Did Lincoln Own Slaves?

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-01-06
  • Publisher: Vintage

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In the bicentennial year of Lincoln's birth, here is the one indispensable book that provides all you need to know about our most revered president in a lively and memorable question-and-answer format. You will learn whether Lincoln could dunk a basketball or tell a joke. Was he the great emancipator or a racist? If he were alive today, could he get elected? Did he die rich? Did scientists raise Lincoln from the dead? From the seemingly lighthearted to the most serious Gerald Prokopowicz tackles each question with balance and authority, and weaves a complete, satisfying biography that will engage young and old, scholars and armchair historians alike.

Author Biography

Gerald J. Prokopowicz served for nine years as the Lincoln Scholar at the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is the author of the critically acclaimed All for the Regiment: The Army of the Ohio, 1861-1862 and was the editor of Lincoln Lore, the quarterly journal of the Lincoln Museum. He is a frequent public speaker on Lincoln-related topics and a member of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission Advisory Committee. He is currently chair of the history department at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.

From the Hardcover edition.


Chapter One: The Boy Lincoln

It is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life.
—Lincoln’s reply to journalist John L. Scripps, 1860,  when asked to provide information  for a campaign biography[1]

When and where was Lincoln born?

February 12, 1809, in a log cabin on the south fork of Nolin Creek, near Hodgenville, Kentucky.

Is the cabin still there?

Sort of.

The site is marked today by a curious memorial on the grounds of the original Lincoln farmstead. There, at the top of a wooded hill, stands what appears to be an old-fashioned bank building incongruously looming over an otherwise bucolic setting. A grand flight of fifty-six stone steps, one for each year of Lincoln’s life, leads the visitor to a pair of imposing bronze doors, hidden behind six massive Doric columns. Within this Greek temple on a Kentucky hillside, resting on the granite floor in the center of the room, is the cabin where Abe Lincoln was born.

Unfortunately, it’s not really Lincoln’s cabin. The National Park Service, which maintains the memorial, describes the crude wooden structure as the “traditional” Lincoln birthplace cabin, inventively using the word “traditional” in place of a more accurate adjective, such as “fake.”[2] The real cabin almost certainly fell down at some point in the decades after the Lincoln family moved away, there being no reason at the time to preserve it. A speculator named A. W. Dennett purchased the farm in 1894, hoping it would become a tourist attraction. He found a two-story cabin nearby that might have been standing when Lincoln was a boy, took it apart, transported it to the birthplace farm, and reassembled it into a smaller one-story cabin. When he found few customers willing to make the pilgrimage to his remote corner of central Kentucky, Dennett took the building apart again with the idea of moving it to places more frequented by potential viewers. For good measure, he bought and disassembled another cabin that supposedly was the birthplace of Jefferson Davis. The two cabins appeared side by side at fairs in Nashville, Buffalo, and other cities.

Eventually Dennett went bankrupt, and both cabins were taken apart (again) and put in storage. In 1906, the Lincoln Farm Association, a group formed to build a Lincoln birthplace memorial, found the pieces in a basement in New York. By that time the logs that formed the two already dubious cabins were hopelessly intermingled. The association sorted out the components and used some of them to make a one-story structure that resembled descriptions of the original Lincoln cabin. The LFA also constructed the present memorial building to house their prize, but when it was completed in 1911, it turned out that the reassembled cabin was too large to fit inside easily. To make room for visitors to walk around it, they sawed off about a quarter of its length, creating the “traditional” birthplace cabin that you can see today. It’s possible (if unlikely) that some tiny fraction of the wood really did once form part of a building that was associated with Lincoln; but it’s also possible that the exhibit now on display has as much to do with Jefferson Davis as it does with Lincoln.[3]

Haven’t I seen the cabin somewhere else?

You probably have.

There are several versions around the country, most of them replicas of the Park Service “birthplace cabin.” One is in Milton, Massachusetts, commissioned in 1923 by Mary Bowditch Forbes.[4] There’s another in Fort Wayne, Indiana, built by the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company in 1916, that at one time was carefully furnished with antiques to give a sense of what Lincoln’s childhood home might have looked like. Now, however, it si

Excerpted from Did Lincoln Own Slaves?: And Other Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln by Gerald J. Prokopowicz
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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