Abraham Lincoln was the President of the United States during the Civil War and one of the great figures in American history. Expand your knowledge and appreciation of Lincoln's legacy with these amazing facts.
Young Lincoln reading by the fire. (Library of Congress)
Fact 1: The young Abraham Lincoln described himself as “a piece of floating driftwood.”
The second child of Thomas and Nancy Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 in a one-room log cabin. In Abraham’s youth the family moved frequently, trying to stay one step ahead of financial trouble and illness, before eventually settling down in Coles County, Illinois. Along the way, Lincoln became known for his physical strength as well as his formidable self-education. At the age of 21, he left home and canoed to New Salem, Illinois, where he signed on to a local riverboat firm. After a short stint on the western rivers, a shorter stint as manager of a general store, and service as a militia captain during the Black Hawk Wars, he made his first run for a seat on the Illinois General Assembly, which he lost. In 1834, he won his second General Assembly election and served four terms as a member of the Whig Party while taking up the practice of law in Springfield. In 1842, after a two-year engagement marked by one cancelled wedding, Lincoln married a 23-year old woman named Mary Todd.
Fact 2: Abraham Lincoln argued a case in front of the United States Supreme Court—and lost.
After serving a term in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846, Lincoln returned to his self-proclaimed profession of “prairie lawyer” in Illinois. He took cases dealing with everything from homicide to navigation rights to slave laws. An arcane statute dispute brought him to the high chamber on March 7, 1849. He argued on behalf of Thomas Lewis, a public administrator who had taken over the affairs of a man named Broadwell, who had sold 100 acres of land that he did not own and then died. The true grit of the case was the question of whether or not the plaintiff, William Lewis (no relation), could still sue for damages regarding the poisoned contract or if the statute of limitations had already passed. Lincoln claimed that William’s action came too late, and that Thomas could no longer be held liable. After two days of hearings and five days of deliberations, the justices decided against Lincoln. Despite this defeat, the prairie lawyer was becoming one of the most respected and feared litigants in Illinois.
Fact 3: Abraham Lincoln is the only president in American history to hold a patent.
Lincoln's patent sketches. (Google Patents)
William Herndon spent part of 1848 watching bemusedly as his law partner, Abraham Lincoln, sat at his office desk intently whittling a strange-looking wooden ship. Looking up from time to time, Lincoln would excitedly explain how his invention would bring about a revolution in the burgeoning steamboat industry. Lincoln’s design, which became U.S. Patent No. 6469, details the invention of an inflatable bellows system meant to improve the navigation of boats in shallow waters. In effect, four balloons would be collapsed, accordion-like, and attached to both sides of a riverboat on either end. If the boat found its way obstructed by a sandbar, the balloons would be filled with air in order to raise the hull higher than the bar, allowing passage without having to unload the cargo and carry the boat manually. This issue was particularly important to the inventor, who had spent part of his youth on the treacherous Sangamon River and had twice run aground on high shoals. Lincoln’s patent was never implemented and was in fact lost for many years after a fire in the patent office. Throughout his life Lincoln expressed a strong philosophical love for the patent system. Lincoln’s model and his drawings are now on display in the Smithsonian.