Study Guide

Abraham Lincoln in Gettysburg Address

By Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Think you've got a vampire living across the street? Abraham Lincoln is your guy.

Oh, wait—that's not based on reality? Whoops. Our bad.

Humble Roots

Still, the real, non-vampire hunter Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, is almost a mythic figure these days. He's best known for steering the country through the turbulent Civil War and his impeccable style choices. (He's also known for being super tall and skinny.)

Born on the western frontier in 1809, he grew up in the area that is now Indiana and Kentucky. Yes, Indiana was once considered the Wild West, before it became known as the home of Hoosiers and persimmon pudding.

Honest Abe was entirely self-taught and became a successful lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, before transitioning into politics. He wasn't discovered by Paula, Randy, and Simon, but he became an American idol anyway due to a series of debates he had with his Democratic opponent for the Senate, Stephen A. Douglas.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates revolved around the issue of—you got it—slavery. Lincoln and the newly formed Republican Party wanted to stop the spread of slavery by banning it in states looking to join the Union. The Democrats believed in the doctrine of popular sovereignty—read: states choosing their own laws—just about guaranteeing its spread. Taking the failure of his Senate bid in stride, Lincoln published transcripts of the debates, propelling himself and the slavery debate to national prominence.

We can't repeat it too often: this tall drink of water was pretty awesome.

Political Dynamo

Bolstered by his newfound fame, Abraham Lincoln was selected as the Republican nominee for president in 1860. The race was tight, but with the North solidly on Lincoln's side and the South split between several candidates, he became the 16th president of the United States.

Lincoln was a controversial president for a controversial time. In the middle of an unprecedented crisis, he did things that might sound downright un-American, such as granting himself broad wartime powers and suspending habeas corpus, a cornerstone of American legal theory.

But perhaps the ends justified the means because, following five years of warfare, the Confederacy had been subdued and the slow process of healing could begin. And, oh, yeah: the evil of slavery had been banished.

While we're on the subject of abolition, the Emancipation Proclamation is Lincoln's other famous work. He's not just some one-hit wonder, like Eagle-Eye Cherry.

But the Emancipation Proclamation is often oversimplified as "Lincoln freed the slaves." This is technically true, sure, but it was a bit more limited in scope. For example, it was based on the president's wartime powers…so it only applied to slaves in states that were rebelling.

Still, this was a momentous act and freed between 3 to 4 million slaves, re-energized African-American spirits, and deterred Europe from siding with the Confederacy, all in one swift motion. Just goes to show you that one decision can make a huge difference.

By the time of the commemoration of a national cemetery at Gettysburg rolled around in November 1863, the country was in rough shape. The dream of Union soldiers marching south with their superior numbers and quickly putting down the rebellious states had evaporated after the bloody stalemates at Antietam, Shiloh, and Chancellorsville.

The Kind of Dude Who Didn't Let Smallpox Stop Him From Giving a Speech

Even the victory at Gettysburg was a hollow one since both sides suffered so many casualties. But after being asked to oversee the cemetery dedication, Lincoln boarded a train north. En route he got dizzy and weak, and his face "had a ghastly color." Turns out he had smallpox and was ill for the next month. But Lincoln wasn't fazed by a bit of life-threatening disease, and he delivered a performance still remembered today.

However, his luck eventually ran out. Abraham Lincoln wouldn't live to see the war's true end or rebuild the devastated South. Just five days after Lee's surrender at Appomattox, he was assassinated as part of a pro-Confederate conspiracy to wipe out several high-ranking Union government officials.

Lincoln was the only one killed, but the loss was still traumatic. He was the first president killed in office, and he had steered the nation through one of its darkest periods, earning him a deserved win as America's greatest leader. (Source)