|If any personal description of me is thought desirable, it may be said, I am, in height, six feet, four inches, nearly; lean in flesh, weighing, on an average, one hundred and eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and grey eyes No other marks or brands recollected --|
When asked, in December of 1859, to provide a short account of his history, Lincoln claimed for himself a past of no higher virtue than "the short and simple annals of the poor." (Lamon 9) What he knew of his ancestry extended no further than his grandfather, killed by Indians in Kentucky. Even here Lincoln denied any romantic overtones, pointing out that the death was "not in battle, but by stealth, when he was laboring to open a farm in the forest." (Lamon 10)
For many Americans, however, this simple childhood of wilderness and log cabins was in its own way as romantic as any story of foreign royalty or wealth. Lincoln was a "pioneer child" and grew to be a pioneer man "--not, indeed, like his ancestors, a leader into new woods and unexplored fields, but a pioneer of a nobler and grander sort, directing the thoughts of men ever toward the right, and leading the American people, through difficulties and dangers and a mighty war, to peace and freedom." (Nicolay 4,9)
As a child of the frontier, Lincoln was a man of the people in a uniquely American way. In his April 19 sermon at the Unitarian Church of Concord, Massachusetts, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked of Lincoln's presidency, "This middle-class country had got a middle-class president, at last." However this commonness was derived not from mediocrity but from a kind of purity of origin --- not the old world blood-lines, but an American pedigree of which Lincoln represented the essence; "He was thoroughly American, had never crossed the sea, had never been spoiled by English insularity or French dissipation; a quite native, aboriginal man, as an acorn from the oak."
The image of Lincoln as "a plain man of the people" was shared by many who knew him. Like his father before him, and like many Americans of his time, Lincoln had very little formal education but had learned instead "under the pressure of necessity." (Lamon 10) Originally from Kentucky, his family moved first to Indiana when Lincoln was a child and later to Illinois. He was, in his own words, "raised to farm work" and knew little else until his second year in Illinois, when he became "a sort of Clerk in a store." (Lamon 10)
Lincoln did not begin to study law until after he was elected to the Illinois legislature in 1834 and not until three years later was he admitted to the bar. In the years that followed he divided his attention between politics and his law practice, serving four terms in the Illinois General Assembly and later representing that state in Congress.
While he may never have acquired the classroom education of most politicians, Lincoln did possess a wide range of experience which served him well in the mind of the common American. He had the ability to speak a language "level with the ear of all his audience" and the Gettysburg Address was considered by Emerson to one of the "two best specimens of eloquence we have had in this country." (Emerson viii, 125)
The Lincoln-Douglas debates of the 1858 senatorial campaign, according to eye-witnesses and historians alike, marked the turning point in Lincoln's path to the White House. In losing the debates, Lincoln's contemporaries credited him with a maneuver which, while keeping Lincoln out of the Senate, denied Douglas any chance of the Presidency.
Despite the tumult of the Civil War years, Lincoln continued to fare well in the public's eyes. Emerson said of Lincoln, "In four years, -- four years of battle-days, -- his endurance, his fertility of resources, his magnanimity, were sorely tried and never found wanting." His oneness with the people continued, "He is the true history of the American people in his time. Step by step he walked before them; slow with their slowness, quickening his march by theirs, the true representative of this continent; an entirely public man; father of his country, the pulse of twenty millions throbbing in his heart, the thought of their minds articulated by his tongue."
Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865. He died the next day. By April 16th, Lincoln had been immortalized across the nation as The Martyr President.