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Abraham Lincoln the Liberator of the Slaves [1809-1865]

Abraham Lincoln the Liberator of the Slaves [1809-1865]
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While Morse had been patiently struggling toward the completion of his invention, the nation had been growing more and more tense in its contest over slavery and State rights. As an outcome of the bitter feeling in 1846, two years after the fulfilment of Morse's scheme, Congress declared war against Mexico.

The Southern slaveholders hoped by this war to gain from their weak neighbor territory favorable for the extension of slavery. For slavery had long since been dying out in the States east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason and Dixon Line and the Ohio. On the south of this natural boundary line the soil and climate were adapted to the cultivation of rice, cotton, sugar, and tobacco. These four staples of the South called for large plantations and an abundance of cheap labor always subject to the bidding of the[Pg 283] planter. Slavery satisfied these conditions, and therefore slavery seemed necessary to the prosperity of the South.

It was because the soil and climate north of this natural boundary line did not favor the use of slaves that slavery gradually died out in the North. The result was that in one section of the Union, the South, there was a pressing demand for slavery; and in the other, the North, there was none. As time wore on, it became evident that the North was growing in population, wealth, and political influence much faster than the South. Observing this momentous fact, the slaveholders feared that in the course of years Congress might pass laws unfriendly to slavery. Hence, their stubborn purpose to struggle for the extension of slavery as far as possible into the territory west of the Mississippi.

Lincoln's Birthplace. Lincoln's Birthplace.
But in the North so powerful did the opposition to the spread of slavery to new States become, that by 1855 there was a great political party that had such opposition as its leading principle. One of its ablest and most inspiring leaders was Abraham Lincoln. He was born in Kentucky, February 12, 1809. The rough log cabin in which he first saw the light was the wretched home of a father too lazy and shiftless to work, and so ignorant that he is said not to[Pg 284] have learned his letters until taught by his wife. Little Abe's only playmates were his sister Sarah, two years older than himself, and his cousin, Dennis Hanks, who lived in the Lincoln home.

When Abe was seven years old the family moved to Indiana, and settled about fifteen miles north of the Ohio River. The journey to their new home was very tedious and lonely, for they had in some places to cut a roadway through the forest.

Having arrived safely in November, all set vigorously to work to provide a shelter against the winter. Young Abe was healthy, rugged, and active, and from early morning till late evening he worked with his father, chopping trees and cutting poles and boughs for their "camp." This "camp" was a mere shed, only fourteen feet square, and open on one side. It was built of poles lying upon one another, and had a thatched roof of boughs and leaves. As there was no chimney, there could be no fire within the enclosure, and it was necessary to keep one burning all the time just in front of the open side.

In this rough abode the furniture was of the scantiest and rudest sort, very much like what we have already observed in Boone's cabin. For chairs there were the same kind of three-legged stools, made by smoothing the flat side of a split log, and putting sticks into auger-holes underneath. The tables were of the same simple fashion, except that they stood on four legs instead of three.

The crude bedsteads in the corners of the cabin[Pg 285] were made by sticking poles in between the logs at right angles to the wall, the outside corner where the logs met being supported by a crotched stick driven into the ground. Upon this framework, shucks and leaves were heaped for bedding, and over all were thrown the skins of wild animals for a covering. Pegs driven into the wall served as a stairway to the loft, where there was another bed of leaves. Here little Abe slept.

In the space in front of the open side of the cabin, hanging over the fire, was a large iron pot, in which the rude cooking was done. These backwoods people knew nothing of dainty cookery, but they brought keen appetites to their coarse fare. The principal vegetable was the ordinary white potato, and the usual form of bread was "corn-dodgers," made of meal and roasted in the ashes. Wheat was so scarce that flour bread was reserved for Sunday mornings. But generally there was an abundance of game, such as deer, bears, and wild turkeys, many kinds of fish from the streams close by, and in summer wild fruits from the woods.

During this first winter in the wild woods of Indiana little Abe must have lived a lonely life. But it was a very busy one. There was much to do in building the cabin which was to take the place of the "camp," and in cutting down trees and making a clearing for the corn-planting of the coming spring. Besides, Abe helped to supply the table with food, for he had already learned to use the rifle, and to hunt and trap animals. These occupations took him into the woods, and we[Pg 286] must believe, therefore, in spite of all the hardships of his wilderness life, that he spent many happy hours.

