Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) turns 200 years old today! (So does Darwin.) Lincoln was the 16th American president, being president during the civil war of the 1860s when free states fought against slave states. Lincoln freed the slaves and won the war but he did not live long enough to win the peace: shortly after the war he was shot dead.
He is the man you currently see on the American penny and the five dollar bill. He is half the reason Black History Month falls in February (the other half is Frederick Douglass).
When he became president he had had only two years of Washington experience – less than Obama. In the late 1840s Lincoln had been a one-term Congressman from Illinois. He failed to win the Senate seat in 1858.
During the civil war the press did not think he knew what he was doing. Many expected the war to be short, a matter of weeks or months, but instead it went on for four terrible years, brother fighting brother, more Americans dying than in any other war. Much of it was fought not far from the city of Washington itself.
And even when Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, his most famous speech, no one thought much of it at the time.
The Lincoln we know was not alive in Lincoln’s day. It grew up in the years that followed his death. It is only in looking back that he seems so great.
His great strength was the courage to do what was right for the country no matter what the cost in blood or war or a bad name for himself: Keeping men as slaves was wrong, so he must free them. The country must not be divided or it will fall, so he must fight to make it whole.
That made him hated by many in his own time, but it made him a hero to future days.
He was tall and ugly and often sad but he was a good speaker whose wit could make people laugh.
He had less than a year of schooling but growing up he loved to read: the Bible, Aesop, “Robinson Crusoe”, “Pilgrim’s Progress”, Weems’s “Life of Washington”, Shakespeare and Robert Burns.
Lincoln freed the slaves but he was still more racist than most Americans are today. Here is what he said at the beginning of the Fourth Lincoln-Douglas Debate in 1858:
I will say then that I am not, nor even have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause] – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.