Nav Bar NEW

Check our new test website


The front page

Abraham Lincoln, - 16th president of the United States


Abraham Lincoln would have turned 200 years old on Feb. 12, 2009. I learned many years ago that the 16th president of the United States and I are most likely related, and, like many, have found him to be a very fascinating man to study. For the record, a great-grandparent of Abraham Lincoln is a great-grandparent of my great-great-grandmother, Harriet Lincoln. I'm not closely related (direct) but it's still there. I have a keen interest in history, especially the Civil War era. I think it is very important for us to look back on history and try and put ourselves into the shoes of those who actually were there. Adding 21st century ideals to the 19th century is a recipe for disaster. You can’t do it and bring justice to those who lived during that period.

For example, at the time, many folks didn’t travel more than 30 to 50 miles from their homes. Without a train nearby, going to a state fair was more than an all-day affair. Try going to the Iowa State Fair in a wagon or on horseback from the Deep River area.

Abraham Lincoln is another great example. Mark Twain once said that "To arrive at a just estimate of a renowned man's character one must judge it by the standards of his time, not ours." As a presenter at Camp Grinnell, a Civil War Living History Encampment for eighth grade students in the area, I challenge the students to do their own research—don’t believe everything we tell them. I urge them to get into the shoes of those they study. I encourage them to ask questions.

I suggest they start with the Emancipation Proclamation and see what it did and what it didn't do. When asked, many students believe that the document "freed the slaves." But most students, and many teachers, have never even read the document. Once they do, they are normally surprised. While I agree that the Emancipation Proclamation changed the focus of the Civil War, the historical truth is that those slaves that were “freed” were slaves located in the Confederate States of America—states that had seceded from the United States. Until Union troops fought their way into that nation at the cost of thousands of lives, those slaves were untouchable, for the most part. The Secretary of State at the time, William H. Seward, said about the proclamation that, "We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free."

There are a couple of sections of the Emancipation Proclamation that are most important, and I quote them here:

“ … do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit: "Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

"And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons."

Notice those portions of the Confederacy which are “excepted parts … left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.”

Those areas are parts of Louisiana (including New Orleans) and Virginia (including the new state of West Virginia) that were under the control of the United States. Basically, slavery existed there as if the Emancipation Proclamation did not exist.

This raises the question: Why was West Virginia admitted into the U.S. as a slave state during the Civil War? Notice, also, that the state of Tennessee, a Confederate state, was omitted. Why? There is also no mention of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware—all slave states remaining with the U.S. The only way the president of the United States could free the slaves in the U.S. was with a consititutional amendement, which did occur on Dec. 6, 1865, eight months after the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House (April 9, 1865).

Had any seceding state rejoined the Union before Jan. 1, 1863, it could have kept slavery, at least temporarily. The proclamation only gave Lincoln the legal basis to free the slaves in the areas of the South that were still in rebellion. Yet the document had a profound affect on the war (and history).

That era is unique. The country was 'growing up.' We had been a localized power, to some extent—we could flex our muscles, but there were bigger players on the field.

That is until the Civil War. After that war, we had strength, although we still were not quite sure what to do with it. Lincoln was president at a time when the citizens of the United States were questioning their very existence as a nation. They were beginning to interpret the meaning of "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility ..." at a time when on the one hand the slaves were being freed, but on the other we continued to remove the American Indian from their native lands.

Lincoln was doing what he thought was needed to reach an end. Many of those things were, and still are, controversial. Some, in my opinion, were out and out illegal, then and now—suspending habeus corpeus to keep the state of Maryland from seceding and closing down newspapers and imprisoning editors who spoke against administration policies.

Was he great? To me, greatness is something different. Lincoln was an exceptional human being—one of many during our history. He, like others including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Crazy Horse, and Robert E. Lee, were born into a unique time and ultimately helped shape our country while helping the country traverse a difficult time in its early history.

