FACT CHECK: Abraham Lincoln and Failure (2023)

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Abraham Lincoln endured a steady stream of failure and defeat before becoming President of the United States.


FACT CHECK: Abraham Lincoln and Failure (1)


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The unsourced “Abraham Lincoln Didn’t Quit” list reproduced below is a ubiquitous piece of American historical glurge that has been printed in countless magazines and newspaper columns over the decades, including an appearance in a 1967 Reader’s Digest collection of humor and anecdotes:

Abraham Lincoln Didn’t Quit

(Video) Lessons in conquering Failure by Abraham Lincoln

Probably the greatest example of persistence is Abraham Lincoln. If you want to learn about somebody who didn’t quit, look no further.

Born into poverty, Lincoln was faced with defeat throughout his life. He lost eight elections, twice failed in business and suffered a nervous breakdown.

He could have quit many times – but he didn’t and because he didn’t quit, he became one of the greatest presidents in the history of our country.

Lincoln was a champion and he never gave up. Here is a sketch of Lincoln’s road to the White House:

  • 1816: His family was forced out of their home. He had to work to support them.
  • 1818: His mother died.
  • 1831: Failed in business.
  • 1832: Ran for state legislature – lost.
  • 1832: Also lost his job – wanted to go to law school but couldn’t get in.
  • 1833: Borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business and by the end of the year he was bankrupt. He spent the next 17 years of his life paying off this debt.
  • 1834: Ran for state legislature again – won.
  • 1835: Was engaged to be married, sweetheart died and his heart was broken.
  • 1836: Had a total nervous breakdown and was in bed for six months.
  • 1838: Sought to become speaker of the state legislature – defeated.
  • 1840: Sought to become elector – defeated.
  • 1843: Ran for Congress – lost.
  • 1846: Ran for Congress again – this time he won – went to Washington and did a good job.
  • 1848: Ran for re-election to Congress – lost.
  • 1849 Sought the job of land officer in his home state – rejected.
  • 1854: Ran for Senate of the United States – lost.
  • 1856: Sought the Vice-Presidential nomination at his party’s national convention – got less than 100 votes.
  • 1858: Ran for U.S. Senate again – again he lost.
  • 1860: Elected president of the United States.

It is now a favorite feature of inspirational e-mail lists, web sites, and Chicken Soup for the Soul-type books, and it exemplifies what is so very wrong about turning history into glurge. Abraham Lincoln is the mythical, towering figure of American history, and whatever one thinks of his accomplishments, he was indeed a fascinating character. He truly fulfilled the “anyone can make it in America” ethos; he was the man of little means or education, born in a one-room log cabin, honest and hard-working, who overcame numerous obstacles and failures to become President of the United States when the nation was confronted with its gravest crisis.

One would think the facts of Lincoln’s life should be a good enough story for anyone, but no, apparently the truth isn’t sufficiently inspirational; it has to be shaped and molded into glurge that depicts Lincoln as a man who endured constant failure and defeat from the time he was born until he was elected President. Lincoln certainly survived his fair share of hardship and setbacks, but he also was remarkably successful in many different endeavors throughout his lifetime. Let’s take a look at what this glurge leaves out:

1816: His family was forced out of their home. He had to work to support them.

Life on the American frontier in the early 19th century was no picnic for anyone; it required hours of back-breaking toil and drudgery day in and day out. In the context of their time, however, the Lincolns lived under rather unremarkable circumstances.

The statement that the Lincolns were “forced out of their home” in 1816 isn’t completely false, but it is somewhat misleading because it implies they were suddenly and involuntarily uprooted from their home, with no warning and no place to go. Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas, had owned farmland in Hardin County, Kentucky, since the early 1800s, and he left Kentucky and moved his family across the Ohio River to Indiana in 1816 for two primary reasons:

  • Kentucky was a slave state, and Thomas Lincoln disliked slavery — both because his church opposed it, and because he did not want to have to compete economically with slave labor.
  • Kentucky had never been properly surveyed, and many settlers in the early 1800s found that establishing clear title to their land was difficult. Thomas Lincoln (and other farmers in the area) were eventually sued by non-Kentucky residents who claimed prior title to their lands.

