Did you ever read a fairy story about a poor boy who became a prince? If you would like I can tell you as good a story as that a true story about a poor boy who became president—and that is better than being a prince. The boy I am going to speak about was as poor as any one that ever lived in America: but he rose to a grander position than any prince or king ever reached. Listen to the story of his life. There was once a very poor man who lived in a miserable little log cabin in the wild part of what was then called "away out West." It was on a stony, weedy hillside, at a place called Nolin's Creek, in the State of Kentucky. In that log cabin, on the twelfth day of February, in the year 1809, a little baby was born. He was named Abraham Lincoln.
I don't believe you ever saw a much poorer or meaner place in which to be born and brought up than that little log cabin. Abraham Lincoln's father was ignorant and lazy. He could not read and he hated to work. Their house had no windows, it had no floor, it had none of the things you have in your pleasant homes. In all America no baby was ever born with fewer comforts and poorer surroundings than little Abraham Lincoln. He grew from a baby to a homely little boy, and to a homelier young man. His clothes never fitted him; he never, in all his life, went to school but one year; he had to work hard, he could play but little, and many a day he knew what it was to be cold and hungry and almost homeless. But with all this he had that in him which makes a man great.
His father kept moving about from place to place, living almost always in the wild regions. He went from Kentucky to Indiana and then to Illinois. Sometimes their home would be a log cabin, sometimes it was just a hut with only three sides boarded up. Abraham Lincoln was a neglected and forlorn little fellow. His mother died when he was only eight years old. Then Abraham and his sister Sarah were worse off than ever. But pretty soon his father married a second wife, and Abraham's new mother was a good and wise woman, which was a very good thing for the boy.
She took care of him and gave him new clothes; she taught him how to make the most and do the best with the few things he had and the chances that came to him: she made him wish for better things; she helped him fix himself up, and encouraged him to read and study.
This last was what Abraham liked most of all, and he was reading and studying all the time. There were not many books where he lived, but he borrowed all he could lay his hands on, and read them over and over. He studied all the hard things he could find books about, from arithmetic and grammar to surveying and law. He wrote on a shingle, when he could not get paper, and by the light of a log fire, when he could not get candles. He worked out questions in arithmetic on the back of a wooden shovel, and when it was full of figures he scraped them off and began again. He read and studied in the fields, when he was not working on woodpiles, when he was chopping wood; or in the kitchen, rocking the cradle of any baby whose father or mother had a book to lend him. His favorite position for studying was to be
He was the strongest boy in all the country around. He could mow the most, plow the deepest, split wood the best, toss the farthest, run the swiftest, jump the highest and wrestle the best of any boy or man in the neighborhood. But though he was so strong, he was always so kind, so gentle, so obliging, so just and so helpful that everybody liked him, few dared to stand up against him, and all came to him to get work done, settle disputes, or find help in quarrels or trouble.
So he grew amid the woods and farms, to be a bright, willing, obliging, active, good-natured, fun-loving boy. He had to work early and late, and when he was a big boy he hired out to work for the farmers. He could do anything, from splitting rails for fences to rocking the baby's cradle; or from hoeing corn in the field to telling stories in the kitchen.
And how he did like to tell funny stories! Not always funny, either. For, you see, he had read so much and remembered things so well that he could tell stories to make people laugh and stories to make people think. He liked to recite poetry and "speak pieces," and do all the things that make a person good company for every one. He would sit in front of the country store or on the counter inside and tell of all the funny things he had seen, or heard, or knew. He would make up poetry about the men and women of the neighborhood, or make a speech upon things that the people were interested in, until all the boys and girls, and the men and women too, said "Abe Lincoln," as they called him, knew everything worth knowing, and was an awful smart chap."
He worked on farms, ran a ferryboat across the river, split rails for farm fences, kept store, did all sorts of "odd jobs " for the farmers and their wives, and was, in fact, what we call a regular "Jack of all trades." And all the time, though he was jolly and liked a good time, he kept studying, studying, studying, until, as I have told you, the people where he lived said he knew more than anybody else. Some of them even said that they knew he would be President of the United States some day, he was so smart. Wasn't that wonderful for a boy brought up as he was and with such a father as he had?
