SAN JOSE, February 12, 2013 – Today is the day the American people traditionally celebrated or honored Abraham Lincoln’s birthday prior to the 1971 legislation that created a “one day fits all” President’s Day. Sadly since then, the memory of Lincoln’s greatness seems to have gradually diminished in the minds of the American public, as remembering Abraham Lincoln is primarily limited to the efforts of study regarding his presidency in U.S. history classrooms (unless one counts the recent movie portraying Lincoln as a vampire slayer).
The reality concerning Abraham Lincoln is that he did not just appear on the scene one day robed in greatness, as Carl Sandburg likened him to a character out of a Russian fairy tale. Many Americans are completely aware that he was born in a shabby log cabin in the backwoods of Kentucky on February 12th in 1809. Yet many today, as they peer back into the shadows of history, may consider it quaint, but this man who grew to become president was born essentially into poverty. Such humble roots and Mr. Lincoln’s life experiences shaped his choices, and helped him in struggling with such adversity during his life to become a decent man and a great president.
In actuality, although the fabled memories of Lincoln’s birth and early start in life are somewhat important today, they were of little importance until the man seriously considered the prospects of a career in politics on the national level. Understandably, Lincoln was not proud of his roots and most of his early life experience, and was certainly not proud of his impoverished education. When requested to provide a brief account of his early years, he did write a “little sketch” as it was described and sent it to Jesse W. Fell on December 20, 1859. Lincoln wrote a brief introduction to the sketch and stated: “There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me…”
This autobiographical sketch was combined with other facts related to Mr. Lincoln’s legislative and political accomplishments and forwarded by Fell to Joseph H. Lewis who used the material to prepare a more extensive memoir, which was provided to many newspapers of the day, and which essentially helped supportive delegates prepare for Lincoln’s nomination at the Republican Convention in Chicago the following June. Lincoln’s “little sketch” was one of the most extensive accounts he committed to paper regarding the events of his own life. And, the first paragraph dealt more with his Lincoln family heritage.
Lincoln once commented that, “It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life. It can all be condensed into a simple sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy – ‘the short and simple annals of the poor.’ That’s my life, and that’s all you or anyone else can make out of it.” Other than such brief references, Lincoln did not like to talk much about his early life experiences due to such dismal circumstances. The remarkable part of his story is that the boy eventually grew to manhood, and along the way made up for such limitations and deficiencies as best as he could.
What Lincoln lacked in formal education, he attempted to compensate for his lack of opportunities in his efforts devoted to personal study and in reading whatever material he could borrow or secure in one way or another. It is well known that he was an avid and voracious reader, and he would walk miles just to borrow a book. He once stated, “The things I want to know are in books. My best friend is the man who’ll give me a book I haven’t read.”
Despite the serious efforts to overcome his essential lack of capabilities or resources, Lincoln was not proud of his early beginnings and did not seek to glorify them like so many biographers since his time. He was not inclined to speak much of those times unless it was to contrast his humble roots with those wanna-be aristocrats who sought to portray themselves as someone they were not. He seriously took issue with such individuals later as he became involved in the political realm of his day. Eventually, his anger toward the Democrat Party fueled in him a desire to enter the political arena and become a member of the Whig Party.
Part of Lincoln’s early years included many migrations. The first from Kentucky to Indiana, was not just Thomas Lincoln’s effort to find better land, it was fleeing from a state that was increasingly dominated by the landed gentry and large plantation owners of the south who could easily drive out small dirt farmers like Thomas Lincoln with their greatest competitive advantage of slave labor. Indiana was a free state and the federal government offered cheap land to homesteaders. In order to help his family survive, Thomas Lincoln moved his family to Indiana, which left an impact on young Abraham Lincoln.
The Democrat Party of Lincoln’s Day also portrayed itself as the party of the common man, and Democrat politicians made serious efforts to paint the Whigs as the party of the wealthy class. However, Lincoln detested this mirage. He viewed a Democrat Party in his day as led by a southern plantation elite that had developed a convenient aristocracy within the Land of the Free. A Whig ally and associate of Lincoln, Joseph Gillespie, expressed that while Lincoln detested aristocracy in all its forms, nothing incensed him more than the claim that the Whigs were the party of the rich.
There is a story about Lincoln as told by Professor Allen Guelzo of Gettysburg College that expresses a very Lincoln-like manner when in 1840, Lincoln while campaigning for the Whig presidential candidate, William Henry Harrison, he was debating against Democrat Colonel Dick Taylor, and took offense when Taylor slammed the Whigs as aristocrats. According to Guelzo, Lincoln quipped that while Taylor had his stores over the county, and was riding in a fine carriage, wore his kid gloves, holding his gold-headed cane, he (Lincoln) was a poor boy, hired on a flat boat at eight dollars a month, and had only one pair of breeches. Lincoln concluded that if you call that aristocracy, he would plead guilty to the charge.
Lincoln provided an image of himself at this point which was true, but had the effect of exposing a larger truth, and had a way of disarming opponents with wit and class. Obviously, his counter-argument during the exchange with Taylor disarmed the crowd in attendance, and both the Whig and Democrat attendees broke out in uproarious laughter. They easily got the essential, yet common sense, point. In such circumstances Lincoln was not opposed to make a joke or a point at his own expense. He did use his humble beginnings as a strong case for anyone with ambition and drive to accomplish great things.
Eventually, as Lincoln grew and developed into a political animal, he gravitated toward the Whig Party, and then when it split over the issue of slavery, he helped form the Republican Party. But he was attracted to the Whigs because they were the party opposing the southern aristocrats who tended to control the affairs of government, even at the national level, for their own benefit and for the benefit of Party and their entrenched aristocracy and iron hold upon the institution of slavery. Lincoln ultimately changed that paradigm in his time, but he paid for it with his life – which turned out to be a remarkable life.