With plenty of land available in neighboring Indiana, a territory where slavery had been excluded by the Northwest Ordinance and the government guaranteed buyers clear title to their property, Thomas Lincoln opted to move rather than to spend time and money fighting over the title to his Kentucky farm. So, in a moderate sense the Lincolns could be said to have been “forced out of their home,” but it did not happen abruptly, and they opted to leave because better opportunities awaited them.

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The other part of this statement, that a seven-year-old Abraham Lincoln “had to work to support” his family, is also misleading. Young Abraham did not have to take an outside job lest his poor family sink into financial ruin. Like nearly all farm children of his era, Lincoln was expected to perform whatever chores and tasks he was physically capable of handling around the farm. If Abraham worked harder and longer than most other children, it was not because the Lincolns’ circumstances were extraordinarily difficult, but because Lincoln was exceptionally tall and strong for his age.

1818: His mother died.

This, at least, is no embellishment. Lincoln’s mother, Nancy, did die of “milk sickness” in 1818, when Abraham was only nine years old. A mother’s death is a tragedy for any child, and it was a special hardship for a struggling farm family.

1831: Failed in business.

The statement that Lincoln “failed in business” in 1831 is another misleading claim, because it implies that he was the owner or operator of the failed business, or at least was otherwise responsible for its failure. None of this is true. Lincoln left his father’s home for good in 1831 and, along with his cousin John Hanks, took a flatboat full of provisions down the Mississippi River from Illinois to New Orleans on behalf of a “bustling, none too scrupulous businessman” named Denton Offutt. Offutt planned to open a general store, and he promised to make Lincoln its manager when Abraham returned from New Orleans. Lincoln operated the store as Offutt’s clerk and assistant for several months (and by all accounts did a fine job of it) until Offutt, a poor businessman, overextended himself financially and ran it into the ground. Thus by the spring of 1832 Lincoln had indeed “lost his job,” but not because he had “failed in business.”

1832: Ran for state legislature – lost.

Lincoln did run for the Illinois state legislature in 1832, although as Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald noted, “the post he was seeking was not an elevated one … [legislators] dealt mostly with such issues as whether cattle had to be fenced in or could enjoy free range.” Lincoln finished eighth in a field of thirteen (with the top four vote-getters becoming legislators). However, this same year Lincoln also achieved something of which he was very proud, when the members of a volunteer militia company he had joined selected him as their captain. Lincoln said many years later that this was “a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since.” (He also noted later in his career that his defeat in the 1832 legislative election was the only time he “was ever beaten on a direct vote of the people.”)

1832: Also lost his job – wanted to go to law school but couldn’t get in.

As noted above, Lincoln actually “lost his job” in 1831, and the notion that in 1832 Lincoln “wanted to go to law school but couldn’t get in” (why he couldn’t get in remains unspecified) is both inaccurate and an anachronism. Lincoln did eventually become a lawyer, and he accomplished the feat in the manner typical of his time and place: not by attending law school, but by reading law books and observing court sessions. He was indeed interested in becoming a lawyer as early as 1832, but, as Lincoln biographer Donald wrote, “on reflection he concluded that he needed a better education to succeed.”

1833: Borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business and by the end of the year he was bankrupt. He spent the next 17 years of his life paying off this debt.

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Lincoln and William F. Berry, a corporal from Lincoln’s militia company, purchased a general store in New Salem, Illinois, in 1833. (Lincoln had no money for his half; he didn’t technically “borrow the money from a friend” but instead signed a note with one of the previous owners for his share.) Lincoln and Berry were competing against a larger, well-organized store in the same town; their outfit did little business, and within a short time it had “winked out.”

The debt on the store became due the following year, and since Lincoln was unable to pay off his note, his possessions were seized by the sheriff. Moreover, when Lincoln’s former partner died with no assets soon afterwards, Lincoln insisted upon assuming his partner’s half of the debt as well, even though he was not legally obligated to do so. Exactly how long it took Lincoln to pay off this debt (which he jokingly referred to as his “national debt”) in its entirety is unknown. It did take him several years, but not seventeen; nor, as this statement implies, was he completely financially encumbered until it was paid in full. Within a few months of the store’s failure Lincoln had obtained a position as the New Salem postmaster, and by 1835 he was earning money both as a surveyor and as a state legislator.