To bestow greatness on any of these people limits who they were as human beings. They raised families. Many watched as children passed away. They all saw the country from different angles and knew it could be better (different?). If they failed, they still spent later years doing their best to improve things. Lincoln was one of those men. He had a sense of humor, but sometimes he laughed at off-color jokes. He saw his own children die around him even as he ordered the deaths of tens of thousands. He had to make tough decisions and some of them he made were wrong. But overall, Lincoln was human.

More importantly, he was a human who had a vison ... "that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."


Abraham Lincoln

In this year of the bicentennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth, why should Americans take time to learn more about this great leader? There are several reasons. Lincoln expanded on the “all men are created equal” principle written in the Declaration of Independence. In many speeches, Lincoln referred to what the founding fathers meant with this statement. During his presidency, rights were extended to all men, not just free, white, property-owning men. (Women would have to wait for voting rights until the twentieth century.) Lincoln preserved the Union of the United States by leading the country through the great American Civil War when our nation was torn apart, and brother fought against brother. Even Barack Obama followed the example of Lincoln, the master politician, to achieve political success in the recent election. Those who study history will come to appreciate Lincoln’s relevance to modern times.

Having been to the Lincoln Memorial and Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., I wanted to find a destination closer to home so I traveled to Springfield and New Salem, Ill. In New Salem, just twenty miles northwest of Springfield, I walked the grounds where Lincoln lived in the early 1800s. This village of log buildings was authentically rebuilt on the original foundations and even has re-enactors who portray the early settlers. In the tavern, the lady of the house told me that I could only get room and board there (no spirits). My wife would have to sleep in the same bed with the owner’s three daughters, and I would have to climb the ladder to the loft for my own sleeping accommodations. It was here in New Salem that Lincoln was a storekeeper, self-taught surveyor, and lawyer. It was also here where Lincoln discovered that his greatest desire in life was to gain the admiration of his fellow citizens. This wish came true as was evidenced by his election to captain of the local militia in the Black Hawk Indian War and and as a representative to the state legislature. In Springfield there are numerous other sites of interest. The Lincoln Museum and Library and Lincoln’s Tomb are of remarkable quality. I also visited Lincoln’s home where he lived with his wife Mary before being elected president, as well as the old state capitol where Lincoln still maintains the record for the most cases argued before the Illinois State Supreme Court. I stood outside the platform of the train station where Lincoln gave his famous farewell speech before leaving for Washington, D.C. By personally looking for Lincoln in New Salem and Springfield, I was struck with a renewed feeling of admiration for our sixteenth president.

If traveling is not an option, there are many good books about Honest Abe and American history. "Lincoln and His Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin describes how Lincoln put the best people in his cabinet even though they previously had been rivals. "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House" by Jon Meacham tells how Lincoln learned from Jackson that secession of Southern states had been tried and would not be tolerated by the federal authorities. "Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln" by A. Lincoln and "Lincoln" by David Herbert Donald are also on my short list of books to read. A good film to watch is "Young Mr. Lincoln" with Henry Fonda, directed by John Ford. It depicts Lincoln’s life before the White House years. Abraham Lincoln is widely acclaimed to be our greatest president and there are many benefits to learning more about him and about American history. As filmmaker and historian Ken Burns stated, “If you don’t study history, you are doomed to repeat it.”


Editor’s note: Both John Keller and Dann Hayes are organizers of Camp Grinnell, a two-day living history encampment about the Civil War designed for eighth grade students—this year the encampment falls on May 7-8, 2009. The encampment, started in 2001-02, consists of a number of stations, including Women in the Civil War, Artillery, Medical, Infantry (Union and Confederate), Cavalry, and Music. Students go from station to station at the Poweshiek County Fairgrounds to learn about the unique Civil War period. At Camp Grinnell, emphasis is on getting the students incorporated into the session—they take part in activities, are used as "guinea pigs" at some, including the medical station, and enjoy music of the era and actually taste "hardtack," a staple from the era.


UPDATED April 28, 2009 4:04 PM

Ad contacts Media guide Register link USA Today Link Benton photo link Iowa Photo link Poweshiek photo link