With Malice Toward None


by Stephen B. Oates
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. 
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" and died.
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. She 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). Even though 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
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 Republicans 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
men's 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 a half
weeks of service Lincoln earned a mere $125, but the
connections that he made with future leaders of Illinois
and the experiencing of life from a soldier's viewpoint
proved to be priceless in his future political career" (p
 During this time Lincoln ran for and won a seat in the
Illinois Legislature with bipartisan support. In 1846
Lincoln took his biggest step in politics to that point. He
won election to Congress as the only Whig from Illinois.
His single term was only memorable in that he took an
unpopular stand against President James K. Polk and his
Mexican War, which Lincoln saw as unjust. Lincoln made
unsuccessful bids for an Illinois Senate seat in 1855,
running as a Whig, and the Vice Presidency in 1856, running
as a Republican. In his early days as a lawyer and an
Illinois Legislator, Lincoln was a frequent guest of the
Edward's family and Mrs. Edward's younger sister, Mary
Todd, immediately caught Abe's eye.
She was like no woman he had ever known before. Her beauty,
intelligence, charm, and ability to lead a conversation was
enough to cause the usually unemotional Abraham to propose.
Yet, he felt he did not love here and they broke up the
engagement. Almost immediately thereafter, Lincoln began to
feel terrible guilt and unhappiness over what he had done
and what he then realized he had lost. He became so
depressed that for a short time many of those around him
feared that he was going to commit suicide. Until he longed
for her so much that a spark was re-ignited between the old
lovers and they reunited and married.
He continued his political endeavors and after receiving
the Republican Party nomination for the 1858 Illinois
senatorial race, Lincoln gave his historically famous, yet
questionably radical "House Divided" speech Lincoln had
lost this election against Douglas but he had strengthened
the Republican Party and won national recognition in the
process. As a result of holding his own with the "Little
Giant" (referring to Douglas's physical stature and
political power), the entire nation was able to see just
how great and powerful of a leader Abraham Lincoln could
become. Lincoln put the Senatorial defeat in its proper
perspective six years later when he said, "It's a slip, and
not a fall." (p 143) After Illinois chose Lincoln over the
more radical William Seward and Edward Bates, he almost
reluctantly turned his attention to the national scene. 
Lincoln's true desire was to be a Senator, where Abe
believed that he could concentrate on the most important
issues more closely. Since he honestly did not believe that
he had a chance of actually winning the presidency, one of
the main reasons that he was running was to gain more
notoriety for the 1864 senatorial. Nevertheless, Lincoln
had thrown his hat into the ring and he ran on the
Republican platform of:
1) opposition to the extension of slavery 
 2) opposition to "nativist" demands that naturalization
laws be changed to limit the rights of immigrants 
 3) support of federally sponsored internal improvements, a
protective tariff, a railroad to the Far West, and free
land for Western settlers. 
This stand was obviously very attractive to Northern and
Western voters. When election day finally came, Lincoln
simply waited, first in his office at the statehouse and
later in the telegraph office. When the final results came
in at about two o'clock in the morning, Abraham Lincoln had
become the sixteenth President of the United States with
1,866,452 popular votes. However he, did not receive a
single vote in ten Southern states, and largely because of
his victory, frustrated, humiliated, and defeated
Southerners began the process of secession, beginning with
South Carolina in 1860.
Abraham Lincoln was chosen by destiny as the man to lead
the Nation through its most trying hour, and it is quite
probable that he understood just how trying it would be.
Upon recalling how he felt immediately after learning of
his victory, Lincoln replied, "I went home, but not to get
much sleep, for I then felt as I never had before, the
responsibility that was upon me." (p 231) By Lincoln's
inauguration day in March of 1861, seven states had already
seceded from the Union, electing Jefferson Davis as
President of their Confederacy. In his inaugural address
Lincoln attempted to avoid aggravating the slave states
that had not yet seceded. He asked the South to reconsider
its actions, but also reinforced his belief that the Union
was perpetual, and that states could not secede, saying,
"In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not
mine, is the momentous issue of civil war." (p 288) Lincoln
also announced that because secession was unlawful he would
hold the federal forts and installations in the South. 
All sided with the Union basically because they were
assured by Lincoln that the war was being fought to
preserve the Union, and not to destroy slavery. In a letter
to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, on
August 22, 1862, Lincoln confirmed this position saying:
"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union,
and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could
save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it;
