On This Day in History…. February 12, 1809 the 16th President Abraham Lincoln in born

By Bonnie Goodman, HNN, 2-12-09

Ms. Goodman is the Editor / Features Editor at HNN. She has a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University, and has done graduate work in history at Concordia University. She blogs at History Musings


On this day in history… February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln the 16th President of the United States was born in a one-room cabin on his family’s Sinking Spring Farm in Kentucky. This made him the first president to born out of the thirteen original colonies.

abraham-lincoln-625 On the bicentennial anniversary of his birth, historians and the public alike revere Lincoln as one of the country’s greatest presidents, but Lincoln entered the Presidency in 1861 during the country’s most divisive times and on the brink of civil war. Prior to winning the presidential election for the new Republican Party in 1860, Lincoln had worked as a lawyer, a state legislator in Illinois, and served one term as a Congressman in the United States House of Representatives, he ran for the Senate twice, but lost both times.

Lincoln presided over the country’s greatest challenge, the Civil War against the Southern Confederates states, and steered a victory that preserved the Union. In 1863, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, abolishing slavery, one of the main contention points between the North and South, thereby ending an institution that kept a large portion of America’s population in bondage. Lincoln was known as a master debater for his soaring oratory, and his Gettysburg address is one of the most quoted speeches in history.

Lincoln became the first President assassinated in office, when John Wilkes Booth Lincoln shot him on April 11, 1865 in Ford’s theater just two days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederacy at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The President became a martyr for his country, but was unable to see through his plans for reconstruction after the war.

Two hundred years later, Lincoln’s vision for rights and freedom for African Americans, a process which begun with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution ending slavery, has come to fruition with the election of another president from Illinois, Barack Obama. Obama, the nation’s first black president, has compared himself to Lincoln throughout his presidential campaign from his announcement to seek the presidency in front of the Illinois State Legislature in Springfield to his inauguration ceremony where he was the first president since Lincoln to be sworn in with the Lincoln Bible.

On the eve of Lincoln’s bicentennial, President Obama praised Lincoln stating, “For despite all that divided us – North and South, black and white – he had an unyielding belief that we were, at heart, one nation, and one people. And because of Abraham Lincoln, and all who’ve carried on his work in the generations since, that is what we remain today.”


  • 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln was the first president born beyond the original 13 states…. – US News & World Report, 2-10-09
  • From kids to Obama, nation marks Lincoln’s 200th: Folksy, melancholy Abraham Lincoln would have been dumbfounded by the fuss over his birthday Thursday. Bells tolled, wreaths were laid, speeches intoned and banjos picked to mark the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in a Kentucky log cabin. At the Lincoln presidential museum in Springfield, hundreds of excited schoolchildren joined in reciting the 16th president’s Gettysburg Address — an attempt to break the record for the biggest worldwide crowd reading it aloud together. – AP, 2-12-09
  • Happy 200th, President Lincoln: Bells tolled, wreaths were laid, speeches intoned and banjos picked across the nation Thursday in honor of the Great Emancipator. Abraham Lincoln was hailed on his 200th birthday with celebrations from his home states of Kentucky and Illinois to the nation’s capital. President Obama and congressional leaders praised Lincoln as the embodiment of American ideals of freedom, equality and unity. – USA Today, 2-12-09
  • Reflections On Lincoln’s 200th Birthday: As the nation marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the hallowed image of the sixteenth president seems to be everywhere. It is estimated that more than 14,000 books have been written about Lincoln. In this Lincoln bicentennial year, there are books about books about Lincoln. Record high prices are being paid for authentic Lincoln memorabilia. President Obama, a big fan of Honest Abe, has described Lincoln’s life as “a fundamental element of the American character.” – CBS News, 2-12-09
  • 200 years later, a more complex view of Lincoln: Born 200 years ago Thursday in a log cabin on the Kentucky frontier, Abraham Lincoln today sits deified in a marble temple on the National Mall in Washington. Americans are still trying to figure out how he came such a long way, and what kind of man made the trip. Having saved the Union, freed the slaves and redefined freedom, Lincoln was struck down in his hour of triumph. He is the most compelling figure in U.S. history, the subject of about 16,000 books in English, more than anyone except Jesus and Shakespeare. – USA Today, 2-11-09
  • A Curious-Looking Hero Still Mesmerizes the Nation Even Tiniest Lincoln Relics Command Reverence: As Washington prepares to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth Thursday, Abraham Lincoln is venerated as a national saint — part man, part myth…. – WaPo, 2-11-09
  • Ford’s Theatre packs in the stars for reopening: Presidential present and past intersected again Wednesday night when President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama joined stars in honoring one of his inspirations: Abraham Lincoln. The Ford’s Theatre Society held a star-studded reopening to celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth and award film greats George Lucas and Sidney Poitier with Lincoln Medals. The invitation-only ceremony was held at Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. – USA Today, 2-11-09
  • Laying claim to Lincoln: States go all out for celebration of 16th president’s bicentennial – Indianapolis Star, 2-8-09


