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Today is the two hundredth birthday of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was born in 1809 to a prototypal Kentucky redneck, who had serious trouble hanging on to any land he settled on, forcing his family to migrate from there to Indiana, and thence to Illinois. Lincoln strove to be better than his father, learning mostly on his own to read, write, appreciate literature, study law, wrestle and handle an axe. After a stint as a flatboatman on the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, Lincoln became a lawyer and a state-level politician.

After serving a term as a U.S. representative in Congress, Lincoln returned to the bar. Before long he joined the fight against slavery by speaking out against an act of Congress, in which Congress refused to determine the legality of slavery in a vast stretch of prairie territory. Lincoln objected to this act of cowardice on the grounds that it made a mockery of the country's professed love of freedom.

It was this stance that would endear him to the newly formed Republican Party, which in 1860 choose him as their candidate for U.S. president. The other parties were fractured over slavery, ensuring Lincoln's election and the subsequent secession of the states of the South into a new Confederate States of America.

Lincoln at first had trouble, both in finding generals who would actually lead troops into battle instead of fluffing and stroking their beards (like George McClellan), and in keeping the rest of the country together in spite of whining Copperheads and treasonous Irish immigrants. Lincoln's stirring speeches rallied the majority of (non-Southern) Americans to his cause, and thereby making the latter opposition moot. The former problem was solved when he found generals such as Grant and Sherman, who got the job done in slicing the Confederacy into pieces. Along the way, Lincoln authorized settlement of public Western lands, provided funds to establish agricultural/engineering colleges like Purdue, authorized the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, printed the first 'greenback' dollars, and declared the first permanent Thanksgiving Day.

Lincoln easily won a second term as President, as McClellan was practically nonexistent as an opponent. After the election the war came to a close with Confederate general Robert Lee's surrender in 9 April 1865. But he did not live long enough to enjoy it: A Southern actor shot him to death in a theater five days later.

Lincoln fought the war to free the slaves. That is true enough. But he also fought for the dignity of free labor, allowing the North to spread its prosperity (and, in the mining areas, its own ironic form of wage slavery) through the rest of the country. The North would never again have to curry the favor of the South, which after a fitful and futile 'Reconstruction' sank into a semi-feudal ignorant backwater for nearly a century.

Lincoln today is celebrated on the zinc-slug penny, the five-dollar bill, and occasional academic naggings about his motivations on freeing the slaves. His birthday is still an official holiday in Indiana, where he lived as a kid, even though nowadays even the State government and legislature work on that day.

Written by Andy West on 12 February 2009. Updated 6 April 2010.