“Mr. Lincoln was not only a great President, but a great man—too great to be small in anything. In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color.”—Frederick Douglass
Honest Abe. The Great Emancipator. The Tycoon. These are just some of the nicknames attached to the man that many consider to be the greatest American President in history. Born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky in 1809, Abraham Lincoln served as the first President of the Republican Party and oversaw one the most turbulent periods in the young nation’s history, leading the Union to victory in the American Civil War and abolishing slavery before his fateful assassination by actor John Wilkes Booth in 1865. In this article, we count down 42 trustworthy facts about the one, the only, Abraham Lincoln.
In 1856, Lincoln gave a speech that so captivated reporters who were in attendance that they put down their pencils and stopped taking notes. As a result, there are no records of this speech and the content can only be guessed at by piecing together accounts of individuals who claim to have been present. This speech is now known as Lincoln’s “Lost Speech.”
Lincoln was known for having a strong sense of humor. During the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, Stephen Douglas accused Lincoln of being two-faced. Lincoln retorted: “Honestly, if I were two-faced, would I be showing you this one?”
Prior to becoming a politician, the lanky 6’4” Lincoln was a wrestler. He only lost once in his 300 or so contests and gained a reputation in New Salem, Illinois as an elite grappler with unparalleled strength. After one victory, Lincoln is said to have looked at the crowd and shouted “I’m the big buck of this lick. If any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns.”
Lincoln’s son, Robert Lincoln, was either present or nearby for three different Presidential assassinations. Aside from his father’s assassination, the Lincoln son was present and an eyewitness during James Garfield’s assassination in 1881, and was present, though not an eyewitness, to William McKinley’s assassination in 1901. Recognizing these coincidences, Lincoln is said to have declined future presidential invitations, stating “No, I'm not going, and they'd better not ask me, because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.”
Compounding the coincidences for Robert Lincoln, he once had his life saved by Edwin Booth, John Wilkes Booth's own brother! The incident is believed to have taken place approximately a year before the President’s assassination in 1865. Knowledge that he had saved the President’s son was said to be some comfort to Edwin Booth, considering it was his own brother who would be the man's killer.
In 1842, Lincoln was challenged to a duel by Democratic politician James Shields, who was angry at an article Lincoln published in an Illinois newspaper. Lincoln accepted the challenge, and, having the opportunity to choose the weapons used, chose cavalry broadswords because of his long reach and also because he knew Shields was an excellent marksman with pistols. Just prior to the duel, Lincoln demonstrated his reach advantage by slicing a tree branch just over Shields’ head. Soon after, Shields was convinced to back out of the duel.
Both Tom Hanks and George Clooney are related to Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln saw John Wilkes Booth perform in a play at Ford’s Theatre two years before Booth would assassinate Lincoln in that same location. Lincoln saw Booth perform as a villain in a production of The Marble Heart just a few days before he delivered the Gettysburg Address. During the play, it is reported that Booth seemed to direct many of his lines at the box where Lincoln was sitting, prompting a companion to remark to Lincoln: "He almost seems to be reciting these lines to you." Lincoln is said to have replied: "He does talk very sharp at me, doesn't he?"
A few weeks before Lincoln was elected President, he received a letter from an eleven-year-old girl named Grace Medell, who encouraged Lincoln to grow a beard as it “would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.” Within a month, Lincoln would be elected President, and was seen sporting the full length beard for which he would become known at his inauguration.
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Lincoln loved cats and would play with them for hours. When asked if her husband had a hobby, Mary Todd Lincoln once replied with a single word: “cats.”
Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865. On that very same day, Lincoln signed into law a piece of legislation that, among other things, created the Secret Service.
Lincoln was a lawyer prior to becoming president. In 1858, Lincoln defended a man who had been charged with murder. The prosecution brought forward a witness who claimed to have seen the murder take place in the middle of the night from 150 yards away. When Lincoln asked him how he managed to see the murder take place given these conditions, the witness explained he saw it via “the light of the moon.” Lincoln subsequently pulled out a farmers almanac, flipped to the day in question, and showed that, not only was the moon in its first quarter, but was riding low on the horizon at the precise time the murder was to have taken place. This meant there was almost certainly not enough light for the witness to have seen what he claimed. The jury quickly acquitted Lincoln’s client.
Throughout his life, Lincoln was said to have suffered from what was called “melancholy” (today this would be identified as a major depressive disorder). At one point in his life, Lincoln’s suffering was so severe that his friends and neighbors put him on suicide watch.
The Civil War disrupted cotton production in the United States, causing distress in cotton manufacturing in Europe. Nevertheless, the cotton workers in Manchester, England supported the Union in its fight against slavery, writing a letter to Lincoln in solidarity, stating that “the erasure of that foul blot on civilization and Christianity—chattel slavery—during your presidency, will cause the name of Abraham Lincoln to be honoured and revered by posterity.” Lincoln sent a letter in reply thanking the cotton workers and today there's a statue of Lincoln in Manchester commemorating these events.