  • Historian James M. McPherson about Lincoln mystique: Three things, I think. … He leads the Union to victory but then is martyred at the very moment of victory.
    The second thing is the Emancipation Proclamation, the abolition of slavery, one of the great events I suppose in American history from several perspectives.
    And the third I think is just the unlikely, log-cabin-to-White House, rags-to-riches, obscurity-to-fame-to-tragedy trajectory of his life.
    There’s nobody else quite like that I think in our history who appeals on several levels of fascination, curiosity, horror. …
    Also, Lincoln did not keep a diary. A lot of his letters, especially his personal letters to his wife, and hers to him, were destroyed. So there are some mysteries about Lincoln.
    Lincoln has become a touchstone for a succession of contemporary viewpoints. The gay community wanted to find a gay Lincoln, so they managed to do that, with or without evidence. The radical civil rights movement sometimes invoked Lincoln, as Martin Luther King did in his “I Have a Dream” speech. … But then Lerone Bennett damns Lincoln as a white supremacist who held back the cause of black freedom and equality.
    So everybody has to find Lincoln as either a supporter or as a whipping boy. It’s a remarkable phenomenon. I don’t think it’s true of any other American. You don’t find that happening very much, let’s say, with George Washington. But you do find it with Lincoln. – Dallas News, 2-11-09
  • Ronald C. White Jr. “10 Questions for Abraham Lincoln scholar”: His life. He starts with less than one year of formal education in a backwoods frontier town in Kentucky. And yet somehow he rises from that to become president of the United States. Lincoln’s story is even more compelling to people in Europe. He’s the American story — anybody can rise to whatever level they want….
    I want to evoke the unpretentiousness of Lincoln. There were no street numbers on houses in his day. “A. Lincoln” is what he had on the front of his house in Springfield (Illinois, when he served as state legislator)….
    I want to portray him in all his humanity. He’s not some marble god sitting in a memorial. His humor and satire could bite and hurt. He was a shrewd politician. He gets no high marks as a husband, with all that Mary went through with their two young sons dying (at the ages of 2 and 10). This is not a saintly biography, but a story of the development of Lincoln….
    He had the ability to combine high and low culture. He could speak to the common person. I argue that he wasn’t some spontaneous genius, but he worked very, very hard at it. I often say to my students, “There is no such thing as good writing. There is good rewriting.” That’s what Lincoln did. And there’s a beauty in his language. He wrote “out loud” — he would whisper a word out loud as he wrote it. For his First Inaugural Address, the last paragraph was suggested by [then Secretary of State] William Seward, whose suggested wording began, “I close.” Lincoln extended it to, “I am loathe to close.” You can hear the music of it….
    He loved poetry. That’s one of the keys as to why he was a good speaker. John F. Kennedy also loved poetry. Our best speakers have an ear for poetry. Lincoln loved to read Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Shakespeare. He said he read with two senses: his eyes and his ears. He loved to read poetry aloud, to hear the sound of it. One of his secretaries said, “The president read Shakespeare until my ears almost burned off.”…
    He would write notes on little slips of paper and stow them in his top hat or in the bottoms of the drawers of his desk. He was thinking things through. He always began with a problem: The problem of slavery. The problem of secession. The problem of the Dred Scott decision. He would work his way into looking at the problem through his writing. I call his notes his “intellectual diary.” Sometimes his notes would become the basis of a future speech….
    The most important lesson Lincoln could teach Obama is that he will need to school himself. Lincoln taught himself to be president on the job. Painfully aware of his own shortcomings — in administrative abilities and military understanding, to name but two — his success wasn’t simply in the nature of his political genius… but in the hard work he expended day after wearing day in the White House. – UCLA Today, 2-12-09
  • Harold Holzer “Honest Abe Made History in New York”: “It can truly be said that Lincoln was made in New York. His political career took flight only when he triumphed at Cooper Union and his speech was reprinted in five New York daily newspapers and republished in a best-selling pamphlet and when he posed for Brady — a pose that launched a thousand engravings and lithographs and virtually did the campaigning for him during the presidential race when Lincoln himself, true to tradition, stayed home and said nothing.” – MSNBC, 2-11-09
  • Harold Holzer “A Curious-Looking Hero Still Mesmerizes the Nation Even Tiniest Lincoln Relics Command Reverence”: “He’s approachable and unreachable at the same time…. He compels us to learn more, but there’s always something we’re not going to get. – WaPo, 2-11-09
