Justin Ewers: Fresh Takes on Lincoln's Boyhood

Roundup: Talking About History

Justin Ewers, in US News & World Report (2-21-05):

He was an up-by-his-bootstraps man of the frontier. Born in a log cabin, he taught himself to read and hacked his way out of the Kentucky backwoods into the national spotlight. At political rallies, posters showed him splitting rails with ax in hand. He was the prairie lawyer who would become the Great Emancipator: Honest Abe--the man who freed the slaves and won the Civil War. When an interviewer asked him about his early days, he summed it up in a phrase: "'The short and simple annals of the poor.' That's my life, and that's all you or anybody else can make of it."

With the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, on April 14, 1865--less than a week after the end of the Civil War--this gilded image became gospel. A thorough accounting of Lincoln's early years seemed to die with him. He left no autobiography. There are fewer than 10 pages of personal reminiscence in his Collected Works. And so his past, in death, hardened into hagiography.

But is this the real Lincoln? Today, the question is very much alive, as scholars show new interest in his forgotten past. Lincoln's prepresidential papers have been consolidated, for the first time, in a new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., the town he called home. An exhibit at the grand opening, in April, will use roughly half of its space to chronicle Lincoln's journey to the presidency. And as the bicentennial of his birth approaches, in 2009, a wave of scholarship is re-examining the early life of the 16th president, using new sources to explore his personal relationships, his rise to power--and just who Honest Abe really was. What researchers have discovered is a man more vacillating, less principled--even much richer than history remembers. "People know Lincoln the wartime leader," says David Herbert Donald, a professor of history at Harvard, "but knowing his early years helps explain how he became one."

The facts. The rough outlines of Lincoln's life before the White House have never been in dispute. He was born in 1809 in a log cabin in Kentucky. His parents were unschooled, and Lincoln himself had no more than a year of formal education altogether. When he was 8, an ax was placed in his hand, "and from that till within his twenty-third year," Lincoln wrote later of himself, "he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument."

His life was not without early heartache. After the family moved to Indiana, his mother died when he was 9, an older sister when he was 18. His father, a distant man, was unable to fill the void. Lincoln eventually left home, at 22, for Illinois, where he vaulted up the social ladder. He was soon elected to the local legislature, serving four terms. He taught himself law, becoming a respected attorney, then married into one of Springfield's most powerful families. Not long after, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In the 1850s, Lincoln joined the Republican Party, a new coalition of northern antislavery groups, and famously debated Stephen Douglas, one of Illinois's sitting senators, about the future of slavery in the Union. In 1860, he ran for president and won.

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