Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), 16th President of the United States

A pretty good program on Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd was shown on PBS recently. It said too much about Mary, but then this side of the story probably appealed to many viewers. Although American History has improved in veracity these days, this program shows that Lincoln continues to be much smarter than those who study him. Most of the old saws were still there, but a bit of truth was showing through. The program began with two visual anachronisms, the migration of the Lincolns from Kentucky to Indiana in a wagon pulled by two fine horses, and a closeup of a wire nail being driven into Nancy Hanks' coffin. The journey by road in 1816 would have been arduous in the extreme, possible only with oxen as draft animals. More likely, the Lincolns came down the Ohio in a keelboat and landed at Newburgh, which was only a few miles from the farm near Booneville. Perhaps someone knows, but I do not. Cut nails would have been used at the time. However, the rest of the program was free of such things, and I commend the view of the Morse register receiving a telegram. It was an inker, when I would expect an embosser, but at any rate was a good detail.

Much was made, as always, of a supposed gawkiness, and the almost obigatory notice that Lincoln did not resemble John Brown in his opposition to slavery, that always comes from the descendants of slavers. First of all, Lincoln was indeed tall and lanky, so it was perhaps too easy for him to appear awkward. It was a necessity in American politics at the time to project the image of a country innocent, and Lincoln knew this very well. He used it in every election, with "rail-splitting" and other activities in which he certainly no longer engaged. Self-depreciation would get him much farther than strutting around like a Kentucky Colonel, and Lincoln also perfected this. The election posters show him dressed in overalls brandishing an axe, when he actually was a distinguished lawyer in a frock coat who lived in a two-story house in Springfield. When people heard him speak, the effect was powerful and almost irresistible for the common man.

The other part of this is the calumny that he was ambivalent on slavery. He was opposed to slavery, both on principle and for its injustice, as was his father, who had left Kentucky for that reason. Indiana and Illinois had many settlers from the South, and they were there because of a distaste for slavery. Lincoln abhorred the sight of coffles of slaves shuffling along the rude highways of the United States, and saw the hypocrisy of a country that put Liberty on its money. It must not be forgotten that the whole country was a slave country. Slavery was legal everywhere (but the slave trade was not), and fugitive slaves pursued and returned. Escaped slaves had to make it to Canada. I lived in a house in Newburgh that was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Slaves had to be hidden there no less than in Kentucky. There were states that cherished slavery, and states that abhorred it, but the country was slave.

Abolitionists were indeed rare; most Americans accepted slavery as natural where it was practiced, and looked down on Blacks, as they looked down on Indians, Mexicans, Irish and every other person except their own kind. What kind of success would Lincoln have with this sort of electorate had he sounded like William Lloyd Garrison or John Brown? None whatsoever, and the fact was very clearly realized. Do historians actually expect that he would have stated his personal views without equivocation in the Lincoln-Douglas debates? He came as close as he could without ruining his chances, concentrating on describing slavery as a moral evil, a view which he knew to be widely held. At the 1860 convention, he was nominated over the popular Senator Seward, who was more extreme on the subject. It was a narrow thing, and well-played. In the event, he succeeded in abolishing slavery throughout the country, which he could not have done except by the most careful and intricate maneuvering.

The program described William Henry Harrison as a Virginia aristocrat. Leaving aside the question of just what kind of "aristocrat" was found in Virginia, this leaves a very wrong impression. Virginia Whigs were a rather rare animal. Harrison had been anti-slavery since his youth, but saw no way to get rid of it under the Constitution. He left Virginia for good as a young man, and retained no property there. His life was spent in the Old Northwest wearing many different hats, and he settled at North Bend near Cincinnati. The 1840 campaign used many of the tricks we see later with Lincoln. The "log cabin" was the original house at North Bend, which had been greatly expanded by 1840. The cider drunk there was sweet cider, not the hard cider of the posters, and Harrison discouraged whisky distilling. There is more on Harrison elsewhere on this site.

It seems compulsory to describe Lincoln as ugly and unkempt, but the photographs show otherwise. As a young man, he was tall and dark, not pretty, but rugged and thoughtful. His marrying Mary Todd is enough to show his personal appeal, and he was widely loved. Most photographs shown by historians concentrate on his last years, full of worry and stress, in the effort to make the ugliness point. We now choose presidents on beauty rather than brains, but this was not yet the style in 1860. Lincoln was subject to much of the same vicious carping that has followed President Clinton. The parallels are striking, and the viciousness has been carefully preserved by the propagandists that call themselves historians. It need scarcely be said that the Democratic and Republican parties are now the precise opposites of their 1860 ancestors.

Return to History Index

Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 20 February 2001
Last revised