1834: Ran for state legislature again – won.

In 1834 Lincoln was again one of thirteen candidates running for a seat in the state legislature, and this time he won, securing the second-highest vote total among the field.

1835: Was engaged to be married, sweetheart died and his heart was broken.

Much of Lincoln’s relationship with New Salem resident Ann Rutledge remains a mystery, and several aspects of it — including whether or not they were actually engaged (at the time they met, Ann was betrothed to someone else) — are based more on speculation than documented fact. Whatever the exact nature of their relationship, however, her death in the summer of 1835 appears to have affected Lincoln profoundly.

1836: Had a total nervous breakdown and was in bed for six months.

Whether Lincoln experienced a “total nervous breakdown” in the aftermath of Ann Rutledge’s death is debatable, but the notion that he somehow found time to stay “in bed for six months” is not. After Ann’s funeral he spent a few weeks visiting an old friend, and within a month of her death he had resumed his occasional surveying duties. He surveyed the nearby town of Petersburg in February 1836, undertook a strenuous two-month campaign for re-election during the summer, and served in the state legislature throughout the year. All of this would have been difficult for a man who spent “six months in bed.”

1838: Sought to become speaker of the state legislature – defeated.

By the time of the 1838-39 legislative session, Lincoln had twice been an unsuccessful Whig candidate for the position of speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives. This was a relatively minor political setback, however, and no mention is made here of the fact that by 1838 he was one of the most experienced members of the legislature, or of any of the other notable successes he achieved between 1834 and 1838, namely:

  • He was re-elected to the state legislature in 1836 and 1838, both times receiving more votes than any other candidate.
  • The Illinois Supreme Court licensed him to practice law in 1837.
  • He became the partner of “one of the most prominent and successful lawyers in Springfield” (where he now lived).

1840: Sought to become elector – defeated.

This statement is erroneous. Lincoln was named as a presidential elector at the Illinois state Whig convention on 8 October 1839, and he campaigned as a Whig elector during the 1840, 1844, 1852, and 1856 presidential elections (skipping the 1848 campaign because he was serving in Congress).

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1843: Ran for Congress – lost.

One could claim this as a Lincoln failure in that he wanted to be a Congressman and failed to achieve that goal, but it is technically inaccurate to claim that he “ran for Congress” in 1843 and lost: The election was held in 1844, and Lincoln was not a candidate in that election. Lincoln’s failure to achieve his party’s nomination at the May 1843 Whig district convention is undoubtedly what is referred to here.

1846: Ran for Congress again – this time he won – went to Washington and did a good job.

Lincoln won a seat as an Illinois representative to the U.S. Congress in 1846.

1848: Ran for re-election to Congress – lost.

Lincoln did not “lose” the 1848 election. He did not run for re-election because Whig policy at the time specified that party members should step aside after serving one term to allow other members to take their turns at holding office. Lincoln, a faithful party member, complied.

1849: Sought the job of land officer in his home state – rejected.

The position referred to here was commissioner of the General Land Office, a federal position, not a state one, and one that came with a fair amount of power and patronage. Since Lincoln’s term in Congress was about to expire, his friends urged him to apply for this post, but Lincoln was reluctant to give up his law career. He finally agreed to apply for the job when the choice was deadlocked between two other Illinois candidates and it looked like the appointment might therefore go to a compromise candidate from outside of Illinois. Whigs from northern Illinois then decided that too many appointments were going to party members from other parts of the state and put up their own candidate against Lincoln. The choice was left to the Secretary of the Interior, who selected the other candidate.

1854: Ran for Senate of the United States – lost.

