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Abraham Lincoln - how unlucky can one President be

01:00 Wed 07th Aug 2002 |

Let's start at the beginning. Lincoln was born on 12 February 1809 born in a one room log cabin on Sinking Spring Farm near Hodgenville, Kentucky to Thomas Lincoln and his wife Nancy. Little Abe's grandfather had been killed by local Native Americans. He had a typically tough frontier upbringing as his poor farming family moved around in search of a better life.

Did he have a happy childhood

At one stage he was rescued from drowning by a schoolmate; in 1818 his family thought he had died following a serious accident with a horse; months later, his mother herself was dead of 'milk sickness'. At the ages of five, six, and again between the ages of 11 and 13 he attended rudimentary schools but spent most of his childhood farming.

Settling in Illinois in 1830, Lincoln first became in involved in politics, while working as a clerk, soldier, storekeeper and postmaster. His partner died, his business went bust, but he did win his first election, to the Illinois General Assembly, at the age of 24.

That's more like it. Success for young Abe!

Lincoln qualified as a lawyer and steadily made a name for himself both in the law and politics, defending murderers and the like. However, not everything was going swimmingly. He had a nervous breakdown. He was challenged to a duel, though it never took place.

Abe: Ladies' man
One sweetheart, Ann Rutledge, died of a fever and another, Mary Owens, turned down his marriage proposal, but at 33 he found time to marry 21-year-old Mary Todd. And then he made it to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846.

So - an elected politician at last

But he didn't have the much in the way of success; he lost the re-nomination within two years, failed to be appointed Land Officer, was defeated in an election to the Senate and in 1858 was defeated in efforts to be nominated as Vice-President of the US.

Was his home life any better

Tragedy stalked the family, with three of their four children dieing young. Second son Eddie died at the age of three, third son Willie at the age of 11 (during his father's Presidency) and youngest boy Tad died at 18. This was after his father's death, and not long before Robert, the first and surviving son, was forced to have his mother declared insane and committed to a sanitorium. Only Robert prospered, finally dieing in 1926 after a successful life in business and government.

You'd think he would have given up

Lucky he didn't. In 1859 he was elected 16th President of the United Sates of America.

So everything ended for the best

You think so Seven states had already seceded from the Union by the time he took up office - all over the issue of slavery. They formed the Confederate States of America. Five weeks after his inauguration in Washington, on April 12, 1861, shots were fired at Fort Sumter and the Civil War had begun. The Union promptly lost another four states to the rebels.

The Civil War lasted until 9 April 1865, at the cost of 620,000 lives lost in battle, many more killed by disease and a society torn in two. But Lincoln had survived and even been re-elected. Lucky him. His second inauguration speech in March of that year looked forward to a "lasting peace". Time, at last, for Lincoln to preside over a period of peace, retrenchment and prosperity.

This doesn't end happily, does it

Well remembered. It's Good Friday, 14th April, the fourth anniversary of the first military clash of the Civil War; five days after the South's surrender. Abe and his wife go to see a popular play called 'Our American Cousin' at the theatre or, as this is the US, Ford's Theater.

He didn't really want to go, (his invited guest of honour General Grant had decided to leave town early), but it was felt that the President couldn't let his public down. They were looking forward to seeing him at the theatre - sorry theater.

Wilkes Booth shoots Lincoln (2nd right)
During the third act a formerly successful actor and Confederate sympathiser called John Wilkes Booth shot the President in the head. He died the following morning without regaining consciousness.

Has history been kind to him

Lincoln remains perhaps the best loved of America's Presidents. The Bicentennial of his birth in 2009 is already being planned so there'll be lots more on him in the next few years. But there has been a move in historical circles to brand him a racist rather than 'The Great Emancipator' - a man desperate to send black Americans packing and leave the USA 'lily-white'.

Oh, and the bullet that killed him is now on show in the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C along with fragments of his skull. Lovely.

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