The man assigned to guard Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre the night he was assassinated left his post to go drinking at a bar. Ironically, the guard stumbled into the same saloon where John Wilkes Booth was drinking, working up the courage to execute his assassination plan. The guard’s name was John Parker and had a long, comical history of dereliction of duty as a police officer, including sleeping on the job, being drunk on patrol, and even visiting a brothel while on duty. Unbelievably, Parker remained on duty as security for the White House after Lincoln’s assassination, before being fired a few years later for, once again, sleeping while on duty.
When Lincoln heard complaints regarding his Union Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant’s immoderate drinking habits regarding whiskey, he replied with typical Lincolnian wit: “I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.”
Future President Teddy Roosevelt witnessed the Lincoln funeral procession as a young boy of six. In fact, Roosevelt can be seen in a photo of the procession looking down from the balcony of his grandfather’s mansion.
Once Lincoln jumped out of a second-story window in order to avoid a vote in the Illinois legislature. As crazy as it sounds, it’s true! In 1840, there was a vote over removing the Illinois State Bank. Lincoln and other legislators from his party sought to defeat the vote by leaving the legislature and thus denying a quorum (the minimum number of votes necessary). Unfortunately, Lincoln’s opponents had thought ahead and barred their escape by locking the legislature doors. That’s when Lincoln got the idea to jump out of the second-story window, which he did, quickly followed in succession by four others.
In 1861, the King of Siam (now Thailand) sent a letter to the United States government offering several pairs of wild elephants that could be “turned loose in forests and increase till there be large herds." Lincoln turned down the King’s generous offer, stating that America's geography and climate do not "favor the multiplication of the elephant." What could have been!
Democratic presidential candidates who ran and lost against Lincoln in successive elections in 1860 and 1864 spared no quarter in hurling vitriol at the Great Emancipator. The candidates variously referred to Lincoln as a “Yahoo,” “Idiot” and, most curiously, the “Original Gorilla.”
The famous, 273 word Gettysburg Address was delivered after Lincoln was invited to say a casual few remarks regarding the dedication of a cemetery in Pennsylvania. He wasn’t even the featured orator that day, but nevertheless Lincoln’s speech became possibly the most important oration in American history.
Lincoln is the only US President to ever register a patent. The patent—for a wooden flotation system for riverboats stuck on sand bars—was registered by Lincoln in 1849, although it was never manufactured.
Lincoln’s grandfather, also named Abraham Lincoln, was a military captain in the American Revolutionary War. He was shot and killed in 1786 by a Native American who contested the territory in Kentucky upon which Lincoln lived at the time. The elder Lincoln's son Mordecai, uncle to the future president, saw his father fall and ran to the family cabin to retrieve a gun, whereby he shot the Native American man in the chest, killing him. Honest Abe's father, Thomas, would often recount the story of his father’s death to his son, and the President later wrote that “The story of his death by the Indians, and of Uncle Mordecai, then fourteen years old, killing one of the Indians, is the legend more strongly than all others imprinted on my mind and memory.”
Lincoln was a bartender for a short period of time. In 1833, he partnered with a friend named William Berry to open a store/bar called “Berry and Lincoln” in New Salem, Illinois. The business soon faltered and ran into debt, as Berry was an alcoholic who had a habit of drinking on the job. Soon after, Lincoln sold his share in the business to Berry and enrolled in law school.
Stephen Douglas poked fun at Lincoln’s previous occupation as a barman in the first of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, stating that, as a young man, Lincoln could “beat any of the boys wrestling, or running a foot-race, in pitching quoits or tossing a copper; could ruin more liquor than all the boys of the town together.” Ouch?
Lincoln is the tallest-ever American President at 6’4” (1.93m).
Spanish artist Salvador Dali created a portrait of Lincoln that is made up of only 121 pixels and can only be readily seen as Lincoln when standing 20 feet away! In keeping with Dali’s surrealist technique, when standing up close, the portrait is of Dali’s nude wife looking at the ocean. Dali created the painting for America’s Bicentennial as he was a huge admirer of Lincoln. One critic says that Dali’s painting shows “how Lincoln’s memory is usable–it can be molded to fit many different purposes.”
In 1846, Lincoln ran for Congress against a noted Illinois evangelist named Peter Cartwright. Cartwright attempted to make Lincoln’s lack of religiosity into a campaign issue, referring to Lincoln as an “infidel.” Once, Cartwright openly questioned Lincoln, stating: "Mr. Lincoln, you have not expressed an interest in going to either heaven or hell. May I enquire as to where you do plan to go?" Lincoln playfully replied: "I did not come here with the idea of being singled out, but since you ask, I will reply with equal candor: I intend to go to Congress.
Lincoln ranks as one of the top Presidents in US history in both polls of scholars and of the general population. A 2004 study found that scholars of history and politics generally rank Lincoln as number one, whereas legal scholars place him at number two behind George Washington. Since 1948, Lincoln has ranked number one in the majority of opinion polls on the top Presidents.