In Lincoln’s time, U.S. senators were not elected through direct popular vote; they were appointed by state legislatures. In Illinois, voters cast ballots only for state legislators, and the General Assembly of the state legislature then selected nominees to fill open U.S. Senate seats. So, in 1854 (and again in 1856) Lincoln was not technically running for the Senate; he was campaigning on behalf of Whig candidates for state legislature seats all throughout Illinois. Nonetheless, after the 1854 state election, Lincoln made it known that he sought the open U.S. Senate seat for Illinois. The first ballot of a divided General Assembly was taken in February 1855, and Lincoln received the most votes but was six votes shy of the requisite majority. When the process remained deadlocked after another eight ballots, Lincoln withdrew from the race to lend his support to another candidate and ensure that the Senate seat did not go to a pro-slavery Democrat.

1856: Sought the Vice-Presidential nomination at his party’s national convention – got less than 100 votes.

This is both misleading and inaccurate. Lincoln did not “seek” the vice-presidential nomination at the 1856 Republican national convention in Philadelphia; his name was put into nomination by the Illinois delegation after most national delegates were already committed to other candidates. (Lincoln himself was back in Illinois, not at the convention, and did not know he had been nominated until friends brought him the news.) Nonetheless, in an informal ballot, Lincoln received 110 votes out of 363, not at all a bad showing for someone who was little known outside his home state.

1858: Ran for U.S. Senate again – again he lost.

Again, Lincoln was not directly campaigning for a Senate seat, although it was a foregone conclusion that he would be the Republicans’ choice to take Stephen Douglas’ U.S. Senate seat if his party won control of the Illinois state legislature. Lincoln actually bested Douglas in the sense that Republican legislative candidates statewide received slightly over 50% of the popular vote, but the Republicans failed to gain control of the state legislature, and Douglas therefore retained his seat in the Senate.

1860: Elected president of the United States.

And again in 1864. A pretty good ending for someone who wasn’t quite the perennial failure this glurge makes him out to be.

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What was Lincoln's biggest problem? ›

Abraham Lincoln had many challenges to overcome when he was elected President. Some of his challenges were slavery, the separation of the North and South, and the rising tensions of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln ended slavery, brought the United States back together, and ended the Civil War.

What were some of Lincoln's flaws? ›

While he was a very great president, he was also a racist. He deplored slavery, but he embraced racism. Two important facts were omitted from Patterson's column. The Corwin amendment is deeply buried in American history.

What are 3 facts about Abraham Lincoln? ›

At 6 foot, 4 inches, Abraham Lincoln was the tallest president. ➢ Lincoln was the first president to be born outside of the original thirteen colonies. ➢ Lincoln was the first president to be photographed at his inauguration. John Wilkes Booth (his assassin) can be seen standing close to Lincoln in the picture.

What are Lincoln's two difficulties? ›

Lincoln realized in early summer 1863 that he had two big challenges: reestablishing control over the Army and recapturing public opinion.

What mistakes did Lincoln make during the Civil War? ›

He fired Republicans from the government on the slightest pretext and stacked the federal bureaucracy and the military with racist Democrats. He pardoned every Confederate soldier en masse. He pardoned three of John Wilkes Booth's co-conspirators.

What were 3 important things Abraham Lincoln did? ›

Lincoln's legacy is based on his momentous achievements: he successfully waged a political struggle and civil war that preserved the Union, ended slavery, and created the possibility of civil and social freedom for African-Americans.

Why is Lincoln called Honest Abe? ›

“Honest Abe” was a nickname that Abraham Lincoln embraced with pride. He believed in his own integrity and worked diligently to maintain his reputation as an honest politician and lawyer –something that was not always easy in either of those fields.

What made Lincoln so great? ›

Lincoln was seemingly a natural born leader. With his ability to command a room, give a powerful speech and negotiate, he is regarded as one of the best presidents in American history. As a leader, Lincoln was determined to hold together a nation that was falling apart at the seams.

What was Abraham Lincoln's greatest regret? ›

Before his death, it is said his last noble words were, “I have always done my duty. I am ready to die. My only regret is for the friends I leave behind me.” Before he was president, he led a distinguished career as a general in the Mexican- American War.

What problems did Lincoln's plan fail to resolve? ›

Specifically, Lincoln did not agree in his Ten Percent Plan to pardon certain Confederate officers; former members of Congress who had left to assist the Confederacy; or anyone accused of physically harming Black or white Union troops during the war effort.