If we could see him as he started off with his gun, or as he chopped wood for the fires, we should doubtless find his dress somewhat peculiar. He was a tall, slim, awkward boy, with very long legs and arms. In winter he wore moccasins, trousers, and shirt of deerskin, and a cap of coonskin with the tail of the animal hanging down behind so as to serve both as ornament and convenience in handling the cap. On a cold winter day, such a furry costume might look very comfortable if close-fitting, but we are told that Abe's deerskin trousers, after getting wet, shrunk so much that they became several inches too short for his long, lean legs. As for stockings, he tells us he never wore them until he was "a young man grown."

But although this costume seems to us singular, it did not appear so to his neighbors and friends, for they were used to seeing boys dressed in that manner. The frontiersmen were obliged to devise many contrivances to supply their lack of manufactured things. For instance, they all used thorns for pins, bits of stone for buttons, and home-made soap and tallow-dipped candles. Candles, indeed, were a luxury much of the time, and in Abe's boyhood, he was obliged in the long winter evenings to read by the light of the wood fire blazing in the rude fireplace of the log cabin.

[Pg 287]

Lincoln Studying. Lincoln Studying.
Great as had been his privations in this Indiana home, Abe had now to suffer a more grievous loss in the death of his mother. The rough life of the forest and the exposure of the open cabin had been too much for her delicate constitution. Before she died she said to her boy: "Abraham, I am going away from you, and you will never see me again. I know that you[Pg 288] will always be good and kind to your sister and father. Try to live as I have taught you, and to love your Heavenly Father." Many years later Lincoln said, "All that I am, or I hope to be, I owe to my angel mother."

A year after this sad event, his father brought home a second wife, who became a devoted friend to the motherless boy. Energetic, thrifty, and intelligent, this woman, who had been accustomed to better things than she found in her new home, insisted that the log cabin should be supplied with a door, a floor, and windows, and she at once began to make the children "look a little more human."

Abraham Lincoln's schooling was brief—not more than a year in all. Such schools as he attended were nothing like the graded schools of to-day. The buildings were rough log cabins with the earth for floor and oiled paper for windows. Desks were unknown, the little school-house being furnished with rude benches made of split logs, after the manner of the stools and tables in the Lincoln home. The teachers were ignorant men, who taught the children a little spelling, reading, writing, and ciphering. While attending the last school, Abe had to go daily a distance of four and a half miles from his home.

In spite of this meagre schooling, however, the boy, by his self-reliance, resolute purpose, and good reading habits, acquired the very best sort of training for his future life. He had but few books at his home, and found it impossible in that wild country to find many[Pg 289] in any other homes. Among those which he read over and over again, while a boy, were the Bible, "Æsop's Fables," "Robinson Crusoe," "Pilgrim's Progress," a History of the United States, and "Weems's Life of Washington."

His step-mother said of him: "He read everything he could lay his hands on, and when he came across a passage that struck him, he would write it down on boards, if he had no paper, and keep it before him until he could get paper. Then he would copy it, look at it, commit it to memory and repeat it."

His step-brother said: "When Abe and I returned to the house from work, he would go to the cupboard, snatch a piece of corn-bread, take down a book, sit down, cock his legs up as high as his head, and read." When night came he would find a seat in the corner by the fireside, or stretch out at length on the floor, and write or work sums in arithmetic on a wooden shovel, using a charred stick for a pencil or pen. When he had covered the shovel, he would shave off the surface and begin over again.

Having borrowed a copy of the "Life of Washington" on one occasion, he took it to bed with him in the loft and read until his candle gave out. Then before going to sleep, he tucked the book into a crevice of the logs in order that he might have it at hand as soon as daylight would permit him to read the next morning. But during the night a storm came up, and the rain beat in upon the book, wetting it through and through. With heavy heart Lincoln took it back to its owner,[Pg 290] who told him that it should be his if he would work three days to pay for it. Eagerly agreeing to do this, the boy carried his new possession home in triumph. This book had a marked influence over his future.

Until he was twenty his father hired him out to all sorts of work, at which he sometimes earned $6 a month and sometimes thirty-one cents a day. Just before he came of age his family, with all their possessions packed in a cart drawn by four oxen, moved again toward the West. For two weeks they travelled across the country into Illinois, and finally made a new home on the banks of the Sangamon River, a stream flowing into the Ohio. The tiresome journey was made in the month of March along muddy roads and over swollen streams, young Lincoln driving the oxen.

On reaching the end of the journey, Abraham helped his father to build a hut and to clear and fence ten acres of land for planting. Shortly after this work was done he bargained with a neighbor, Mrs. Nancy Miller, to split 400 rails for every yard of brown jeans needed to make him a pair of trousers. As Lincoln was tall, three and one-half yards were needed, and he had to split 1,400 fence rails—a large amount of work for a pair of trousers.

