How Abraham Lincoln became America’s Iconic Hero

June 5, 2017

“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”-Abraham Lincoln

Thinking about our 16th president (our president of the week) literally gives me goosebumps sometimes. So maybe that makes me a bit of a fanatic. Or maybe I’m just really, really grateful and in awe of what Abraham Lincoln, one of my heroes, did for our country.

Not only did he preside over the Civil War, help end slavery and keep our country together, but he is also the ultimate testament of the American dream of rising above your circumstances to do truly great things. All it takes is drive. Lincoln had it in spades.

Abraham Lincoln was a giant of a man, both literally (he was our nation’s tallest president at 6’4″) and figuratively. To do what he did is one thing, but during his lifetime he also suffered numerous tragic losses and still came out on top. To me, that is one of the ultimate tests of greatness.

Stick with me. I’m going to share details about this man’s life that perhaps you didn’t know, but that help illustrate how he did what he did and why he has stood the test of time when others, who came both immediately before and after him, could not.


Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Did you know it’s the most visited national monument with nearly 8 million visitors last year–that’s nearly twice as many as visited the Statue of Liberty and nearly four times as many as visited Mt. Rushmore.

Abraham Lincoln’s childhood home in Kentucky (he lived there until he was 7-years-old)

President Abraham Lincoln

Early Days

We always associate Abraham Lincoln with being from Illinois. We learn in elementary school that Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin. Did you know he was born in Kentucky though? He lived there until he was 7 and then moved to Indiana where he lived until he was 21.

It was in Indiana that his life changed drastically when his mother Nancy unexpectedly died of milk poisoning. He was only nine-years-old at the time and, obviously, was completely devastated.

Just over a year later, Lincoln’s father Thomas left Abraham and his sister Sarah alone while he went in search of a new wife. Abe was 10, his sister Sarah was 12. The two were close (and so when she died shortly after she married a few years later, it also hit Lincoln hard) since all they really had was each other –they had another brother who died in infancy who was a few years younger than Abe.

His father returned with a wife, Sarah Bush Johnston, who may have been the best thing to ever happen to her new step-children. It’s said Thomas brought her back to his home and Abe and his sister Sarah were running around like wild men. I can’t even imagine what Sarah must have been thinking.


Lincoln’s stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln

Lincoln’s Relationship with His Step-Mother

Sarah, however, quickly turned things around, domesticated her two new step-children and formed a super strong bond with Abe. You may have heard that Lincoln’s step-mother played a big role in his life, but how much do you know? Though it was his own birth mother (who Abe called his “angel mother”) who instilled in Abe the desire to learn, it was Sarah who took it a step further and turned it into a passion, providing him with books whenever possible and standing up to his father on his behalf.

It is said his father often fought Sarah on the issue of education, insisting that Abe was needed for work and thinking formal education was a waste of time. But Sarah put her foot down, saw something special in Abe, and vowed that he would be educated. Step-mother and son were so close, in fact, that years later, Abe called her his best friend and said a son could never love a mother more.

The only thing she ever tried to dissuade him from doing? Run for president. Apparently she had fears something would happen to him. When she found out he had been killed, she sobbed, “They’ve killed him! I knew they would! I knew they would!”

There was a movie released a few years ago called “The Better Angels” that illustrates beautifully the relationship Lincoln had with his step-mother.

Lincoln’s Education and Speech Training

You may have heard a time or two how Abraham Lincoln didn’t have much formal education. But did you know how little he really had? Historians believe he only had a year and a half or less of “formal” education. He was one of only nine U.S. presidents who never attended college. He was largely self-taught, even as a lawyer.

Why so little formal education? For one, there were very few educated people out on the “frontier” where Lincoln grew up. Almost anyone who could read and write was asked to be a teacher. The “frontier” was so large that schools were few and far between. Teachers came and went irregularly, so there was never an official “school year” that Lincoln was kept from–he just went when he could.

It’s said Lincoln had amazing handwriting and that neighbors would come to him for scribe purposes. He learned to read and write from his books–books he often walked 20 miles to borrow.

So where’d he learn how to speak so eloquently? Historians say he stayed up late at night listening to the stories his father told his friends. He would replay them in his mind over and over all night, remembering where the pauses should be, where the laughter should come in, etc. Then the next day, he’d stand up on a tree stump and repeat the stories for his friends, learning to pause in the right places, etc.

