‘I have done nothing to make any human being remember that I have lived Yet what I wish to live for is to connect my name with the events of my day and generation, to link my name with something which will be of interest to my fellow men.’
These were the words of Abraham Lincoln at the age of thirty ¬two. A series of disappointments brought him to the point of wanting to end his life. Lincoln wrote the above words when he determined to make a fresh start in life. Later, he became one of the best known and best loved presidents of the United States of America. His name is famous throughout the world as the person who ended slavery in America.
Lincoln was born in Kentucky, USA, in 1809, where his father worked as a carpenter. He lost his mother at an early age, but later his father married again. Lincoln and his sister became very fond of their stepmother.
Young Lincoln grew up to be a tall man with very large feet. His clothes did not fit him properly. The sleeves of his coat were too short and his trousers also did not fully cover his legs. At first sight, he did not look at all like the great leader that he was to become.
Lincoln first saw what slavery was really like when he was hired to take a boat load of produce to the city of New Orleans in 1828. Later, on a second visit to this city, he promised himself that he would abolish this practice completely.
Lincoln had not been to school on a regular basis, but he had learned to read and write and later became a lawyer. Although he was considered to be ‘a queer fellow’ by the people of his area because of the way he looked and dressed, he was well liked by them. This was because he had a good sense of humour and was able to make people laugh. His first and greatest love was said to be a woman named Anne Rutledge, whose father owned the tavern in the neighbourhood where Lincoln lived. It was Anne’s father who suggested that Lincoln should enter politics.
Lincoln was first elected to the legislature of Illinois in 1834. In 1838 and in 1840, he was reelected to this office. During this time, he met Stephen Douglas, the man who was to be his rival in love for a short time and in politics for a much longer time. Mary Todd, the woman with whom both these men were in love, was from Kentucky. She chose Lincoln as her husband, but their marriage was not a happy one. In 1842, a year,after his marriage, Lincoln set up practice in law with a man named William H. Herndon. A close friendship grew between these two men, which lasted until Lincoln’s death. Later, Herndon wrote Lincoln’s biography.
In 1846, Lincoln was elected a member of the Congress. But his membership was not renewed because he introduced a bill for ending slavery in the District of Columbia. Disappointed, he went back to practising law. He lost interest in politics for some time and became well known for his honesty as a lawyer.
However, Lincoln did not stay away from politics for long. In 1854, the issue of slavery made him join politics again. He had to compete with Stephen Douglas, who tried to appease those states in the South, which supported slavery as well as those in the North that opposed slavery. Lincoln did not believe that half of the nation could go on with the practice of slavery while the other half was against it. He felt that the nation could not exist half slave and half free. However, Lincoln was defeated in this first fight against Douglas, for a seat in the United States Senate.
Despite this defeat, in May 1860, Lincoln was named the candidate of the Republican party for the Presidential election. During this time, the Democratic party attacked him fiercely. He was called ‘a third rate country lawyer’, ‘a person who could not speak English properly’ and many such names. However, he was elected the President of the United States at the end of it all. Four days after Lincoln was elected President, the Southern states began to pull out of the Union which formed the USA. These states in the South formed a union of their own which they called a Confederacy. Lincoln, who was saddened by this, fought to stop the other states from pulling out as well. Finally, the conflict between the North and the South became so bad that it led to a civil war. Lincoln tried to avoid this war but was unsuccessful in his attempt to do so.
To understand the political background of the American Civil War, it is necessary to describe how the USA came to be formed. In the 17th century, settlers from countries like England, France, Spain, Holland and Germany came to North America, which was then a newly discovered country. Some came to find wealth, others to find religious freedom, and yet others to extend the power of their home country by building an empire. The British King ruled this new land, part of which was also called New England. After the American War of Independence was won, the independent states formed themselves into a federation called the United States of America. Each state of this new federation kept a great deal of its independence in every area of government, although these states also had a common purpose. Thus, certain matters such as defence were given to a common government which acted for all the states.
The southern part of USA, which had also joined the federation, developed its agriculture on a plantation basis with the use of slave labour. The northern part was more involved with trade and industry, although agriculture remained important. There were no slaves in the North. In time, the question of slavery became a hot issue in the new states that joined the Union, since people in those states had not as yet made up their minds on the subject. The United States’ constitution stated the right of all human beings to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, but it also upheld the right to private property. Slaves were private property. The idea that slaves were private property conflicted with the other idea that slaves were human beings with the right to liberty. This was the basic point which was argued about throughout the land.
There were many sides to this issue. Firstly, was human slavery right? By this time, slavery had been made unlawful in most countries of the world. Many people believed that it was grossly unjust to withhold the freedom of any human being. But the South had spent a lot.of money in buying slaves. Their social, economic and political life was organized around the ownership of slaves. Thus, it was not hard to see how important the practice of slavery had become to them.
There was also a political side to the problem of slave ownership by the Southern states. How practical was it to have a ‘Union of states’ in which some states were ‘free’ while others were ‘slave’? Yet, this is what Lincoln’s rival Douglas wanted. But the Southern states worried that with a larger number of the states in the Union being ‘free’, slavery would be completely abolished. They felt if this happened, they would be ruined financially, socially and politically. The only answer seemed to be to form two separate unions. But this did not work either.
Shortly after Lincoln was elected the President, the Southern states pulled out of the Union. On 12 April 1861, the South opened fire on the North at a place called Fort Sunter. The Civil War or the ‘War Between the States’ had begun.
There were great differences between the North and the South. The North had a much bigger white population. They were better at producing industrial goods while the South was better at agriculture. In many ways, the North had a great advantage over the South, but the army of the South was well trained and the greater part of the war took place in the South. Thus they were able to fight better. The war was not won very easily. But as we know, after some defeats, the North finally won the war. While the war was on, Lincoln, who had insisted on having an election at the end of his term of office as President, was re elected to serve another term.
In November 1863, on the battlefield of Gettysburg, Lincoln gave a speech, which became famous for all time. He spoke of “…a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” These words from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address speak of the two ideals liberty and equality on which America was built.
Lincoln met with a sudden death in 1865, while watching a play with his wife, Lincoln was shot by a man named John Wilkes Booth. His death came at a time when peace had at last been brought to the USA. Perhaps this was the final blow that was needed for the complete ending of slavery in the USA. After his death, Lincoln was recognized as a great man, and the ideals he stood for were upheld by the citizens of the country.
[written by: Wiffired Jayasuriya, India]