From time to time he had watched the boats carrying freight up and down the river, and had wondered where the vessels were going. Eager to know by experience the life of which he had dreamed, he determined to become a boatman. He was hungry for knowledge, and with the same earnestness and energy[Pg 291] with which he had absorbed the great thoughts of his books, he now applied himself to learn the commerce of the river and the life along its banks. When an opportunity presented, he found employment on a flat boat that carried corn, hogs, hay, and other farm produce down to New Orleans. On one of his trips he chanced to attend a slave auction. Looking on while one slave after another was knocked down to the highest bidder, his indignation grew until at length he cried out, "Boys, let's get away from this; if I ever get a chance to hit that thing" (meaning slavery), "I'll hit it hard." Little did he think then what a blow he would strike some thirty years later.

Tiring at length of his long journeys to New Orleans, he became clerk in a village store at New Salem. Many stories are told of Lincoln's honesty as displayed in his dealings with the people in this village store. It is said that on one occasion a woman in making change overpaid him the trifling sum of six cents. When Lincoln found out the mistake he walked three miles and back that night to give the woman her money.

He was now six feet four inches tall, a giant in strength, and a skilful wrestler. Much against his will—for he had no love of fighting—he became the hero of a wrestling match with a youth named Armstrong, who was the leader of the rough young fellows of the place. Lincoln defeated Armstrong, and by his manliness won the life-long friendship of his opponent.

At times throughout his life he was subject to deep[Pg 292] depression, which made his face unspeakably sad. But as a rule he was cheerful and merry, and on account of his good stories was in great demand in social gatherings and at the cross-roads grocery stores. At such times, when the social glass passed around, he always declined it, never indulging in strong liquor of any kind, nor in tobacco.

Lincoln was as kind as he was good-natured. His step-mother said of him: "I can say, what scarcely one mother in a thousand can say, he never gave me a cross word or look, and never refused in fact or appearance to do anything I asked him." He was tender-hearted too, as the following incident shows:

Riding along the road one day with a company of men, Lincoln was missed by his companions. One of them, going to look for him, found that Lincoln had stopped to replace two young birds that had been blown out of their nest. He could not ride on in any peace of mind until he had restored these little ones to their home in the tree-branches.

In less than a year the closing of the village store in which Lincoln was clerk left him without employment. He therefore enlisted as a volunteer for the Black Hawk War, which had broken out about this time, and went as captain of his company. On returning from this expedition, he opened a grocery store as part owner, but in this undertaking he soon failed. Perhaps the reason for his failure was that his interest was centred in other things, for about this time he began to study law.[Pg 293]

For a while after closing his store he served the Government as postmaster in New Salem, where the mail was so scanty that he could carry it in his hat and distribute it to the owners as he happened to meet them.

He next tried surveying, his surveyor's chain, according to report, being a trailing grapevine. Throughout all these years Lincoln was apparently drifting almost aimlessly from one occupation to another. But whatever he was doing his interest in public affairs and his popularity were steadily increasing. In 1834 he sought and secured an election to the State Legislature. It is said that he tramped a distance of a hundred miles with a pack on his back when he went to the State Capitol to enter upon his duties as law-maker.

About four years after beginning to study law, he was admitted to the bar and established himself at Springfield, Ill. From an early age he had been fond of making stump speeches, and now he turned what had been a pleasant diversion to practical advantage in the progress of his political life. In due time he was elected to Congress, where his interest in various public questions, especially that of slavery, became much quickened.

On this question his clear head and warm heart united in forming strong convictions that had great weight with the people. He continued to grow in political favor, and in 1858 received the nomination of the Republican party for the United States Senate. Stephen A. Douglas was the Democratic nominee.[Pg 294] Douglas was known as the "Little Giant," on account of his short stature and great power as an orator.

The debates between the political rivals challenged the admiration of the whole country. Lincoln argued with great power against the spread of slavery into the new States. Although unsuccessful in securing a seat in the Senate, he won a recognition from his countrymen that led to his election as President two years later. In 1860 the Republican National Convention, which met at Chicago, nominated "Honest Old Abe, the Railsplitter," as its candidate for President, and elected him in the same autumn.

The burning political question before the people at this time, as for many years before, related to the extension of slavery into the Territories. The South was eager to have more States come into the Union as slave States, while the North wished that slavery should be confined to the States where it already existed.