Speeches like the Gettysburg address attest to his gift as a great speaker, but did you know the voice that came out of his mouth might be a bit different than you pictured? Some historians say, the low, deep voice you hear depicted on movies is dead wrong though. It’s said he actually a had a pretty high pitched voice–not what most people expected.

The Facts

Did you know, even though we associate Abraham Lincoln with being from Illinois, that he lived in Indiana most of his formative years? It wasn’t until he turned 21 that he moved to Illinois.

Did Lincoln have military experience? Just a little and it was brief–just a few months total. He served as a captain in the Black Hawk War, whose troops were basically enlisted to stop a tribe of indians in his area.

Did you know Lincoln didn’t win every election he ran? He lost his very first election. He ran for the Illinois legislature in 1832 and lost. Two years later, he finally won his first campaign to the lower house. It was his first of four terms.

He later served one term in Congress, then ran for  U.S. Senate against Senator Stephen Douglas and lost.

However, during his debates with Douglas he gained national attention (because he was darn good at those debates) which helped him get the Republican Party nomination for president a couple years later.

Did you know Lincoln wasn’t always a member of the Republican Party? He started off as a member of the Whig party and in 1856, when the anti-slavery issue became a big thing, he joined the Republicans.

Ironically, Lincoln beat the candidate he lost to for Senate in the presidential election.

President Lincoln’s presidential campaign was the first where voters could actually see what the candidate looked like. Thanks to new technology of the time, pins with the candidate’s photo on them were distributed all across the nation.

Also, thanks to new photo technology, we had more photos of Lincoln up to this point than any other president. Thanks to those photos, historians say no president aged more in his first term in office than did Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln and Slavery

Why did the slavery issue resonate so well with Abraham Lincoln? It’s possible it hit a nerve with him because he could see firsthand the cause of their plight. He once, referring to his childhood, referred to himself as a slave. Until he was 21-years-old, his father “rented” him out to neighboring farms for odd jobs like rail splitting (where he earned his nickname “rail splitter“) and farm hand. His father kept every cent Lincoln earned and tried to suppress any dreams Lincoln had of going somewhere in life.

Lincoln resented this and literally felt captured. So, when he was finally able to leave, he literally regarded himself as free from his bondage. Throughout his campaign for president (and Senate a few years earlier, though he lost), he denounced slavery as an evil institution. From his early childhood in Kentucky, he saw slaves being traded and was quite affected by what he saw.

Initially, Lincoln’s policy as president was simply to halt the expansion of slavery into the new territories. He thought that may be the starting place to eventually smother the practice. However, soon into his presidency, Lincoln quickly realized more needed to be done.

When the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (during Pierce’s presidency, which basically said the new territories could decide for themselves if they wanted slavery or not) was passed, it riled up Lincoln enough to do something about it. It was then that he started his journey of becoming an anti-slavery messenger and started making anti-slavery speeches across the country.

Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln

Courtesy of the Library of Congress


What Lincoln Accomplished in His Presidency

Why was Lincoln’s presidency so remarkable? What was it about him that transcended the presidency? For starters, his was the only presidency in U.S. history completely defined by war. Excellent decisions on all levels were needed on a daily basis. Abraham Lincoln was the right man for the job.

One of the real tests of Abraham Lincoln’s greatness was this: what kind of man must Lincoln have been to run for the presidency with the country in shambles like it was?

At the time of the election, seven Southern states had seceded and the nation was on the brink of civil war. Jefferson Davis was elected as president of the Confederacy just a month before Lincoln took office. What kind of man would want to take that on? It would have been daunting and probably overwhelming for any man. Such a task required someone unique. Lincoln was that man.

In fact, when James Buchanan was leaving the office he said to Lincoln:  “If you are as happy entering the presidency as I am leaving it, then you are a very happy man.”

Lincoln became obsessed with military strategy during his first year in office. When he was elected, he knew very little about it. So he did what Lincoln did best: he taught himself. He went to the Library of Congress and checked out the best books he could find and literally gave himself a crash course in military strategy. A year into his presidency, he was an expert.

To make the best, most timely decisions possible, Lincoln often stayed all day and even slept all night at the U.S. Telegraph Office awaiting news.

