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Abraham Lincoln – a President of the people and for the people

It was the poet Walt Whitman who prophesied the emergence of Lincoln as the future American President. In 1856 he wrote a political address that remained unpublished till towards the end of the 19th century. In that address Whitman denounced the Northern Democrats including the then-president Franklin Pierce without mincing words and then went on to say: “I would be much pleased to see some heroic, shrewd, fully-informed, healthy-bodied, middle-aged, beard-faced American blacksmith or boatman come down from the West across the Alleghanies, and walk into the Presidency, dressed in a clean suit of working attire, and with the tan all over his face, breast, and arms; I would certainly vote for that sort of man, possessing the due requirements, before any other candidate.”1 On Nov. 7th 1860, Lincoln, a healthy-bodied, middle-aged, beard-faced boatman from the West, was on his way to the White House.

abraham lincoln

Whitman was immensely fascinated by Lincoln from the moment he saw him for the first time in New York in 1861 (from the top of a stalled omnibus). In 1863 he wrote, “Lincoln has a face like a Hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion.”2 (Interestingly Lincoln had been reading with admiration Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” in his Springfield law office before heading to Washington to assume the presidency.  Lincoln and Whitman never knew each other personally. They may have met on an occasion.)

Lincoln was born in 1809 in a one-room log cabin in frontier Kentucky. He was largely self-taught and from his early childhood had great taste for reading. Later in life he taught himself law and went on to become an eminent country lawyer. Lincoln fought in the Black Hawk War. In the 1830s and 1840s as a Whig politician he held a seat in the Illinois state legislature. In 1847 he became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Sometime in 1856, Lincoln joined the new Republican Party. In 1858 he contested the election to the U.S. Senate. His opponent in the election was one of the most popular politicians in the nation, Senator Stephen Douglas. During the campaign, Lincoln and Douglas had a series of seven debates (in towns across Illinois over seventy days) – the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. These debates were covered nationally. Even though Lincoln lost that election, his spectacular performance against Douglas in the debates made him a strong contender for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination.

Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican President and the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in 1865. When Lincoln was elected president, seven slave states left the Union to form the Confederate States of America. Later four more states joined them and thus hostilities began between the North & South. President, Lincoln was determined to preserve the Union at any cost and a bloody civil war engulfed the nation that lasted for more than four years with more than 600,000 Americans dead. Less than a week after the surrender of Confederate forces, Lincoln was killed by an assassin’s bullet. Lincoln’s most lasting accomplishments are the preservation of the Union, the upholding of democracy, and the abolition of slavery.

Of President Abraham Lincoln, J. T. Duryea, a member of the U.S. Christian, wrote, “In temper he was earnest, yet controlled, frank, yet sufficiently guarded, patient, yet energetic, forgiving, yet just to himself; generous yet firm. His conscience was the strongest element of his nature. His affections were tender & warm. His whole nature was simple and sincere – he was pure, and then was himself.”3 According to James G. Randall, “Lincoln’s greatness arose from a combination of qualities in a balanced personality. One could never define his conduct as springing from mere automatic reaction. It came rather from informed study and mature reflection. Mere slogans and stereotypes did not impress him. He was a simple man – he was unpretentious in manner and straightforward in expression – but he was never naive. He could be enthusiastic, but he was never extravagant.”4 Congressman Isaac Arnold who was a close friend of Lincoln maintained that truth and integrity “were indeed the basis of his character”. It is said Lincoln had a great sense of humor. This sense of humor in him came spontaneously. He delighted people with his wit and wisdom.

Apart from reading Shakespeare, Lincoln loved to read the Bible, and the writings of Byron, Aesop and Oliver Wendell Holmes. He also loved to study the great orators and wrote his own speeches and letters. His Gettysburg address, delivered after the ‘Battle of Gettysburg’, as well as his second inaugural address in 1865, is considered to be among the great orations in American history. Regarding Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “His brief speech at Gettysburg will not easily be surpassed by words on any recorded occasion.” The great orator Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours at Gettysburg in comparison to Lincoln’s two minutes, wrote President Lincoln  several days later, to “express my great admiration of the thoughts offered by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the cemetery. I should be glad, if I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”5 The British historian Richard Carwardine writes that when Lincoln spoke his audiences felt an “electric thrill” and was transported by his “tone of earnest truthfulness, of elevated, noble sentiment and of kindly sympathy.” He rarely stooped to the politics of insult or abuse, but appealed primarily to his audience’s “sense of justice and loyalty to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence”; he was “remarkably free from hate.”6

References

1. In Whitman’s Pocket, an Imagined Lincoln; ADAM GOODHEART, New York Times, December 15, 2010  
2. Start Spreading the News, TED WIDMER, New York Times, February 18, 2011.
3. Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 23, Number 1, winter 2002, p. 53.
4. Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Hugh McCullough, pg. 414
5. Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, Ward Hill Lamon, pg. 175
6. The Model President, Review by KEVIN BAKER, New York Times, February 19, 2006 
 
Mallikarjun
October 24, 2011
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