Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage
- 2008 18 Feb
Biographies, as generally written, are not only misleading, but false. The author makes a wonderful hero of his subject. He magnifies his perfections, if he has any, and suppresses his imperfections. History is not history unless it is the truth.
Abraham Lincoln was permitted to live only fifty-six years. Yet had he been given the opportunity to choose any fifty-six-year period from the thousands of years of recorded history, chances are he’d have chosen 1809 to 1865. These were quite possibly the fifty-six most exciting years our world has ever known.
As we set out to examine Abraham Lincoln’s life, it might be helpful to take a quick look at the world in which he lived and made such a lasting impact.
The Industrial Revolution
Lincoln was born at the intersection of two ages: the colonial and the industrial. The old ways were dying out and were being replaced by newfangled inventions and mysterious automated processes.
For thousands of years the fastest form of land transportation had been the horse. In 1858, land travel’s last hurrah was the overland stage. What an experience it must have been to have boarded that great Concord stagecoach with its gleaming metal and wood accoutrements. At the head of the coach, restlessly snorting their eagerness to hit the roads, were six magnificent horses. When the driver snapped his whip, the stage leaped into motion. As the horses galloped out of St. Louis, hundreds of bystanders enviously watched it streak by. “Would you believe,” one of them said in wonder, “that only twenty days from now those folk will step down onto the streets of Los Angeles in California, 2,600 miles away!”
“’That the most direct way there is?” his neighbor might have asked.
“Nope. But it’s the only one that’ll get them there in twenty days without being scalped by Indians on the warpath.”
In those days, getting mail across vast distances was always a problem. In 1860, William Russell and Alexander Majors bankrolled and organized the Pony Express. Their intrepid riders raced across the country from St. Louis, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, changing horses 119 times along the way—that was, if Indians hadn’t attacked the stations before they got there. In spite of all obstacles, including blistering heat, sandstorms, ice storms, snowstorms, rainstorms, and Indian attacks, those courageous riders still averaged an almost unbelievable twelve miles an hour.
Then there was travel by sea. For millenia the fastest means of sea travel was the sailing ship. In the middle of the nineteenth century, as always, there were but two alternatives: oars and sails, neither of which resulted in much speed.
It’s doubtful that a more beautiful sailing ship was ever constructed than that legendary windjammer the Flying Cloud. She sailed from Boston clear around Cape Horn, on the southern tip of South America, to come up to the coast of California. Travelers wanting to get from Boston to California overland were faced with a long wagon-train ride that was iffy at best and ran the risk of attack by marauding Indians. Ship travel, then, dangerous as the storms might be, offered more favorable odds. Still, it was a 19,000-mile-long voyage (only 5,000 miles shorter than traveling clear around the world). Even so, in 1854, the Flying Cloud broke the time record by making the voyage in eighty-nine days and eight hours.
Impressive as such feats may be, the Overland Stage, the Pony Express, and the Flying Cloud were swan songs from a dying age. The Industrial Revolution was beginning, and steam engines were changing everything.
Though Isaac Newton had come up with the concept of steam locomotion way back in 1680, it didn’t move out of the theoretical into the practical until 1801. That’s when Richard Trevithick, a Cornish mine captain, built the first steam locomotive. George Stephenson took it to the next level. By 1830, when Lincoln was twenty-one, the railroad age had begun in America. From that time on, faster and faster locomotives were built, and more and more track was laid. People then traveled by horse or coach only when rail transportation wasn’t available.
For the first time in human history, time became relevant. Unless a train arrived and departed at a specific time, how could travelers know when to be at a station? So clocks became important and time zones became necessary. The modern age was dawning.
Steam changed sea and river travel, too. Until then, sailing ships had arrived in port “whenever.” The vagaries of wind and weather made more precise timetables impossible. As for river travel, it was possible to float downstream with a current but it was nearly impossible to travel the other direction against a current. Mark Twain immortalized for us the practice of mules towing boats upstream on rivers.
But now steam engines were propelling sea and river vessels. By the time Lincoln was born, steamboats were beginning to appear on lakes and rivers. A few years later, more powerful engines would make it possible for steamboats to travel against the current up rivers such as the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio. On the high seas, in 1838, the British steamer the Great Western crossed the Atlantic Ocean in an unprecedented fifteen days. By 1850, the crossing time had been reduced to ten days. Timetables now became crucial for sea travel as well as rail.
