WATCH: The HISTORY Channel documentary event, Abraham Lincoln, premieres Sunday, February 20 at 8/7c.
Lincoln, one of America’s most admired presidents, grew up a member of a poor family in Kentucky and Indiana. He attended school for only one year, but thereafter read on his own in a continual effort to improve his mind. As an adult, he lived in Illinois and performed a variety of jobs including stints as a postmaster, surveyor and shopkeeper, before entering politics. He served in the Illinois legislature from 1834 to 1842 and in Congress from 1847-1849, and then became an attorney. In 1842, Lincoln married Mary Todd; together, the pair raised four sons.
Lincoln returned to politics during the 1850s, a time when the nation’s long-standing division over slavery was flaring up, particularly in new territories being added to the Union. As leader of the new Republican Party, Lincoln was considered politically moderate, even on the issue of slavery. He advocated the restriction of slavery to the states in which it already existed and described the practice in a letter as a minor issue as late as 1854. In an 1858 senatorial race, as secessionist sentiment brewed among the southern states, he warned, a house divided against itself cannot stand. He did not win the Senate seat but earned national recognition as a strong political force. Lincoln’s inspiring oratory soothed a populace anxious about southern states’ secessionist threats and boosted his popularity.
As a presidential candidate in the election of 1860, Lincoln tried to reassure slaveholding interests that although he favored abolition, he had no intention of ending the practice in states where it already existed and prioritized saving the Union over freeing enslaved people. When he won the presidency by approximately 400,000 popular votes and carried the Electoral College, he was in effect handed a ticking time bomb. His concessions to slaveholders failed to prevent South Carolina from leading other states in an exodus from the Union that began shortly after his election. By February 1, 1861, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas had also seceded. Soon after, the Civil War began. As the war progressed, Lincoln moved closer to committing himself and the nation to the abolitionist movement and, in 1863, finally signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The document freed enslaved people in the Confederate states, but did not address the legality of slavery in Missouri, Kansas, or Arkansas, or what was then the Nebraska Territory.
Lincoln was the tallest president at 6′ 4. As a young man, he impressed others with his sheer physical strength—he was a legendary wrestler in Illinois—and entertained friends and strangers alike with his dry, folksy wit, which was still in evidence years later. Exasperated by one Civil War military defeat after another, Lincoln wrote to a lethargic general if you are not using the army I should like to borrow it for awhile. An animal lover, Lincoln once declared, “I care not for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.” Fittingly, a variety of pets took up residence at the Lincoln White House, including a pet turkey named Jack and a goat called Nanko. Lincoln’s son Tad frequently hitched Nanko to a small wagon and drove around the White House grounds.
Lincoln’s sense of humor may have helped him to hide recurring bouts of depression. He admitted to friends and colleagues that he suffered from intense melancholia and hypochondria most of his adult life. Perhaps in order to cope with it, Lincoln engaged in self-effacing humor, even chiding himself about his famously homely looks. When an opponent in an 1858 Senate race debate called him two-faced, he replied, If I had another face do you think I would wear this one?
Lincoln is remembered as The Great Emancipator. Although he waffled on the subject of slavery in the early years of his presidency, his greatest legacy was his work to preserve the Union and his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. To Confederate sympathizers, however, Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation reinforced his image as a hated despot and ultimately led John Wilkes Booth to assassinate him on April 14, 1865. His favorite horse, Old Bob, was part of the funeral procession.