Historians claim it was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, that declared slavery unlawful in the rebelling states, that was the transcending moment in not only Lincoln’s presidency, but in our nation’s history. It was at that moment that Lincoln would forever be placed on a level field with the greatness of the Founding Fathers. He literally fulfilled the promise of the Declaration of Independence for those who had been denied freedom for so long.

Winning the Civil War wasn’t easy. Lincoln was wrought with issues from his generals who didn’t always do what he asked them to do, many setbacks along the way, along with personal tragedy that caused even more heartache and grief in his life (the death of his son Willie was said to drive Lincoln into a deep depression), etc.

When re-election time came around, Lincoln was by no means guaranteed a win. Ironically, he was running against one of his former generals, George McClellan, who ran under the promise that he was the man to end the war and reverse the Emancipation Proclamation. However, a couple months before the election, the Union Army had gained momentum which pushed Lincoln over the top to win a second term.

By his second Inauguration, the war was almost at an end, but, so was Lincoln’s life. Just over a month after his second Inauguration, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Five days later, Lincoln became our first president to be assassinated.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln

You can’t discuss Abraham Lincoln without mentioning his wife. It was during his service in the state legislature that he courted and married Mary Todd. The two were an odd match from the get-go. She was from a well-to-do, well educated family and his background was the opposite. They had an interesting courtship and even broke off the engagement once. Some say it was the deaths of their mothers at an early age that brought the two together.

Did you know Mary Todd Lincoln had a super troubled and tragic adult life? Two of her sons died as children (one in the White House) and she never recovered. She was also accused of being a spy (simply because two of her half-brothers served in the Confederate army) and lived the rest of her days in acute depression and near poverty. After her son Willie’s death, she had fortune tellers and “spiritualists” enter the White House to try and ease her pain.

To say she wasn’t well liked as First Lady is an understatement. She was super emotional, outspoken and a poor money manager and, in some ways in an attempt to show off her social status and impress other politician’s wives, she way overspent while in the White House. This type of spending would have been frowned upon in normal times, but during the Civil War when money was tight all around, it was a huge no-no. During one four-month period, she bought over 300 pairs of gloves.

Her lavish spending left her with huge debts after her husband died. Her mental health became a huge issue and her sole surviving son Robert had her admitted to an insane asylum outside of Chicago. The public’s perception of her wasn’t good. It wasn’t until decades after President Lincoln’s death that Congress finally issued a stipend to the widows of presidents. It was more or less too little too late though.

To get a more detailed look at Mary Todd Lincoln’s life (for better or worse), an excellent resource is the book Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. It goes into great detail on the personality of Mrs. Lincoln from someone who knew her best.

Lincoln and His Sons

You also can’t discuss Abraham Lincoln without mentioning his sons. He had so many personal tragedies in his life, while he also dealt with the biggest crisis in our country’s history, that ultimately defined who he was, not just as a president, but as a father, as a person.

Did you know Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln had four sons? Robert, Eddie, Tad, and Willie. Only one of them outlived his parents. The older two were said to more closely resemble their mother, while Willie was said to be the spitting image of his father.

Lincoln was said to have had a close relationship with his sons (especially the younger two, less so with the oldest) and been super lenient with them. Their parents put up with a lot of shenanigans from them that most parents of the day never would have tolerated.

Lincoln's oldest son

Robert Todd Lincoln

Robert Lincoln was the oldest of the Lincoln children and the only one to outlive his parents. He was reserved and detested public life. Since his father was establishing himself as a lawyer during his childhood, the two were never close. Like presidential children today, he was always the subject of the press and the public had a fascination with him, which he hated. He served as Secretary of War and Minister to Great Britain under Presidents Garfield and Arthur.

Eddie Lincoln

Little Eddie died a month prior to his fourth birthday from an illness, possibly tuberculosis, possibly thyroid cancer. Little is known about him except that his parents were obviously devastated when he passed away. He was originally buried in Springfield but his remains were later dug up and placed with his father.

Willie Lincoln

Just a few months after Eddie died, Willie was born. He was said to be the favorite child of Mrs. Lincoln’s and the envy of any child around him–“the most lovable boy I ever knew” is how he was described by a family friend. Supposedly, he was the child most like his father, smart, kind and good-natured. When Willie passed away at age 11, Lincoln was said to cry out “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth!” The cause of death is said to be typhoid fever. Historians suspect it was caught from the contaminated water supply that entered the White House in those days.

