Sadly, though the science of healing had improved little, the science of killing was improving at a dizzying rate. The Lincoln era saw the development of shrapnel (1784), the torpedo (1805), the breech-loading rifle (1811), the steam warship (1814–1815), the Samuel Colt revolver (1833), nitroglycerin (a high explosive, 1833), the Smith and Wesson quick-firing revolver (1854), the exploding artillery shell (which replaced the solid cannon ball, 1860), the fast-firing Winchester repeater rifle (1860), the Gatling gun (an early machine gun so deadly that some prophesied it would make war obsolete, 1861), the rifle-bore cannon (1862), and ironclad warships (1862). Indeed, it was these new killing technologies that would make the Civil War so terrible, especially because the technology of saving lives was still so primitive.

Ecological Conditions

Ecologically, the United States of the nineteenth century was on the road to unmitigated disaster. So vast did the continent appear at the time that people assumed it would take a thousand years to populate it. Consequently, since the land was perceived as both “inexhaustible” and “cheap,” they could with impunity do anything to it they wanted—from neglecting to rotate their crops to chopping down entire forests, from poisoning streams and rivers to damaging beyond recovery irreplaceable natural resources. In the words of Henry Steele Commager:

The American rarely expected to stay put and had little interest in building for the future. It was easier to skim the cream off the soil, the forests, the mines. … For this self-indulgence he paid a high price, and his descendants a higher. Dazzled by the concept of infinity, prodigal of the resources of nature and of his own resources, greedy and reckless, he did more damage in a century than nature could repair in a thousand years.

Political Conditions

Politically, America had never become one nation. The founding fathers had been against slavery. Indeed they had held a high view of human rights in general. But knowing that bringing up the slavery issue at the very beginning would have cost them any chance at nationhood, they left it alone, and so it became a ticking time bomb for later generations to deal with.

The global climate was changing with regard to slavery. In 1807, the British abolitionist William Wilberforce and his associates pushed a bill through Great Britain’s Parliament against slavery. Denmark abolished it in 1792. The French colonies abolished it in 1794. In 1807, Britain’s Parliament abolished the slave trade itself. But none of this caused Americans to take a stand against it.

The early history of America was plagued by an ever-present migraine that sabotaged any chances that America might become a united people: slavery. As we shall see, never in Lincoln’s lifetime did he experience a day without being impacted by being a citizen of a hybrid nation—half free and half slave.

Cultural Expectations

Lincoln’s generation was incurably optimistic. Having never known national defeat, anything seemed possible to these Americans. Even in grinding poverty, the common assumption was that “tomorrow” life would get better and wealth would come sooner or later. Most Americans were more religious than devout. They made hard work into essentially an eleventh commandment. In their minds, shiftlessness was considered to be on a par with cowardice. Whatever increased wealth was thus automatically good.

Fair play was expected of every boy and man. Those who violated that code were expelled from society’s good graces. Since most frontier people were unable to read or write, the oral tradition was valued, and storytelling became almost a fine art. Women controlled both education and religion and thus dictated the standards of literature and art.

Paradoxically, Americans on the frontier venerated laws and honor and in general lived by Puritan standards. Purity and female virtue were venerated; chastity was a given. In their minds there was a crystal-clear demarcation between right and wrong. The Bible was universally read and was considered the basic storehouse of society’s allusions. Terms such as truth, justice, loyalty, reverence, virtue, and honor were not mere abstractions to them. They were the very fabric of day-to-day life.

This, in brief, was Abraham Lincoln’s world.

From Abraham Lincoln:  A Man of Faith and Courage  by Joe Wheeler.  © 2008.  Reprinted by permission of Howard Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.  Click here for a chance to win a free copy of Abraham Lincoln.