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

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.”

For over 22 years, he compared his life and failures to the successes of his political rival, Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln had a desire for fame but not for the sake of mere celebrity. He wanted esteem that was “so reached, that the oppressed of my species, might have shared with me in the elevation.” After debating proslavery Stephen Douglas and asking him a question he could not logically answer without alienating both pro and con slavery believers, Lincoln went on to become the sixteenth president of the United States in 1860.

In Did Lincoln Own Slaves?, I learned several interesting things about Lincoln I was not aware of. He signed the first federal income tax law, for one thing, even though it was later changed by Congress, repealed for a while, and then reinstated. He kept his White House staff to a bare minimum: secretaries Nicolay and Hay, his personal secretaries, William O. Stoddard, a few clerks, a doorkeeper, and a domestic staff. The president received over 200 pieces of mail each day.

As Commander-in-Chief, Lincoln educated himself about military strategy by borrowing a textbook from the Library of Congress. Back in 1832, he served briefly in the militia with other New Salem boys but as far as the Civil War is concerned, he relied heavily on his generals to set up their own strategies. Needless to say, his patience with General McClellan’s ever increasing demand for more recruits before committing troops to an outright military confrontation really unnerved him.

Lincoln continually urged McClellan to aggressively pursue Lee rather than wait. At one point in Did Lincoln Own Slaves?, Prokopowicz tells of Lincoln visiting McClellan to ask him personally why he did not attack Lee. McClellan used the excuse that his horses were tired. Lincoln asked, “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?” Shortly, Lincoln replaced McClellan. But there would be several more replacements until Lincoln found the right man who would pursue the Confederates into the deep south at any cost: Ulysses Grant. Often the human price was quite high!

Of course, Lincoln was deeply moved by the horrifying details in the reports of the slaughter which occurred at Gettysburg. For two reasons: 1) The human carnage and suffering was unthinkable; 2) Although he needed a victory to turn the tide of the war, it was hard to rejoice in the deaths of so many brave men on both sides of the battle. Certainly the short address he gave at Gettysburg reflected his feelings. It contained no note of rejoicing; only the hope that a just Union would prevail. 

Lincoln had always been impressed by the words of Frederick Douglass. Douglass' brilliant mind and his arguments against human bondage made it clear that “intellectual endowment” could never be limited only to white people. Slavery was a satanic revulsion on America's conscience. Emancipation for slaves was an undeniable right, and now, Lincoln could finally have his way. He felt that the African Americans who fought so bravely for the Union showed more “reverence for the constitution” than those who railed against it.

As Did Lincoln Own Slaves? draws to a close, it mentions other attempts made to assassinate him. In August of 1864, a sniper attempt failed. The bullet pierced his stovepipe hat high above his head. His horse spooked and galloped away leaving the hat to be found by soldiers the following day.

Three years prior, Pinkerton detectives told Lincoln an attempt would be made to kill him on his way from Springfield to Washington for his inauguration (1861). He dressed incognito wearing a cap instead of his tall hat. News cartoonists portrayed him as trying to sneak in and out of Washington like a thief. This tore at his self-esteem. Never again would he hide from anyone. He would make himself and his government available to all the people, all the time. This attitude set Lincoln's fate with John Wilkes Booth.

Did Lincoln Own Slaves? is a treasure. You can begin reading it on any page. Just read the first question you see, and then the answer, often detailed, sucks you in. You need not follow page by page in order to appreciate the factual detail of this work.

As I continued reading, I realized that the question-and-answer format of the twelve chapters subconsciously slipped into the background. What I was reading was the tale of Abraham Lincoln’s life from the viewpoint of all the questions which have been raised by admirers of this heroic figure. In the end, it proved an exciting and fascinating format.

I would highly recommend Did Lincoln Own Slaves to everyone. It is an excellent read filled with relevant facts which tie together almost as a novel. As a former educator myself for over 30 years, I think the book’s format would prove a nice change-up technique for getting high school students interested in discussing Lincoln's life and the influence his ideals had on our own generation.

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About Regis Schilken

  • 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!