  • Henry Louis Gates, editor of “Lincoln on Race and Slavery” “Abe Lincoln: Born in a log cabin, 200 years ago”: “Lincoln’s accomplishments and a century and a half of mythologizing have had Lincoln’s image so capacious that you can find anything there.” – AP, 2-8-09
  • Gary Scott Smith “The legacy of Abraham Lincoln”: On Feb. 12 we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The relatively short history of our nation makes this a particularly momentous milestone. Of all of our leaders after the founders, only Franklin Roosevelt approaches Lincoln’s renown and stature. In poll after poll, historians and political scientists rate Lincoln as one of our greatest presidents, often the greatest.
    Many have portrayed Lincoln as a paragon of piety, a champion of freedom, a demigod, and the national redeemer. Despite his unorthodox views, many laud Lincoln as the nation’s most exemplary Christian chief executive. No American, Theodore Roosevelt insisted, more fully applied what the churches taught than Lincoln. The 16th president “stands at the spiritual center of American history,” historian Sidney Mead argued.
    Most scholars and other Americans, though, portray Lincoln much more positively. As we see it, during the most trying time in American history, Lincoln testified to God’s sovereignty, held together a coalition of free and border slave states, kept his fragmented party from falling apart, defeated the rebel states militarily, liberated four million slaves, and preserved the Union. Henry P. Tappan, the president of the University of Michigan, wrote Lincoln in 1862 that he hoped the history of the country would someday read: “Then the United States redeemed and regenerated commenced a new career of prosperity and glory; and Abraham Lincoln was hailed by his countrymen and by mankind as the second father of his country, and the hero of Liberty.” Tappan’s wish has largely been granted. – Early County News, 2-11-09
  • William Bartelt “Indiana working to bolster its Lincoln legacy”: Her death in 1818 left Lincoln with an early sense of human mortality, said William Bartelt, author of “There I Grew Up: Remembering Abraham Lincoln’s Indiana Youth.” Thomas Lincoln, a farmer, remarried about a year later. Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln bonded with Lincoln and his older sister and encouraged young Abe’s voracious appetite for reading and learning, said Bartelt, an adjunct history professor at the University of Southern Indiana. “We can’t underestimate the importance of Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln, who came in and showed him a great deal of love and I think really built up his self-confidence,” he said. “She destroys all of the stepmother myths. She said he was the best boy she ever saw.” – AP, 2-11-09
  • Eric Foner “Revoking Civil Liberties: Lincoln’s Constitutional Dilemma His suspension of habeas corpus is part of what some consider the “dark side” of his presidency”: In the months before he was assassinated, Lincoln found, to his surprise, that he was unable to convince Missouri’s Republican leaders—who had grown accustomed to their newfound powers—to put an end to martial law in the state. The lesson he learned, historians say, may have been a simple one: “It is much easier,” says Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University, “to put these restrictions in place than it is to stop them.” – US News & World Report, 2-10-09
  • Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond “Virginia Embracing Lincoln”: “If you look at what children are taught, you see only praise for Abraham Lincoln. I would think white Virginians think Abraham Lincoln was the greatest president.” – Richmond Times Dispatch, VA
  • Gerald Prokopowicz “Lincoln dinner speaker welcomes questions”: “It’s always good to travel around to see what people are doing to remember Lincoln’s birthday,” he said. Prokopowicz was a commercial and real estate attorney before entering graduate school to pursue history, his “passion.” “I always loved history and law proved less interesting,” he said. He became interested in Lincoln while in graduate school at Harvard. He was a research assistant under David Herbert Donald, who wrote the 1995 New York Times bestseller “Lincoln.” “Up to that time I’d seen him as a mythic figure, a plastic saint,” Prokopowicz said. “I was already interested in the Civil War period and Lincoln was always in the back of my mind but working with Professor Donald helped me get a closer look at this figure.” “When I began to study him I found him fascinating, not because he was flawed but because he was real.”… “In North Carolina, some people respect Lincoln but he’s not a universally admired figure as in the Midwest, where every town has businesses or schools or streets named after him,” he said. “I’m curious to visit your part of country again and see how Lincoln is viewed across the country. He is really a universal figure in a lot of ways.” – Redlands Daily Facts, CA, 2-11-09


