This month 212 years ago, in what is now LaRue County, Kentucky, in a primitive cabin during the dead of winter, a baby boy was born to an impoverished couple struggling for survival on the edge of the wild American frontier. They wrapped him in a buffalo hide and named him Abraham, after his grandfather, whom Indians stalked and murdered in the Kentucky Territory 25 years earlier.
From obscurity and disadvantage he emerged on the Illinois prairie at Springfield in 1837 as a self-taught lawyer/former postal clerk, storekeeper, surveyor, among other callings. A gaunt story-telling giant with meager legal skills, he nevertheless studied and worked at it. By 1850 his practice was one of the best in the state, including representation of the Illinois Central Railroad.
Unceasingly ambitious and craving politics, he repeatedly offered for elective office, perceiving all the while the powers of speech in public life. He fastened attention on the best sources and while never widely read he read the right ones: the rules of grammar and rhetoric, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster’s speeches, the Bible, Byron’s poetry, Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.
A brooding political genius, beset by recurring bouts of melancholia (today, depression), his ambitions failed to keep pace. He served four undistinguished terms in the Illinois Legislature and, with dubious distinction, in 1847-49 as a one-term Whig Congressman. By then a seasoned stump speaker and shrewd lawyer he retired from politics and resumed private practice with uncommon vigor.
The growing national slavery crisis and passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in 1854 stirred him – emotionally and politically. In 1858 he challenged the uncrushable Stephen A. Douglas for the U.S. Senate. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, seen by many as a high-water mark in American politics, Lincoln articulated better than any public figure the moral force against slavery, as well as Webster’s belief that “a house divided … cannot stand.”
He lost the race with Douglas but gained national prominence. It propelled him to the Republican Party’s second candidate for president in 1860 and to his election as the 16th President.
He and his stovepipe hat became the principal figure amidst the Civil War’s towering chaos. Through rank radicalism, unprecedented civic crisis, and the President’s persistent excoriation, he governed: while waging a monumental war, winning the peace, preserving the Union, abolishing slavery – all with speeches and public address that became embedded in the American consciousness. “No other living soul could have done it,” said his General-in-Chief, Henry W. Halleck.
In the beginning a nobody from nowhere, in the end he was a leader who rendered immeasurable service to this great and mighty nation. A President whose greatness was recognized in life, one who lived and proved the proposition “all men are created equal,” an enduring national hero – that was and is Abraham Lincoln. Only in America was it even possible.
•Retired attorney Jim Thomas lives in Atlanta. He is a former Pierce County resident.