At Willie’s funeral, it was said of his father “There sat the man, with a burden on his brain at which the world marvels — bent now with the load at both heart and brain — staggering under a blow like the taking from him of his child. Men of power sat around him . . . all struggling with their tears — great hearts sorrowing with the president as a stricken man and a brother.”

Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad

Tad was the youngest and was seven years old when his dad became president. His life was somewhat tragic as well. In addition to Willie being his constant companion, so had two of the Taft boys–the four were inseparable. Unfortunately, after Willie died, Mrs. Lincoln banned the boys from every seeing each other again. It was too painful to her. She also basically stopped mothering her son because she was too stricken with grief to pay him any attention. This led to a super close relationship with Tad and his father though, which made it all the more difficult when he died.

Tad was born with a cleft palate, easily repaired today, but in those days not much could be done and he was left with a speech impediment.  This meant he was hard to understand and required specialized speech tutors as he got older. Also, because of his language, barriers,  he was hardly ever disciplined or restrained. Sadly, Tad’s education was severely neglected. Some historians claim he couldn’t even read until he lost his father at age 12.

After his father’s death, he went away to Europe with his mother to finally gain an education. Because of his speech impairments, he had a rough go. He was often made fun of and called “Stuttering Tad.” On a ship ride back to the U.S. at age 18, he caught a cold, which turned into something worse and passed away a few weeks later.

Famous Speeches

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” 

The Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was invited to give a speech to dedicate the National Cemetery of Gettysburg at what was one of the deadliest and most decisive battles in the Civil War. The remarks were short, but powerful. The words are inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is said to be one of the most moving speeches ever given by a U.S. president.

“We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart. The evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, and the surrender of the principal insurgent army, give hope of a righteous and speedy peace whose joyous expression can not be restrained. In the midst of this, however, He from whom all blessings flow, must not be forgotten.”

Lincoln’s final speech. His last remarks were given to a crowd at the White House, two days after the surrender of Robert E. Lee. In the speech he expressed his support for the black suffrage, which outraged one man in the crowd that night: John Wilkes Booth who vowed it would be the last speech Lincoln ever gave.

For Kids

Abraham Lincoln has many nicknames: “Honest Abe” and “the Rail splitter” to name just a few. Talk about these nicknames with your kids and why he might have been called each one.

Also, for a lesson on perspective, talk to your children about how Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the most popular president during his presidency. Even immediately after his death, the country didn’t foresee what a great icon he would become. But look at how our country reveres him today. Time makes a huge difference in showing us the impact that one man can leave on a nation.

Fun fact: Abe Lincoln was our tallest president, at 6’4″ tall–measure out how tall that is with a measuring tape so your children can picture how tall he was.

Lincoln Logs

Lastly, likely your children have a toy, or have at least heard of it, modeled after Abraham Lincoln’s childhood home: Lincoln Logs. The idea behind them was to let children design log cabins how they were thought to look in Lincoln’s day. If it has been awhile, pull them out and build a cabin while you talk about President Lincoln!

Sources: Recently, I discovered a gem of a podcast! It’s a series by The Washington Post that was done leading up to the latest election. They go in-depth on each president and talk to experts, historians, etc. Oh my goodness, it is awesome! If you are even the slightest bit interested in history, I suggest checking it out. You can find it here. The Abraham Lincoln podcast focuses on Lincoln’s love for books, his papers, etc.

As I usually mention, I have this really awesome book I love that I bought in the Mount Rushmore gift shop. It’s a small, easy to read book aptly titled The Presidents of the United States of America. Find it here. It probably has the most thorough, in-depth summary of each president all neatly packaged into a single page for each. I love it!

Killing Lincoln, by Bill O’Reilly (I know, I know–he’s controversial these days), is one of the best books I’ve read on Lincoln and his final days. It goes into such detail that you almost feel like you are there watching the whole thing. It’s fascinating!

Also, like I’ve mentioned before, the History Channel has an amazing documentary on the lives of each of our presidents. I’ve been watching it every single week. It is seriously fascinating. You can find it here. It’s a great watch for younger kids and especially any older kids who are learning about American history. They also have a more condensed and less expensive version that you can find here. Both versions are great because they both have different information about each president.

Other sources are referenced throughout.


Author: Brittany

Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.

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