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Book Review: Did Lincoln Own Slaves?: And Other Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln by Gerald J. Prokopowicz

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When I first started reading Did Lincoln Own Slaves?: And Other Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln, sometimes the book's question-and-answer format affected me as a superficial way of examining the life of a man whose tall, bearded shadow fell over us and collected us back together not just as a united people, but as a united, just people. As I continued reading, the book became so fascinating with its unusual facts about Lincoln, I found it hard to put down.

While the format contains some trivia, it also contains unknown facts that even the most avid history buff might appreciate. A scant few of the facts that fascinated me follow below. All of this information is presented in Did Lincoln Own Slaves? as answers to specific questions in the book. 

I’ve seen many photographs of Lincoln’s birthplace that look like the real thing. In fact, what looks like a genuine antique photo can be found on page five. Well, the picture is an antique; but according to author, Gerald Prokopowicz, in all probability, one would be lucky to find even a trace of wood from the original Lincoln home. It stood deserted until most of it fell down. The rest was torn down, moved several times, and mixed unceremoniously with other lumber.

The book explains that Lincoln’s ancestors had migrated in 1637 from Hingham in England to Hingham in Massachusetts. Each generation moved farther west with the expanding frontier. After working with his father to clear land and start a farm, Lincoln fast decided that hard physical labor for the rest of his life was not for him. He preferred a life of the mind. With only one year of regular schooling, Lincoln taught himself to read and write. He set out early to support himself in a variety of ways to make himself economically independent from his father.

One of his jobs involved converting logs (tree trunks) into fence rails. In spite of Lincoln’s gangly body, splitting logs was not for the frail of mind or heart. To gouge downed trees into four long fence rails with a heavy sledgehammer and a set of wedges could put striated muscle on any physique. Mentally, even this job was challenging. It took forethought to read the split lines in a log to conserve as much physical strength as possible.

Other jobs Lincoln held according to Prokopowicz: storekeeper, storeowner, postmaster. Several times he built rafts to ferry goods and people out to awaiting steamboats. On one trip to Louisiana ferrying a load of produce, Lincoln observed the plight of human beings being bought and sold like cattle. “A slave ship from Virginia, ironically named the United States, was docked in New Orleans with a cargo of people to sell.” The memory of their plight almost certainly influenced Lincoln then, and in his later years as well. The answer to Did Lincoln Own Slaves? is a researched, resolute, resounding “No.”  

As a sportsman, Lincoln played “fives” which is a type of handball, billiards, and an early version of baseball. At wrestling, he was a champ. In 1831 in New Salem, Lincoln wrestled the town bully. Whether he won or lost the match, or whether it was called a draw, made little difference to history. Lincoln won the respect and admiration of bully Jack Armstrong and his gang of thugs.

Three circumstances helped Abraham Lincoln become a lawyer: 1) He could read law books; 2) The books were lent to him by John Todd Stuart, a prominent Springfield attorney; 3) He didn’t take a bar exam because it was not required in Illinois. In its place, Lincoln was examined by other law practitioners who vouched for his legal knowledge and found him to be of “good moral character.” He practiced various kinds of law, “contracts, torts, corporate law, failure to return rented ox, divorce, murder, seduction, runaway slaves, etc.”

Although Lincoln is oft embodied as a public failure until he somehow found himself as president, according to Did Lincoln Own Slaves this is legend. The reality is that Lincoln’s career was a bit like the stock market during good times. Politically and financially, he probably had an equal number of both good and down times. What is most interesting is that Lincoln considered himself a failure: “With me, the race of ambition has been a failure – a flat failure.”

About Regis Schilken

  • Suzanne Robinson

    You bring to light some interesting facts about President Lincoln. He did not like manual labor from the time he was a boy- he always preferred intellectual pursuits. In fact, he would hide from his father, who made him quit school, in order to read. And, he took a good number of beatings for doing so. He did spend a year helping his father set up a farm before moving on to New Salem, where he lived for about 5 or 6 years. His biggest failure there was in buying the inventory of a general store gone bust and, with a partner opening his own, which also went bust, leaving him in debt for several years.

    His primary occupation in New Salem was as a land surveyor, which he took up after studying maths (mostly on his own) for some time. He was successful in this pursuit, but he remained in debt, and, as a result, he lost his compass and his horse. He continued in this field, though, working for the man who’d sold his horse! The same man took Lincoln in, his wife did his laundry, and he allowed Lincoln the use of his horse! Lincoln was well loved, and owes his success to all those who helped him get his start in New Salem and, later, in Springfield…

    I won’t go on and on, but his life was fascinating! Thanks for sharing your enjoyment of this book – I will check it out!