and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would
do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving
others alone, I would also do that." (p 290) Just as he had
previously said that he would, on January 1, 1863, Abraham
Lincoln declared that all slaves residing in states and
districts still in rebellion against the United States were
to be free. 
Although this was a bold move meant to upset the Southern
war effort, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation
had no immediate effect because it applied only to the
Confederate states over which the federal government had no
control. The proclamation did not apply to the slave states
under Union control because there was no legal
justification for Lincoln to apply it in those places. It
had to be classified as a "military measure," such as
depriving the South of the services of her slaves. Lincoln
decided that in order to peacefully integrate the former
slaves into American society, he would train them as
regular soldiers. They fought gallantly and valiantly. Some
186,000 colored troops had been enrolled in the Union army
by the end of the war. The famous poet Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow remarked, "At last the North consents to let the
Negro fight for freedom." (p 340) 
Jefferson Davis, and his war-torn South, had one final hope
-- the defeat of Lincoln in the election of 1864. Davis
knew that as long as Lincoln was in the Office, the
industrial superior North would continue to fight, and the
South could not withstand the war much longer. If a new
"peace" candidate were to be elected, then the Confederacy
might survive. "Luckily for Lincoln the tide of the war
turned dramatically in September of 1864 when General
Sherman took Atlanta, an extremely important Southern rail
and manufacturing center. Morale was boosted greatly in the
North, and the victories continued to mount under Lincoln's
new-found leaders; Ulysses S. Grant and General Sherman. 
By the time of the election in November, Lincoln won
overwhelmingly with 212 of the 233 possible electoral." (p
402) The very weary President addressed the Nation the next
day with less than victorious words. He stressed that the
South should be dealt with mildly in order to bring the
entire Nation back together as soon as possible. "Let us
all join in doing the acts necessary to restoring the
proper practical relations between these states and the
Union." (p 409) What should have been Lincoln's finest hour
was probably one of his most stressing, because it was now
up to him as to where the Nation was to go next. 
It was Good Friday, April 14, 1865, only five days after
the end of the war. Despite numerous warnings from some of
his closest advisors, President Lincoln insisted on
attending an evening performance of Our American Cousin at
Ford's Theater. Since General Grant was expected to attend
the play with President Lincoln, the President's attendance
was highly publicized. John Wilkes Booth, a staunch
Southern supporter, was a well known and popular actor who
felt it necessary to redeem the lost cause of the
Confederacy. He had previously planned to kidnap President
Lincoln, but when that plan did not work he decided to
assassinate him instead. He had the help of three others in
his plot, with the intention of also assassinating Vice
President Johnson, Secretary Seward, and General Grant. The
wounded Lincoln was rushed across the street to the
Petersen house where he was attended to for nine hours.
After fighting for life like only he could, President
Abraham Lincoln passed away at 7:22 a.m. on the morning of
April 15, 1865.
 "Even he who now sleeps, has, by this event, been
clothed with a new influence...Now his simple and weighty
words will be gathered like those of Washington, and your
children, and your children's children, shall be taught to
ponder the simplicity and deep wisdom of utterances which,
in their time, passed, in party heat, as idle words."
 --Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, 1865

 "A greater work is seldom performed by a single
man. Generations yet unborn will rise up and call him
 --Reverend James Reed, 1865

 "...In all America, there was, perhaps, not one man who
less deserved to be the victim of this revolution, than he
who has just fallen."
 --The London Times, 1865

 "Abraham Lincoln...was at home and welcome with the
humblest, and had a spirit and a practical vein in the
times of terror that commanded the admiration of the
wisest. His heart was as great as the world, but there was
no room in it to hold the memory of a wrong."
 --Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1876
 "If one would know the greatness of Lincoln one
should listen to the stories which are told about him in
other parts of the world. I have been in wild places where
one hears the name of America uttered with such mystery as
if it were some heaven or hell...but I heard this only in
connection with the name Lincoln."
 --Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) 
"In the days before antiseptic surgery, Lincoln had
foreshadowed his own 
 demise; his efforts to preserve the life of the nation had
been successful at the 
 cost of its strongest limb." (p 446) 
I found this book to be very interesting and was surprised
that it was not just another documentary style written
biography. It was actually interesting to read due to
Oates' creative writing style. Being a factual historical
story, I learned a little about the life style of the
post-colonial period and of course, the life of Lincoln
himself whom I know like a close relative now due to the
deep personal as well as external imagery expressed in this


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