Lincoln anticipated his assassination. Three days before his death, he related the story of a dream he had where he heard mournful sounds and wandered the White House searching for their source. Upon entering the East Room of the White House in his dream, he came upon a corpse, its face covered and wearing funeral clothing, surrounded by a throng of funeral mourners. Lincoln asked “‘Who is dead in the White House?’” to one of the persons guarding the corpse. "The President," was the answer; "He was killed by an assassin.”
Lincoln ordered the largest mass execution in US history. In 1862, 38 Dakota Native Americans were hanged, upon Lincoln’s orders, for their participation in the Santee Sioux Uprising that led to the deaths of 490 white settlers in the frontier state of Minnesota. Lincoln’s treatment of these Native Americans stands in sharp contrast from the way he treated Confederate Generals following the Civil War, none of whom were executed upon orders from Lincoln, despite the deaths of over 400,000 Union soldiers.
Winston Churchill claimed to have met the ghost of Abraham Lincoln at the White House while staying in the Lincoln bedroom during World War II. Churchill claims he walked into the bedroom after getting out of the bath, naked as the day he was born, and saw Lincoln’s ghost leaning against the fireplace. Churchill claims the two stared at each for a few seconds before Churchill retorted: "Good evening, Mr. President. You seem to have me at a disadvantage." Churchill relayed that Lincoln’s ghost smiled and then faded away. After this incident, Churchill refused to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order, issued in 1863 during the US Civil War, that changed the legal status of three million slaves in the Southern United States. While the Proclamation eventually led to the end of slavery in the United States (with the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865), it did not itself make slavery illegal, and, in fact, did not even apply to the thousands of slaves held in slave states that fought for the Union during the war (such as Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri).
The town of Lincoln, Illinois is the only town named for Lincoln before he became President (Lincoln practiced law there for six years before it was renamed after him). Lincoln, who was asked to participate in a naming ceremony for the new town in 1853, purchased two watermelons and carried them to the public square, where he announced “Now we'll christen the new town," before squeezing the juice out of the melons and onto the ground. Unsurprisingly, Lincoln was originally against renaming the town after him, reportedly stating in his usual self-deprecating way that "Nothing bearing the name of Lincoln ever amounted to much."
In 1863, in the middle of the American Civil War, Lincoln created Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the hopes of uniting the country. Thanksgiving has been celebrated annually in the US ever since.
Initially, Lincoln got cold feet and called off his engagement with Mary Todd, the daughter of a wealthy Kentucky slaveholding family, in 1841, though he agreed to marry her again a year later, in 1842. While preparing for their wedding and again feeling anxious at the prospect of married life, Lincoln was asked where he was going, and he replied “To hell, I suppose.”
Lincoln established the earliest US version of an “air force” in 1861: the Union Army of Balloon Corps, who used hot-air balloons to perform aerial reconnaissance activities on Confederate troops. Ineffective intelligence reporting, as well as hostility by old generals to this new form of war technology, led to the Balloon Corps dismantling as a unit halfway through the War.
While the shot from John Wilkes Booth proved fatal in 1865, it is likely that modern medicine would have been able to save Lincoln’s life. Doctors speculate that if his life had been preserved, Lincoln would have likely been left with several permanent neurological defects, including paralysis of his right side, blindness in the right half of his visual field in the both eyes, as well as difficulty speaking and writing.
While Lincoln opposed the institution of slavery, he did not believe that white and black persons should have equal civil and political rights. During the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate, Lincoln made his position clear, stating “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,” while going on to say he opposed extending the right to vote to black persons, as well as the rights to serve on juries, hold political office, or marry white people.
Like many leading American figures (including Thomas Jefferson), Lincoln believed that the best way to deal with the perceived issue of white and black persons living together peaceably following the dismantling of the institution of slavery, was the colonization of a new nation by black Americans. Lincoln publicly supported this position in 1854, stating he aspired “to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia” (the African nation founded by the American Colonization Society in 1821). Even while working on a first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, he stated in front of a delegation of freed slaves that given the “differences” between white and black persons and the potential hostility that may exist in each, it would be “better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”
Lincoln was no stranger to people wanting him dead. Nine months before he was assassinated by Booth, Lincoln’s hat was knocked off by a musket ball that was shot at him while he was riding a horse, and less than a week before he died, a Confederate explosives expert was arrested while en route to blow up the White House dining room floor while Lincoln was eating.
In 1876, a band of money counterfeiters attempted to steal Lincoln’s corpse from his tomb and hold it ransom in exchange for $200,000 ($4 million today) and the release of an imprisoned compatriot counterfeiter of theirs. The gang entered Lincoln’s tomb during a busy election night and removed the coffin’s marble lid, but only were able to move the coffin a few feet before police were alerted. After the attempted graverobbery, Lincoln’s son suggested the coffin be covered in cement and surrounded by a ten foot steel cage to seal the body and prevent it from being moved. Lincoln’s son’s suggestion was put into place and the President’s body now sits in a concrete vault 10 feet below the burial room of his tomb in Springfield, Illinois.
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