Stephen B. Oates is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of eight other books, including The Fires of Jubilee and To Purge This Land with Blood. His task in this biography was to perpetuate Lincoln as he was in the days he lived. His purpose of this biography was to bring the past into the present for us and his students.
The Life of Abraham Lincoln
Although other states such as Indiana lay claim to his birth, most sources agree that Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in a backwoods cabin in Hodgeville, Kentucky. In an interview during his campaign for the presidency in 1860 Lincoln described his adolescence as "the short and simple annals of the poor." (p 30). His father Thomas was a farmer who married Nancy Hanks, his mother, in 1806. Lincoln had one sister, Sarah, who was born in 1807.
The Lincoln family was more financially comfortable than most despite the common historical picture of complete poverty. They moved to Indiana because of the shaky system of land titles in Kentucky. Because the Lincoln's arrived in Spencer County at the same time as winter, Thomas only had time to construct a "half-faced camp." Made of logs and boughs, it was enclosed on only three sides with a roaring fire for the fourth. The nearest water supply was a mile away, and the family had to survive on the abundance of wild game in the area.
Less than two years after the move to Indiana, Mrs. Lincoln caught a horrible frontier disease known as "milk sick.". Thomas Lincoln returned to Kentucky to find a new wife. On December 2 he married Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow with three children, and took them all back to Indiana. Although there were now eight people living in the small shelter, the Lincoln children, especially Abe, adored their new stepmother who played a key role in making sure that Abe at least had some formal education, amounting to a little less than a year in all. To support his family it was necessary that Abe worked for a wage on nearby farms.
"He was strong and a great athlete, but Abe preferred to read instead. Although few books were available to a backwoods boy such as himself, anything that he could obtain he would read tenaciously" (p 56). Although his formal education had come to an end, his self-education was just beginning.
After a three month flatboat journey along the Ohio and Mississippi, the 19 year old Lincoln returned to Indiana with an enthusiasm for the lifestyles that he had just encountered. Unfortunately, his new-found joy did not last long as his sister Sarah died in childbirth on January 20, 1828.
In 1830 the Lincoln family decided to leave Indiana in hopes of a better future in Illinois. It was soon thereafter that Abraham became a leader in the town of New Salem while operating a store and managing a mill. The next step for such an ambitious man was obvious--he entered politics, finishing eighth out of thirteen in a race for the Illinois House of Representatives in August of 1832.
Abraham Lincoln was a strong supporter of Whig founder Henry Clay and his "American System." This system that arose from the National Rebublicans of 1824 was in opposition to the powerful Democratic party of President Andrew Jackson. Lincoln agreed with Clay that the government should be a positive force with the purpose of serving the people. Internal improvements were high on both mens' lists, and this stand made the relatively unknown Lincoln popular in rural Illinois from the start. As the Whigs rose in stature throughout the 1830's, so did Lincoln, but not without paying his dues along the way.
For eighty days in the spring and early summer of 1832 Lincoln served in the military. On a constant search for Black Hawk, war leader of the Sauk and Fox Indians, he never saw any fighting but he did prove to be a superior leader of men in some of the most trying situations, including threats of desertion. "In return for his eleven and...