Abraham Lincoln

  • Obama praises Lincoln’s legacy at Ford’s Theatre: Calling the theater “hallowed space” where Lincoln’s legacy thrives, Obama praised him for restoring a sense of unity to the country, according to the prepared remarks he was to deliver to the crowd. “For despite all that divided us — North and South, black and white — he had an unyielding belief that we were, at heart, one nation, and one people,” Obama said. “And because of Abraham Lincoln, and all who’ve carried on his work in the generations since, that is what we remain today.” – AP, 2-11-09
  • “Obama and Lincoln: parallels between the centuries:” President Barack Obama is not the 21st-century Abraham Lincoln, although if you followed his campaign, you could be forgiven some confusion. From the time two years ago when Obama declared his presidential candidacy in Springfield, Ill., to his pre-Inaugural celebration before the Lincoln Memorial, Obama has linked himself to that earlier tall, skinny fellow from Illinois who was born 200 years ago today…. But drawing too many parallels between them is premature in the fourth week of Obama’s presidency. That might seem obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing, said Jason Jividen, assistant professor of political science at the University of Saint Francis. That people fall for the Obama-as-Lincoln story says something about the adept politics of Obama’s campaign and the desire of reporters for a story that resonates so powerfully with American history. “There’s nothing remarkable about politicians appealing to Lincoln,” Jividen said Wednesday. Teddy Roosevelt’s supporters compared him to Lincoln, as did Woodrow Wilson’s and Franklin Roosevelt’s. “So much of this comparison has been initiated by Obama and his speechwriters,” Jividen said. – News Sentinel, IN, 2-11-09
  • Caroline E. Janney “Historian: Obama will affect how we remember Lincoln on the 200th anniversary”: “Lincoln, who was born 200 years ago on Feb. 12, is known as a great speechwriter, thinker and consensus builder,” says Caroline E. Janney, an assistant professor of history who studies Civil War memorials and remembrance. “While people are watching how Obama is following Lincoln, many may not realize that today’s president is shaping the way we remember the 16th president. Memory is always crafted by its contemporary context.”
    “Obama has consciously constructed his connections to Lincoln from announcing his campaign in Springfield to using Lincoln’s Bible during the inauguration. Obama and his staff are hoping to use the nation’s collective memory to set the tone for this administration. The way Lincoln’s image is used will affect how we remember Lincoln. In the celebration of his 200th birthday, it will be interesting to see what celebrations focus on and what images from 2009 will carry forward.”
    “Two prominent ways Lincoln is remembered are as the great emancipator and as a rugged frontiersman who was a self-made man. But these perceptions are contested. Some historians argue that slaves emancipated themselves and Lincoln was not the key force in their freedom. Others try to dispel the image of him as frontiersman who educated himself because he was part of a middle-class family and he married a woman from a slave-holding family.”
    “People are going to remember different things during different points of history. Even if this year was not the 200th anniversary, national healing is still important because our nation has been so polarized in recent years. Of course, this is nothing like the 1860s, but it’s always helpful to look at the past to see what we can learn from it.” – Lafayette Online, 2-11-09
  • Michael Burlingame “Obama encourages connections to Lincoln”: Lincoln historian Michael Burlingame will follow Obama with his own remarks at the ALA banquet. “I hope he discusses what he admires most about Lincoln’s leadership, his inspiration from Lincoln’s anti-slavery position and as a war leader,” Burlingame said. “Lincoln was a war president and Obama is, of course, a war president.” – Galesburg, 2-11-09
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin “Historian: Lincoln ahead of his time”: “First of all, he would kill anybody in debates. He was so good at debates. He could stand on par with Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert [and] Jay Leno without missing a beat, and people would feel a sense of his person as a result of that….
    I think the fact that [President Obama] has embraced Lincoln is only a good thing. It means he’s got a mentor. Whenever a president looks back on history, it means they don’t have to start all over again. I think the main thing that [Lincoln] would do would be to assure Obama that he had been through difficult times before and that somehow this country has the strength to get through these difficult moments. He would probably tell him that he has to keep a continuing conversation with the American people. That’s what Lincoln did so well during his presidency.” – Chicago Sun-Times, 2-11-08
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin talks about Lincoln and his team of rivals: “What an extraordinary experience it was to have spent so much time with this man who created the most unusual team in presidential history, made up of his chief rivals, each one of whom was better educated, more experienced, more celebrated than he, each one of whom thought he should be president instead of Abraham Lincoln. And yet in the end he was able to bring this group together into a team that won the war, saved the union and ended slavery forever….
    Certainly the situation he is facing is as difficult as anyone has faced since the Great Depression. Probably not as difficult as Lincoln faced with the country falling apart right beneath him, with the possibility that Washington, had it been attacked by the Confederates, the whole government structure would have been undone.
    Lincoln later said that if he’d known the pressures he was going to be under from the inauguration to Fort Sumter, those six weeks, he would not have felt he could have lived through them. I’m sure that Obama is feeling that enormous sense of pressure right now.” – Herald Tribune, 2-10-09
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin “Historian: Obama should take pointers from Abe Lincoln”: “Hillary Clinton was his biggest rival. I think she’ll be a very good secretary of State.” “Obama will have to decide what he’ll have to do” about the welter of sticky problems he faces, said the Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar and author…
    “He refused to give in to despair,” said Goodwin, adding that Lincoln found consolation in the idea that he might be able to leave the world a better place…. – Bradenton Herald, 2-10-09

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