insisted on attending an evening performance of Our
American Cousin at Ford’s Theater. Since General Grant was expected to
attend the play with President Lincoln, the President’s attendance was
highly publicized.

John Wilkes Booth, a staunch Southern supporter, was a well known and
popular actor who felt it necessary to redeem the lost cause of the
Confederacy. He had previously planned to kidnap President Lincoln, but
when that plan did not work he decided to assassinate him instead. He had the help of three others in his plot, with the intention of also assassinating Vice President Johnson,
Secretary Seward, and General Grant.

The wounded Lincoln was rushed across the street to the Petersen house
where he was attended to for nine hours. After fighting for life like
only he could, President Abraham Lincoln passed away at 7:22 a.m. on the
morning of April 15, 1865.

“Even he who now sleeps, has, by this event, been clothed with a
new influence…Now his simple and weighty words will be gathered like
those of Washington, and your children, and your children’s children,
shall be taught to ponder the simplicity and deep wisdom of utterances
which, in their time, passed, in party heat, as idle words.”
–Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, 1865
“A greater work is seldom performed by a single man. Generations
yet unborn will rise up and call him blessed.”
–Reverend James Reed, 1865
“…In all America, there was, perhaps, not one man who less
deserved to be the victim of this revolution, than he who has just
–The London Times, 1865
“Abraham Lincoln…was at home and welcome with the humblest, and
had a spirit and a practical vein in the times of terror that commanded
the admiration of the wisest. His heart was as great as the world, but
there was no room in it to hold the memory of a wrong.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1876
“If one would know the greatness of Lincoln one should listen to
the stories which are told about him in other parts of the world. I
have been in wild places where one hears the name of America uttered
with such mystery as if it were some heaven or hell…but I heard this
only in connection with the name Lincoln.”
–Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
“In the days before antiseptic surgery, Lincoln had foreshadowed his own
demise; his efforts to preserve the life of the nation had been
successful at the cost of its strongest limb.” (p 446)
My View on the Book
I found this book interesting and was surprised it was not another
documentary style written biography. It was actually interesting to read
due to Oates creative writing style. And being a factual historical
story I learned a little about the life style of the post-colonial
period and of course, the life of Lincoln, that I now know so much more about.