The work he did most of all was splitting great logs into rails for fences. He could do as much as three men at this work; he was so strong. With one blow he could bury the axe in the wood. Once he split enough rails for a woman to pay for a suit of clothes she made him, and all the farmers around liked to have "Abe Lincoln" split their rails.
He could take the heavy axe by the end of the handle and hold it out straight from his shoulder. That is something that only a very strong-armed person can do. In fact, as I have told you, he was the champion strong-boy of his neighborhood, and, though he was never quarrelsome or a fighter, he did enjoy a friendly wrestle. He made two trips down the long Ohio and the broad Mississippi rivers to the big city of New Orleans. He sailed on a clumsy, square, flat-bottomed scow, called a flat-boat. Lincoln worked the forward oar on the flat-boat, to guide the big craft through the river currents and over snags.
After that Lincoln tried store-keeping. He had already been a clerk in a country store: now he set up a store of his own. He was not very successful. He loved to read and study better than to wait on customers, and his business was not looked after very well, and he had a partner that was lazy and good for nothing, and who got him into trouble. But, through it all, Lincoln never did a mean or dishonest thing. He paid all the debts of the store, though it took him years to do this, and he could be so completely trusted to do the right thing that all the people round about came to call him "Honest Abe Lincoln." That's a good nick-name, isn't it?
After Lincoln got through keeping store he was so much liked by the people, and they thought him so smart and such a fine speaker, that they chose him to go to the Legislature of Illinois again and again, and here he began to express in many ways his disapproval of slavery.
After he served several terms in the Legislature he became a lawyer—he had already been studying law, you know. He was a bright, smart and successful lawyer. What is better still, he was a good and honest one. He never would take a case he did not believe in, and once when a man came to engage him to help get some money from a poor widow, Lincoln refused, and gave the man such a scolding that he did not try it again. So Mr. Lincoln grew to be one of the best lawyers in all that Western country. Because he was so honest and thoughtful in speech and action, Lincoln rose to be what is called an able orator and statesman. He and another famous man, named Douglas, looked at things differently, and they had long discussions about politics and slavery. These discussions were held where all the people could hear them, in big halls or out of doors, and crowds of people went to listen to them, so that very soon everybody "out West" and people all over the country had heard of Lincoln and Douglas.
They had much to say about slavery, which everybody was then talking and thinking about. Douglas said that slaveholders should have the right to take their slaves into new States or Territories, and Lincoln said they should not. There were two great parties in the country, the Democrats, who said the same as Douglas did, and the Republicans, who said the same as Lincoln, and between these parties there was much bad feeling. They fought with words in Congress long before they began to fight with guns in the field.
At last came a time when the people of the United States were to choose a new President. And what do you think? These two men were picked out by the opposite parties to be voted for by the Lincoln by the Republicans, and Douglas by the Democrats. You may see by this that they had both become famous, though they lived in a back county, far "out West."
When election day came the Republicans won. The poor little back-woods boy, the rail-splitter, the flat-boatman, the farm-hand, was raised to the highest place over all the people. Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. Is not that as good as the fairy story of the poor boy who became a prince? It is better, for it is true.
But there were terrible times coming, and Lincoln was to be President through four years of dreadful war. For the people of the South, who owned the slaves then in the country, said that the Republican party wanted to rob them of their slaves and that they would not live under a Republican President. They would take their States out of the Union and form a new Union of their own.
Lincoln, you may be sure, was much troubled. He begged the people not to quarrel, but he said that the Union must not be broken. The people of the South cared very little for what he said. They tried to secede—that is, to draw out of the Union—and they fired on a fort over which waved the flag of the United States. That stirred up the people of the North, and soon there were drilling, and marching, and fighting, and the whole country was full of the spirit of war.
For four dreadful years the war went on. Many desperate and terrible battles were fought, for each side was eager to win. Neither side would give in, and brave soldiers, under brave leaders, did many gallant deeds under that terrible necessity that men call war. This war was especially dreadful, because it was like two brothers fighting with each other, and you know how dreadful that must be. There are times when brothers grow to hate each other more than strangers, and that was the way then between the North and South. It is not the way to-day, for the North and South have become like true brothers again.