Before the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803, Mason and Dixon Line and the Ohio River formed the dividing line between the free States on the north and the slave States on the south. But after that purchase there was a prolonged struggle to determine whether the new territory should be slave or free.

It was thought that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 would forever settle the trouble, but such was not the case. It broke out again, as bitter as ever, about the Mexican Cession, which became ours as a result of the Mexican War. Again it was hoped that[Pg 295] the Compromise of 1850 would bring an end to the struggle. But even after this second compromise, the agitation over slavery continued to become more and more bitter until Mr. Lincoln's election, when some of the Southern States threatened to secede, that is, withdraw from the Union. These States claimed the right to decide for themselves whether or not they should remain in the Union. On the other hand, the North declared that no State could secede from the Union without the consent of the other States.

Before Lincoln was inaugurated, seven of the Southern States had seceded. The excitement was everywhere intense. Many people felt that a man of larger experience than Lincoln should now be at the head of the Government. They doubted the ability of this plain man of the people, this awkward backwoodsman, to lead the destinies of the nation in these hours when delicate and intricate diplomacy was needed. But, little as they knew it, he was well fitted for the work that lay before him.

While on his way to Washington for inauguration, his friends learned of a plot to assassinate him when he should pass through Baltimore. To save him from violence, therefore, they prevailed upon him to change his route and make the last part of his journey in secret.

In a few weeks the Civil War had begun. We cannot here pause for full accounts of all Lincoln's trials and difficulties during this fearful struggle that began in 1861 and ended in 1865. His burdens were almost[Pg 296] overwhelming, but, like Washington, he believed that "right makes might" and must prevail.

When he became President he declared that the Constitution gave him no power to interfere with slavery in the States where it existed. But as the war continued, he became certain that the slaves, by remaining on the plantations and producing food for the Southern soldiers, were a great aid to the Southern cause, and thus threatened the Union. He therefore determined, as commander-in-chief of the Union armies, to set the slaves free in all territory whose people were fighting against the Union. He took this step as a military necessity.

The famous state paper, in which Lincoln declared that the slaves were free in all the territory of the seceded States whose people were waging war against the Union, was called the Emancipation Proclamation. This he issued on January 1, 1863, and thus made good his word, "If ever I get a chance to strike that thing" (meaning slavery), "I'll strike it hard."

[Pg 297]

Map of the United States showing the Southern Confederacy, the Slave States that did not Secede, and the Territories. Map of the United States showing the Southern Confederacy, the Slave States that did not Secede, and the Territories.
[Pg 298]

On April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered his army to General Grant at Appomattox Court House. By this act the war came to a close. Great was the rejoicing everywhere. But suddenly the universal joy was changed into universal sorrow. Five days after Lee's surrender Lincoln went with his wife and some friends to see a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington. In the midst of the play, a half-crazed actor, who was familiar with the theatre, entered the President's box, shot him in the back of the head, jumped to the stage, and, shouting "Sic semper tyrannis!" (So be it always to tyrants), rushed through the wing to the street. There he mounted a horse in waiting for him, and escaped, but was promptly hunted down and killed in a barn where he lay in hiding. The martyr-President lingered some hours, tenderly watched by his family and a few friends. When on the following morning he breathed his last, Secretary Stanton said with truth, "Now he belongs to the ages." A noble life had passed from the field of action; and the people deeply mourned the loss of him who had wisely and bravely led them through four years of heavy trial and anxiety.

Wise and brave as the leadership of Abraham Lincoln was, however, the drain of the Civil War upon the nation's strength was well-nigh overwhelming. Nearly 600,000 men lost their lives in this murderous struggle, and the loss in wealth was not far short of $8,000,000,000.

But the war was not without its good results also. One of these, embodied later in the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, set free forever all the slaves in the Union; and another swept away for all time the evils of State rights, nullification, and secession. Webster's idea that the Union was supreme over the States had now become a fact which could never again be a subject of dispute. The Union was "one and inseparable."

[Pg 299]

[Pg 300]

The immortal words that Lincoln uttered as part of his Second Inaugural are worthy of notice, for in their sympathy, tenderness, and beautiful simplicity they reveal the heart of him who spoke them. This inaugural address was delivered in Washington on March 4, 1865, only about six weeks before Lincoln's assassination. It closed with these words:

"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—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

From American Leaders and Heroes: A Preliminary Text-Book in United States History By Wilbur F. Gordy (New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907, public domain)

Date: 2018-01-26 22:58:15

American Leaders and Heroes' 1901 Wilbur Fisk Gordy A preliminary text-book United States History book book plate pd public domain history book book plate pd public domain Gordy

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