The most well-researched, intimately studied and widely written-about president in America's history is, without a doubt, Abraham Lincoln. He's probably the most well-known person in America's history. Everybody knows Honest Abe.
The Great Emancipator freed the slaves and guided the country through a devastating Civil War. The ol' rail-splitter gave a famous speech ("Four score and seven years ago") at Gettysburg. He wore a stovepipe hat. He had a beard. And then there was that tragic ending at Ford's Theatre.
"The Civil War is such a powerful turning point in our history; it's really, in a sense, the second founding of the country. His successful leadership in that enterprise ... entitles him to a lot of respect," says Michael Burlingame, the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield and the author of several books on Lincoln. "But more than that, it's his character. People admire him not just for what he achieved, which was monumental — literally and figuratively in this case — but for who he was, and how he conducted himself, and what he stood for and how he articulated the ideals of the country."
As well-worn as the subject of Lincoln is, though, much still eludes us about this complicated, tortured man.
Here are nine lesser-known nuggets about America's most-beloved president.
1. His Marriage Was Rocky
Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was an abuser. It's hard to imagine that the 6-foot-4 Lincoln, a fine wrestler in his day, could be knocked around by his 5-foot-2 wife (though she was, evidently, much surlier). But before the couple made it to the White House, things often got nasty. "She would hit him in the face and draw blood, chase him out of the house with a knife," says Burlingame, the author of "The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln" and "Abraham Lincoln: A Life," a two-volume biography published in 2008. "And yet he submitted to her abuse patiently. He was known in Springfield as hen-pecked and woman-whipped."
The abuse didn't end once the Lincolns got to Washington, Burlingame says.
"She would regularly — we have testimony from more than one source — she would insult him. She would berate him in front of other people, and say, 'That's the worst speech I've ever heard anybody give. I don't see how a man could get up in front of the public and speak such venal things," says Burlingame, who's readying a monograph on the Lincoln marriage. "And if she does that in front of other people, what does she do in the privacy of her own home? Or in this case, the White House?"
2. So Was the Relationship With His Father
Lincoln and his father never got along. His father snatched books away from his eager-to-learn son and pulled the youngster out of school with regularity. As a child, Lincoln's father forced his son to work in the fields for neighbors, and took all the money young Abraham earned for himself. "One of the origins of Lincoln's hatred of slavery is the way his father treated him," Burlingame says, "which was like a slave."
3. He Was a Civil Rights Martyr
Some point to Lincoln's one-time public support for colonization, and his early lack of support for social and political equality between blacks and whites (in a debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858) as examples that he was a racist.
"What some people fail to understand is that Lincoln was really the first martyr for black civil rights, as much as Martin Luther King or Medgar Evers or any of those people back in the 1960s who were murdered as they championed the civil rights revolution of that time period," Burlingame says. "Lincoln was murdered not because he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He wasn't murdered because he supported the 13th Amendment. He was murdered because on April 11, 1865, two days after Robert E. Lee's surrender, Lincoln gave a public speech in which he called publicly, openly, for black voting rights."
In the crowd for the speech that night on the north side of the White House: an actor named John Wilkes Booth, who would assassinate Lincoln three days later at Ford's Theatre.
4. Lincoln's Son Was Almost Killed, Too
Sometime in the early 1860s, Lincoln's adult son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was leaning against a train car on a platform in Jersey City, New Jersey. When the train moved, his foot slipped between the car and the platform. He was quickly grabbed by the collar and pulled to safety, as he recounted in a letter years later.
His hero was instantly recognizable: the famous Shakespearian actor Edwin Booth, the older brother of the presidential assassin. The elder Booth — considered by some the greatest American actor of the 19th century — didn't know immediately the identity of the man he saved but he, unlike his younger brother, was a Unionist who voted for Lincoln.
5. Honest Abe Had a Temper
As Burlingame wrote in "The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln," the view that Lincoln was subdued and filled with an "infinite forbearance" is not entirely accurate. As a youngster, Lincoln had an "ugly tendency to belittle and wound others." Running for office in Illinois in 1840, he mimicked an opponent so mercilessly that he drove the poor man from the stage in tears.
Lincoln checked his go-for-the-throat impulses later in life, but never completely controlled his capacity for anger. "What is most impressive about the mature Lincoln is not how often he expressed his anger," Burlingame wrote, "but how seldom he did so, considering the provocations he endured."
6. He Struggled With Depression
"On two occasions, he was so depressed that his friends feared that he would commit suicide; one episode in his late 20s, and one episode in his early 30s," Burlingame says. Lincoln was just 9 when his mother died, and by the time he was 18, both his siblings and his grandparents had passed on. That depression carried into the White House. "... When the Union Army would suffer reverses ... ," Burlingame says, "he would be passed into the deepest gloom. He would talk about how he felt as though he were suicidal."
7. Lincoln Championed Women's Rights
"He was very uneasy around women. He was chivalrous, and certainly polite, but he never felt comfortable around women. He seemed to have learned — and this is a guess — from the early death of his mother that, 'women are untrustworthy and they will abandon you,'" says Burlingame, who describes his early work on Lincoln as "psychobiography."
Though Lincoln was uncomfortable with women, he supported women's suffrage as far back as 1836 (the 19th Amendment wasn't passed until 1919). As a young man in Illinois, Burlingame says, Lincoln led a pack of vigilantes against abusive men, urging one woman to use a belt against her husband.
8. The Gettysburg Address Wasn't the Day's Main Attraction
Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address was second in line that day to the orator Edward Everett, who spent two by-all-accounts spellbinding hours relating the battle to the crowd, finishing with this line: "Wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battles of Gettysburg."
Lincoln followed with his two-minute, three-paragraph gem. The two statesmen exchanged congratulations later. Lincoln wrote to Everett, "In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure."
9. Lincoln Liked to Tell Dirty Jokes
Lincoln's detractors often pointed to his homespun humor as decidedly un-presidential. "One of the striking things was how often he was criticized for telling off-color stories. And it's true, Lincoln loved to tell dirty jokes," Burlingame says.
These critics, too, would knock him for other behavior that they deemed unworthy of his office; putting his feet on the desk, for example, or loosening his tie. None of the criticism landed particularly hard on Lincoln, who first won the White House in 1860 and was re-elected in a virtual landslide in 1864. He continued to tell his dirty jokes. "They were really bad, some of them," Burlingame says.
Originally Published: Jan 8, 2020