What personal tragedy Did Lincoln suffer? ›

Personal Tragedies and Triumphs

While the war raged, Lincoln also suffered great personal anguish over the death of his beloved son and the depressed mental condition of his wife, Mary.

What are 10 facts about the Civil War? ›

10 Surprising Civil War Facts
  • One-third of the soldiers who fought for the Union Army were immigrants, and nearly one in 10 was African American. ...
  • Black Union soldiers refused their salaries for 18 months to protest being paid lower wages than white soldiers. ...
  • Harriet Tubman led a raid to free slaves during the Civil War.
8 Feb 2019

Who is the most loved president? ›

Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and George Washington are most often listed as the three highest-rated presidents among historians.

Who invented the chokeslam? ›

The chokeslam was innovated by Paul Heyman for use by the wrestler 911, though one of the earliest accounts of the move dates back to a 19th-century recounting that describes Abraham Lincoln (himself a wrestler in his youth) using a technique vaguely similar in description, but without any specific mention of the "slam ...

What was Lincoln's biggest problem at the outset of the war? ›

First Years of the Civil War

At the outset of that conflict, Lincoln insisted that the war was not about freeing enslaved people in the South but about preserving the Union.

What issue did Abraham Lincoln believe was the cause of the Civil War? ›

Slavery, Lincoln stated, was the reason for the war: One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves. Not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it.

What were the 2 main issues for the Civil War? ›

The Civil War in the United States began in 1861, after decades of simmering tensions between northern and southern states over slavery, states' rights and westward expansion.

Does Lincoln have lots of problems? ›

Are Lincoln cars reliable? In general, Lincoln is considered average to poor in terms of reliability, with Repair Pal giving Lincoln a reliability score of 3/5. According to Consumer Reports, Lincoln is the least reliable SUV car brand.

Is Lincoln to blame for the Civil War? ›

Southern leaders of the Civil War period placed the blame for the outbreak of fighting squarely on Lincoln. They accused the President of acting aggressively towards the South and of deliberately provoking war in order to overthrow the Confederacy.

Who ended slavery? ›

On February 1, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln approved the Joint Resolution of Congress submitting the proposed amendment to the state legislatures. The necessary number of states (three-fourths) ratified it by December 6, 1865.

Why do people touch Lincoln's nose? ›

Judging from the appearance of Abe's big bronze head, lots of those visitors make it a point to stop and give a rub to Lincoln's nose. Why? Some folks believe that rubbing the nose of any statue brings good luck -- so the nose of a person as successful as the President must be especially powerful.

What is Abraham Lincoln's most famous quote? ›

I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have.”

What word is misspelled on the Lincoln? ›

The typo was with the word "future" which was initially engraved as "euture." Park officials believe the artist, Ernest C. Bairstow, grabbed an "e" stencil instead of an "f." If you look at it now, the extra line was filled in, but you can still see the error.

What was Lincoln's personality like? ›

“In temper he was Earnest, yet controlled, frank, yet sufficiently guarded, patient, yet energetic, forgiving, yet just to himself; generous yet firm,” wrote J. T. Duryea of the U.S. Christian Commission, which met frequently with President Abraha Lincoln.

What was Abraham Lincoln's biggest fear? ›

Lincoln's worst fear was that the British would fight with the South. Lincoln had to find a new goal that other countries would agree with. He had always opposed slavery, so he changed his goal to freeing the slaves, and on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was introduced.

Was Abraham Lincoln an honest president? ›

One of the first things you may have learned about President Lincoln was that he was honest. To many kids, and even some adults, Abraham Lincoln remains “Honest Abe.” His honesty, humor and intelligence—these are just a few of the qualities that make him a source of inspiration for many Americans.

What are 3 reasons Reconstruction failed? ›

The combination of white intimidation, a significant economic depression in the South, and the Democratic Party winning control of the House of Representatives in 1874, resulted in Reconstruction beginning to fade away.

What was one of the biggest failures of Reconstruction? ›

The failure to stop violence and protect the political gains of Reconstruction was a policy failure: the U.S. government failed to coordinate and plan to suppress a nascent insurgency; failed to deploy enough troops or use the troops with consistency; failed to consider other options to secure the rights of Black ...