During all those four years of war Abraham Lincoln lived in the President's house at Washington—the White House, as it is called. He had but one wish—to save the Union. He did not mean to let war, nor trouble, nor wicked men destroy the nation that Washington had founded, if he could help it. He was always ready to say, "We forgive you," if the men of the South would only stop fighting and say, "We are sorry." But they would not do this, much as the great, kind, patient, loving President wished them to do it.
That he was kind and loving all through that terrible war we know very well. War is a dreadful thing, and when it is going on many hard and cruel things are done. As the wounded soldiers lay in their hospitals, after some dreadful battle had torn and maimed them, the good President would walk through the long lines of cot-beds, talking kindly with them, and would send them good things, and do everything he could to relieve their sufferings and make them comfortable.
In war, too, you know, even brave soldiers often get tired of the fighting and the privations and the delay, and wish to go home to see their wives and children. But they cannot do so, unless their captain permits. So sometimes they get impatient and run away. This is called desertion, and when a deserter is caught and brought back to the army he is shot.
Now President Lincoln was so loving and tender-hearted that be could not bear to have any of his soldiers shot because they had tried to go home. So, where the case was not too bad, he would write a paper saying the soldier must not be shot. This is called a pardon, and often when a weak or timid soldier was arrested and sentenced to be shot as a deserter, his friends would hurry to the good President and beg him to give the man a pardon.
He almost always did it. "I don't see how it will do the man any good to shoot him," he would say. "Give me the paper, I'll sign it," and so the deserter would go free, and perhaps make a better soldier than ever, because the good President had saved him.
The question of slavery kept coming up during the war. Many men at the North asked Lincoln to set all the slaves in the land free, but he said: "The first thing to do is to save the Union; after that we'll see about slavery."
Some of them did not like that. They said the President was too slow. But he knew very well what he was about. He waited patiently until the right time came. He saw that the South was not willing to give in, and that something must be done to show them that the North was just as determined as they were. So, after a great victory had been won by the soldiers of the Union, Abraham Lincoln wrote a paper and sent it out to the world, saying that on the first day of January, 1863, all slaves in America should be free men and women—what we call emancipated—and that, forever after, there should be no such thing as slavery in free America.
It was a great thing to do. It was a greater thing to do it just as Lincoln did it, and while the world lasts no one will ever forget the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln.
Still the war went on. But, little by little, the South was growing weaker, and at last, in the month of April, 1865, the end came. The Southern soldiers gave up the fight. The North was victorious. The Union was saved.
You may be sure that the great and good President was glad. He did not think that he had done so very much. It was the people who had done it all, he said. But the people knew that Lincoln had been the leader and captain who had led them safely through all their troubles, and they cheered and praised him accordingly. As for the black people who had been set free, they blessed him for saving them.
When President Lincoln at last stood in the streets of Richmond, which had been the capital of the Southern States, he was almost worshiped by the colored people. They danced, they sang, they cried, they prayed, they called down blessings on the head of the man who had set them free.
The year before, in the midst of the war, he had been elected President for the second time. "It is not safe to swap horses when you are crossing a stream," he said. So the people voted not to "swap horses."
Lincoln made a beautiful speech to the people when he was again made President. He spoke only of love and kindness for the men of the South, and while he said the North must fight on to the end and save the Union, they must do it not hating the South, but loving it. And this is the way he ended that famous speech. Remember his words, boys and girls, they are glorious : "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work we are in. . . and achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
But, just when the war was ended, when peace came to the land again; when all men saw what a grand and noble and loving and strong man the great President was; when it looked as if, after four years of worry, weariness and work, he could at last rest from his labors and be happy, a wicked, foolish and miserable man shot the President, behind his back.
And, on the morning of the fifteenth of April, in the year 1865, just after the end of the war, Abraham Lincoln died.
Then how all the land mourned! South, as well as North, wept for the dead President. All the world sorrowed, and men and women began to see what a great and noble man had been taken from them.
The world has not got over it yet. Every year and every day only make Abraham Lincoln greater, nobler, mightier. No boy ever, in all the world, rose higher from poor beginnings. No man who ever lived did more for the world than Abraham Lincoln, the American. He saw what was right, and he did it; he knew what was true, and he said it; he felt what was just, and he kept to it. So he stands to-day, for justice, truth and right.
Source: "The Lives of the Presidents and How They Reached the White House" by Charles Morris, LL.D., 1903.
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