The 10 Most Common Misconceptions about Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is one of the most published figures in history. Hundreds of books have been written regarding his most important legacies on the United States. With all of that publishing there are still many misconceptions about Abraham Lincoln that are taught today in schools and in popular culture. Some misconceptions are obviously inaccurate, while others can be intelligently argued in several directions. Here are the debates around ten of the most common ‘misconceptions’ about Abraham Lincoln as shared by Scott M. Hopkins.

Abraham Lincoln the Rail Splitter

Most students of history today are confused when they hear the term rail splitter. It had nothing to do with creating railroad tracks, but actually building rail fences. The task was difficult in the 19th century without the use of modern equipment. It was immensely important in keeping livestock managed and property lines separated. Lincoln excelled at the task as a youth and retained the skill as an adult. The chore lent itself to Lincoln’s peculiar physical attributes; tall and lanky, skinny legs, with robust arms, and mammoth hands.

What many people do not realize is that Lincoln actually hated his backwoods upbringing. Even as president he would outperform his own Union Soldiers in exercises of physical endurance, many half his age. Still his preference was for being indoors and reading. In fact he often did extra manual labor to be paid in borrowed books, then subsequently more labor in order to pay them off when he accidently destroyed the treasured texts he had borrowed. Even during the election, Republicans desperately sold the idea of Lincoln as the backwoods hero. City slickers loved the rail splitter image. Lincoln hated it.

Abraham Lincoln the Atheist

Like many Americans before and after him, Lincoln struggled with his religious faith. The traditional frontier Baptist tradition he was raised with left him with many more questions than answers. His uncertainty should not be confused with Atheism though. As a child Lincoln made great efforts to memorize passages of scripture and to orate them to his siblings and mother.

Following the demoralizing death of his mother Nancy Lincoln in 1818 to milk poisoning, Lincoln denounced Jesus as the Christ repeatedly in public settings. It was further worsened when his first love, Ann Rutledge, died in 1835. He fell into a melancholy state many today might term depression. Some even worried about him taking his own life. William Herndon, a close friend and the earliest biographer maintained Lincoln was not a Christian, though many more biographies have surfaced challenging that. However, towards the end of his life he made several public announcements for the praise of a higher power. He even attempted to contact the spirit of his dead son, Willie, in séance rituals.

Abraham Lincoln Started the Civil War

This topic is contentious in the southern half of the United States as it is commonly understood there that Lincoln was an aggressor to a peaceful separatist movement, known as the Confederate States of America. It does not help that the majority of battles took place in the South, Reconstruction was a failure, and that much of the wealth of the South was invested in slavery, which immediately put businesses, industries, and families out of business at the end of the war. At the height of the Lost Cause movement Lincoln blaming was beginning to receive immense respect among historians.

States’ rights are usually cited as one of the main reasons that Lincoln can be blamed for starting what is still sometimes known as The War of Northern Aggression. Just as states had the right to vote for or against slavery, there is the belief that they could vote to leave the Union. Lincoln held that the secession of South Carolina in December of 1860 – before he would take over the White House – was firmly illegal and pledged not to start the war, but do everything to prepare for it. Imagine today if Donald Trump were elected president. Should states have the right to leave the Union because a majority of people disagree with the candidate who won?

Ironically, Abraham Lincoln advocated for minimal punishment for the Confederacy at the conclusion of the war. His desire to return to investing in infrastructure and creating jobs in the South cannot be measured as he was assassinated before his ideas could become reality.

Abraham Lincoln: The Classic Rags to Riches Story

It is true that Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky (it’s where we get Lincoln Logs from) and that his father barely completed enough labor to provide for the sustenance of his family, let alone save much money. He also spent much of his youth in the frontier of Indiana in another log cabin.

As a teenager though he learned the importance of entrepreneurship after taking a raft to New Orleans and earning a two fifty cent silver coins from two merchants that he assisted with travel of their cargo. He applied himself to his work thereafter, managing a shop, delivering mail, surveying, and even leading a militia in the Black Hawk War of 1832. None of this gave him wealth, nor did his hard work at teaching himself law pay the dividends it does today. Wealth only came to Lincoln through chance that his wife, Nancy Todd Lincoln, came from a prominent Kentucky plantation family with money invested in land and slaves. Even so, Lincoln himself never lived lavishly.

Abraham Lincoln owned Slaves

According to historian and East Carolina University Professor Gerald J. Prokopowicz in Did Lincoln Own Slaves And Other Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln it is one of the most commonly asked questions by all age groups, races, and creeds regarding the fourteenth president. It’s puzzling to consider why someone would have had such an inclination. It is well documented that Lincoln often supported the end to slavery, but only when he supported an end to rebellion and a return to the Constitution. Nevertheless, he never harbored any desire in owning slaves, despite his wife’s immediate family background.

The case that is sometimes made to argue that Lincoln owned slaves is that during a White House function, short on labor, the Lincolns hired a group of ex-slaves to assist with serving guests. The history suggests that they may not have been ex-slaves as the White House thought, nor were they compensated financially, leading to a slavery connotation. The hiring was handled by the White House staff and not Lincoln, and nor were his staff aware of the workers’ situation.

Lincoln detested slavery and wanted its demise ever since he experienced the sight of it on one of his riverboat trips as a teenager to New Orleans. He never owned a plantation property to necessitate slaves and preferred to do the majority of manual labor himself, even while at The White House.