Why did Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction fail? ›

House and Senate Republicans rejected the plan, fearing that it was too lenient on the South and didn't guarantee rights beyond freedom for former slaves. This ignited tensions between President Lincoln and Congress over the priorities and control of Reconstruction.

Did Lincoln have a mental disorder? ›

Lincoln appeared to suffer from clinical depression, and yet others were drawn to him. Amazingly for Lincoln's time, those around him accepted his dark moods and did not stigmatize his mental illness. Had his peers and family rejected Lincoln's depression, we may have been robbed of one of our greatest leaders ever.

Did Abe Lincoln have a high IQ? ›

At 150, Abraham Lincoln is the last on this list, but certainly not the lowest of the presidents in terms of IQ (that's Andrew Johnson, successor to Lincoln, if you were curious). Lincoln is especially impressive considering he had very little formal schooling and was largely self-taught.

How did Abraham Lincoln face slavery? ›

Lincoln began his public career by claiming that he was "antislavery" -- against slavery's expansion, but not calling for immediate emancipation. However, the man who began as "antislavery" eventually issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in those states that were in rebellion.

What are the 3 main causes of a civil war? ›

The Civil War was a war between the Union (Northern US States) and the Confederacy (Southern US States) lasting from 1861-1865. The reasons for the Civil War were disagreements over slavery, states vs. federal rights, the election of Abraham Lincoln, and the economy.

What really started the Civil War? ›

At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina's Charleston Harbor. Less than 34 hours later, Union forces surrendered. Traditionally, this event has been used to mark the beginning of the Civil War.

What is a crazy fact about the Civil War? ›

More than 215,000 soldiers were killed in Civil War battles, but 238,000 died from disease. The 1830 census shows that in rare cases there were black slave-owners.

Did Abe Lincoln invent the pancake? ›

While Abraham Lincoln is the only U.S. President to hold a patent, he did not invent the pancake. Food historians data the earliest pancake like food to the ancient Romans around the 1st century CE.

Who invented the super kick? ›

"Gentleman" Chris Adams was among the first wrestlers to use the superkick and was for years credited as its originator. To set up his finisher, Adams would use a back body drop, then as his opponent gets on his feet, Chris would Superkick him in the jaw.

Who invented the piledriver? ›

It was invented by Karl Gotch, known as the Gotch-Style Piledriver and is commonly used by NJPW wrestler Minoru Suzuki (Gotch's protege) and Jerry Lynn.

What is the greatest concern in Lincoln speech? ›

The greatest concern or emergency was mentioned by Lincoln in his speech was democracy and its ability to sustain itself. Democracy is a system in which people choose their government.

What was Lincoln frustrated with? ›

Lincoln expressed repeated frustration with the inability of his armies to march as light and fast as Confederate armies. Much better supplied than the enemy, Union forces were actually slowed down by the abundance of their logistics. Most Union commanders never learned the lesson pronounced by Confederate Gen.

What was Abraham Lincoln's biggest goal? ›

We often associate the Civil War with the end of slavery — and for good reason. But Lincoln's primary goal in going to war was to save the Union, slavery or not.

Did Lincoln think his speech was a success? ›

We think the speech was a failure because Lincoln thought so. But Lincoln thought most things he did were a failure, so that's not a good way to judge. It is true the applause following the speech was a bit scattered; people did not expect the speech to be so short, and the audience was taken by surprise.

What was the main message of Lincoln? ›

Lincoln wrote that while America's prosperity was dependent upon the union of the states, "the primary cause" was the principle of "Liberty to all." He believed this central ideal of free government embraced all human beings, and concluded that the American revolution would not have succeeded if its goal was "a mere ...

What is the moral of Abraham Lincoln story? ›

Life Lesson:

No matter how humble our beginnings or circumstances we can all achieve greatness. Surely Abraham Lincoln's story epitomises the very essence of the now fabled “American Dream” as his life was a real “rags to riches story”.

What was Lincoln fighting for the most? ›

During the American Civil War, President Lincoln noted again and again that his purpose in fighting the South was to save the Union, not to free the slaves.


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