When it is precisely the gravity and tension

When
looking at Abraham
Lincoln’s portrait in
the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., one will notice a few unique
features. He is portrayed neither as glorious or powerful like the colorful
George Washington portrait
but is sitting in his chair, leaning forward with his elbow on his knee, in a
position reminiscent of  “The
Thinker.” Yet, it is
precisely the gravity and tension captured in this portrait that characterized
Lincoln’s presidency and distinguished him as a leader like no other.

 

Lincoln’s
story begins in Hodgenville, Kentucky, where he was
born and grew up in a poor farming family. Life on the early frontier was
brutal, and Lincoln lost both his mother and infant brother before he turned
nine. Despite his harsh surroundings, he had a love of learning that was
unexplainable to everyone, including himself. He would do anything to get a
book and taught himself basic math and writing, as he only went to
school “by littles”—a little every now and then, no more than a year of
school total. Although Lincoln was expected to be a farmer like his father, his
thirst for knowledge drew him to law school. He excelled in school and became a
distinguished lawyer in Illinois, moving to Springfield where he met his future
wife Mary Todd.

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Although she was from high society and “Lincoln’s socks
never matched,” their friendship survived many quarrels and turned into a
marriage in 1842.

 

Lincoln
was always rather independent. While in the Illinois state legislature from 1834-1840
as a Whig, he focused on infrastructure and then continued to serve as the only
Illinois Whig congressman from 1847-1849. After his failure to be reelected to
Congress at age 40, Lincoln had given up any aspirations that he would ever
become a significant political figure.  However,
he reentered politics due to the threat of slavery expanding and rival Stephen Douglas
taking control of the Republican party, which had absorbed most of the Whig
party. Although he lost the Senate race, his passionate debates helped put his
name in the running as the Republican presidential nominee. As a moderate from
a swing state, Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States in
1860.

 

            Starting with South Carolina,
southern states decided to secede because Lincoln would not agree to dividing
new states between free and slaveholding, and they worried their way of life
was in jeopardy. This launched the country into a bitter civil war, which
lasted until 1865. Lincoln’s primary goal through this period was to preserve
the union. While slavery wasn’t the only factor in the civil war, the economic
and social consequences of possible emancipation continued to fuel the
fighting. Lincoln had originally hoped to have a gradual plan of freeing the
slaves where the federal government could share the financial burden with the
South as they transformed their labor systems. However, the Emancipation
Proclamation in 1863 made abolishing slavery an official goal of the war
for the North. Additionally, Lincoln grew bolder with voicing his hatred of
slavery and after speaking to Albert G. Hodges of Kentucky was asked to put his
sentiments in a letter
in which he wrote, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

 

            Lincoln is often criticized as not
being a true abolitionist, and indeed he often had contradictory statements
about his goal of ending slavery. However, credence for his anti-slavery views
can be found in his actions towards black Americans. He frequently invited black
Americans to the White House, including Frederick
Douglass and Sojourner
Truth, which was notable as before Lincoln’s presidency African Americans
had only been in the Whitehouse as slaves
or servants. Lincoln and Douglass were close friends as Douglass lived
just east of the Supreme Court building. As the war raged, Lincoln continued
to lay out his plan for reconstruction and the transition to a slave-free
society until his assassination April 14, 1965.

 

            Abraham Lincoln is the epitome of
the American Dream— the idea that a poor farm boy can become the most powerful
person in the country. However, it is important to acknowledge that this
American Dream was only open to Lincoln because he was a white man. Today, we
are still working on making this dream accessible to everyone in our society.

While we as a country want to believe in the idea that every person has the
power to be anything they want to be, it is not as simple as we make it seem.

Racism, poverty, and violence continue to enslave Americans. If we truly want a
society where all are free, we need to start at the source of inequality, which
is protecting the vulnerable from those who use their power to oppress and
abuse. At the Human Trafficking Institute, we are combating slavery at its
source by empowering justice systems to stop traffickers. Together, we can get
to the root of the problem and bring freedom and hope to those who are enslaved.

 

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