Abraham Lincoln had no way of knowing that his world was changing so rapidly as he grew up in a frontier time warp. Nine years before Lincoln was born, Alessandro Volta had discovered how to create electricity, which would change the world much more dramatically than steam had done. When Lincoln was five, the circular saw was invented. By the time he was twenty, the trickle of technological change had swelled into a torrent: the electric motor, photographic negatives, acetelyne, carpet power looms, rubber, ozone, thermodynamics, the hydroelectric crane, the first form of an electric light bulb, rayon, tungsten steel, the passenger elevator, the lawnmower, electrical incandescent light, the practical storage battery, and the discovery of petroleum in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and the subsequent oil boom. All of these represent just a few of the inventions and discoveries that would revolutionize Lincoln’s world during his lifetime.
When Lincoln was born, America was almost totally an agricultural nation. But technology began to change there, too. The cotton gin (1793), the Deere steel plow (1833), the McCormick reaper (1834), and the grain elevator (1842) would make seismic changes in farm productivity.
Changes at Home
The home life of Mary Todd, the future Mrs. Lincoln, would change, too. During her lifetime came the development of the icebox (1803), the canning process (1810, 1819) and Mason canning jars (1858), and the sulfur match (1827). With the sulfur match it was no longer necessary to keep a fire burning day and night. Now a fire could be started whenever anyone wanted one. More inventions that transformed domestic life during this period were Howe’s sewing machine (1843), Singer’s continuous-stitch sewing machine (1851), and the cold-storage machine. And what a difference a simple little thing like a safety pin (1849) would make in a mother’s life!
For company and special occasions, party hostesses could now offer Ghirardelli’s chocolate (1851), potato chips (originally called “Saratoga chips,” 1853), strawberry shortcake (1855), and dessert out of a hand-cranked ice cream machine (1846); children could enjoy chewing gum (1848).
Customs and fashions were changing as well. At the dinner table, the two-pronged fork was changing to four prongs, and good manners required not using it with the left hand anymore but moving it to the right.
In 1800, only eighteen years before Mary Todd’s birth and for the first time in fashion history, a shoe for the right foot was contoured differently from one for the left foot. Trousers began to replace breeches in Paris by 1821, and by 1823, men were transitioning to trousers in America as well. In 1830, stiff white collars would begin to make men’s social occasions miserable, while in the same year it became fashionable for women’s sleeves to expand enormously. During the 1850s, women sometimes dared to wear those scandalous items of attire called “bloomers.” More prosaically, in California’s mining camps, more and more men were wearing Levi Strauss’s utilitarian creation—jeans.
The Art of Healing—and Killing
Sadly, medical science was not advancing at the same rate. Men and women of the nineteenth century were morbid about disease and death, and for a very good reason: no one—least of all doctors—seemed to know what caused disease. More to the point: no one knew what caused one patient to recover and another to die. All people knew was that when a disease hit a given community, some lived and some died. Doctors took credit for the former and blamed God for the latter. Terrible visitations such as cholera took 4,000 lives in New York and the Carolinas in 1831 and 1832. Smallpox killed 13,000 Indians in 1838. And in 1843, yellow fever ravaged the Mississippi Valley, to the tune of 13,000 lives.
Those who could afford doctors were often worse off than those who could not, as misdiagnosis was almost a given, pills were often as big as cherries, nostrums might contain almost anything, and the favorite all-purpose remedy of the day was bleeding the patient with leeches. Not even the high and mighty were spared. When sixty-seven-year-old George Washington contracted “quinsy” (acute laryngitis) on December 13, 1799, his solicitous doctors bled him four times, inflicted garglings of molasses, vinegar, and butter on him, and for good measure plastered a blister of cantharides on his throat. Not surprisingly, he was dead by the next day.
Neither did doctors understand what germs were, what an antiseptic was, or why they should want to keep anything sanitary. On the frontier, baths were rare. One might take a bath or two during the summer months and none at all during the rest of the year. And when baths were given—well into the early twentieth century—chances were that the entire family, beginning with the oldest adult and ending with the smallest child, would climb into the same little tub and wash in water that got filthier with each immersion. The folk saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” resulted from documented incidents of babies drowning in bath water so filthy that no one had noticed they’d slipped under the surface.
The average man in the nineteenth century would go through three wives in a lifetime. Nobody seemed to know why women died so often in childbirth. In the middle of the century, the Hungarian physician Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1818–1865) discovered that there was a simple reason why so many mothers died of a particular childbirth complication, puerperal fever: neither doctors nor midwives bothered to wash their hands between patients. The result was that they would carry death on their hands as they moved from one patient to another.
The medical profession so ridiculed Semmelweis for his “theory” that he died young (of a broken heart, some say). It would not be until half a century later that the medical profession would correct the mistake that continued unnecessarily to take the lives of millions of women. Today, women have not only caught up with men in terms of longevity but now outlive men by seven or eight years.
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.
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.
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.
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.