Abraham Lincoln Would Vote for My Party Today

One of the most politically charged assertions is when non-historians attempt to pigeonhole Lincoln into their political party today. Yes, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, right at the time of the founding of the party and was the first Republican President of the United States. Initially Lincoln was a Whig, though the party dissolved prior to the 1861 election over the issue of slavery. The formation of the Republican Party was almost exclusively made up of abolitionist former Whigs, hell-bent on ending the spread of slavery into new states and territories.

Still many of his efforts can be argued to be more in line with today’s Democratic Party. Most notably Lincoln introduced the country’s first income tax, spent lavishly on infrastructure and public assistance, and promoted social justice initiatives like attempting to buy all slaves and then relocate them to Liberia for freedom’s sake. Interestingly much of Lincoln’s support in the election of 1861 is today firmly Democrat, while the South, who failed to put him even on the ballot, is firmly Republican.

Lincoln would not fit conveniently into either party today as his political views were often changing as the Civil War changed. He made decisions that he knew were best for the country and its future. Although he filled his cabinet with Republicans, they were all his most fierce competitors and differed from him in many ways, as evidenced in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s essential Lincoln text, Team of Rivals. Lincoln viewed each competitor as the best at what they did and took advantage of their skills, regardless of personal relationship, social, or political persuasion. In fact, his class of politicising is rarely seen today amongst the careerists and party loyal.

Abraham Lincoln the Abolitionist

We cannot take away the magnitude of what Abraham Lincoln did to end the Civil War and end slavery. His disgust at slavery was apparent and those closest to him knew he waited for each opportunity to rid the United States of it. Ambitious steps like the Emancipation Proclamation – which didn’t actually free slaves – are not the same as the Abolitionist Movement. Abolitionists were on the front lines and often had no support or funding.

Founded in the Atlantic States, the Abolitionist Movement advocated an end to slavery and largely equal rights for black men and women of the United States. It had its roots in Evangelical churches. It was a tireless and often dangerous commitment. Not only was it unpopular prior to 1861, helping slaves through the Underground Railroad was illegal – often leading to business and political suicide. Well-off business owners, church preachers, and hardworking mothers risked everything and often lost everything hiding slaves and defending the equality of others. Many eventually made their way to Canada where slavery was expressly illegal.

Abraham Lincoln Was a Racist

Those that understand Lincoln know that he was not an Abolitionist and certainly did cooperate with slavery until he could remove it. Children of several different generations learned of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator in school. That title is largely dismissed as inaccurate today. Many in the 1960s – namely prominent black journalist Lerone Bennet Jr. – have labelled him nothing more than a typical racist of the time. That was in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement.

The claim set off a firestorm of controversy as several prominent historians arguing both sides began to take shape. Besides the political and war reasons for withholding the end of slavery, Lincoln made a number of outright racist comments during the Douglas Debates in rural Illinois. Comments like: “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.” He went on to deny the possibility for intermarriage, blacks to public office, and suggested separation was the best possible outcome.

Today the belief by most historians is that Lincoln was a realist. Many of his decisions while President were motivated by aiding the Union war effort and reuniting the country as whole. They see him shaped and melded by the Radical Republicans of his party. And they recognize that many of his efforts to end slavery and granted citizenship to blacks were revolutionary and hardly necessary for the president.

Abraham Lincoln was Homosexual

One of the most important jobs for historians is to teach subsequent generations of what life was like before them.  As we are further removed from that time it becomes more difficult. In Lincoln’s time, men slept with other grown men when it was feasible. Beds were expensive and it was impractical for Lincoln to have attempted to rent his own room and own bed in rural Illinois in the 1840s.

So when Joshua Speed offered Lincoln a room to rent it was Joshua’s room that they shared. On the lawyer’s circuit, the traveling band along with the judges shared a room and bed because they could rarely find an establishment in backwoods Illinois equipped like a hotel is today. It took time for many of these communities to populate themselves and commerce was slow to adjust. Fortunately for the judge, he was so large and overweight, he had his own bed.

Besides sleeping together, those who believe Lincoln was homosexual, cite the many ‘love letters’ exchanged between Lincoln and Speed as evidence of an erotic relationship. In Lincoln’s age it was not uncommon for two men to have shared such an intimate relationship that was not based on eroticism or sexual attraction. Writing to each other in eloquence, respect, and a desire to see a friend again were quite common. Expressing it through letters was nothing to be ashamed of.

Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation Freed all Slaves

The accuracy to which Lincoln’s achievements are taught in primary and secondary schools is haphazard, with this topic perhaps the most misunderstood and poorly taught. The Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in the Confederacy to be free. It did not actually make them free. That required a slave owner to acknowledge the proclamation as law. Border States such as Lincoln’s home state of Kentucky were not necessarily required to follow the new Proclamation, nor were Union states and territories like Maryland or Washington, D.C.

The Proclamation set a precedent though. Lincoln took a gamble in making it public after months of drafts and consultation with his cabinet. He wanted to only release it upon high Union morale and only when he could sell it both as the right thing to do, but also as a way to help win the war. It nullified the Fugitive Slave Act which required northerners to return runaway slaves to their masters and allowed the Union to prevent slaves from assisting the Confederacy on the battlefield with supplies and chores vital to their efforts.

Even more important to teach was that not all of America rejoiced at The Emancipation Proclamation. One more egregious error taught in our schools is that all of the North was in unison in opposition to slavery. After Lincoln’s announcement many families began to question what their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers were fighting for. Certainly they would not fight for African Americans, who experienced segregation and black codes – prohibitive living and working laws – in big cities across the North.